All posts by Colin Todhunter

Oil, Agriculture and Imperialism: Averting the Fast-Track to Armageddon?

US National Security Advisor John Bolton has more or less admitted that the ongoing destabilisation of Venezuela is about grabbing its oil. He recently stated:

We’re looking at the oil assets… We’re in conversation with major American companies now… It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.

The US’s hand-picked supposed leader-in-waiting, Juan Guaido, aims to facilitate the process and usher in a programme of ‘mass privatisation’ and ‘hyper-capitalism‘ at the behest of his coup-instigating masters in Washington, thereby destroying the socialist revolution spearheaded by the late Hugo Chavez and returning to a capitalist oligarch-controlled economic system.

One might wonder who is Bolton, or anyone in the US, to dictate and engineer what the future of another sovereign state should be. But this is what the US has been doing across the globe for decades. Its bloody imperialism, destabilisations, coups, assassinations, invasions and military interventions have been extensively documented by William Blum.

Of course, although oil is key to the current analysis of events in Venezuela, there is also the geopolitical subtext of debt, loans and Russian investment and leverage within the country. At the same time, it must be understood that US-led capitalism is experiencing a crisis of over-production: when this occurs capital needs to expand into or create new markets and this entails making countries like Venezuela bow to US hegemony and open up its economy.

For US capitalism, however, oil is certainly king. Its prosperity is maintained by oil with the dollar serving as the world reserve currency. Demand for the greenback is guaranteed as most international trade (especially and significantly oil) is carried out using the dollar. And those who move off it are usually targeted by the US (Venezuela being a case in point).

US global hegemony depends on Washington maintaining the dollar’s leading role. Engaging in petrodollar recycling and treasury-bond ‘super-imperialism‘ are joined at the hip and have enabled the US to run up a huge balance of payments deficit (a free ride courtesy of the rest of the world) by using the (oil-backed) paper dollar as security in itself.

More generally, with its control and manipulation of the World Bank, IMF and WTO, the US has been able to lever international trade and financial systems to its advantage by various means (for example, see this analysis of Saudi Arabia’s oil money in relation to African debt). US capitalism will not allow its global dominance and the role of the dollar to be challenged.

Unfortunately for humanity and all life on the planet, the US deems it necessary to attempt to prolong its (declining) hegemony and the age of oil.

Oil, empire and agriculture

In the article ‘And you thought Greece had a problem’, Norman Pagett notes that the ascendance of modern industrialised humans, thanks to oil, has been a short flash of light that has briefly lifted us out of the mire of the middle ages. What we call modern civilisation in the age of oil is fragile and it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to extract remaining oil reserves. The age of oil is a driver of climate change, that much is clear. But what is equally disturbing is that the modern global food regime is oil-dependent, not least in terms of the unnecessary transportation of commodities and produce across the planet and the increasing reliance on proprietary seeds designed to be used with agrochemicals derived from petroleum or which rely on fossil fuel during their manufacture.

Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent upon this finite resource:

Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.

Norman J Church (2005)

Pagett notes that the trappings of civilisation have not altered the one rule of existence: if you don’t produce food from the earth on a personal basis, your life depends on someone converting sunlight into food on your behalf. Consider that Arabia’s gleaming cities in the desert are built on its oil. It sells oil for food. Then there is the UK, which has to import 40 per cent of its food, and much of the rest depends on oil to produce it, which also has to be imported. Pagett notes that while some talk about the end of the oil age, few link this to or describe it as being the end of the food age.

Without oil, we could survive – but not by continuing to pursue the ‘growth’ model China or India are pursuing, or which the West has pursued. Without sustainable, healthy agriculture, however, we will not survive. Destroy agriculture, or more precisely the resources to produce food sustainably (the climate, access to fresh water and indigenous seeds, traditional know-how, learning and practices passed on down the generations, soil fertility, etc.), which is what we are doing, and we will be in trouble.

The prevailing oil-based global food regime goes hand in hand with the wrong-headed oil-based model of ‘development’ we see in places like India. Such development is based on an outmoded ‘growth’ paradigm:

Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.

Jason Hickel (2016)

How can we try to avoid potential catastrophic consequences of such an approach, including what appears to be an increasingly likely nuclear conflict between competing imperial powers?

We must move away from militarism and resource-gabbing conflicts by reorganising economies so that nations live within their environmental means. We must maximise human well-being while actively shrinking out consumption levels and our ecological footprint.

Some might at this point be perplexed by the emphasis on agriculture. But what many overlook is that central to this argument is recognising not only the key role that agriculture has played in facilitating US geopolitical aims but also its potential for transforming our values and how we live. We need a major shift away from the current model of industrialised agriculture and food production. Aside from it being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, it has led to bad food, poor health and environmental degradation and has been underpinned by a resource-grabbing, food-deficit producing US foreign policy agenda for many decades, assisted by the WTO, World Bank, IMF and ‘aid’ strategies. For instance, see ‘Sowing the Seeds of Famine in Ethiopia’ by Michel Chossudovsky and ‘Destroying African Agriculture’ by Walden Bello.

The control of global agriculture has been a tentacle of US capitalism’s geopolitical strategy. The Green Revolution was exported courtesy of oil-rich interests and poorer nations adopted agricapital’s chemical-dependent model of agriculture that required loans for inputs and related infrastructure development. It entailed trapping nations into a globalised system of debt bondage, rigged trade relations and the hollowing out and capture of national and local economies. In effect, we have seen the transnational corporate commercialisation and displacement of localised productive systems.

Western agricapital’s markets are opened or propped up by militarism (Ukraine and Iraq), ‘structural adjustment’ and strings-attached loans (Africa) and slanted trade deals (India). Agricapital drives a globalised agenda to suit its interests and eradicate impediments to profit. And it doesn’t matter how much devastation ensues or how unsustainable its food regime is, ‘crisis management’ and ‘innovation’ fuel the corporate-controlled treadmill it seeks to impose.

But as Norman J Church argues, the globalisation and corporate control that seriously threaten society and the stability of our environment are only possible because cheap energy is used to replace labour and allows the distance between producer and consumer to be extended.

We need to place greater emphasis on producing food rooted in the principles of localisation, self-reliance, (carbon sequestrating) regenerative agriculture and (political) agroecology and to acknowledge the need to regard the commons (soil, water, seeds, land, forests, other natural resources, etc) as genuine democratically controlled common wealth. This approach would offer concrete, practical solutions (mitigating climate change, job creation in the West and elsewhere, regenerating agriculture and economies in the Global South, etc) to many of the world’s problems that move beyond (but which are linked to) agriculture.

This would present a major challenge to the existing global food regime and the prevailing moribund doctrinaire economics that serves the interests of Western oil companies and financial institutions, global agribusiness and the major arms companies. These interlocking, self-serving interests have managed to institute a globalised system of war, poverty and food insecurity.

The deregulation of international capital flows (financial liberalisation) effectively turned the world into a free-for-all for global capital. The further ramping up of US militarism comes at the back end of a deregulating/pro-privatising neoliberal agenda that has sacked public budgets, depressed wages, expanded credit to consumers and to governments (to sustain spending and consumption) and unbridled financial speculation. This relentless militarism has now become a major driver of the US economy.

Millions are dead in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan as the US and its allies play out a continuation of what they regard as a modern-day ‘Great Game’. And now, in what it arrogantly considers its own back yard, the US is instigating yet another coup and possible military attack.

We have Western politicians and the media parroting unfounded claims about President Maduro, like they did with Assad, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi and like they do about ‘Russian aggression’. All for what? Resources, pipelines, oil and gas. And these wars and conflicts and the lies to justify them will only get worse as demand across the world for resources grows against a backdrop of depletion.

We require a different low-energy, low-carbon economic system based on a different set of values. As the US ratchets up tensions in Venezuela, we again witness a continuation of the same imperialist mindset that led to two devastating world wars.

Capitalist Agriculture: Putting Soil on a Diet of Snake Oil and Doughnuts

In their rush to readily promote neoliberal dogma and corporate-inspired PR, many government officials, scientists and journalists take as given that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. The premise is that under capitalism water, food, soil and agriculture should be handed over to powerful and wholly corrupt transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretence these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity.

These natural assets (‘the commons’) belong to everyone and any stewardship should be carried out in the common interest by local people assisted by public institutions and governments acting on their behalf, not by private transnational corporations driven by self-interest and the maximization of profit by any means possible.

Concerns about what is in the public interest or what is best for the environment lies beyond the scope of hard-headed commercial interests and should ideally be the remit of elected governments and civil organisations. However, the best-case scenario for private corporations is to have supine, co-opted agencies or governments. And if current litigation cases in the US and the ‘Monsanto Papers’ court documents tell us anything, this is exactly what they set out to create.

Of course, we have known how corporations like Monsanto (and Bayer) have operated for many years, whether it is by bribery, smear campaigns, faking data, co-opting agencies and key figures, subverting science or any of the other actions or human rights abuses that the Monsanto Tribunal shed light on.

Behind the public relations spin of helping to feed the world is the roll-out of an unsustainable model of agriculture based on highly profitable (GM) corporate seeds and massive money-spinning health- and environment-damaging proprietary chemical inputs that we now know lacked proper regulatory scrutiny and should never have been commercialised in the first place. In effect, transnational agribusiness companies have sought to marginalise alternative approaches to farming and create dependency on their products.

Localisation and traditional methods of food production have given way to globalised supply chains dominated by transnational companies policies and actions which have resulted in the colonisation of land in the Global South as well as the destruction of habitat and livelihoods, ecocide, mass displacement of peoples and the imposition of corporate-controlled, chemical-intensive (monocrop) agriculture that weds farmers and regions to a wholly exploitative system of globalised capitalism. Whether it involves the undermining or destruction of what were once largely self-sufficient agrarian economies in Africa or the devastating impacts of soy cultivation in Argentina or palm oil production in Indonesia, transnational agribusiness and capitalism cannot be greenwashed.

