Keep up with the latest news and comment on genetically modified foods          

Featured Articles on GMO issues

Feeding the famine? Part 1


"Hungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread." - Earl Butz, former US Secretary of Agriculture

"in a world of want and hunger what is more powerful than food and fibre?" - Senator Hubert Humphrey

"with proper use these surpluses can be made [far more potent] than the hydrogen bomb" - Congressman Brooks Hays

1.Feeding the famine? American food aid and the GMO debate in Southern Africa - Abstract
2.Excerpts on FOOD POWER

1.Feeding the famine? American food aid and the GMO debate in Southern Africa

Noah Zerbe

Department of Government and Politics,
Humboldt State University, USA

Center for Philosophy of Law,
Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium

Available online 17 November 2004.


The inclusion of genetically modified maize in food aid shipments to Southern Africa during the 2002 food crisis rekindled debates over agricultural biotechnology. As the region edged ever closer to famine putting the lives to some 14 million Africans at risk corporate pundits, government officials and biotech’s critics debated the health and environmental dangers posed by the new technology.

By situating the decision to send genetically modified maize to Southern Africa in the context of US European debates over agricultural biotechnology, it becomes clear that the promotion of biotechnology has nothing to do with ending hunger in the region. Indeed, American food aid shipments to Southern Africa have little to do with the famine at all. Instead, I argue that US food aid policy following the 2002 crisis was intended to promote the adoption of biotech crops in Southern Africa, expanding the market access and control of transnational corporations and undermining local smallholder production thereby fostering greater food insecurity on the Continent.



excerpts from 'Feeding the famine?'

The discourse of "food power" became a guiding mythology for the US foreign policy establishment. Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture from 1971 to 1974, Earl Butz, argued "Hungry men listen only to those who have a piece of bread." Butz later clarified that, "Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the US negotiating kit" (cited in Cleaver, 1977: 22).

The sentiment was echoed by Hubert Humphrey, arguing in 1974 that, "Food is power. In a very real sense, it is our extra measure of power" (cited in Cleaver, 1977: 23). As late as 1976, the Central Intelligence Agency was promoting the use of food as a foreign policy tool. It argued that "As custodian of the bulk of the world's exportable grain, the United States might regain the primacy in world affairs that it held in the immediate post-war period" (cited in Rothschild, 1976: 286).

Although the "food power" discourse was most forcefully articulated in the early 1970s, the use of food to secure particular foreign policy objectives by the United States is hardly a new phenomenon. In the inter-war period, the US distributed food aid to Germany in an effort to forestall the rising popularity of socialist parties. Similarly, following World War II, food aid was distributed under the Marshall Plan, particularly in Italy and France, to weaken anti-capitalist movements (Lappe, et al., 1977: 336).

The potential utility of food aid as a foreign policy instrument in the context of the Cold War was noted by Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1959, when he commented that, "We have been told repeatedly that [the Cold War] is a worldwide struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of decency...We all know we are engaged in the struggle for men's [sic] minds, for their loyalties. There is a struggle between ways of life, a system of values. If it is a worldwide struggle, it would seem to me we would want to mobilize all the resources we possibly can in order to win it. And in a world of want and hunger what is more powerful than food and fibre? " (cited in Lappe, et al., 1977: 337)

...Two years earlier, Senator Humphrey had argued that creating greater worldwide dependence on American food exports represented a significant contribution to the advancement of US foreign policy objectives worldwide: "I have heard...that people may become dependant on us for food. I know that is not supposed to be good news. To me, that was good news, because before people can do anything they have to eat. And if you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependant on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific" (cited in Lappe, et. al., 1977: 343).

Although never formally acknowledged by the White House, US food aid policy under the Johnson administration increasingly prescribed to the food power discourse. American food aid was actively used (and withheld) throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, reflecting the growing reliance on the "food power" doctrine in US food aid policies. Food aid was used to support pro-American governments in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia, ostensibly serving the overall foreign policy goal of containing communism. Elsewhere, food aid was directly used to support American commercial interests abroad.

Both goals were exemplified in the case of India. Following the establishment of the PL 480 program in 1954, India had quickly become one of the leading recipients of American food aid shipments. Indeed, India was so dependant on American food aid that debates over the necessity of self-reliance, overcoming what was termed a "ship-to mouth" existence, came to dominate political and academic discussions. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru noted the problem of Indian dependence on American food aid as early as 1951, commenting that, "The convention is growing upon me more forcefully than ever how dangerous it is for us to depend for this primary necessity of life on foreign countries. It is only when we obtain self-sufficiency in food that we can progress and develop ourselves" (Cited in Sharma, 2002: np).

Nehru's concerns seem, in retrospect, to be well placed. When drought threatened millions of peasants with starvation in 1965-66, the Johnson administration seized the opportunity and used its "food power" to press for political and economic concessions from the Indian government. The United States demanded that India open its fertilizer markets to American exports, devalue its currency, institute population control measures, and soften its criticism of American involvement in Vietnam as a precondition for the release of much-needed food aid (Sharma, 2002; Tarrant, 1980).

Even after India agreed to the conditions laid down by the US, Johnson refused to release more than one month's worth of aid at a time. India was to be kept on a "short tether" to ensure India's continued compliance with American demands (Bjorkman, 1980; Castore, 1982).

...India was not the only country against which food aid (or more accurately the threat to withhold food aid) was applied. Bangladesh was subject to similar pressures. In September 1974 the United States requested Bangladesh cease its jute exports to Cuba as a condition for receiving food aid under the PL 480 program. Bangladesh was in the midst of a severe food crisis. The northern regions of the country had experienced severe flooding which disrupted normal rice production cycles. At the same time, grain merchants, betting on future production shortfalls, began to purchase and horde rice. The price of rice quickly spiraled out of reach for most rural laborers, and normal food entitlements were disrupted. The Bangladeshi government, unable to offset the decreased rice supply through purchases on international commodities markets because of foreign exchange shortages, was forced to turn to food aid to resolve the crisis.

The United States exercised its food power policy to secure foreign policy objectives completely unrelated to the Bangladeshi crisis - but at a great cost for Bangladesh. By refusing to release food aid until the Government of Bangladesh terminated all jute trade with Cuba, the US was able to further isolate Cuba from the international community. At the same time Bangladesh was facing foreign exchange shortages-and at a time when, because of low Indian jute production, it could have offset such shortages with increased jute exports-the United States forced Bangladesh to close one of its primary sources of revenue (McHenry and Bird, 1977).

After the famine had run its course, the United States continued to threaten to withhold food aid to exact other concessions from the Bangladeshi government. Indeed, subsequent PL 480 assistance required market liberalization, particularly the elimination of anti-hoarding policies designed to prevent a repeat of the 1974 famine, reduction in government price controls on basic foodstuffs, and termination of market access restrictions designed to protect infant domestic industries, particularly fertilizer production (Ahmed, 1992).

...American food aid to the Allende government in Chile was also terminated. Food aid under the PL 480 program resumed when Pinochet assumed power in a military coup. The food aid shipped to Chile during the Pinochet regime was sold on domestic markets to finance the purchase of US military equipment. For a more detailed discussion, see Cleaver (1977), Lappe, et. al., (1977).