All posts by Colin Todhunter

Menace on the Menu in Post-EU Britain

Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason has just written the report ‘Bayer Crop Science rules Britain after Brexit – the public and the press are being poisoned by pesticides’. It has been sent to editors of major media outlets in the UK. In it, she outlines her concerns for pesticide regulation, health and the environment in a post-Brexit landscape. This article presents some of the report’s key points.

PM Boris Johnson is planning to do a trade deal with the US that could see the gutting of food and environment standards. However, Johnson recently suggested that the UK will be “governed by science, not mumbo-jumbo” on food imports. He has called for an end to “hysterical” fears about US food coming to the UK as part of a post-Brexit trade deal.

In a speech setting out his goals for trade after Brexit, he talked up the prospect of an agreement with Washington and downplayed the need for one with Brussels – if the EU insists the UK must stick to its regulatory regime. In other words, he wants to ditch EU regulations.

Just as concerning is who has the ear of government. Rosemary Mason notes that in February 2019, at a Brexit meeting on the UK chemicals sector, UK regulators and senior officials from government departments listened to the priorities of the Bayer Crop Science Division. During the meeting (Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for UK chemicals sector – challenges, opportunities and the future for regulation post-Brexit), Janet Williams, head of regulatory science at Bayer Crop Science Division, made her priorities for agricultural chemical manufacturers known.

Dave Bench was also a speaker. Bench is a senior scientist at the UK Chemicals, Health and Safety Executive and director of the agency’s EU exit plan and has previously stated that the regulatory system for pesticides is robust and balances the risks of pesticides against the benefits to society.

In a recent open letter to Bench, Mason states:

That statement is rubbish. It is for the benefit of the agrochemical industry. The industry (for it is the industry that does the testing, on behalf of regulators) only tests one pesticide at a time, whereas farmers spray a cocktail of pesticides, including over children and babies, without warning.

Furthermore, Mason has presented to him and other officials statistics on the spiralling rates of disease and illness among the UK public which correlate with the increasing use of agrochemicals, especially glyphosate.

While the UK was officially no longer part of the EU as of 1 February 2020, it will continue to follow EU rules on pesticide authorisations during a transition period lasting at least until 31 December 2020. But when the transition period ends, the UK could choose to go its own way, with major implications for several significant pesticides, including glyphosate and neonicotinoids.

In her new report, Mason discusses the health dangers of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide and an active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and numerous other products. These dangers (along with corrupt practices that have kept it on the market) have been documented many times in Mason’s various open letters to officials.

Glyphosate is authorised in the EU until 2022. Reauthorisation will therefore be considered after the end of the Brexit transition period. Luxembourg is now phasing out its use and will become the first EU country to permanently ban glyphosate. EU countries only narrowly approved its reauthorisation in 2017. The exit of the UK from the soon to be 27-country bloc could tip the voting scales against the substance in 2022.

On the other hand, however, Mason concludes that it is highly likely that the UK will authorise the continued use of glyphosate given the influence of industry.

As for neonicotinoids – seed-coating insecticides that have been linked to harming to bees – Mason concludes that it is difficult to say whether the UK would stick to its most recent position in favour of a ban on clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. She advises officials to take notice of Dr Henk Tennekes’ toxicological studies on systemic neonicotinoid insecticides from 2010. Tennekes says that unwarranted product defence by Bayer and Syngenta may have had catastrophic consequences for the environment.

Human health and glyphosate

Boris Johnson said on 3 February 2020:

I look at the Americans, they look pretty well nourished to me. And I don’t hear any of these critics of American food coming back from the United States and complaining… So, let’s take some of the paranoia out of this argument.

Mason’s response is that to judge the health of a nation by claiming “they look well nourished to me” is pure nonsense: the US has the most obese citizens in the world and Britain has the second. In her numerous reports over the past 10 years, she has been consistently documenting a major public health crisis which is affecting both countries as a result of the chemical contamination of food and crops.

Of course, with a US trade deal in the pipeline, there are major concerns about GMOs, chlorinated chickens and the lowering of food standards across the board. But for Mason, glyphosate is a big concern.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests found glyphosate on 63 percent of corn samples and 67 percent of soybean samples. But the FDA did not test any oats and wheat, the two main crops where glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest drying agent, resulting in glyphosate contamination of foods such as Cheerios and some brands of granola.

Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor for children’s health at the Environment Working Group (EWG) has responded by saying:

FDA’s failure to test for glyphosate in the foods where it’s most likely to be found is inexcusable.

In August, tests commissioned by EWG found glyphosate residues on popular oat cereals, oatmeal, granola and snack bars. Almost three-fourths of the 45 samples tested had glyphosate levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health with an adequate margin of safety.

Mason says that glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals: diseases skip a generation. Washington State University researchers have found a variety of diseases and other health problems in the second- and third-generation offspring of rats exposed to glyphosate. In the first study of its kind, the researchers saw descendants of exposed rats developing prostate, kidney and ovarian diseases, obesity and birth abnormalities.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers say they saw “dramatic increases” in several pathologies affecting the second and third generations. The second generation had “significant increases” in testis, ovary and mammary gland diseases, as well as obesity. In third-generation males, the researchers saw a 30 percent incidence of prostate disease — three times the rate of a control population. The third generation of females had a 40 percent incidence of kidney disease, or four times the rate of the controls.

More than one-third of the second-generation mothers had unsuccessful pregnancies, with most of those affected dying. Two out of five males and females in the third generation were obese.

Mason notes that researchers call this phenomenon “generational toxicology” and they’ve seen it over the years in fungicides, pesticides, jet fuel, the plastics compound bisphenol A, the insect repellent DEET and the herbicide atrazine. At work are epigenetic changes that turn genes on and off, often because of environmental influences.

Glyphosate has been the subject of numerous studies about its health effects. This recent study is the third in the past few months out of Washington alone. A study published in February found the chemical increased the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma by as much as 41 percent. A Washington State University study published in December found state residents living close to areas subject to treatments with the herbicide are one-third more likely to die an early death from Parkinson’s disease.

