Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Philanthropist questions

Philanthropist questions America’s push of high-tech farming in Africa
By Philip Brasher
Argus Leader Washington Bureau
October 12, 2011

WASHINGTON - The genetically engineered seeds and high-tech farming methods that the United States is pushing poor countries to accept are no solution to hunger by themselves and actually might wind up harming small-scale farmers, philanthropist Howard Buffett said.

Buffett, the son of billionaire Warren Buffett, has worked with Microsoft founder Bill Gates to pay for the development of biotech seeds that could be used in Africa, including drought-tolerant corn.

“Seed is only part of the solution,” Buffett said Wednesday.

“Soil is more important,” he added, noting that African soils are widely degraded and that farmers don’t know how much fertilizer they need even if they can get it.

“Simply distributing seeds without a soil fertility plan will eventually be a disaster,” he told an audience at the annual World Food Prize conference that included scientists, officials from the U.S. government and many developing countries, and several agribusiness CEOs, including Hugh Grant of biotech seed giant Monsanto Co.

Buffett, who operates farms in Illinois and Nebraska, warned that encouraging poor African farmers to adopt U.S. farming methods could push them to abandon the crop diversity their families have long depended on and switch to growing just one crop, such as corn. That would leave the farmers’ families vulnerable if their crops failed or prices for the crop collapsed.

“It’s not an issue we have at home, but it’s an issue we need to be cognizant of as we look at sub-Saharan Africa,” Buffett said.

With Grant seated in front of him, Buffett made the point that Monsanto’s biotech seeds can vary widely in how they perform even in the United States. A top-of-the line insect-resistant variety that cost $340 a bag didn’t do as well on his farm as a cheaper version that wasn’t toxic to pests, he said.

“You can’t just take technology and think, ‘Boy, this is going to be great. This is going to work for everybody, everyplace,’ ” Buffett said.

Grant, speaking earlier to the conference, said that in African agriculture, better farming methods are needed to cut the cost of food there. Corn can be grown there for as little as one-tenth of what it can be shipped in from outside, he said. Monsanto donated the genetic material being used to develop the drought-tolerant corn for Africa, a project that has been touted by the Obama administration.

The U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has been pressing African countries to approve the use of genetically engineered seeds, a move that would benefit companies such as Monsanto and rival Pioneer Hi-Bred.

The State Department and Agriculture Department have been working to promote the use of the biotechnology in Africa and elsewhere and have been encouraging countries to write regulations that would facilitate the use of the seeds.

“We can play a role in helping countries put together a regulatory system that will promote biotechnology,” said Jose Fernandez, the assistant secretary for economic, energy and business affairs. “We look forward to partnering with other countries to explore the possibilities of biotechnology.”

Fernandez, speaking on a panel organized by Crop Life International, a group that represents Monsanto, Pioneer and other biotech giants, said that requiring labeling of biotech foods would scare consumers away from them.

“If you label something, there’s an implication there’s something wrong with it,” Fernandez said.

The European Union, as well as Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, already requires biotech food labeling. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration long has taken the position that ingredients need not be labeled based on crop breeding methods.

The Center for Food Safety, a group long critical of biotechnology, is leading a coalition called Just Label It! that is urging the FDA to impose a labeling requirement.

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