World Food Prize: A Critical Perspective

By Catholic Rural Life on October 30, 2013

Ethical Food and Agriculture

In mid-October, the 25th annual gathering for the World Food Prize took place in Des Moines, Iowa. The prize (financial as well as public recognition) is awarded to individuals making significant contributions in agriculture and food. As the name implies, the contributions are recognized as having an impact on world food production, ranging from advancements in science and technology to developments in social science and political leadership.

Beyond the prize ceremony itself, the occasion is a week-long event of seminars and presentations on many topics, ranging from local hunger issues to global climate change. But make no mistake: promotion of biotechnology is the main message of this prize. That should not be surprising, given the large amounts of financial contributions by chemical corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta.

The origins and establishment of the World Food Prize center on Norman Borlaug, a research scientist who helped increased crop yields during the “green revolution” of the 1950s and ‘60s, and subsequently was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He later became an outspokenproponent of biotechnology.

Besides the prize ceremony itself – this year presented to three individuals for their achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology – the gathering brings together experts from various fields to discuss the latest in agriculture and the many facets that revolve around the world food supply.

To the credit of WFP organizers, there were some debates around the promised benefits and potential drawbacks from GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Just as important, some panel discussions addressed the ongoing debate of industrial farm operations versus proprietary family farms. Biotech corporations prefer to cater to the former at the expense of the latter.

That has been the concern of NCRLC, and certainly has been voiced by many of our members who often ask us to speak more forcefully to this point. Our public position was perhaps best articulated in a statement on agricultural biotechnology approved by our Board of Directors several years ago. [Agricultural Biotechnology: A Catholic Rural Life Perspective]

As for this year’s World Food Prize, there was a counter-voice by Occupy World Food Prize to this unabashed promotion of biotechnology and a corporate-controlled food system. Their members – farmers, food advocates, community activists — are deeply committed to feeding the hungry of the world, but are also deeply skeptical of the benefits of GMO seeds and the true intentions of big agri-food corporations.

[Read more about critics of the World Food Prize message and intent at this external news website.]

Among the various dignitaries present at the World Food Prize, a significant attraction for many was the presence of Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Interestingly, he was also invited to a public gathering of Occupy World Food Prize. His presence was welcomed by both sides of this biotech struggle. His message was similar to both parties.

“The church promotes listening, dialogue, patience, respect for the other, sincerity and even willingness to review one’s own opinion,” Cardinal Turkson said. “The church encourages, orients and enriches discussion and debate.”

He said he had never before received so much mail regarding one event as he had for the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Dialogue, which influenced his decision to attend.

Cardinal Turkson expressed support for biotechnology when it is married to ethics, compassion, morality and prudence. “It is hazardous — and ultimately absurd, indeed sinful — to employ biotechnology without the guidance of deeply responsible ethics.”

Read more about his remarks in this article by Catholic News Service.

In my mind, the question becomes one of whether corporations can indeed balance their economic rationalization with “deeply responsible ethics” as the Church might hope for. I fear the extreme power imbalances in our world — exactly what generates hunger amid plenty — will make this a difficult challenge. I dare say that conversation and dialogue only go so far. We will need more public action, including our own individual actions in the policies we support and food choices we make.

One immediate action is to sign onto a petition that asks the World Food Prize Foundation to make critical improvements to its process. These are the need to better examine root causes of hunger through power imbalances, provide for greater transparency in how Prize recipients are selected, and better address the need for accountability in solving our world food problems.

Let me end here with a word from Frances Moore Lappé, a widely-respected author and advocate on hunger issues and one of the Borlaug Dialogue panelists this year: “As I stress in my panel remarks, the root of hunger is not inadequate quantities of food but the inevitable outcome of certain qualities of human relationships: specifically, whether they reflect concentrated power and secrecy or inclusive power and transparency. It is the latter that make human dignity, including the right to food, possible.”

[Click here for a GMO Factsheet distributed by Lappé’s Small Planet Institute.]

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