This research adds to long-held health-related concerns about glyphosate.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, one of the attorney’s fighting Bayer (which has bought Monsanto) in the US courts, has explained that for four decades Monsanto manoeuvred to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning. He says that Monsanto also faces cascading scientific evidence linking glyphosate to a constellation of other injuries that have become prevalent since its introduction, including obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts.

Moreover, strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10.

Nevertheless, Mason notes, senior officials in the UK trot out platitudes about glyphosate being harmless and refer to flawed procedures and biased assessments that overlooked key studies.

With these health issues in mind, we should remind ourselves of Boris Johnson’s first speech to parliament as PM. In it, he said:

Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules…

This could mean the irresponsible introduction of genetically modified Roundup Ready food crops to the UK, which would see the amount of glyphosate in British food reaching new levels (levels which are already disturbing).

In finishing, it is worth mentioning that Mason makes some very pertinent points about the Conservative government in the UK, accusing it of working hand in glove with Monsanto and now Bayer. Yet, as IG Farben, Bayer collaborated with the Nazis and had a factory and prisoner of war camp at Auschwitz. For Mason, the fact that the UK media remain silent on this and has run smear campaigns about Labour and Jeremy Corbyn being anti-semitic is as disgraceful as it is hypocritical.

The UK media do not mention the US lawsuits against Monsanto-Bayer and all the diseases that Roundup brings. The media also ignore every report Mason sends to them in the hope mainstream journalists will inform the public of the dangers of pesticides and pressurise the government to act.

In the meantime, Boris Johnson is attempting to soften up the public on behalf of the corporate interests he represents. Based on no science (or scruples) whatsoever, Johnson says US citizens are fit and healthy and dismisses valid science-based concerns about the food system as “mumbo jumbo” and hysteria. He hopes the public will fall for his knockabout schtick and will remain blissfully ignorant of the reality. With the media’s compliance, the majority of people may well do.

Readers are urged to read Rosemary Mason’s new report, which contains all relevant references and additional information to that which has been outlined in this article. It can be accessed on the academia.edu website along with dozens of her previous reports

Bt Cotton: Cultivating Farmer Distress in India

Later this month, India’s Supreme Court will hold a lengthy hearing on the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) mustard, which would be the country’s first GM food crop. The court has asked the chair of the Technical Expert Committee to be present and says that the decision on GM mustard cannot be kept pending. The TEC has come out against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indian agriculture.

As lead petitioner in a public interest litigation challenging the government-backed push to commercialise this crop, Aruna Rodrigues has over the past few years submitted much evidence to the court alleging the science and field tests for GM mustard have been fraudulent and the entire regulatory regime has been dogged by malfeasance and a dereliction of duty.

To date, cotton is the only officially sanctioned GM crop in India. Those pushing for GM food crops (including the government) are forwarding the narrative that GM pest resistant Bt cotton has been a tremendous success which should now be emulated with the introduction of GM mustard. Ever since its commercialisation in 2002, however, the issue of Bt cotton in India has been a hotly contested issue. Bt cotton hybrids now cover over 95% of the area under cotton and the seeds are produced by the private sector. But critics argue that Bt cotton has negatively impacted livelihoods and fuelled agrarian distress and farmer suicides.

In a recent piece appearing in The Hindu, Imran Siddiqi, an emeritus scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, argued that India’s cotton yields fall behind those of other major cotton producing countries. He attributes this to the decision to use hybrids seeds made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters. These plants have more biomass than both parents and capacity for greater yields. But they also require more inputs, including fertiliser and water, and require suboptimal planting (more space). Siddiqi notes that all other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilisation.

A key difference is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next. For hybrids, farmers must purchase seed for each planting. Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market.

Siddiqi says that the advantages of varieties are considerable: more than twice the productivity, half the fertiliser, reduced water requirement and less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration. He concludes that agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.

Meanwhile, seed companies and Monsanto that issued licenses for its Bt technology have profited handsomely from an irresponsible roll-out to poor marginal farmers who lacked access to irrigation and the money to purchase necessary fertiliser and pesticides. Bt hybrids perform better under irrigation, but 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use, fertiliser inputs and debt have placed many poor smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.  Prof A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put these farmers in a corporate noose.

Cultivating knowledge 

It was against this backdrop that Andrew Flachs conducted fieldwork on cotton cultivation over four consecutive cotton growing seasons during 2012-2016 and a later visit in 2018 in the South Indian state of Telangana. His new book Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism in India (University of Arizona Press 2019) is based on that research.

A trained environmental anthropologist and assistant professor at Purdue University in the US, Flachs draws on anthropology and political ecology to show how the adoption of GM seeds affects livelihoods, values and identities in rural areas. By looking at everyday relationships and how farmers make choices, Flachs avoids falling into the pro/anti-GMO dichotomy that has polarised the debate on Indian cotton for the past 18 years. Instead, he looks at farmers’ aspirations, what it means to ‘live well’ and what ‘sustainability’ means in the everyday world of cotton cultivators.

Although some critics of GM cotton claim that the technology is directly responsible for fuelling suicides and farmer distress, Flachs is careful to locate the narrative of agrarian crisis against the overall backdrop of neoliberal reforms in Indian agriculture, the withdrawal of public sector extension services and exposure to commercial seed, pesticide and unstable global commodity markets (and spiralling input costs).

In an increasingly commercialised countryside, independent cultivators have become dependent on corporate products, including off-farm commodified corporate knowledge. In the past, they cultivated, saved and exchanged seeds; now, as far as cotton cultivation is concerned, they must purchase GM hybrid seeds (and necessary chemical inputs) each year.

Flachs mentions former Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar who once stated that farmers decide to use GM cotton seeds based on rational decision making because GM gives better yields. Indeed, this kind of thinking underpins much of the rhetoric of the pro-GMO lobby. But such decision making is far from the truth (moreover, Prof Glenn Stone has shown how ‘facts’ about yields have been constructed and that these ‘facts’ become mere distortions of the actual reality)

With hundreds of different GM seed brands available in local seed stores, it becomes clear in Cultivating Knowledge that environmental learning and the type of decision making referred to by Pawar do not exist. Confusion, social learning, ‘herding’ and emulation are the norm. Seed choices are not based on rational, cost-benefit decision making whereby farmers plant and compare crop performances and opt for the best ones. Their choices of seeds are based on the advice of (unscrupulous) seed vendors, newspaper reports, advertising and what other farmers are opting for.