Soil on a doughnut diet

One of the greatest natural assets that humankind has is soil. It can take 500 years to generate an inch of soil yet just a few generations to destroy. When you drench soil with proprietary synthetic chemicals, introduce company-patented genetically tampered crops or continuously monocrop as part of a corporate-controlled industrial farming system, you kill essential microbes, upset soil balance and end up feeding soil a limited “doughnut diet” of unhealthy inputs (and you also undermine soil’s unique capacity for carbon storage and its potential role in combatting climate change).

Armed with their synthetic biocides, this is what the transnational agritech companies do. In their arrogance (and ignorance), these companies claim to know what they are doing and attempt to get the public and various agencies to bow before the altar of corporate ‘science’ and its scientific priesthood.

But in reality, they have no real idea about the long-term impacts their actions have had on soil and its complex networks of microbes and microbiological processes. Soil microbiologists are themselves still trying to comprehend it all.

That much is clear in this article, where Brian Barth discusses a report by the American Society of Microbiologists (ASM). Acknowledging that farmers will need to produce 70 to 100 per cent more food to feed a projected nine billion humans by 2050, the introduction to the report states:

Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true, but the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.

Linda Kinkel of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology is reported by Barth as saying:

We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth.

Microbes can help plants better tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations, saline soils and other challenges associated with climate change. For instance, Barth reports that microbiologists have learned to propagate a fungus that colonizes cassava plants and increases yields by up to 20 per cent. Its tiny tentacles extend far beyond the roots of the cassava to unlock phosphorus, nitrogen and sulphur in the soil and siphon it back to their host.

According to the article, a group of microbiologists have challenged themselves to bring about a 20 per cent increase in global food production and a 20 per cent decrease in fertilizer and pesticide use over the next 20 years – without all the snake oil-vending agribusiness interests in the middle.

Feeding the world? 

These microbiologists are correct. What is required is a shift away from what is increasingly regarded as discredited Green Revolution ideology. The chemical-intensive green revolution has helped the drive towards greater monocropping and has resulted in less diverse diets and less nutritious foods. Its long-term impact has led to soil degradation and mineral imbalances, which in turn have adversely affected human health.1

Adding weight to this argument, the authors of this paper from the International Journal of Environmental and Rural Development state (references in article):

Cropping systems promoted by the green revolution have increased the food production but also resulted in reduced food-crop diversity and decreased availability of micronutrients. Micronutrient malnutrition is causing increased rates of chronic diseases (cancer, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis) in many developing nations; more than 3 billion people are directly affected by the micronutrient deficiencies. Unbalanced use of mineral fertilizers and a decrease in the use of organic manure are the main causes of the nutrient deficiency in the regions where the cropping intensity is high.

(Note: we should adopt a cautious approach when attributing increases in food production to the green revolution technology/practices).

The authors imply that the link between micronutrient deficiency in soil and human nutrition is increasingly regarded as important:

Moreover, agricultural intensification requires an increased nutrient flow towards and greater uptake of nutrients by crops. Until now, micronutrient deficiency has mostly been addressed as a soil and, to a smaller extent, plant problem. Currently, it is being addressed as a human nutrition problem as well. Increasingly, soils and food systems are affected by micronutrients disorders, leading to reduced crop production and malnutrition and diseases in humans and plants. Conventionally, agriculture is taken as a food-production discipline and was considered a source of human nutrition; hence, in recent years many efforts have been made to improve the quality of food for the growing world population, particularly in the developing nations.

Referring to India, Stuart Newton’s states:

The answers to Indian agricultural productivity is not that of embracing the international, monopolistic, corporate-conglomerate promotion of chemically-dependent GM crops… India has to restore and nurture her depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further, with dubious chemical overload, which are endangering human and animal health. (p. 24).

Newton provides insight into the importance of soils and their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the green revolution. In turn, these depleted soils cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the green revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition.

And Newton has a valid point. India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion, much of which is attributed to the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research reports that soil is become deficient in nutrients and fertility.

The US has possibly 60 years of farming left due to soil degradation. The UK has possibly 100 harvests left in its soils.

We can carry on down the route of chemical-intensive (and soil-suffocating, nutritionally inferior GM crops), poisonous agriculture, where our health, soil and the wider environment from Punjab to the Gulf of Mexico continue to be sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit. Or we can shift to organic farming and agroecology and investment in indigenous models of agriculture as advocated by various high-level agencies and reports.

The increasingly globalised industrial food regime that transnational agribusiness promotes is not feeding the world and is also responsible for some of the planet’s most pressing political, social and environmental crises – not least hunger and poverty. This system, the capitalism driving it and the corporations that fuel and profit from it are illegitimate and destructive.

These companies quite naturally roll-out their endless spin that we can’t afford to live without them. But we can no longer afford to live with them. As the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver says:

The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important. If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies.

As we currently see in litigation cases involving Monsanto in the US, part of ‘dealing’ with these corporations (and hopefully eventually their board members and those who masquerade as public servants but who act on their behalf) should involve the law courts.

I would go further than Elver by saying that while dealing with these corporations is a step forward, we must also address the root cause: capitalism and its international relations of production and consumption. And we must also offer solutions – beginning with an agroecology that is underpinned by a strong ecosocialist political vision.

  1. See this report on India by botanist Stuart Newton, p. 9 onward.

The Stomach-Churning Violence of the Agrochemical Oligopoly

As humans, we have evolved with the natural environment over millennia. We have learned what to eat and what not to eat, what to grow and how to grow it and our diets have developed accordingly. We have hunted, gathered, planted and harvested. Our overall survival as a species has been based on gradual, emerging relationships with the seasons, insects, soil, animals, trees and seeds. And out of these relationships, we have seen the development of communities whose rituals and bonds have a deep connection with food production and the natural environment.

However, over the last couple generations, agriculture and food production has changed more than it had done over previous millennia. These changes have involved massive social upheaval as communities and traditions have been uprooted and have entailed modifying what we eat, how we grow our food and what we apply to it. All of this has been driven by geopolitical concerns and powerful commercial interests with their proprietary chemicals and patented seeds. The process of neoliberal globalisation is accelerating the process as farmers are encouraged to produce for global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness.

Certain crops are now genetically engineered, the range of crops we grow has become less diverse, synthetic biocides have been poured on crops and soil and our bodies have been subjected to a chemical bombardment. We have arrived at a point where we have lost touch with our deep-rooted microbiological and social connection with nature and have developed an arrogance that has placed ‘man’ above the environment and all other species. One of the consequences is that we have paid an enormous price in terms of the consequent social, environmental and health-related devastation.

Despite the promise and potential of science, it has too often in modern society become a tool of vested interests, an ideology wrapped in the vestiges of authority and the ‘superstition’ that its corporate-appointed priesthood should not be challenged nor questioned. Instead of liberating humankind, it has now too often become a tool of deception in the hands of agribusiness conglomerates which make up the oligopoly that controls what is an increasingly globalised system of modern food and agriculture.

These corporations have successfully instituted the notion that the mass application of biocides, monocropping and industrial agriculture are necessary and desirable. They are not. However, these companies have used their science and propaganda to project certainty in order to hide the fact that they have no real idea what their products and practices are doing to human health or the environment (and in cases when they do know, they do their best to cover it up or hide behind the notion of ‘commercial confidentiality‘).

Based on their limited, tainted studies and co-opted version of science, they say with certainty that, for example, genetically engineered food and glyphosate are ‘safe’. And when inconvenient truths do emerge, they will mobilise their massive lobbying resources to evade regulations, they will seek to hide the dangers of their products or they will set out to destroy scientists whose findings challenge their commercial bottom line.

Soil microbiologists are still trying to fully comprehend soil microbes and how they function as anintegrated network in relation to plants. The agrochemical sector has little idea of how their biocides have affected soils. It merely churns out public relations spin that their inputs are harmless for soil, plants and human health. Such claims are not based on proper, in-depth, long-term studies. They are based on a don’t look, don’t find approach or a manipulation of standards and procedures that ensure their products make it on to the commercial market and stay there.

And what are these biocides doing to us as humans? Numerous studies have linked the increase in pesticide use with spiralling rates of ill health. Kat Carrol of the National Health Federation is concerned about the impacts on human gut bacteria that play a big role in how organs function and our neurological health. The gut microbiome can contain up to six pounds of bacteria and is what Carroll calls ‘human soil’. She says that with their agrochemicals and food additives, powerful companies are attacking this ‘soil’ and with it the sanctity of the human body.

And her concerns seem valid. Many important neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking. Feed gut bacteria a cocktail of biocides and is it any surprise that many diseases are increasing?

For instance, findings published in the journal ‘Translational Psychiatry’ provide strong evidence that gut bacteria can have a direct physical impact on the brain. Alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome have been implicated in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, chronic pain, depression, and Parkinson’s Disease.

Environmental campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason has written extensively on the impacts of agrochemicals (especially glyphosate) on humans, not least during child and adolescent development. In her numerous documents and papers, she cites a plethora of data and studies that link the use of agrochemicals with various diseases and ailments. She has also noted the impact of these chemicals on the human gut microbiome.

The science writer Mo Costandi discusses the importance of gut bacteria and their balance. In adolescence the brain undergoes a protracted period of heightened neural plasticity, during which large numbers of synapses are eliminated in the prefrontal cortex and a wave of ‘myelination’ sweeps across this part of the brain. These processes refine the circuitry in the prefrontal cortex and increase its connectivity to other brain regions. Myelination is also critical for normal, everyday functioning of the brain. Myelin increases a nerve fiber’s conduction velocity by up to a hundred times, and so when it breaks down, the consequences can be devastating.

