When Michelle Obama laid out an organic garden in the White House, and that was in March 2009, I must admit I was very excited. I thought the U.S. first lady, drawing from what Mahatma Gandhi had once said, was trying to be the change that she wanted the United States to be. "I want to make sure that our family, as well as the staff and all people who come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruits," she was quoted in a news agency report.
My excitement was, however, short-lived. Unmindful of the initiative the First Lady had taken to provide safe food, President Barack Obama appointed Michael Taylor, a lawyer by training and a former Vice-President of Monsanto, to oversee food safety. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Michael Taylor, but considering his background -- he is known to be the person behind the unwanted introduction of bovine growth hormone in dairy milk -- I wasn't expecting the U.S. President to be so taken in by the industry propaganda.
Knowing that the U.S. population is bulging at the extreme, and aware of the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that sweeps the world's lone superpower, I am sure you will agree that it desperately needs a healing touch, a semblance of which was provided by Michelle Obama. Never before was the need so great as it is today. An environmentally devastating food production system, sustained artificially by the power of massive farm subsidies, has not only played havoc with human health and pushed farmers out of agriculture, but also exacerbated global temperatures. Instead of rectifying the folly, the multi-billion dollar food industry is using all legal routes to strengthen its control over the global food supply chain.
After passing The Food Safety Enhancement Act (HR 2749) in July last year, the Senate is deliberating on The Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510), which many believe will allow the multinationals to tighten control over food supply and even outlaw organic food production. What makes it draconian is the provision that does not allow its decisions open to any form of judicial review. Already, consumer groups, farmer organizations and health activists are questioning the need for such a draconian law that takes away the democratic and fundamental rights of the people.
Far away in India, a similar Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is likely to be introduced in Parliament, which when enacted will take away the right of the people to question what is being served in the name of GM foods. Anyone who critiques the veracity of claims that the biotech industry makes can be imprisoned and fined. Strange isn't it that in the world's two biggest democracies, the food industry should manage to gag freedom of speech and expression? How can the democratically-elected governments -- in the U.S. and in India -- facilitate an undemocratic control over food supply, and that too in the name of food safety?
We are what we eat. It is because what we eat is highly unsafe and unhealthy that the health industry has grown out of proportion. The growth of the pharmaceutical industry is directly linked to the contaminated food that laces the markets. The pharmaceutical industry in turn backs on an emerging health insurance industry. No wonder, the insurance industry is now investing heavily in food stocks, knowing well that its growth is directly proportionate to the junk foods that we are forced to consume.
Food is, in fact, fast-emerging as a killer. And as my doctor told me the other day: "We have learned the art of keeping a sick population alive for long." How true?
The battle for food monopoly does not end with bringing in legal provisions to ensure food safety. It needs government support to push the unwanted foods internationally, and for which there is also the need to remove trade barriers through the free trade agreements. The proposed Global Food Security Act (S 384) that awaits introduction in the U.S. Senate is effectively using the food aid provisions to promote agricultural biotechnology. In the name of addressing global hunger, the biotech industry is actually aiming to utilize $7.7 billion in U.S. funds that comes in the name of foreign aid.
Interestingly, S 384 is in contradiction with the Bumper's Amendment that cropped up in the 1980s. Senator Bumper wanted U.S. foreign aid in the name of agricultural research for crops that directly compete with the export potential of the American growers to be immediately stopped. For instance, it had wanted the U.S. to withdraw federal support for international rice research since it impeded domestic rice exports. I remember the explanation provided by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, justifying how it was crucial to continue research funding for the world's most important staple food crop.
Such stealth measures to control food in the name of food security and food safety have often escaped public scrutiny. This is primarily because agricultural scientists, mainline economists and the dominant global media have created such a deafening noise that it does not allow the voices of reason to percolate to the horizon. And it is here I thought that Michelle Obama was trying to make a statement, a style statement in a sense, that could have hit the sensibilities of an average citizen.
The world needs to emerge out of the shackles of industrial agriculture and GM crops, and restore the pride in sustainable farming that is neither damaging to the environment nor destructive to human health. And let me also add, as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has conclusively demonstrated, such a farming system does not lead to any shortfall in production. All that Michelle Obama needs to do is to pick up from where she left. She can emerge taller than any political leader the world has known.