Caste and social status play a major role in who is listened to, who is emulated and who is given short shrift by seed vendors. If a (high status) farmer opts for a certain seed, for example, another farmer will emulate. But even the high status farmer is not necessarily basing his seed decision of testing in the field: he too is emulating others, opting for whatever brand is ‘popular’ that season.

Similarly, Flachs notes that if your neighbour sprays pesticides four times a day, you do it five times to be ‘responsible’, to make sure you are taking care of your crop; to make sure you don’t become infested and are then seen as the culprit for allowing your neighbours’ fields to be infested too. This, even though you overuse dangerous chemicals and become contaminated with pesticide spray or your food crop that your kids will eat becomes contaminated.

As Flachs implies – in a runaway neoliberal landscape, these types of risks (the overuse of pesticides, taking out loans, seed preferences) become regarded as ‘natural’, as the outcome of individual choices, rather than the expression of political structures or macro-economic policies. In the brave new world of neoliberalism that India began to embrace in the early 1990s, responses to the ‘invisible’ hand of the market, the performance of questionable on-farm practices and financial distress have therefore been internalised and have become associated with a notion of personal responsibility, which can result in self-blame, shame and even suicide.

Flachs notes that many cotton farmers also grow food crops. Here, in stark contrast to cotton, farmers still activate their own indigenous knowledge and environmental learning about seeds and cultivation, not least because they tend to still save their (non-corporate) seeds. For now, at least, the predatory commercialisation of the countryside has not yet penetrated every aspect of rural life.

While Bt cotton farmers are losing their traditional knowledge and skills, Flachs says they still have to make decisions and ‘perform’ the act of farming, taking into account potential risks and what other farmers are doing.

For cultivators of Bt cotton, chasing the dream of a better life means striving for higher yields, even if this entails greater debt and rising input costs. And each year, as fresh seed brands appear, in the hope of hitting a jackpot yield, Flachs indicates that last year’s brand is ditched in favour of a new one. In the meantime, debts increase and maybe one in four seasons a farmer will attain a good enough yield to break even.

In Cultivating Knowledge, negotiating risk and gambling on seeds, weather and pesticide use are very much part of what has become a chase for ‘better living’ and an integral part of the corporate cotton seed and chemical treadmill. Gambling more or less everything certainly does not bode well for poor, marginalised farmers. And it’s a treadmill that is difficult to get off – even though Bt cotton was sold under the promise of reduced pesticide use, levels of usage are now higher  than before Bt cotton was introduced but non-GM seeds have all but disappeared from seed shops.

Whether farmer’s lives have improved because of the GM technology – or to be precise, the way it has been rolled out – is open to debate, especially if we consider what Gutierrez says about the corporate noose around farmers’ necks and also consider alternative possibilities (for instance, GM straight line varieties), which could have been pursued. Moreover, as Flachs notes, with a glut of cotton, does the world need more of it anyway? Perhaps farmers – aside from adopting different routes for cotton cultivation – would have been better served by planting food crops. These are the ‘counterfactuals’ that seem to be overlooked when discussing GM cotton in India.

Cotton cultivation (including organic cotton growing which Flachs also discusses) in India is very much a social performance. Flachs indicates that the field is a stage where notions of community obligation and personal aspiration are played out within the context of heavily socially stratified communities.

Key to this performance is the concept of sustainability. Both sides of the GM debate talk a good deal about sustainable agriculture. But Flachs discusses what sustainability means to farmers. Is it about a quest for higher yields above all else? Or is it about debt-free sustainable livelihoods and ecological care of the land. In the chase for yields – set against rising input costs, debt, the threat of bankruptcy and suicide, a free-for-all GM seed market with often unscrupulous vendors, the increasing use of dangerous pesticides –  what are the impacts on farmers’ quality of lives?

Is the outcome ‘better living’ for farmers and their families? Or does an air of desperation or insecurity prevail within cotton cultivating communities? These are the questions that readers will be compelled to ask themselves while reading Cultivating Knowledge. And it will become clear just what the human cost of cotton capitalism for many Indian farmers really is.

When people talk about rolling out GM food crops to uplift the conditions of farmers and make farming more ‘sustainable’, they should abandon such generalisations and consider how farmers and farming communities face up to the challenges of increasing pest resistance, dependency on unregulated seed markets, the eradication of environmental learning, a lack of extension services and the loss of control over their productive means.

As Andrew Flachs says:

Given that intimate local ecological knowledge has been shown to be crucial for sustainable endeavors, the GM seed market erodes rather than builds local efforts at sustainability…  These seeds make cotton farming less sustainable on Telangana cotton farms because they have created a system in which farmers can’t learn much about their seeds or apply that knowledge when they’re at the market buying seeds next year.

For Flachs, organic cotton production (that also has its own set of issues to deal with), which provides safety nets and encourages ecologically and socioeconomically beneficial practices on farms, can help redefine what ‘success’ means in Indian cotton. While this may not in itself address the structural nature of the agrarian crisis, Flachs concludes that it offers some hope for incentivising local knowledge and technology that allows farmers to live well – and most importantly, to live well on their own terms.

Challenging the Flawed Premise Behind Pushing GMOs into Indian Agriculture

A common claim is that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are essential to agriculture if we are to feed an ever-growing global population. Supporters of genetically engineered (GE) crops argue that by increasing productivity and yields, this technology will also help boost farmers’ incomes and lift many out of poverty. Although in this article it will be argued that the performance of GE crops to date has been questionable, the main contention is that the pro-GMO lobby, both outside of India and within, has wasted no time in wrenching the issues of hunger and poverty from their political contexts to use notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynchpins of its promotional strategy. There exists a ‘haughty imperialism’ within the pro-GMO scientific lobby that aggressively pushes for a GMO ‘solution’ which is a distraction from the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition and genuine solutions based on food justice and food sovereignty.