Other recent work shows that gut microbes control the maturation and function of microglia, the immune cells that eliminate unwanted synapses in the brain; age-related changes to gut microbe composition might regulate myelination and synaptic pruning in adolescence and could, therefore, contribute to cognitive development. Upset those changes, and, As Mason argues, there are going to be serious implications for children and adolescents. Mason places glyphosate at the core of the ailments and disorders currently affecting young people in Wales and the UK in general.

Yet we are still being subjected to an unregulated cocktail of agrochemicals which end up interacting with each other in the gut. Regulatory agencies and governments appear to work hand in glove with the agrochemical sector.

Carol Van Strum has released documents indicating collusion between the manufacturers of dangerous chemicals and regulatory bodies. Evaggelos Vallianatos has highlighted the massive fraud surrounding the regulation of biocides and the wide scale corruption at laboratories that were supposed to test these chemicals for safety. Many of these substances were not subjected to what was deemed proper testing in the first place yet they remain on the market. The late Shiv Chopra also highlighted how various dangerous products were allowed on the commercial market and into the food chain due to collusion between these companies and public officials.

Powerful transnational corporations are using humanity as their collective guinea pig. But those who question them, or their corporate science, are automatically labelled anti-science and accused of committing crimes against humanity because they are preventing their products from being commercialised ‘to help the poor or hungry’. Such attacks on critics by company mouthpieces who masquerade as public officials, independent scientists or independent journalists are mere spin. They are, moreover, based on the sheer hypocrisy that these companies (owned and controlled by elite interests) have humanity’s and the environment’s best interests at heart.

Many of these companies have historically profited from violence. Unfortunately, that character of persists. They directly profit on the back of militarism, whether as a result of the US-backed ‘regime change’ in Ukraine or the US invasion of Iraq. They also believe they can cajole (poison) nature by means of chemicals and bully governments and attack critics, while rolling out propaganda campaigns for public consumption.

Whether it involves neocolonialism and the destruction of indigenous practices and cultures under the guise of ‘development’, the impoverishment of farmers in India, the twisting and writing of national and international laws, the destruction of rural communities, the globalisation of bad food and illness, the deleterious impacts on health and soil, the hollowing out of public institutions and the range of human rights abuses we saw documented during The Monsanto Tribunal, what we are witnessing is structural violence in many forms.

Pesticides are in fact “a global human rights concern” and are in no way vital to ensuring food security. Ultimately, what we see is ignorance, arrogance and corruption masquerading as certainty and science.

… when we wound the planet grievously by excavating its treasures – the gold, mineral and oil, destroy its ability to breathe by converting forests into urban wastelands, poison its waters with toxic wastes and exterminate other living organisms – we are in fact doing all this to our own bodies… all other species are to be enslaved or driven to extinction if need be in the interests of human ‘progress’… we are part of the same web of life –where every difference we construct artificially between ‘them’ and ‘us’ adds only one more brick to the tombstone of humankind itself.

— ‘Micobes of the World Unite!’, Satya Sager

Reckless Gamble for Profit that Placed Indian Cotton Farmers in Corporate Noose

The dubious performance (failure) of genetically engineered Bt cotton, officially India’s only GM crop, should serve as a warning as the push within the country to adopt GM across a wide range of food crops continues. This article provides an outline of some key reports and papers that have appeared in the last few years on Bt cotton in India.

In a paper that appeared in December 2018 in the journal Current Science, P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan cited research findings to support the view that Bt insecticidal cotton has been a failure in India and has not provided livelihood security for mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers. This paper was not just important because of its content but also because M.S. Swaminathan is considered to be the father of the Green Revolution in India.

The two authors provided evidence that indicates Bt crops are unsustainable and have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, the reason for these GM crops in the first place.

The authors cite the views of Dr K.R. Kranthi, former Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur. Based on his research, he concluded in December 2016:

Bt-cotton plus higher fertilizers plus increased irrigation also received a protective cover from the seed treatment of neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidacloprid, without which majority of the Bt-cotton hybrids which were susceptible to sucking pests would have yielded far less. It can safely be said that yield increase in India would not have happened with Bt-cotton alone without enhanced fertilizer usage, without increased irrigation, without seed treatment chemicals, and the absence of drought-free decade.

In effect, levels of insecticide use are now back to the pre-Bt era as is productivity due to pest resistance and crop failures.

Following on from this, an April 2018 paper in the journal Pest Science Management indicates there has been progressive bollworm resistance to Bt cotton in India over a seven-year period. The authors conclude:

High PBW [pink bollworm] larval recovery on Bt‐II in conjunction with high LC50 values for Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab in major cotton‐growing districts of central and southern India provides evidence of field‐evolved resistance in PBW to Bt‐I and Bt‐II cotton.

This alongside other problems related to Bt cotton has had disastrous consequences for farmers. In a 2015 paper Professor Andrew Paul Gutierrez and his colleagues say:

Bt cotton may be economic in irrigated cotton, whereas costs of Bt seed and insecticide increase the risk of farmer bankruptcy in low-yield rainfed cotton. Inability to use saved seed and inadequate agronomic information trap cotton farmers on biotechnology and insecticide treadmills. Annual suicide rates in rainfed areas are inversely related to farm size and yield, and directly related to increases in Bt cotton adoption (i.e., costs).

In a new December 2018 paper, Gutierrez sends a warning to those considering rolling out GM food crops in India:

… recent calls by industry and its clients to extend implementation of the hybrid technology in aubergine (brinjal, eggplant) and mustard and likely other crops in India will only mirror the disastrous implementation of the failed hybrid Bt technology in Indian cotton and, will only serve to tighten the economic hybrid technology noose on still more subsistence farmers for the sake of profits.

He concludes that Bt cotton has placed many resource-poor farmers in a stranglehold. Bt cotton prevents seed saving and farmers must purchase costly seed, which leads to suboptimal planting densities. Stagnant/low yields have followed, insecticide use has grown and new pests resistant to insecticide/Bt toxins have emerged.

Giterriez says that leading Indian agronomists have proposed that adoption of pure-line high density short-season varieties of rainfed cotton which could more than double current yields and would avoid heavy infestations of pink bollworm, thus reducing insecticide use and pesticide disruption. This cotton is not a new technology and predates Bt cotton.

Given what Gutierrez says, it is quite timely that Kesevan and Swaminathan question regulators’ failure in India to carry out a socio-economic assessment of GMO impacts on resource-poor small and marginal farmers. They call for “able economists who are familiar with and will prioritize rural livelihoods and the interests of resource-poor small and marginal farmers rather than serve corporate interests and their profits.”

This mirrors what Gutierrez and his colleagues argued in 2015 that policy makers need holistic analysis before new technologies are implemented in agricultural development.

Naturally, corporations and many pro-GM scientists wish to avoid such things as much as possible. They try to convince policy makers that as long as the science on GM is sound (which it isn’t, despite what they proclaim), GM should be rolled out regardless. They regard regulators and regulations as a mere hindrance that is preventing GM from helping farmers. Deregulating GM is the order of the day. It’s a reckless approach. We need only look at Indian cotton farmers whose lives and livelihoods have been devastated due to the ill thought out roll-out of Bt technology.

Kesavan and Swaminathan criticise India’s GMO regulating bodies due to a lack of competency and endemic conflicts of interest and a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts. Many of these issues have been a common thread in five high-level official reports in India that have advised against the commercialisation of GM crops:

  • The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal [February 2010];
  • The ‘Sopory Committee Report’ [August 2012];
  • The ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee’ [PSC] Report on GM crops [August 2012];
  • The ‘Technical Expert Committee [TEC] Final Report’ [June-July 2013]; and
  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests [August 2017].

In her numerous submissions to India’s Supreme Court, prominent campaigner Aruna Rodrigues has been scathing. She recently told me that:

It is proven in copious evidence in the Supreme Court in the last 13 years that our regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them (as with herbicide-tolerant mustard and other public sector GMOs) and then regulate them. Truth is a massive casualty. This is not lightly stated.

She added that “failed hybrid Bt cotton in India” has put farmers on a pesticide treadmill as increasing levels of pest resistance becomes manifest.

Prior to this, in 2017, Rodrigues also said:

Never has an agri-tech been sold as a ‘magic bean’ to farmers, like Bt cotton, with opprobrium attaching to our regulators and ministries of governance who supported and continue to support this technology-castle built on sand, in the absence of evidence and when the hard data said the opposite.

In the rush to plant these ‘magic beans’, the area planted under Bt cotton has often displaced vital food crops at a time when India should surely have been looking to achieve food security and self-sufficiency.

Writing in India’s The Statesman newspaper in 2015, for example, the knife-edge existence of the people that rich corporations profit from was highlighted in the case of Babu Lal and his wife Mirdi Bai who had been traditionally cultivating wheat, maize and millet on their farmland in Rajasthan. Their crops provided food for several months a year to the 10-member family as well as fodder for farm and dairy animals, integral to the mixed farming system employed.

Company agents (unspecified – but Monsanto and its subsidiaries dominate the GM cotton industry in India) approached the family with the promise of a lump-sum payment to plant Bt cotton seeds in two of their fields. Lal purchased pesticides to help grow the seeds in the hope of receiving the payment, which never materialised because the company agent said the seeds produced had ‘failed’ in tests.

The family faced economic ruin, not least because the food harvest was much lower than normal as the best fields and most labour and resources had been devoted to Bt cotton. It resulted in Lal borrowing from private moneylenders at a high interest rate to meet the needs of food and fodder. On top of this, the company’s agent allegedly started harassing Lal for a payment of about 10,000 rupees in lieu of the fertilisers and pesticides provided to him. Several other tribal farmers in the area also fell into this trap.

The promise of a lump-sum cash payment can be very enticing to poor farmers, and when companies co-opt influential villagers to get new farmers to agree to plant Bt cotton, farmers are reluctant to decline the offer. When production is declared as having failed, solely at the company’s discretion it seems, a family becomes indebted.

