Agricultural leaders from around the world gathered in Sacramento
this week, causing a flurry of debate and protests
About 400 international delegates convened in the Capital City on June 23 for the first Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.
The three-day conference, called by Veneman, was designed to look at how existing and new technologies can be used to help feed more than 800 million people worldwide who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
“In recent years, reducing hunger and poverty has truly become a global agenda,” said Veneman, speaking to ministers of agriculture, health and the environment from more than 100 nations. “While this gathering takes place on American soil, it is truly an international conference,” Veneman said.
She called for the convention in Rome last year at the World Food Summit. The goal of the summit is to reduce world hunger in half by the year 2015.
USDA leaders said the conference goal was to provide an open forum for world leaders to exchange ideas and resources with their global counterparts. Breakouts, meetings and field tours focused on access to technology, scientific research, regulations, economic and trade policies, developing partnerships and sustainable farming.
Biotechnology was the most controversial topic, causing a stir inside and outside the Sacramento Convention Center.
“Biotechnology is one of the various technologies we are discussing in this conference, but it’s certainly not the only one,” said Veneman in response to activist gatherings in Sacramento to coincide with the convention.
Protesters rolled into Sacramento on June 22, opposing the government’s private convention, which was closed to the general public. On activists’ agendas was a contention for free trade, as advocated by the World Trade Organization, and biotechnology.
While police officers in riot gear lined the streets outside the downtown convention center to prepare for angry mobs of protesters — which remained mostly non-violent during the event — Veneman and other agricultural leaders defended many uses of technology.
Agricultural advancements that might help solve the world hunger problem could include everything from genetically engineered crops to simple irrigation systems, Veneman said.
“The right answers are not always the latest, biggest and most expensive technologies,” she said. “Many conventional technologies already widely used for decades can be adapted to bring significant productivity gains to the world’s poorest countries.”
Farm extension services, nutrient management, improved seed varieties and irrigation could all help improve food productivity in developing countries, she said.
“The goal is not technologies that make developing countries more dependent on the developed worlds. Rather, it is to make them able to better feed themselves.”
During the convention’s opening session, several international ministers also addressed the importance of technology in solving the hunger issue.
“We need biotechnology and other technologies,” said Wilberforce Kisamba Mugerwa, agriculture minister for Uganda. He said one of the only ways to increase agricultural productivity is to embrace technology.
However, as ministers were discussing the benefits of genetic engineering and better distribution of new technologies, other international leaders who weren’t invited to the conference also took an opportunity to air opposing viewpoints.
Underfed people aren’t in need of better agricultural production, they are in need of social and economic change, said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy. The research organization is dedicated to finding the root causes of worldwide hunger.
“(Genetic engineering) isn’t about to solve the problem in my home country of India — or the rest of the world,” said Mittal, a published author on issues related to poverty and hunger.
Food First held a press conference coinciding with the opening of the ministerial to focus on the dangers of biotechnology.
“This is a technology completely full of uncertainties,” said Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher for the Mexican conservation group called Erosion, Technology and Concentration.
Ribeiro criticized government leaders who allege the technology is safe. U.S. government leaders say genetically modified foods are safe, but she argues long-term impacts of biotechnology are still unknown.
The USDA conference could simply be a ploy to gather more support for genetic engineering, said Ribeiro.
Last month, the Bush administration launched a WTO challenge against the European Union’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms. Ribeiro suggested U.S. government leaders were using the Sacramento convention to put pressure on other countries to support the WTO challenge.
While advocating the use of technology, Veneman admitted that policies and regulations are also important to solving the hunger problem.
“Policies that promote free markets and good governance produce economic growth,” she said. “And open trading system is also vital. It provides greater market access, attracts investment, stimulates growth and contributes to food security.”
The secretary said the convention’s success would be judged on new bonds and partnerships that are formed, along with a willingness to put potential solutions into practice.
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