Last year, in the journal Current Science, Dr Deepak Pental, developer of genetically engineered (GE) mustard at Delhi University, responded to a previous paper in the same journal by eminent scientists PC Kesavan and MS Swaminathan which questioned the efficacy of and the need for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. Pental argued that the two authors had aligned themselves with environmentalists and ideologues who have mindlessly attacked the use of genetic engineering (GE) technology to improve crops required for meeting the food and nutritional needs of a global population that is predicted to peak at 11.2 billion. Pental added that aspects of the two authors’ analysis are a reflection of their ideological proclivities.

The use of the word ‘mindlessly’ is telling and betrays Pental’s own ideological disposition. His words reflect tired industry-inspired rhetoric that says criticisms of GE technology are driven by ideology not fact.

If hunger and malnutrition are to be tackled effectively, the pro-GMO lobby must put aside this type of rhetoric, which is designed to close down debate. It should accept valid concerns about the GMO paradigm and be willing to consider why the world already produces enough to feed 10 billion people but over two billion are experiencing micronutrient deficiencies (of which 821 million were classed as chronically undernourished in 2018).

Critics: valid concerns or ideologues?

The performance of GE crops has been a hotly contested issue and, as highlighted in Kevasan and Swaminathan’s piece and by others, there is already sufficient evidence to question their efficacy, especially that of herbicide-tolerant crops (which by 2007 already accounted for approximately 80% of biotech-derived crops grown globally) and the devastating impacts on the environment, human health and food security, not least in places like Latin America.

We should not accept the premise that only GE can solve problems in agriculture. In their paper, Kesavan and Swaminathan argue that GE technology is supplementary and must be need based. In more than 99% of cases, they say that time-honoured conventional breeding is sufficient. In this respect, conventional options and innovations that outperform GE must not be overlooked or sidelined in a rush by powerful interests like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to facilitate the introduction of GE crops into global agriculture; crops which are highly financially lucrative for the corporations behind them.

In Europe, robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GMOs because it is recognised that GE food/crops are not substantially equivalent to their non-GE counterparts. Numerous studies have highlighted the flawed premise of ‘substantial equivalence’. Furthermore, from the outset of the GMO project, the sidelining of serious concerns about the technology has occurred and despite industry claims to the contrary, there is no scientific consensus on the health impacts of GE crops as noted by Hilbeck et al (Environmental Sciences Europe, 2015). Adopting a precautionary principle where GE is concerned is therefore a valid approach.

As Hilbeck et al note, both the Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GE crops and foods, in that they agree that GE differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GMOs are used in food or released into the environment. There is sufficient reason to hold back on commercialising GE crops and to subject each GMO to independent, transparent environmental, social, economic and health impact evaluations.

Critics’ concerns cannot therefore be brushed aside by claims that ‘the science’ is decided and the ‘facts’ about GE are indisputable. Such claims are merely political posturing and part of a strategy to tip the policy agenda in favour of GE.

In India, various high-level reports have advised against the adoption of GE crops. Appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report’ (2013) was scathing about India’s prevailing regulatory system and highlighted its inadequacies and serious inherent conflicts of interest. The TEC recommended a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GE crops.

As we have seen with the push to get GE mustard commercialised, the problems described by the TEC persist. Through her numerous submissions to the Supreme Court, Aruna Rodrigues has argued that GE mustard is being pushed through based on outright regulatory delinquency. It must also be noted that this crop is herbicide tolerant, which, as stated by the TEC, is wholly inappropriate for India with its small biodiverse, multi-cropping farms.

While the above discussion has only scratched the surface, it is fair to say that criticisms of GE technology and various restrictions and moratoriums have not been driven by ‘mindless’ proclivities.

Can GE crops ‘feed the world’?

The ‘gene revolution’ is sometimes regarded as Green Revolution 2.0. The Green Revolution too was sold under the guise of ‘feeding the world’. However, emerging research indicates that in India it merely led to more wheat in the diet, while food productivity per capita showed no increase or actually decreased.

Globally, the Green Revolution dovetailed with the consolidation of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping (often with non-food commodities taking up prime agricultural land) and (unfair) liberalised trade, linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF structural adjustment-privatisation directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas. And yet, the corporations behind this system of dependency and their lobbyists waste no time in spreading the message that this is the route to achieving food security. Their interests lie in ‘business as usual’.

Today, we hear terms like ‘foreign direct investment’ and making India ‘business friendly’, but behind the rhetoric lies the hard-nosed approach of globalised capitalism. The intention is for India’s displaced cultivators to be retrained to work as cheap labour in the West’s offshored plants. India is to be a fully incorporated subsidiary of global capitalism, with its agri-food sector restructured for the needs of global supply chains and a reserve army of labour that effectively serves to beat workers and unions in the West into submission.

Global food insecurity and malnutrition are not the result of a lack of productivity. As long as these dynamics persist and food injustice remains an inbuilt feature of the global food regime, the rhetoric of GE being necessary for feeding the world will be seen for what it is: bombast.

Although India fares poorly in world hunger assessments, the country has achieved self-sufficiency in food grains and has ensured there is enough food (in terms of calories) available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, fruit and cotton.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Food security for many Indians remains a distant dream. Large sections of India’s population do not have enough food available to remain healthy nor do they have sufficiently diverse diets that provide adequate levels of micronutrients. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18 is the first-ever nationally representative nutrition survey of children and adolescents in India. It found that 35 per cent of children under five were stunted, 22 per cent of school-age children were stunted while 24 per cent of adolescents were thin for their age.

People are not hungry in India because its farmers do not produce enough food. Hunger and malnutrition result from various factors, including inadequate food distribution, (gender) inequality and poverty; in fact, the country continues to export food while millions remain hungry. It’s a case of ‘scarcity’ amid abundance.

Where farmers’ livelihoods are concerned, the pro-GMO lobby says GE will boost productivity and help secure cultivators a better income. Again, this is misleading: it ignores crucial political and economic contexts. Even with bumper harvests, Indian farmers still find themselves in financial distress.

India’s farmers are not experiencing financial hardship due to low productivity. They are reeling from the effects of neoliberal policies, years of neglect and a deliberate strategy to displace smallholder agriculture at the behest of the World Bank and predatory global agri-food corporations . Little wonder then that the calorie and essential nutrient intake of the rural poor has drastically fallen.

However, aside from putting a positive spin on the questionable performance of GMO agriculture, the pro-GMO lobby, both outside of India and within, has wasted no time in wrenching these issues from their political contexts to use the notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynch pins of its promotional strategy.