According to that article, there was growing evidence that the trend to experiment with Bt cotton has disrupted food security in certain areas and had introduced various health hazards and had damaged soil due to the use of chemical inputs.

Before finishing, it is certainly worth mentioning Stone and Flachs’s 2017 paper on how certain interests within and beyond India are attempting to break traditional farming cotton cultivation practices with the aim of placing farmers on yet another corporate treadmill. This time, the aim appears to be to introduce herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton in India on the back of Bt cotton. The authors indicate just how hugely financially lucrative for corporations the relatively ‘undeveloped’ herbicide market is in India. These HT cotton seeds have now appeared illegally on the market.

Ultimately, as Gutierrez implies, the bottom line is cynical corporate interest and profit – not helping Indian farmers or some high-minded notion about feeding the world. Just ask Babu Lal and thousands like him!

Of course, given the track record of HT crops, it is another disaster in the making for Indian farmers and the environment. This warning has already been made clear by the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee, which regards HT crops as being wholly inappropriate for India.

With various GM crops waiting in the wings, India should continue to adopt a precautionary approach towards GMOs as advocated by Jairam Ramesh and not implement another reckless gamble with farmers’ livelihoods, the nation’s health and the environment. About nine years ago, based on a rigorous consultation with international scientific experts regarding the commercialisation of Bt brinjal, one of those experts, Prof Andow, concluded that without any management of resistance evolution, Bt brinjal would fail in 4-12 years. Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 founded on what he called “a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.”

Isn’t such failure what we now witness with Bt cotton?  It serves as a timely warning for implementing a widespread GMO food crop regime in India. The writing is on the wall.

The GMO Issue Reaches Boiling Point in India

In a recent article published on the India-based News18 site (CNN), prominent US biologist Nina Federoff was reported as saying it is time for India to grant farmers access to genetically modified (GM) crops. In an interview with the site, she says there is no evidence that GM crops are dangerous when consumed either by people in food or by animals in feed. Federoff says that the commercial release of various GM crops in India has been halted by the Indian government due to opposition from environmental activists.

She adds that we are rapidly moving out of the climate regime in which our primary crops were domesticated, arguing that that they do increasingly worse and will yield less as temperature extremes become common and pest and pathogen populations change. She says GM will become more or less essential in an era of climate change.

In recent weeks, aside from Federoff’s intervention, GM has been a hot topic in India. In late November, a paper appeared in the journal Current Science which argues that India doesn’t need GM crops and that the track record of GM agriculture is highly questionable. The paper is notable not just because of what it says but because of who is saying it: distinguished scientist P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan, renowned agricultural scientist and geneticist and widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution in India.

I recently spoke with prominent campaigner Aruna Rodrigues about developments surrounding the GM issue in India, particularly the views of Federoff. Rodrigues is lead petitioner in a case before India’s Supreme Court that is seeking a moratorium on GM crops and selective bans.

Colin Todhunter: What do you make of Nina Federoff’s recent comments advocating for GM in India?

Aruna Rodrigues: Nina Federoff is a long-time supporter of GMOs. The last time she offered advice to India (in her role as scientific advisor to Hilary Clinton) was when Bt brinjal (eggplant) was being pushed for commercialisation. She advised that Bt brinjal would be good for India!

CT: She is a high-profile scientist. Did government officials take her advice?

AR: Her advice was straightforwardly ignored by the then Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. He instituted a unique four-month scientific enquiry and public hearings. His decision to reject the commercialisation of Bt brinjal was supported by advice he received from several renowned international scientists. Their collective appraisals demonstrated serious environmental and biosafety concerns, which included issues regarding the toxity of Bt proteins resulting from their mode of action on the human gut system.

CT: What were some of the other reasons they put forward for rejecting Bt brinjal?

AR: Genetic contamination was the outstanding concern. India is a centre of origin of brinjal with the greatest genetic diversity. Contamination was a certainty. In his summing-up of the unsustainability of Bt brinjal and of its implications if introduced, one of the experts involved, Professor Andow, said it posed several unique challenges because the likelihood of resistance evolving quickly is high. He added that without any management of resistance evolution, Bt brinjal is projected to fail in 4-12 years. Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 founded on what he called “a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.” 

CT: So, it is clear that, despite Federoff’s claims, there are valid reasons why GM has not been commercialised in India, aside from cotton, that is. Can you say something about the health safety aspects of GM crops? Federoff says GM crops are safe for human and animal consumption. Is she correct?

AR: She is wrong. There are numerous studies that indicate the possibility of harm. All the major scientific bodies of the world, including the US National Academies, the World Health Organisation and the American Medical Association, agree that the potential for adverse effect is real and that these crops, both existing, but especially any new ones, need to be tested more thoroughly than they have been in the past (for example, for long-term toxicity for cancer). Meanwhile, agroecology that minimises the use of pesticides and uses no GMO has a proven safety and nutritional record and out-yields GMOs at a fraction of the cost.

CT: Federoff makes a blanket claim about safety. But each genetic modification poses unique risks and as a technology, according to molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou, GM is fundamentally scientifically flawed. So, it is impossible to say up front that they are all safe – or, in fact, that the ones on the market have been rigorously tested because they have not. But a food crop isn’t just eaten. There are effects on the environment too.

AR: Federoff fails to address all the ways GM crops can be unsafe. Existing GM crops do not have a history of safe use in the environment. Even a cursory examination of the US cropping system is enough to prove that the legacy of pesticidal GM crops has fuelled the epidemics of herbicide- resistant weeds and emerging insecticide resistant pests. This proves that you cannot rescue scientifically flawed ways to farm by introducing GM technologies that only exacerbate the most damaging farming practices.

CT: Federoff claims that we need GM if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change and produce sufficient food.

AR: This is rubbish. Agroecology has demonstrated far more effectiveness already than even the best hypothetical hopes of GM crops. But more to the point: it is the machine we call industrial agriculture that is a major cause of climate change. Giving that machine more fuel in the form of GM crops is not a solution but a dangerous distraction from what is needed to halt climate change.

CT: The paper by Kesavan and Swaminathan coincided with a mass march by farmers in Delhi at the end of November. Farmers in India have a list of grievances, with the effects of Bt cotton being a prominent one. Surely, given the devastation caused by Bt cotton (which these two authors say “has failed in India”), to introduce more GM crops at this time would cause further hardship for farmers. The paper by these two eminent scientists could be seen as a timely intervention.

AR: It is certainly courageous of Nina Federoff, given the failure of Bt cotton and her earlier unfortunate advice, to indulge in yet another round of misconceived guidance to the Indian government. I must also express disquiet and surprise that a bold charge has been levelled against that paper by Prof Vijay Raghavan (Scientific Advisor to the PM), which he says is “deeply flawed”. It is expected that any such statement is buttressed with sound data and science, especially when addressing scientists of the stature of Swaminathan and Kesavan. Therefore, without substantiation, a specific response to Raghavan is not possible.

However, it is relevant to the context to state that Bt cotton has failed and within a time-scale of less than 12 years. We need only look at the work of Dr. K Kranthi, ex Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, and Prof Gutierrez et al in the paper ‘Deconstructing Indian cotton: weather, yields, and suicides’.

CT: It was predicted that Bt brinjal would fail within 4-12 years. It seems that’s precisely what has happened to Bt cotton in India. So, the last thing India needs is another ill thought out GM experiment pushed through without proper independent assessments that consider health and environmental outcomes or the effects on farmers’ livelihoods and rural communities. But isn’t this what is on the horizon? You have for many years been highlighting flawed regulatory mechanisms in India where GM is concerned. I have been following the current case concerning herbicide-tolerant (HT) GM mustard. It is disturbing to say the least to read about deep-rooted conflicts of interest across the entire regulatory framework and what you describe as ‘regulatory delinquency’ as well as scientific malfeasance on such a massive scale.

AR: Collective regulatory misadventures with Bt cotton must indict the regulators for ‘connected’ farmer suicides in rain-fed Bt cotton cultivation. They must take responsibility. Despite this history of regulatory adventurism with hybrid Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, this has not deterred our regulators as they attempt to introduce HT GM mustard. It is sobering that documents in the public domain reveal clear cover-up, invalid and even fraudulent field trials, the results of which were nevertheless accepted by the regulators. Perhaps, the greatest regulatory mystery surrounds the fact that the regulators themselves admit that there is no claim made by the government that HT (GMO) hybrid mustard out-performs non-GMO hybrids. Therefore, there is no ‘need’ for this GM Mustard. ‘Need’ must be established as a prior regulatory step in risk assessment.

CT: Nina Federoff says that what is preventing the widespread adoption of GM in India is political disagreement and activists. This is a well-worn tactic: try to cast valid criticisms of GM as ‘unscientific’ and politically motivated. But as you have outlined, there are valid reasons why the introduction of GM food crops is being prevented in India.

AR: It is proven in copious evidence in the Supreme Court in the last 13 years that our regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them (as with HT mustard and other public sector GMOs) and then regulate them. Truth is a massive casualty. This is not lightly stated. It would also be prudent to recognise that unsustainable HT and Bt crops (Bt maize in industrial systems in the West) and failed hybrid Bt cotton in India serve to put farmers on a pesticide treadmill as increasing levels of pest resistance becomes manifest. In fact, a new paper in the journal Pest Management Science based on research over a seven-year period shows progressive field-evolved resistance of pink bollworm to Bt cotton in India.

We also have a new paper by Prof Andrew Paul Gutierrez in which he concludes that extending implementation of the hybrid GM technology to other crops in India will only mirror the disastrous implementation of Bt cotton in the country, thereby tightening the economic noose on still more subsistence farmers for the sake of profits.

CT: Federoff and others are fond of making claims about what GM has or will achieve. GM crops have been on the market for over two decades. Do you see any validity in these types of claims?

