Genetically Modified Organisms. Some argue they are the way to “feed the world” and that an exploding population will require them. Others see GMO technology as part of a corporate plot to take over fields and drive farmers into debt, while everything from pesticide use to allergies are on the rise because of them.
And while that discussion is one we must have, the GMO debate is also distracting us from less sexy interventions which have worked to dramatically reduce hunger and malnutrition over the last fifty years, and are today in desperate need of our continued support.
These successful programs had a remarkable impact on the number in need today because they made small scale farmers more profitable and families more self reliant, diets more diverse and children and adults better educated.
“Success [is] not simply about increasing the physical supply of food,” states “Millions Fed,” a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute. “Rather, [successes] are about reductions in hunger that result…from a change in an individual’s ability to secure quality food.”
“Nutrition is multifaceted – it involves access to food, water and sanitation, hygiene, disease and infection, poverty,” says Nancy Haselow, Vice President of the Helen Keller International (HKI), and Regional Director for Asia Pacific. “There is no single solution to solve malnutrition, so we need to provide multiple and synergistic interventions, a combination of approaches is best. Sustainable solutions that can be left in the community, are owned by the community, and put tools and knowledge and skills in the hands of mothers and fathers are important to addressing the problem.”
A myriad of initiatives, non-reliant on GMO technology, have already proven successful in reducing hunger. For example, Helen Keller International has successfully impacted more than five million people with long lasting nutritional, economic and educational changes through their Homestead Food Program. Another example is BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) which now has 97,000 women “shasthya shebika” (health workers) in Bangladesh alone, working to bring micronutrient powders and basic health care services (including education on critical topics like breastfeeding) to extremely rural communities.
And by using already-available, proven, and cost effective storage methods, African small-scale farmers are able to safely store food, like cowpeas – a staple food high in iron and protein – and to therefore benefit from their consumption and sale. Likewise in India and Tanzania, farmers are now using Zero Energy Cool Chamber technology to ensure valuable food is not wasted.
Perhaps most importantly, holistic, community based solutions like home gardens, diet diversification and better food storage (which means less waste of precious resources) are critical elements in creating a better future in a climate-changing world.
A new report released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that “international policy discussions remain heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production, mostly under the slogan “growing more food at less cost to the environment.” But, the study found, hunger is not caused by a lack of food but by “a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient.”
“The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and input-dependent industrial production towards…sustainable, regenerative production systems.”
Yet unlike “GMOs” – which do continue to promote conventional, monoculture-based, input dependent agriculture – most of us have never heard of “dietary diversification” projects. We know nothing of the shasthya shebika health workers or of a system of crop intensification that increases rice, wheat and other crop yields while using less water and seed. And that lack of discussion and knowledge is exemplified in a lack of support for these critical programs.
“It has been excruciatingly difficult to get funding for the Homestead Food Program.” says Nancy Haselow of HKI. “For me, it’s a no brainer – you see a family growing vegetables, their kids looking chubby and healthy, and they have a sense of doing it themselves. But over the past 10-15 years, we have raised only about $25-28 million for all our Homestead Food Production Programs in Asia Pacific.”
Instead, donors have been seduced by talk of “easy,” high tech solutions and despite the proven successes of these alternative programs, the drive to increase production via improved seeds and fertilizer, charges on.