GE was never intended to feed the world

Many of the traditional practices of India’s small farmers are now recognised as sophisticated and appropriate for high-productive, sustainable agriculture. It is no surprise therefore that a recent FAO high-level report has called for agroecology and smallholder farmers to be prioritised and invested in to achieve global sustainable food security. It argues that scaling up agroecology offers potential solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems, whether, for instance, climate change and carbon storage, soil degradation, water shortages, unemployment or food security.

Agroecological principles represent a shift away from the reductionist yield-output industrial paradigm, which results in among other things enormous pressures on soil and water resources, to a more integrated low-input systems approach to food and agriculture that prioritises local food security, local calorific production, cropping patterns and diverse nutrition production per acre, water table stability, climate resilience, good soil structure and the ability to cope with evolving pests and disease pressures. Such a system would be underpinned by a concept of food sovereignty,  based on optimal self-sufficiency, the right to culturally appropriate food and local ownership and stewardship of common resources, such as land, water, soil and seeds.

Traditional production systems rely on the knowledge and expertise of farmers in contrast to imported ‘solutions’. Yet, if we take cotton cultivation in India as an example, farmers continue to be nudged away from traditional methods of farming and are being pushed towards (illegal) GE herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds. Researchers Glenn Stone and Andrew Flachs note the results of this shift from traditional practices to date does not appear to have benefited farmers. This isn’t about giving farmers ‘choice’ where GE seeds and associated chemicals are concerned. It is more about GE seed companies and weedicide manufactures seeking to leverage a highly lucrative market.

The potential for herbicide market growth in India is enormous and industry looked for sales to reach USD 800 million by 2019. The objective involves opening India to GE seeds with herbicide tolerance traits, the biotechnology industry’s biggest money maker by far (86 per cent of the world’s GE crop acres in 2015 contain plants resistant to glyphosate or glufosinate and there is a new generation of crops resistant to 2,4-D coming through).

The aim is to break farmers’ traditional pathways and move them onto corporate biotech/chemical treadmills for the benefit of industry.

Calls for agroecology and highlighting the benefits of traditional, small-scale agriculture are not based on a romantic yearning for the past or ‘the peasantry’. Available evidence suggests that (non-GMO) smallholder farming using low-input methods is more productive in total output than large-scale industrial farms and can be more profitable and resilient to climate change. It is for good reason that the FAO high-level report referred to earlier as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Hilal Elver, call for investment in this type of agriculture, which is centred on small farms. Despite the pressures, including the fact that globally industrial agriculture grabs 80 per cent of subsidies and 90 per cent of research funds, smallholder agriculture plays a major role in feeding the world.

That’s a massive quantity of subsidies and funds to support a system that is only made profitable as a result of these financial injections and because agri-food oligopolies externalize the massive health, social and environmental costs of their operations.

But policy makers tend to accept that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be owners and custodians of natural assets (the ‘commons’). These corporations, their lobbyists and their political representatives have succeeded in cementing a ‘thick legitimacy’ among policy makers for their vision of agriculture.

From World Bank ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ directives to the World Trade Organization ‘agreement on agriculture’ and trade related intellectual property agreements, international bodies have enshrined the interests of corporations that seek to monopolise seeds, land, water, biodiversity and other natural assets that belong to us all. These corporations, the promoters of GMO agriculture, are not offering a ‘solution’ for farmers’ impoverishment or hunger; GE seeds are little more than a value capture mechanism.

To evaluate the pro-GMO lobby’s rhetoric that GE is needed to ‘feed the world’, we first need to understand the dynamics of a globalised food system that fuels hunger and malnutrition against a backdrop of (subsidised) food overproduction. We must acknowledge the destructive, predatory dynamics of capitalism and the need for agri-food giants to maintain profits by seeking out new (foreign) markets and displacing existing systems of production with ones that serve their bottom line.  And we need to reject a deceptive ‘haughty imperialism within the pro-GMO scientific lobby which aggressively pushes for a GMO ‘solution’.

Gone Fishing? No Fish but Plenty of Pesticides and a Public Health Crisis

There is mounting evidence that a healthy soil microbiome protects plants from pests and diseases. One of the greatest natural assets that humankind has is soil. But when you drench it with proprietary synthetic chemicals or continuously monocrop as part of a corporate-controlled industrial farming system, you can kill essential microbes, upset soil balance and end up feeding soil a limited doughnut diet of unhealthy inputs.

Armed with their synthetic biocides, this is what the transnational agritech conglommerates do. These companies attempt to get various regulatory and policy-making bodies to bow before the altar of corporate ‘science’. But, in reality, they have limited insight into the long-term impacts their actions have 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 when Linda Kinkel of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology said back in 2014: “We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth.”

And it’s the same where ‘human soil’ is concerned.

People have a deep microbiological connection to soils and traditional processing and fermentation processes, which all affect the gut microbiome – the up to six pounds of bacteria, viruses and microbes akin to human soil. And as with actual soil, the microbiome can become degraded according to what we ingest (or fail to ingest). Many nerve endings from major organs are located in the gut and the microbiome effectively nourishes them. There is ongoing research taking place into how the microbiome is disrupted by the modern globalised food production/processing system and the chemical bombardment it is subjected to.

The human microbiome is of vital importance to human health yet it is under chemical attack from agri-food giants and their agrochemicals and food additives. As soon as we stopped eating locally-grown, traditionally-processed food, cultivated in healthy soils and began eating food subjected to chemical-laden cultivation and processing activities, we began to change ourselves. Along with cultural traditions surrounding food production and the seasons, we also lost our deep-rooted microbiological connection with our localities. It was traded in for corporate chemicals and seeds and global food chains dominated by the likes of Monsanto (now Bayer), Nestle and Cargill.

Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason says that glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway within these gut bacteria and is a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. In addition, it kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria to flourish. She adds that we are therefore facing a global metabolic health crisis linked to glyphosate.

Many key neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking.  There is 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.