AR: Most GMOs on the market now provide technological fixes to kill weeds or pests. They have no trait for yield. Together, they account for nearly 98% of all GMOs planted worldwide. 25 years of official US data on HT crops show they have led to intractable problems of super weeds, significant increases in herbicide use because of resistant weeds, higher farmer costs and no yield advantage. Claims made for GMOs with various traits, for example, drought or saline resistant or providing yield or nutritional enhancement, are futuristic. The few that have been tested for drought resistance and some other traits are according to prominent scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman out-performed by traditional breeding techniques hands-down.

Agrarian Crisis: Father of Green Revolution in India Rejects GM Crops as Farmers Demand Justice in Delhi

Genetically modified (GM) cotton in India is a failure. India should reject GM mustard. And like the Green Revolution, GM agriculture poses risks and is unsustainable. Regulatory bodies are dogged by incompetency and conflicts of interest. GM crops should therefore be banned.

You may have heard much of this before. But what is different this time is that the claims come from distinguished scientist P.C. Kesaven and his colleague M.S. Swaminathan, renowned agricultural scientist and geneticist and widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution in India.

Consider what campaigner and farmer Bhaskar Save wrote in his now famous open letter in 2006:

You, M.S. Swaminathan, are considered the ‘father’ of India’s so-called ‘Green Revolution’ that flung open the floodgates of toxic ‘agro’ chemicals, ravaging the lands and lives of many millions of Indian farmers over the past 50 years. More than any other individual in our long history, it is you I hold responsible for the tragic condition of our soils and our debt-burdened farmers, driven to suicide in increasing numbers every year.

Back in 2009, Swaminathan was saying that no scientific evidence had emerged to justify concerns about GM crops, often regarded as stage two of the Green Revolution. In light of mounting evidence, however, he now condemns GM crops as unsustainable and says they should be banned in India.

In a new peer-reviewed paper in the journal Current Science, Kesaven and Swaminathan state that Bt insecticidal cotton has been a failure in India and has not provided livelihood security for mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers. These findings agree with those of others, many of whom the authors cite, including Dr K.R. Kranthi, former Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur and Professor Andrew Paul Gutierrez and his colleagues.

The two authors conclude that both Bt crops and herbicide-tolerant crops are unsustainable and have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, the reason for these GM crops in the first place. Attention is also drawn to evidence that indicates Bt toxins are toxic to all organisms.

Kesaven and Swaminathan note that glyphosate-based herbicides, used on most GM crops, and their active ingredient glyphosate are genotoxic, cause birth defects and are carcinogenic. They also note that GM crop yields are no better than that of non-GM crops and that India already has varieties of mustard that out-yield the GM version which is now being pushed for.

The authors criticise India’s GMO regulating bodies due to a lack of competency and endemic conflicts of interest and a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts. They also question regulators’ failure to carry out a socio-economic assessment of GMO impacts on resource-poor small and marginal farmers.

Indeed, they call for “able economists who are familiar with and will prioritize rural livelihoods, and the interests of resource-poor small and marginal farmers rather than serve corporate interests and their profits.”

In the paper, it is argued that genetic engineering technology is supplementary and must be need based. In more than 99% of cases, the authors argue that time-honoured conventional breeding is sufficient. In other words, GM is not needed.

Turning to the Green Revolution, the authors say it has not been sustainable largely because of adverse environmental and social impacts. Some have argued that a more ‘systems-based’ approach to agriculture would mark a move away from the simplistic output-yield paradigm that dominates much thinking and would properly address concerns about local food security and sovereignty as well as on-farm and off-farm social and ecological issues associated with the Green Revolution.

In fact, Kesaven and Swaminathan note that a sustainable ‘Evergreen Revolution’ based on a ‘systems approach’ and ‘ecoagriculture’ would guarantee equitable food security by ensuring access of rural communities to food.

There is a severe agrarian crisis in India and the publication of their paper (25 November) was very timely. It came just three days before tens of thousands of farmers from all over India gathered in Delhi to march to parliament to present their grievances and demands for justice to the Indian government.

According to the Charter of Indian Farmers, released to coincide with the farmers’ march in Delhi:

Farmers are not just a residue from our past; farmers, agriculture and village India are integral to the future of India and the world.

Successive administrations in India have, however, tended to view Indian farmers as a hindrance to the needs of foreign agricapital and have sought to run down smallholder-based agriculture – the backbone of Indian farming – to facilitate the interests of global agribusiness under the guise of ‘modernising’ the sector, thereby ridding it of its ‘residue’ farmers.

To push this along, we now have a combination of World Bank directives and policies; inappropriate commodity cropping; neoliberal trade and a subsequent influx of (subsidised) agricultural imports; and deregulation, privatisation and a withdrawal of government support within the farm sector, which are all making agriculture economically unviable for many farmers.

And that’s the point, to drive them out of agriculture towards the cities, to change the land laws, to usher in contract farming and to displace the existing system of smallholder cultivation and village-based food production with one suited to the needs of large-scale industrial agriculture and the interests of global seed, pesticide, food processing and retail corporations like Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and Walmart. The aim is to lay the groundwork to fully incorporate India into a fundamentally flawed and wholly exploitative global capitalist food regime.

And integral to all of this is the ushering in of GM crops. But as Kesaven and Swaminathan imply, GM agriculture would only result in further hardship for farmers and more difficulties.

Of course, these two authors are not the first to have questioned the efficacy of GM crops or to have shown the science or underlying premises of GM technology to be flawed. Researchers whose views or findings have been unpalatable to the GMO industry in the past have been subjected to vicious smear campaigns.

Despite the distinguished nature of the two scientists (or more likely because they are so distinguished and influential) who have written this current paper, we may well witness similar attacks in the coming days and weeks by those who have a track record of cynically raising or lowering the bar of ‘credibility’ by employing ad hominem and misrepresentation to suit their pro-GMO agenda.

And that’s because so much is at stake. India presents a massive multi-billion-dollar market for the GMO industry which already has a range of GM crops from mustard and chickpea to wheat, maize and rice in the pipeline for Indian agriculture. The last thing the industry wants is eminent figures speaking out in this way.

And have no doubt, GM crops – and their associated chemical inputs – are huge money spinners. For example, in a 2017 article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Glenn Stone and Andrew Flachs note that Indian farmers plant the world’s largest area to cotton and buy over USD 2.5 billion worth of insecticides yearly but spend only USD 350 million on herbicides. The potential for herbicide market growth is enormous and industry looks for sales to reach USD 800 million by 2019. Moreover, herbicide-tolerant GM traits are the biotechnology industry’s biggest money maker by far, with 86 percent of the world’s GM acres in 2015 containing plants resistant to glyphosate or glufosinate. However, the only GM crop now sold in India is Bt cotton.

If we move beyond the cotton sector, the value capture potential for the GMO biotech sector is enormous. Clearly, there is much at stake for the industry.

The negative impacts of the Green Revolution can be reversed. But if commercial interests succeed in changing the genetic core of the world’s food supply, regardless of warnings about current failures of this technology and its unintended consequences at scientific, social and ecological levels, there may be no going back. Arrogance and ignorance passed off as ‘scientific’ certainty is not the way forward. That was a salient point when Bhaskar Save outlined his concerns about the impacts of the Green Revolution to Swaminathan back in 2006.

Scientists can and do change their views when presented with sufficient evidence about the flaws and negative impacts of technologies. This is how science and debate move forward, something which seems lost on the industry-backed scientists and ideologues who tout for GM.

It also seems lost on politicians who seem more intent on doing the bidding of foreign agricapital rather than listening to Indian farmers and following a more appropriate agroecologically-based route for rural development.

Approaching Development: GMO Propaganda and Neoliberalism vs Localisation and Agroecology

What people communicate is a matter of choice. But what can be more revealing are the issues they choose to avoid. There are certain prominent pro-GMO activists who describe themselves as ‘science communicators’. They hit out at those who question their views or who have valid criticisms of GM technology and then play the role of persecuted victim, believing that, as the self-appointed arbiters of righteousness, they are beyond reproach, although given their duplicity nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead of being open to questioning, they attempt to close down debate to push a flawed technology they have a vested (financial-career) interest in, while all the time appealing to their self-perceived authority, usually based on holding a PhD in molecular biology or a related discipline.

They relentlessly promote GM and industrial agriculture and unjustifiably cast critics as zealots who are in cahoots with Greenpeace or some other group they have a built-in dislike of. And they cynically raise or lower the bar of ‘credibility’ by ad hominem and misrepresentation so that studies, writers and scientists who agree with them are commended while those who don’t become subjected to smear campaigns.

Often with ties to neoliberal think tanks, pro-GMO lobbyists call for more deregulation and criticise elected governments or regulatory bodies which try to protect the public interest, especially where genetic engineering and associated chemical inputs (for instance, glyphosate) are concerned. The same people push the bogus idea that only GM agriculture can feed the world, while seeking to discredit and marginalise alternative models like agroecology and ignoring the structural violence and injustices brought about by global agricapital interests (from whom they receive funding) which help determine Codex, World Bank, IMF and WTO policies. By remaining silent or demonstrating wilful ignorance about the dynamics and injustices of the political economy of food and agriculture, they tacitly approve of its consequences.

They also frame the GMO debate as pro-science/pro-GMO vs anti-science/anti-GMO: an industry-promoted false dichotomy that has sought to close down any wider discussion that may lead the focus to fall on transnational agribusiness interests and their role in determining an exploitative global food regime and how GM fits in with this.

This is how ideologues act; not how open discourse and science is carried out or ‘communicated’.

Broadening the debate

A participant in any meaningful discussion about GM would soon appreciate that ethical, political, environmental and sociological considerations should determine the efficacy and relevance of this technology in conjunction with scientific considerations. Unfortunately, pro-GMO advocates want to depoliticise food and agriculture and focus on the ‘science’ of GM, yield-output reductionist notions of ‘productivity’ and little else, defining the ‘problem’ of food and agriculture solely as a narrow technocratic issue.

