wfp bannerTwo weeks ago, I traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Dialogues series.  The prize is based on the vision of Norman Borlaug, founder of the “green revolution,” whose work focused on increasing the yield and durability of plants.  As you can probably imagine, the World Food Prize (WFP) has come under criticism in recent years for its focus on high-yield, high-profit productivity.  (Having DuPont and Monsanto as major sponsors will do that to you.)

Meanwhile and elsewhere in Des Moines…a relatively small but vocal group had organized an “Occupy the World Food Prize” campaign to voice a variety of complaints about the WFP.  Central among their complaints was the WFP’s decision to honor three “biotechnologists,” including an executive from Monsanto and a researcher for Syngenta, two companies known for their work with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

Fortunately, I was able to attend both the Borlaug Dialogues and an event sponsored by the Occupy folks.  Talk about a study in contrasts!  It was striking to hear two vastly different perspectives on agriculture, food and solving hunger.  The contrast brought to the fore some important debates that can be heard even among ELCA World Hunger folks.

grimsson at wfp

President Grimsson of Iceland speaking at the World Food Prize.

The WFP hosted a “Who’s Who” of corporate and public figures, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Howard G. Buffett, President Grímsson of Iceland, and the executive officers or presidents of several large corporations.  They spoke of public-private partnerships, corporate investment and trade policies.  The major events ceremony was filled with pomp and circumstance, the awardees heralded by ceremonial horns.

By contrast, the attendees at the Occupy event at First United Methodist Church were college students and community activists, dressed in jeans and serenaded by a guitar-playing troubadour waxing poetic about the differences between being “the shovel or the s—.”  In sharp tones punctuated by applause and cheering, the speakers railed against “corporate greed” and political influence.  They praised the “grassroots” and the “power of the people.”  Public-private partnerships are the very symbol of corruption and injustice in their eyes.

turkson at occupy wpf

Cardinal Peter Turkson addresses the Occupy the World Food Prize crowd.

The differences here beg the question: where does legitimate power come from?  Is solving hunger a “grasstops” campaign or a “grassroots” movement?  In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus by offering him control of all the kingdoms on earth (Matt. 4:8-9).  Jesus rebukes the devil, choosing instead the life of servanthood and solidarity among the “grassroots,” a life that leads him to the cross.  But what a ruler Jesus might have been!  What does this say about not only how we exercise power, but what kind of power we seek?  Is there room for both power from above and power from below?

Agribusiness or Agriculture?

“it is true; agriculture is a business…” – Eve Ntseoane, WFP panelist

“We must bring agribusiness into [the conversation and highlight] the opportunities of farming as a business, as entrepreneurship.” – Mpule Kwelagobe, WFP panelist

“Corporate interests have re-made agriculture in their own image…farming is ‘good business’ because it is a way of life…It’s agriculture not agribusiness.” – Jim Hightower at Occupy the WFP event

Is food production a way of life – a culture – or is it a profit-driven business?  The difference might seem trivial – a matter of semantics – but the perspective each offers is vastly important.  Consider: “The emphasis seems to shift from perceiving food as a ‘commodity to be consumed’ to food as an ‘unexpected gift to be received’…” (Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments, 98.)  What do we lose and what do we gain by shifting farming from culture to business?

Us or Them?

The language of “insiders” and “outsiders” was muted at the WFP, though to be honest, the folks in attendance with whom I spoke seemed reluctant to ask questions about the role of power in decision-making.  Unsurprisingly, this was not the case at the Occupy event.  Here, the presenters were clear: some “insiders” have power, and they tend to abuse it.  The mass of “outsiders” without financial or political power must use their numbers to seize power from the “greedheads” and “money elites.”  There was a clear division between “insiders” – those with wealth and influence on their side – and “outsiders” – agitators with morality on their side.

Is there room for both in the movement to end hunger?  In an ideal situation, those with traditional power will listen to those with “people” power to correct injustice.  Practically speaking, though, two obstacles make this very difficult.  On the one hand, the “insiders” must allow the grassroots to have a place at the table.  On the other hand, the “outsiders” must take the risk that this table is a place where authentic dialogue about solving hunger can occur.  “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).  “Whoever is not with me is against me…” (Matthew 12:30).  Which is it?  Must we choose?

The contrast between the two events was thought-provoking for me.  Where do you stand on these important debates about solving hunger?  Does power come from above or below?  Is food a commodity or a gift?  With whom should we form networks?  What do we gain when we take a side on any of these issues?  What do we lose?

Ryan P. Cumming is Program Director for Hunger Education, ELCA World Hunger.