Recently published research indicates that glyphosate and Roundup are proven to disrupt gut microbiome by inhibiting the shikimate pathway. Dr Michael Antoniou of King’s College London has found that Roundup herbicide and its active ingredient glyphosate cause a dramatic increase in the levels of two substances, shikimic acid and 3-dehydroshikimic acid, in the gut, which are a direct indication that the EPSPS enzyme of the shikimic acid pathway has been severely inhibited. The researchers found that Roundup and glyphosate affected the microbiome at all dose levels tested, causing shifts in bacterial populations.

This confirms what Mason has been highlighting for some time. However, she has also been pointing out the environmental degradation resulting from the spiralling use of glyphosate-based herbicides and has just written an open letter to the Principal Fisheries Officer of Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Peter Gough (NRW is the environment agency for Wales).

The letter runs to 20 pages and focuses on glyphosate and neonicotinoid insecticides. She asks who would re-authorise a pesticide that is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects and is causing serious eye damage along with various forms of cancers and a wide range of other health conditions?

She answers her question by saying the European Glyphosate Task Force and Jean-Claude Juncker President of the EC along with various regulators in Europe who have basically capitulated to an industry agenda. Mason argues that the European Glyphosate Task Force (who actually did the re-assessment of glyphosate) omitted all the studies from South America where they had been growing GM Roundup Ready crops since 1996. She discusses the suppression of key research which indicated the harmful effects of glyphosate.

The Principal Fisheries Scientist Wales sent Mason two NRW Reports two years ago. In it, Mason discovered that giant hogweed on the River Usk bank had been treated with a glyphosate-based herbicide. NRW had also admitted to not studying the effects of neonicotinoids, which had been introduced in 1994. Mason pointed out to NRW that run-off from farms of clothianidin in seeds would be enough to kill off aquatic invertebrates.

In early January, NRW attempted to explain the absence of salmon and trout in the River Usk on climate change (warming of the river), rather than poisoning of the river, which is what Mason had warned the agency about two years ago.

In Britain, information on emerging water contaminants has been suppressed, according to Mason, and there is no monitoring of either neonics or glyphosate in surface or ground water. In the US, though, measurements of these chemicals have been carried out on farmland and their correlation with massive declines in invertebrates by separate agencies and universities in the US and Canada.

Mason notes there has been 70 years of poisoning the land with pesticides. Although the National Farmers Union and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs in the UK say fewer pesticides are now being applied, the Soil Association indicates massive increases of increasing numbers of pesticides at decreasing intervals (official statistics obtained via a Freedom of Information request).

Readers should consult the full text of Mason’s open letter on the acamedia.edu site to gain wider insight into the issues outlined above and many more, such as government collusion with major agrochemical corporations, the shaping of official narratives on illness and disease to obscure the role of pesticides and Monsanto’s poisoning of Wales.

What Mason outlines is not specific to Wales or the UK; the increasing use of damaging agrochemicals and government collusion with the industry transcends national borders. Nation states are becoming increasingly obsolete and powerless in the face of globalised capitalist interests.

What follows is the e-mail that Mason sent to Peter Gough by way of introducing her letter to him.

Dear Peter,

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) classified glyphosate as a substance that is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects

Your colleague Dave Charlesworth declared on BBC 1 Breakfast last week that the declines in salmon and trout were due to climate change and warming of the rivers. I told you just over 2 years ago that it was due to pesticides and showed you the proof from assorted NRW documents you sent me.

Why are NRW, the government, ‘top’ UK doctors, farmers, the corporations, the media and global pesticides regulators protecting the agrochemical industry? All of you could suffer from the effects of pesticides in food, in water, in the air and in rain. Why don’t you inform the people?

Monsanto claims that Roundup doesn’t affect humans, but their sealed secret studies that scientist Anthony Samsel obtained from the US EPA, shows evidence of cancers and that bioaccumulation of 14C labelled glyphosate occurred in every organ of the body (page 9).

The NFU and Defra deny they are responsible for 70 years of poisoning the land and the subsequent insect apocalypse; they should read their own document “Healthy Harvest.” The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the Crop Protection Association (CPA) and the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) combined to lobby the EU not to restrict the 320+ pesticides available to them. The publication is called: HEALTHY HARVEST. [1] (Pages 6-9)

The Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer for England claim that parents are responsible for obesity in primary school children. However, Pesticides Action Network (PAN) analysed the Department of Health’s Schools Fruit and Vegetable Scheme and found that there were residues of 123 pesticides in it, some of which are linked to serious health problems such as cancer and disruption of the hormone system.

When PAN informed them, they said that pesticides were not the concern of the DOH. (Page 14, 13-16).

Dr Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology, Purdue University, US, speaking about GMO crops and glyphosate, said: “Future historians may well look back upon our time and write, not about how many pounds of pesticide we did or didn’t apply, but by how willing we are to sacrifice our children and future generations for this massive genetic engineering experiment that is based on flawed science and failed promises just to benefit the bottom line of a commercial enterprise.” (Page 18)

Kind regards,

Rosemary

GM in India: Faking it on the Astroturf

According to a recent report in The Hindu Business Line, India’s intelligence agencies are investigating the role of a global investment company and international seed companies in supporting farmers organisation Shetkari Sanghatana (SS) in the distribution of illegally procured genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton seeds. The planting of such seeds is an offence under the Environment Protection Act and Seeds Act.

In May 2019, SS broke the law and freely distributed these seeds. In early January 2020, it broke the law again by distributing second generation seeds. According to the report, a senior intelligence official had told Business Line that a global investment company, with investments in seeds and agrochemicals companies, has chosen to support the farmers’ organisation.

Business Line reports that the investment company is allegedly putting pressure on the Modi government to ensure that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee fast tracks the clearance of HT seeds, so the seeds could be legally harvested and sold in the country.

In India, five high-level reports have advised against the adoption of GM crops. Appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report’ (2013) was scathing about the prevailing regulatory system and highlighted its inadequacies and serious inherent conflicts of interest. The TEC recommended a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GM crops.

The reason why Bt cotton – to date, India’s only officially approved GM crop – made it into farmers’ fields in the first place was due to ‘approval by contamination’. Bt cotton was discovered in 2001 growing on thousands of hectares in Gujarat. In March 2002, it was approved for commercial cultivation.