But to understand the global food regime, we must move beyond technology. Food and agriculture have become wedded to structures of power that have created food surplus and food deficit areas and which have restructured indigenous agriculture across the world and tied it to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for a manipulated and volatile international market and indebtedness to global financial institutions.

More specifically, there are the deleterious impacts of the nexus between sovereign debt repayment and the ‘structural adjustment’ of regional agriculture; spiralling input costs for farmers who become dependent on proprietary seeds and technologies; ecocide, genocide and the destruction of food self-sufficiency; the fuelling of barbaric, industrial-scale death via animal-based (meat) agriculture and the colonisation of land to facilitate it; US/EU subsidies which mean farmers in developing countries cannot achieve prices to cover their costs of production; and degraded soils, polluted oceans and rising rates of illness, etc.

If any one country epitomises much of what is wrong with the global food regime, it is Argentina, where in an October 26th 2018 article (‘Soy destruction in Argentina leads straight to our dinner plates’) The Guardian newspaper’s analysis of (GM) soy cultivation highlighted many of the issues set out above.

Whether the impacts of the global food regime result from World Bank/IMF directives and geopolitical lending strategies, neoliberal plunder ‘ease-of-doing-business’ ideology,  undemocratic corporate-written trade deals or WTO rules, we are seeing the negative impacts on indigenous systems of food and agriculture across the world, not least in India, where a million farmers intend to march to Delhi and the national parliament between 28 and 30 November.

India’s manufactured ongoing agrarian crisis is adversely affecting the bulk of the country’s 840 million rural dwellers. And all for what? To run down and displace the existing system of peasant-farmer-based production with a discredited, ecologically unsustainable (GMO) model run along neoliberal ‘free’ market lines by global agribusiness, a model which is only profitable because it passes on its massive health, environmental and social costs to the public.

Neoliberal dogma

Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute in London says of India’s agrarian crisis that Indian farmers should be left to go bust because they are uncompetitive and relatively unproductive. But even where farmers in India produce world record yields, they are still heavily indebted. So why can’t they compete?

Putting the huge external costs of the model of industrial agriculture which Worstall compares Indian agriculture to aside (which he conveniently ignores), the issue is clear: a heavily subsidised US/EU agriculture depresses prices for Indian farmers both at home and on the international market.

Policy analyst Devinder Sharma says that subsidies provided to US wheat and rice farmers are more than the market worth of these two crops. He also notes that, per day, each cow in Europe receives a subsidy worth more than an Indian farmer’s daily income. He suggests: let the US and EU do away with subsidies, relieving taxpayers of such a costly burden and let Indian farmers compete properly; then see that it is the Indian farmer who produces the cheapest food; and then imagine US consumers benefitting from this cheap food.

That is the ‘free’ market which could exist. A fair one not distorted by subsidies. Not the type of market that currently exists and which is ‘free’ only within the ideological parameters set by Worstall and others who promote it.

Proponents of the ‘free’ market and GMOs are big on ‘choice’: letting ‘the market’, the consumer or the farmer decide, without anyone imposing their agenda. This is little more than rhetoric which fails to stand up to scrutiny, given the strategically embedded influence of agricapital over policy makers. If anything encapsulates the nonsense and hypocrisy surrounding this notion of choice are reports about Monsanto and its cynical manipulation of agriculture in Punjab.

According to an article in Delhi’s Sunday Guardian in late 2017 (‘Monsanto’s profits, not Diwali, creating smoke in Delhi’), India’s surplus food grain supply is an uncomfortable fact for the pro-GMO lobby. The piece notes that in 2012 the then Punjab Chief Minister asked Monsanto to set up a research centre for creating maize and, due to fears over water shortages, announced plans to reduce the area under rice cultivation to around 45% to grow maize. Fear-mongering about rice cultivation was reaching fever pitch, stoked by an advertisement campaign from a group of scientists who appealed ‘Reduce the area under rice, save water, save Punjab’.

Conveniently, Monsanto (now Bayer) offers its GM maize as a solution that will increase the level of subsoil water, although that corporation’s inputs and Green Revolution practices led to problems in Punjab and elsewhere in the first place. For instance, fertilisers and pesticides have accumulated in the ground water (causing massive health issues) and their use has also led to poor water retention in soil, leading farmers to pump excessive amounts of ground water.

Punjab’s plan to reduce the area under rice cultivation (a staple food for large sections of the Indian population) with what will most likely be GM animal feed is part of a cynical tactic. Of course, any resulting gap between supply of and demand for food in India will be conveniently filled via global agribusiness and an influx of GMO produce from abroad or by growing it in India (have no doubt, the push is on for that too).

It is reminiscent of unscrupulous attempts to undermine India’s edible oils sector in the late 1990s and current attempts to break traditional cotton cultivation pathways in India to help usher in herbicide-tolerant seeds (which have now ‘miraculously’ appeared on the market – illegally). The ability of hugely powerful corporations to flex their financial muscle and exert their considerable political clout to manufacture ‘choice’ and manipulate policies is the reality of neoliberal capitalism.

Those pro-GMO ‘science communicators’ are silent on such matters and, as with their fellow neoliberal ideologues, have nothing of any substance to say on these types of ‘market-distorting’ power relations, which make a mockery of their ‘free’ choice and ‘free’ market creed.

Indeed, a recent report in The Guardian indicates that neoliberal ‘austerity’ in the UK has had little to do with economics, having failed in its objective of reducing the national debt, and much to do with social engineering. But this is the ideological basis of modern neoliberal capitalism: dogma masquerading as economics to help justify the engineering of the world in the image of undemocratic, unaccountable corporations.

Agroecology and food sovereignty

The industrial agriculture that Worstall compares Indian farmers’ productivity with is outperformed by smallholder-based agriculture in terms of, for example, diversity of food output, nutrition per acre and efficient water use. Imagine what could be achieved on a level playing field whereby smallholder farming receives the type of funding and political commitment currently given to industrial agriculture.

In fact, we do not have to imagine; in places where agroecology has been scaled up, we are beginning to see the benefits. The principles of agroecology include self-reliance, localisation and food sovereignty. This type of agriculture does not rely on top-down corporate ‘science’, corporate owned or controlled seeds or proprietary inputs. It is potentially more climate resilient, labour intensive (job creating), more profitable for farmers and can contribute to soil quality and nutrient-enhanced/diverse diets. Moreover, it could help reinvigorate rural India and its villages.

When the British controlled India, they set about breaking the self-reliance of the Indian village. In a 2009 article by Bhavdeep Kang (‘Can the Indian farmer withstand predatory international giants?’), it is stated:

The British Raj initiated the destruction of the village communities, famously described by Lord Metcalfe as ‘little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves.’ India’s ability to endure, he wrote, derived from these village communities: ‘They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down but the village community remains the same. It is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.

Metcalfe said this in 1830. However, since independence from the British, India’s rulers have further established ‘village India’s’ dependency on central government. And now a potential death knell for rural India is underway as India’s ruling elite, exhibiting a severe bout of ‘Stockholm syndrome’, sells out the nation to not only Western agribusiness but also to US finance and intelligence interests.

Whether it concerns India or elsewhere, to see the advantages of agroecology, there are those economists, political leaders and ‘science communicators’ who must remove the self-imposed blinkers. This would involve shifting their priorities away from promoting career-building technologies and facilitating neoliberal capitalism towards working for justice, equality, peace and genuine grass-root food sovereignty.

To do that, though, such figures would first have to begin to bite the hand that feeds them.

India’s Farmers Plan Mass March to the Nation’s Parliament as Agrarian Crisis Reaches “Civilization Proportions”

With over 800 million people, rural India is arguably the most interesting and complex place on the planet. And yet it is also one of the most neglected in terms of both investment and media coverage. Veteran journalist and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India P. Sainath argues that the majority of Indians do not count to the nation’s media, which renders up to 75 percent of the population ‘extinct’.

According to the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi, the five-year average of agriculture reporting in an Indian national daily newspaper equals 0.61 percent of news coverage, while village-level stories account for 0.17 percent. For much of the media, whether print or TV, celebrity, IT, movements on the stock exchange and the daily concerns of elite and urban middle class dwellers are what count.

Unlike the corporate media, the digital journalism platform the People’s Archive of Rural India has not only documented the complexity and beauty of rural India but also its hardships and the all too often heartbreaking personal stories that describe the impacts of government policies which have devastated lives, livelihoods and communities.

Rural India is plagued by farmer suicides, child malnourishment, growing unemployment, increased informalisation, indebtedness and an overall collapse of agriculture. Those involved in farming and related activities are being driven to migrate to cities to become cycle rickshaw drivers, domestic servants, daily wage labourers and suchlike.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GM) cash crops and economic liberalisation. According to this report,  the number of cultivators in India declined from 166 million to 146 million between 2004 and 2011. Some 6,700 left farming each day. Between 2015 and 2022 the number of cultivators is likely to decrease to around 127 million.

The core problems affecting agriculture centre upon the running down of the sector for decades, the impact of deregulated markets and profiteering corporations (Monsanto and its Bt cotton seeds being just one case in point), increasing debt and lack of proper credit facilities, the withdrawal of government support, spiralling input costs and the effects of cheap, subsidised imports which depress farmers’ incomes.

The root causes of India’s agrarian crisis have been well documented, not least by policy analyst Devinder Sharma, who says:

“India is on fast track to bring agriculture under corporate control. Amending the existing laws on land acquisition, water resources, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and food processing, the government is in an overdrive to usher in contract farming and encourage organized retail. This is exactly as per the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the international financial institutes.”

From the geopolitical lending strategies of institutions like the World Bank to the opening up of food and agriculture to foreign corporations via WTO rules and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, there is an ongoing strategy to displace the existing system of smallholder cultivation and village-based food production with one suited to the interests of global seed, pesticide, food processing and retail corporations like Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and Walmart.

