A lush mango tree in Mbour, Senegal, displaying its flowers and fruits.

Are GMOs the only solution to food insecurity? Cornell Alliance for Science fellows claim they are

By Na Haby Stella Faye, AGRA Watch Intern

A lush mango tree in Mbour, Senegal, displaying its flowers and fruits.

Photo by Na Haby Stella Faye. A lush mango tree in Mbour, Senegal, displaying its flowers and fruits.

My research with CAGJ as an AGRA Watch Intern has focused on gathering publications by Cornell Alliance for Science  (CAS) fellows, and analyzing the narratives promoted in their writings, both before they became fellows, and after their training at CAS. 

Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS) is a non-profit organisation. It is mainly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BGMF). The mission of the organisation is to “promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally”. They do so through the Global Fellowship program, a 12-week training that started in 2015. The program trains fellows in science communications. The aim is to build a global network of genetic engineering supporters.

My research project is a follow-up to the AGRA Watch report “Messengers of the Gates Agenda”. The report explores the structure and aim of the CAS Fellowship program, and its role in promoting the use of genetic engineering worldwide. It also investigates the relationship between the BMGF and CAS fellows. It traces millions of dollars funding fellows’ affiliations and raises questions about the credibility of CAS and the foundation. The objective of my research is to analyse the narratives found in the fellows’ publications, and assess the influence of their network. The reviewed publications include blog posts, and both academic and newspaper articles. 

I am particularly interested in analyzing their food security narrative, as it is a key theme, constituting around ten percent of the reviewed publications. Yet, CAS fellows have an oversimplified conception of food security. They reduce it to a matter of food availability, solved thanks to GMO crops.

International organizations recognise the complexity of the concept. Moreover, they highlight the importance of its different dimensions. In 1974, the World Food Conference framed food security as a global priority, following the ‘70s food crises. However, the official narrative often overlooks the political origins of food insecurity, such as imperialism and socioeconomic injustices. In the 2009 Reform Document, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) defined it thusly: 

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The four pillars of food security are availability, access, utilization and stability. The nutritional dimension is integral to the concept of food security and to the work of CFS.

In CAS fellows’ publications, food (in)security is not clearly defined. It is indirectly presented as an issue of food shortages and insufficient production. Mentioned causes are climate change, insufficient farming technologies, preservation failures, pests and weeds. Thus, the failure of the supply side of the value chain causes a problem of food availability. This narrative strips food security of its aspects of access, utilisation and stability. Needless to say, political dimensions such as imperialism and socioeconomic injustice are completely disregarded. 

Here are just a few examples of statements in fellows’ publications that demonstrate this simplistic understating of food security: 

“To match food demand with a growing population, there will have to be more innovative ways of producing food” (Wamboga-Mugyria, 2015)

“A “catastrophic” combination of drought and communities’ declining resilience has left an estimated 2.3 million people facing severe acute food insecurity in Zambia alone” (Sikapizye, 2019)

“Farm productivity and crop health are paramount to both food security and economic vitality” (Nshimiyimana, 2019)

“Africa’s food security threatened by poorly performing seed industry” (Gakpo, 2019; article title)

“In a communique issued out by the Alliance for Science Ghana, they called the government and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to come out with an “Emergency food security preparedness plan” to aid food production, ease food supply and distribution during and after the pandemic. (Baffour-Awah, 2020)

Moreover, CAS fellows in their publications identify a solution to the issue of food security. International organisations tackle food insecurity through different policies, programs and interventions. They usually involve states, the private sector and civil society organisations and they are aimed to address all the dimensions of food security. However, CAS fellows’ simplistic food security concept corresponds to a simplistic solution. Indeed, food security is presented as a policy deliverable, achieved with the right technology and commodities. Unsurprisingly, these will turn out to be GMO crops (genetically modified organisms). Fellows present GMOs as the best solution to food insecurity as they increase productivity; genetic engineering is the answer to climate change, preservation failures, pests and weeds. Additionally, it would generate higher crop yields. 

Here are some examples of article titles and statements in fellows’ publications where GMOs are presented as the only solution to food insecurity:

“Facing threatened food security Kenyan officials recommend lifting ban on GMOs” (Andae, 2013; article title)

“We can’t feed Africa without GMOs” (Wamboga-Mugyria, 2016; article title)

“Nigeria needs GMO seeds to feed growing population, says nation’s top scientist” (Isaac, 2018; article title)

“Nigeria: Biotechnology, Panacea for Food Security” (Isaac, 2019; article title)

“Bt corn [corn genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis genes to be insect resistant] has also shown promising resistance to the destructive fall armyworm pest, which continues to endanger Africa’s food security” (Gakpo, 2020)

This narrative must be considered in the context of the CAS Fellowship program. The program aims to train young, educated people to construct effective narratives and promote the diffusion of GMOs. Fellows manipulate the concept of food security to promote the diffusion of GMOs. The food security narrative is part of a broader communication strategy, aimed at promoting the interests of CAS and its funders. The BMGF is by far the biggest funder, having funded the launch of CAS in 2015, and continued funding through 2020. In all Gates has contributed $12 million.

Despite what this narrative suggests, food security is a multidimensional issue. Moreover, a lot of scholars and movements challenge it and engage with the realities of food justice and food sovereignty. These look at the effects of socioeconomic injustices and imperialist dynamics on food systems. Food insecurity is also considered as a consequence of inequality. Hence, these approaches explore the food-related experiences of global marginalised communities and offer inclusive and sustainable solutions. Given the current environmental and socioeconomic crises, we need to consider the root causes of food inequalities to find our way out. Thus, talking about food security without considering these approaches is not enough anymore! 

I will keep investigating this and other narratives in CAS fellows’ publications. In the meantime, you can find some reading suggestions about food security, CAS and sustainable food futures!

I would like to thank Noël Hutton, Matt Canfield and Heather Day, for their precious feedback and supervision!

Reading suggestions

References

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