The pro-GMO lobby has again resorted to such tactics. The 2010 moratorium on Bt brinjal was implemented because science won out against a regulatory process that lacked competency, possessed endemic conflicts of interest and demonstrated a lack of expertise in GM risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts.

As we have seen with the relentless push to get GM mustard commercialised, the problems persist. Now, to justify breaking the law, we are seeing unscientific claims and well-worn industry-inspired soundbites about GM crops: political posturing unsupported by evidence to try to sway the policy agenda in favour of GM.

Drawing on previous peer-reviewed evidence, a 2018 paper in the journal Current Science by renowned scientists PC Kesavan and MS Swaminathan concluded that Bt crops and HT crops are unsustainable and globally have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, the reason for these GM crops in the first place.

We need to look at GM objectively because plenty of evidence indicates it poses risks or is not beneficial and that non-GM alternatives are a better option. Moreover, many things that scientists are trying to achieve with GM have already been surpassed by means of conventional breeding.

Those behind the distribution and planting of illegal seeds talk about helping the farmer. But the real agenda is to open-up India to GM and get farmers hooked on a corporate money-spinning GM seed-chemical treadmill.

The watchdog GMWatch recently produced an article about how hired public relations agencies and key individuals with firm links to the biotechnology sector are attempting to deceive the public and policy makers. The article’s author, Jonathan Matthews, notes that in June 2019 the pro-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas began talking up what he claimed was to be “the world’s first pro-GMO protest”.

The term ‘astroturfing’ is the process by which orchestrated marketing and public relations campaigns are presented as emanating from grassroots participants or ordinary members of the public rather than from powerful corporate interests. Lynas, a well-known industry lobbyist, said the ‘protest’ would involve Indian farmers planting banned GM seeds in what he called “Gandhi-style civil disobedience”. This attention-grabbing campaign was being led by SS, which Lynas described as “very grass roots”.

According to Matthews, SS is not a mass movement of grassroots farmers but an allegedly well-funded fringe group created by the late Sharad Joshi, a right-wing economist and member of the Advisory Board of the Monsanto-backed World Agricultural Forum, an organisation whose founder and first chairman was for many years Monsanto’s director of public policy.

Joshi was also Chairman of Shivar Agroproducts Ltd, says Matthews, but he is best remembered for his ultra-libertarian ideology, his links to certain farmers groups and the political party (Swatantra Bharat Paksh) that he founded – all vehicles for promoting his free market fundamentalism.

Matthews says:

Lynas was not the first to present Shetkari Sanghatana as representing ordinary Indian farmers. A full two decades earlier, the European biotech industry and their PR firm Burson-Marsteller brought some of Shetkari Sanghatana’s leading lights to Europe to try and counter the view that Indian farmers opposed GMO crops. To that end, they were toured around five different countries by the industry’s lobby group, EuropaBio, which in a press release presented this free market fringe group, which is largely confined to the state of Maharashtra, as ‘the mainstream farmers’ movement in India’.

Matthews adds that the US is the biotech industry’s chief propaganda hub for promoting wide-ranging fakery to the world. Referring to the illegal planting of HT cotton seeds and SS, he says:

Among the notable cheerleaders promoting the protesters’ cause were the Gates-backed GMO propaganda outfit The Alliance for Science, which pays Mark Lynas to lobby for GMOs; CS Prakash of AgBioWorld, who has long served as a conduit for Monsanto disinformationBayer-consultant and Monsanto collaborator Kevin Folta, who made a podcast on the protests with CS Prakash

Matthews piece, ‘Fake Farmer Willi part of an international fake parade’, provides details of the various characters and strategies involved in faking it for the biotech industry, not just in India but across the world.

As a market for GM proprietary seeds, chemical inputs and agricultural technology and machinery, India is vast. The potential market for herbicide growth alone, for instance, is huge: sales could now have reached USD 800 million with scope for even greater expansion, especially with the illegal push to get HT seeds planted.

With GM crops largely shut out of Europe and many countries reluctant to embrace the technology, Western agro-biotech conglomerates are desperate to seek out and expand into untapped (foreign) markets to maintain profitability. India presents potential rich pickings. And this is the bottom line: GM is not about ‘helping farmers’ or ‘feeding the masses’ (myths that have been deconstructed time and again). It is about hard-nose interests endeavouring to displace existing systems of production and capturing and exploiting markets by any means possible – not least fakery and deception.

Capitalism and the Gut-Wrenching Hijack of India

In India, the ‘development’ paradigm is premised on moving farmers out of agriculture and into the cities to work in construction, manufacturing or the service sector, despite these sectors not creating anything like the number of jobs required. The aim is to displace the existing labour-intensive system of food and agriculture with one dominated by a few transnational corporate agri-food giants which will then control the sector. Agriculture is to be wholly commercialised with large-scale, mechanised (monocrop) enterprises replacing family-run farms that help sustain hundreds of millions of rural livelihoods while feeding the urban masses.

Renowned journalist P Sainath encapsulates what is taking place when he says that the agrarian crisis can be explained in just five words: hijack of agriculture by corporations. He notes the process by which it is being done in five words too: predatory commercialisation of the countryside. And he takes five works to describe the outcome: biggest displacement in our history.

Why would anyone sanction this and set out to run down what is effectively a productive system of agriculture that feeds people, sustains livelihoods and produces sufficient buffer stocks?

Part of the answer comes down to India being the largest recipient of World Bank loans in the history of that institution and acting on its directives. Part of it results from the corporate-driven US-Indo Knowledge Agreement on Agriculture. On both counts, it means India’s rulers are facilitating the needs of Western capital and all it entails: an inherently predatory economic model based on endless profit growth, crises of overproduction and overaccumulation and market saturation and a need to constantly seek out, create and expand into new, untapped (foreign) markets to maintain profitability.

And as a market for proprietary seeds, chemical inputs and agricultural technology and machinery, India is vast. The potential market for herbicide growth alone for instance is huge: sales could reach USD 800 million by 2019 with scope for even greater expansion. And with restrictions on GMOs in place in Europe and elsewhere, India is again regarded as a massive potential market. And it’s the same for Western food processers and retailers too; the entire sector will be captured from seed to plate.