In outlining the nature of the agrarian crisis, P. Sainath encapsulates the drive towards corporate farming in five words: “Predatory commercialization of the countryside.” He uses another five words for the outcome (referring to the mass migration from rural India): “The biggest displacement in history.”

By deliberately making agriculture economically non-viable for smallholder farmers (who form the backbone of food production in the country) the aim is to lay the groundwork to fully incorporate India into a fundamentally flawed and wholly exploitative global food regime that is undermining the country’s food security and food sovereignty as well as its health, soils, water supply and rural communities.

Rural India is in crisis. And with hundreds of millions destined to be forced to migrate to cities if current policies persist, the suffering will continue because the urban centres are not generating anything near the required levels of employment to soak up those whose livelihoods are being eradicated in the countryside. Jobless ‘growth’ haunts India, which is not helped by a global trend towards increasing automation and the impacts of artificial intelligence.

There are growing calls for liberating farmers from debt and guaranteeing prices/levels of profit above the costs of production. And it is not as though these actions are not possible. It is a question of priorities: the total farm debt is equal to the loans provided to just five large corporations in India.

Where have those loans gone? A good case has been put forward for arguing that the 2016 ‘demonetisation’ policy was in effect a bail-out for the banks and the corporates, which farmers and other ordinary folk paid the price for. It was a symptom of a country whose GDP growth has been based on a debt-inflated economy (the backbone of neoliberalism across the world). While farmers commit suicide and are heavily indebted, a handful of billionaires get access to cheap money with no pressure to pay it back and with little or no ‘added value’ for society as a whole.

The trigger point of the Mandasur farmer’s uprising in Central India in 2016, in which six farmers were shot dead was the demonetisation action. It meant that farmers faced a severe crash-crunch on top of all the other misery they faced. This was the last straw. That incident epitomised the fact that agriculture has been starved of investment while corporations have secured handouts. Farmers have been sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal dogma: food has been kept cheap, thereby boosting the disposable income and consumer spending of the urban middle classes, helping to provide the illusion of GDP ‘growth’ (corporate profit).

But both urban and rural Indians are increasingly coming together to help place farmers’ demands on the national political (and media) agenda. For instance, a volunteer group called Nation for Farmers, comprising people from all walks of life, is in the process of helping to mobilise citizens in support of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee’s (AIKSCC) march to parliament that is planned for the end of November.

The AIKSCC is an umbrella group of over 200 farmers’ organisations, which is calling for a march to Delhi by farmers, agricultural labourers and other distressed rural Indians from all over the country. The aim is to mobilise up to one million people. A similar march took place early in 2018 from Nashik to Mumbai. This time, however, the aim is to place the issues on the agenda of the nation’s parliament.

On behalf of the AIKSCC, two bills – The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018) and The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018) – have already been placed before parliament and are awaiting discussion. While the AIKSCC has focused on ensuring proper minimum support prices for farmers, there is now also the demand for a special 21-day joint session of parliament where the AIKSCC’s concerns can be heard.

To this end, the organisers of the march have written to the President of India Ram Nath Kovind. In their letter, they say that the agrarian crisis has now reached “civilizational proportions”.

They argue:

… successive governments have witnessed the destruction of the countryside and the unchecked destitution of farmers and yet little has been done to alleviate their misery. They have witnessed the deepening misery of the dispossessed, including the death by suicide of well over 300,000 farmers these past 20 years.

The letter makes clear to the president that the AIKSCC is fighting to save the livelihoods of tens of millions of rural Indians and has organised a ‘Kisan Mukti March’ to Delhi for three days from 28 to 30 November. The president is urged to pay heed to the demand for a special, 21-day joint session of parliament, dedicated entirely to discussing the agrarian crisis and related issues.

The letter states:

We request your intervention as the President of the Republic of India and the Constitutional head to ensure that a crisis of this scale that renders 70 percent of Indian citizens vulnerable is addressed by a joint session of the Parliament of this country… Surely the precariousness of the lives of millions of citizens merits the undivided attention of Parliament and thereby its commitment to find enduring solutions.

A special parliamentary session is called for because – after numerous protests, petitions, pleadings by distressed farmers, labourers, forest communities, fisher folk and the foot soldiers of India’s literacy and health care programmes – have failed to garner the attention of successive governments to the agrarian crisis.

The aim is that any special session on the crisis will be rooted in the testimonies of its victims, who need to be heard from both outside and inside the parliament. The session would enable them to address their fellow citizens and representatives from the floor of the parliament and explain the impact of devastating farming policies, the lack of rural credit and fair prices, and the unbearable violence of privatising water, healthcare and education.

We can only hope that the media and its well-paid journalists might be galvanised into action too!

Visit the website where you can read the letter to the president in full, sign the petition, publicise the issues and get involved. 

India’s Farmers Plan Mass March to the Nation’s Parliament as Agrarian Crisis Reaches “Civilization Proportions”

With over 800 million people, rural India is arguably the most interesting and complex place on the planet. And yet it is also one of the most neglected in terms of both investment and media coverage. Veteran journalist and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India P. Sainath argues that the majority of Indians do not count to the nation’s media, which renders up to 75 percent of the population ‘extinct’.

According to the Centre for Media Studies in Delhi, the five-year average of agriculture reporting in an Indian national daily newspaper equals 0.61 percent of news coverage, while village-level stories account for 0.17 percent. For much of the media, whether print or TV, celebrity, IT, movements on the stock exchange and the daily concerns of elite and urban middle class dwellers are what count.

Unlike the corporate media, the digital journalism platform the People’s Archive of Rural India has not only documented the complexity and beauty of rural India but also its hardships and the all too often heartbreaking personal stories that describe the impacts of government policies which have devastated lives, livelihoods and communities.

Rural India is plagued by farmer suicides, child malnourishment, growing unemployment, increased informalisation, indebtedness and an overall collapse of agriculture. Those involved in farming and related activities are being driven to migrate to cities to become cycle rickshaw drivers, domestic servants, daily wage labourers and suchlike.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GM) cash crops and economic liberalisation. According to this report,  the number of cultivators in India declined from 166 million to 146 million between 2004 and 2011. Some 6,700 left farming each day. Between 2015 and 2022 the number of cultivators is likely to decrease to around 127 million.

The core problems affecting agriculture centre upon the running down of the sector for decades, the impact of deregulated markets and profiteering corporations (Monsanto and its Bt cotton seeds being just one case in point), increasing debt and lack of proper credit facilities, the withdrawal of government support, spiralling input costs and the effects of cheap, subsidised imports which depress farmers’ incomes.

The root causes of India’s agrarian crisis have been well documented, not least by policy analyst Devinder Sharma, who says:

“India is on fast track to bring agriculture under corporate control. Amending the existing laws on land acquisition, water resources, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and food processing, the government is in an overdrive to usher in contract farming and encourage organized retail. This is exactly as per the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the international financial institutes.”

From the geopolitical lending strategies of institutions like the World Bank to the opening up of food and agriculture to foreign corporations via WTO rules and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, there is an ongoing strategy to displace the existing system of smallholder cultivation and village-based food production with one suited to the interests of global seed, pesticide, food processing and retail corporations like Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and Walmart.

In outlining the nature of the agrarian crisis, P. Sainath encapsulates the drive towards corporate farming in five words: “Predatory commercialization of the countryside.” He uses another five words for the outcome (referring to the mass migration from rural India): “The biggest displacement in history.”

By deliberately making agriculture economically non-viable for smallholder farmers (who form the backbone of food production in the country) the aim is to lay the groundwork to fully incorporate India into a fundamentally flawed and wholly exploitative global food regime that is undermining the country’s food security and food sovereignty as well as its health, soils, water supply and rural communities.

Rural India is in crisis. And with hundreds of millions destined to be forced to migrate to cities if current policies persist, the suffering will continue because the urban centres are not generating anything near the required levels of employment to soak up those whose livelihoods are being eradicated in the countryside. Jobless ‘growth’ haunts India, which is not helped by a global trend towards increasing automation and the impacts of artificial intelligence.

There are growing calls for liberating farmers from debt and guaranteeing prices/levels of profit above the costs of production. And it is not as though these actions are not possible. It is a question of priorities: the total farm debt is equal to the loans provided to just five large corporations in India.

Where have those loans gone? A good case has been put forward for arguing that the 2016 ‘demonetisation’ policy was in effect a bail-out for the banks and the corporates, which farmers and other ordinary folk paid the price for. It was a symptom of a country whose GDP growth has been based on a debt-inflated economy (the backbone of neoliberalism across the world). While farmers commit suicide and are heavily indebted, a handful of billionaires get access to cheap money with no pressure to pay it back and with little or no ‘added value’ for society as a whole.

The trigger point of the Mandasur farmer’s uprising in Central India in 2016, in which six farmers were shot dead was the demonetisation action. It meant that farmers faced a severe crash-crunch on top of all the other misery they faced. This was the last straw. That incident epitomised the fact that agriculture has been starved of investment while corporations have secured handouts. Farmers have been sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal dogma: food has been kept cheap, thereby boosting the disposable income and consumer spending of the urban middle classes, helping to provide the illusion of GDP ‘growth’ (corporate profit).

But both urban and rural Indians are increasingly coming together to help place farmers’ demands on the national political (and media) agenda. For instance, a volunteer group called Nation for Farmers, comprising people from all walks of life, is in the process of helping to mobilise citizens in support of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee’s (AIKSCC) march to parliament that is planned for the end of November.

The AIKSCC is an umbrella group of over 200 farmers’ organisations, which is calling for a march to Delhi by farmers, agricultural labourers and other distressed rural Indians from all over the country. The aim is to mobilise up to one million people. A similar march took place early in 2018 from Nashik to Mumbai. This time, however, the aim is to place the issues on the agenda of the nation’s parliament.

