2016 World Food Prize: More Genewashing?

Yet again, the World Food Prize has lent its global pulpit to the biotech brigade.

On Tuesday, June 28, Drs. Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga, Jan Low, and Howarth Bouis were crowned the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates during a ceremony at the U.S. State Department. Titled "Biofortification Pioneers", their combined efforts have been heralded as potentially impacting over 10 million rural poor across Africa, Asia and Latin America through biofortification, the process of scientifically breeding vitamins and nutrients into staple crops.

The significance of two African World Food Prize Laureates cannot be understated. They are, as the website states, "working on solutions to tackle malnutrition in Africa, for Africa".

But financial sponsors of the technology have largely come from outside of Africa -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the United States Department of Agriculture, the United Kingdom Department of International Development, the International Fertilizer Group and large agribusiness corporations such as Syngenta, DuPont and Monsanto, to name but a few.

The integrity of the 2016 scientist-laureates is beyond question. And biofortification seems laudable. Who can argue with the moral imperative of addressing "hidden hunger" in the world food system?

Lots of people, it turns out. Why? Because cramming more nutrients into food crops doesn't address the causes of nutrient deficiencies, nor why some populations, like the peasant farmers who grow these food crops, are nutrient deficient in the first place.

The biofortification project is stuck in a bigger web of money, power and politics.

When hidden hunger is reduced to a problem of micronutrient deficiencies, addressing hunger serves a political and economic function: First, it gives power and profit to whomever provides the micronutrients. Second, it masks the ways the global food system has destroyed traditional sources of nutrients and impoverished people's diets. The exclusive focus on the 'baffling scarcity' of nutrients enables food industries and biotechnology corporations to sell more products. It also allows governments to depoliticize the causes of world hunger and nutrient deficiency by recasting it as a technical problem to be solved by technical solutions rather structural measures like land reform, market reforms or living wages.

The biofortification project is just one chapter in a much broader history of the corporate colonization of both agriculture and diets. If "Biofortification Pioneers" can solve world hunger, as the World Food Prize would have us believe, hunger is simply about getting the science right. This suggests that hunger is caused by no one and nothing -- but that science can solve it. If solving hunger is simply a matter of getting the science right, governments can squelch political dissent and corporations can continue dispossessing farmers of land, water and genetic resources. If ending hunger is about better science, it's not about the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. If hunger is about science, it's not about the destruction of rural communities or the exploitation and marginalization of peasants, underserved communities and people of color. But hunger is about those things -- and more.

People are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, not because science hasn't figured out what to feed them. This is a political, not a technical problem.

The World Food Prize can celebrate corporate science if they want. In the mean time, we'll keep working on hunger -- and the political transformations needed to end it.

With Ahna Kruzic and Eva Perroni