On behalf of the AIKSCC, two bills – The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018) and The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018) – have already been placed before parliament and are awaiting discussion. While the AIKSCC has focused on ensuring proper minimum support prices for farmers, there is now also the demand for a special 21-day joint session of parliament where the AIKSCC’s concerns can be heard.

To this end, the organisers of the march have written to the President of India Ram Nath Kovind. In their letter, they say that the agrarian crisis has now reached “civilizational proportions”.

They argue:

… successive governments have witnessed the destruction of the countryside and the unchecked destitution of farmers and yet little has been done to alleviate their misery. They have witnessed the deepening misery of the dispossessed, including the death by suicide of well over 300,000 farmers these past 20 years.

The letter makes clear to the president that the AIKSCC is fighting to save the livelihoods of tens of millions of rural Indians and has organised a ‘Kisan Mukti March’ to Delhi for three days from 28 to 30 November. The president is urged to pay heed to the demand for a special, 21-day joint session of parliament, dedicated entirely to discussing the agrarian crisis and related issues.

The letter states:

We request your intervention as the President of the Republic of India and the Constitutional head to ensure that a crisis of this scale that renders 70 percent of Indian citizens vulnerable is addressed by a joint session of the Parliament of this country… Surely the precariousness of the lives of millions of citizens merits the undivided attention of Parliament and thereby its commitment to find enduring solutions.

A special parliamentary session is called for because – after numerous protests, petitions, pleadings by distressed farmers, labourers, forest communities, fisher folk and the foot soldiers of India’s literacy and health care programmes – have failed to garner the attention of successive governments to the agrarian crisis.

The aim is that any special session on the crisis will be rooted in the testimonies of its victims, who need to be heard from both outside and inside the parliament. The session would enable them to address their fellow citizens and representatives from the floor of the parliament and explain the impact of devastating farming policies, the lack of rural credit and fair prices, and the unbearable violence of privatising water, healthcare and education.

We can only hope that the media and its well-paid journalists might be galvanised into action too!

Visit the website where you can read the letter to the president in full, sign the petition, publicise the issues and get involved. 

From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture

Food and environment campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason has just produced the report ‘Shockingly high levels of weedkiller found in popular breakfast cereals marketed for British children’. In this 68-page document, she draws from new research in the UK that mirrors findings from the US about the dangerous levels of glyphosate found in food, especially products aimed at children (glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weedicide Roundup). Readers can access this report here (which contains all relevant references).

Mason begins by reporting on research that significant levels of weedkiller were found in 43 out of 45 popular breakfast cereals marketed to US children. Glyphosate was detected in an array of popular breakfast cereals, oats and snack bars.

Tests revealed glyphosate was present in all but two of the 45 oat-derived products that were sampled by the Environmental Working Group, a public health organisation. Nearly three in four of the products exceeded what the EWG classes safe for children to consume. Products with some of the highest levels of glyphosate include granola, oats and snack bars made by leading industry names Quaker, Kellogg’s and General Mills, which makes Cheerios.

Back in April, internal emails obtained from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that scientists had found glyphosate on a wide range of commonly consumed food, to the point that they were finding it difficult to identify a food without the chemical on it. In response to these findings, however, The Guardian newspaper in the UK reported that there was no indication that the claims related to products sold outside the US.

In view of this statement by the Guardian, Mason was involved in sending samples of four oat-based breakfast cereals marketed for children in the UK to the Health Research Institute, Fairfield, Iowa, an accredited laboratory for glyphosate testing.

After testing the samples which were sent, Dr Fagan, the institute’s director, said:

The levels consumed in a single daily helping of any one of these cereals, even the one with the lowest level of contamination, is sufficient to put the person’s glyphosate levels above the levels that cause fatty liver disease in rats (and likely in people). (Access the Certificate of Analysis here.)

Just as concerning were results for two ‘organic’ products from the US that were also tested at the time: granola had some glyphosate in it and ‘organic’ rolled oats had even higher levels of the chemical.

Mason argues that the fact such high levels of glyphosate have been found in cereals in Britain should ring alarm bells across Europe, especially as the distribution of glyphosate and aminomethylphosphonic acid in agricultural top soils of the European Union is widespread.

A question of power

As in her previous documents, Mason describes how regulators in the EU and the UK relicensed Roundup for the benefit of the industry-backed Glyphosate Task Force. Even more alarming is that, on the back of Brexit, she notes that a US-UK trade deal could result in the introduction of Roundup ready GM crops in the UK. Indeed, high-level plans for cementing this deal are afoot.

Mason offers worrying data about the increasing use of biocides, especially glyphosate, as well as the subsequent destruction of the global environment due to their use. As usual, she produces a very data-rich report which draws on many sources, including official reports and peer-reviewed papers.

Of course, there is a strong focus on Monsanto. Aside from the use of glyphosate, she also documents the impact of the company’s presence in Wales, where she lives, with regard to the dumping of toxic chemicals (PCBs) from its manufacturing site there between 1949 and 1979, the effects of which persist and still plague the population and the environment.

Mason asks: “Monsanto has been bought up by Bayer, so the Monsanto name has disappeared but where are the Monsanto executives hiding?”

She is aware, of course, that such figures don’t have to hide anywhere. The company ‘got away with it’ in Wales. And its recent crop of executives received huge ‘golden handshakes’ after the Bayer deal despite them having perpetuated a degenerative model of industrial agriculture. A model that has only secured legitimacy by virtue of the power of the global agritech lobby to lock in a bogus narrative of success, as outlined in the report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’ by The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

As that report notes, locking farmers into corporate-dependent treadmills, state support of (export) commodity cropping via subsidies and the discounting of the massive health, environment and social costs of industrial agriculture ensures that model prevails and makes it appear successful. If you base your food regime on short-term thinking and a reductionist yield-output paradigm and define success within narrow confines, then the model is a sure-fire winner – for corporate growth (profit) if little else.

Without being able to externalise the health, social and environmental costs of its actions and products, this model would not be viable for the corporations involved. Widening the parameters to properly evaluate ‘success’ entails asking the industry questions that it finds very difficult to gloss over, not least what has been the cost of input-(biocide)dependent yields of commodities in terms of pollution, health, local food security and caloric production, nutrition per acre, water tables, soil quality and structure and new pests and disease pressures?

Why have African countries been turned from food exporters to food importers? Why is land in South America being used for Roundup Ready crops to feed the appetite for meat in rich countries, while peasant farmers who grew food for themselves and local communities have been displaced?

And what are the effects on once thriving rural communities; on birds, insects and biodiversity in general; on the climate as a result of chemical inputs and soil degradation; and what have been the effects of shifting towards globalised production chains, especially in terms of transportation and fossil fuel consumption?

The global food regime degrades public health and the environment, and it has narrowed the range of crops grown, resulting in increasingly monolithic, nutrient-deficient diets. Yet the powerful industry lobby calls for more deregulation and more techno-fixes like GMOs to ‘feed the world’. This is in spite of the fact that hunger and malnutrition are political: these phenomena are in large part the outcome of a global capitalist food regime that, with help from IMF/World Bank geopolitical lending strategies and WTO rules, has undermined food security for vast sections of the global population by creating a system that by its very nature drives inequality, injustice and creates food deficit areas.

Moving to a more sustainable model of agriculture based on localisation, food sovereignty and agroecology calls for a different world view. Proponents of industrial agriculture are resistant to this because it would harm what has become a highly profitable system based on the capture of political, research and media institutions.

And this is where we return to Rosemary Mason. If there is an overriding theme within her work over the years, it is corruption at high levels which facilitate much of the above. For instance, she notes the determination of the UK government, working hand in glove with global agribusiness, to ensure certain biocide products remain on the market and to help major corporations avoid any culpability for their health- and environment-damaging practices and chemicals.

Mason and various whistleblowers and writers have over the years described how these corporations have become institutionally embedded within high-profile public bodies and scientific research policy initiatives. Regulatory delinquency, institutionalised corruption and complete disregard for the health and well-being of the public is the order of the day.

GMOs and a post-Brexit deal with the US

If the UK is about to introduce GM crops into its fields on the back of a post-Brexit deal with the Trump administration, then it should take heed of what the ex-director of J.R. Simplot and team leader at Monsanto Dr Caius Rommens says in his new book:

The main problem about the current process for deregulation of GMO crops is that it is based on an evaluation of data provided by the developers of GMO crops. There is a conflict of interest. I propose that the safety of GMO crops is assessed by an independent group of scientists trained at identifying unintended effects.

This former high-level Monsanto researcher of potatoes now acknowledges that genetic engineers had limited insight into the effects of their experiments. Genetic engineering passes off the inherent uncertainty, unintended consequences and imprecision of its endeavours as unquestionable certainty. And the USDA accepts industry information and reassurances.

After finding that most GMO varieties of potatoes that he was involved in developing were stunted, chlorotic, mutated or sterile, and many of them died quickly, Rommens renounced his genetic engineering career and wrote a book about his experiences, ‘Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs’.

In an interview with GMWatch, Rommens is asked why regulators in the US, Canada and Japan, which have approved these potatoes, are ignoring these aspects.

Rommens responds:

The standard tests needed to ensure regulatory approval are not set up to identify unintended effects. They are meant to confirm the safety of a GM crop, not to question their safety. None of the issues I address in my book were considered by the regulatory agencies.

A damning indictment of regulatory delinquency based on ‘don’t look, don’t find’. GMOs have nonetheless become the mainstay of US agriculture. Now the industry is rubbing its hands in anticipation of Brexit, which would pry the UK from the EU and its precautionary principle-based regulation of GMOs.

The push to open up Britain to globalisation in the 1980s ushered in a free-for-all for global capital to determine the future direction of a deregulated UK. Three decades down the line, the consequences are clear for food, agriculture, democracy and public health. The worrying thing is that thanks to Brexit, it could be the case that even worse is yet to come!