Saving capitalism

Or course, this trend predates the current administration, but it is as if Modi was especially groomed to accelerate the role of foreign capital in India. Describing itself as a major global communications, stakeholder engagement and business strategy company, APCO Worldwide is a lobby agency with firm links to the Wall Street/corporate US establishment and facilitates its global agenda. Modi turned to APCO to help transform his image and turn him into electable pro-corporate PM material. It also helped him get the message out that what he achieved in Gujarat as Chief Minister was a miracle of economic neoliberalism, although the actual reality is quite different.

A few years ago, APCO stated that India’s resilience in weathering the global downturn and financial crisis has made governments, policy makers, economists, corporate houses and fund managers believe that the country can play a significant role in the recovery of global capitalism.

Decoded, this means capital moving into regions and nations and displacing indigenous systems of production and consumption. Where agriculture is concerned, this hides behind emotive and seemingly altruistic rhetoric about ‘helping farmers’ and the need to ‘feed a burgeoning population’ (regardless of the fact this is exactly what India’s farmers have been doing).

Modi has been on board with this aim and has proudly stated that India is now one of the most ‘business friendly’ countries in the world. What he really means is that India is in compliance with World Bank directives on ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ by facilitating further privatisation of public enterprises, environment-destroying policies and forcing working people to take part in a race to the bottom based on ‘free’ market fundamentalism.

APCO has described India as a trillion-dollar market. It talks about positioning international funds and facilitating corporations’ ability to exploit markets, sell products and secure profit. None of this is a recipe for national sovereignty, let alone food security. For instance, renowned agronomist MS Swaminathan has stated: “Independent foreign policy is only possible with food security. Therefore, food has more than just eating implications. It protects national sovereignty, national rights and national prestige.”

Despite such warnings, India’s agrarian base is being uprooted. When agri-food corporations say they need to expand the use of GMOs or other technologies or invest in India under the guise of feeding the world or ‘modernising’ the sector, they’re really talking about capturing the market that’s still controlled by peasant agriculture or small-scale enterprises. To get those markets they first need to displace the peasantry and local independent producers.

Politicians are clever at using poor management, bad administration and overblown or inept enterprises as an excuse for privatisation and deregulation. Margaret Thatcher was an expert at this: if something does not work correctly because of bad management, privatise it; underinvest in something, make it seem like a basket case and sell it; pump up a sector with public funds to turn it into a profitable, efficient enterprise then sell it off to the private sector. The tactics take many forms.

And Indian agriculture has witnessed gross underinvestment over the years, whereby it is now wrongly depicted as a basket case and underperforming and ripe for a sell off to those very interests who had a stake in its underinvestment.

Historian Michael Perelman has detailed the processes that whipped the English peasantry into a workforce ‘willing’ to accept factory wage labour. Peasants were forced to leave their land and go to work for below-subsistence wages in dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of industrial capitalists. Perelman describes the policies through which peasants were forced out of agriculture, not least by the barring of access to common land. A largely self-reliant population was starved of its productive means.

Today, we hear seemingly benign terms like ‘foreign direct investment’ and making India ‘business friendly’, but behind the rhetoric lies the hard-nosed approach of modern-day capitalism that is no less brutal for Indian farmers than early industrial capitalism was for English peasants. The intention is for India’s displaced cultivators to be retrained to work as cheap labour in the West’s offshored plants. India is to be a fully incorporated subsidiary of global capitalism, with its agri-food sector restructured for the needs of global supply chains and a reserve army of labour that effectively serves to beat workers and unions in the West into submission.

India’s spurt of high GDP growth was partly fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers: the gap between farmers’ income and the rest of the population has widened enormously. While underperforming corporations receive massive handouts and have loans written off, the lack of a secure income, exposure to international market prices and cheap imports contribute to farmers’ misery of not being able to cover the costs of production.

As independent cultivators are bankrupted, the aim is that land will eventually be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation. Those who remain in farming will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

The long-term plan is for an urbanised India with a fraction of the population left in farming working on contracts for large suppliers and Wal-Mart-type supermarkets that offer highly processed, denutrified, genetically altered food contaminated with chemicals and grown in increasingly degraded soils according to an unsustainable model of agriculture that is less climate/drought resistant, less diverse and unable to achieve food security. This would be disastrous for farmers, public health and local livelihoods.

The 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report recommended agroecology to maintain and increase the productivity of global agriculture. The recent UN High Level Panel of Experts report concludes that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture. Both reports note the vital importance of smallholder farming.

India needs to adopt a rural-centric approach to development and resist being incorporated further into the globalised food regime dominated by Western agri-food conglomerates. It must move away from a narrowly defined notion of food security and embrace the concept of food sovereignty. This notion of food security has been designed and enacted by Western corporations that have promoted large-scale, industrialised corporate farming based on specialised production, land concentration and trade liberalisation. This has led to the widespread dispossession of small producers and global ecological degradation.

What we have witnessed is an international system of chemical-dependent, agro-export mono-cropping and big infrastructure projects linked to loans, sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF directives, the outcomes of which have included a displacement of the peasantry, the consolidation of global agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries into food deficit regions.

Across the world, we have seen a change in farming practices towards mechanised industrial-scale chemical-intensive monocropping and the undermining or eradication of rural economies, traditions and cultures. We see the ‘structural adjustment’ of regional agriculture, spiralling input costs for farmers who have become dependent on proprietary seeds and technologies and the destruction of food self-sufficiency.

In effect, we see a globalised ‘stuffed and starved’ food regime that benefits the rich countries at the expense of the poor. Given the ecological devastation, water resource depletion (and pollution), soil degradation and the dependency relations that form part of this system, global food security has been undermined.

Whether it involves the transformation of Africa from a net exporting food continent to a net importer or the devastating impacts of soy cultivation in Argentina, localised, traditional methods of food production have given way to global supply chains dominated by policies which favour agri-food giants, resulting in the imposition of a model of agriculture that subjugates remaining farmers and regions to the needs and profit margins of these companies.

Food sovereignty

On the other hand, food sovereignty encompasses the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food and the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems. ‘Culturally appropriate’ is a nod to the foods people have traditionally produced and eaten as well as the associated socially embedded practices which underpin community and a sense of communality. But it goes beyond that.

People have a deep microbiological connection to soils, processing and fermentation processes which affect the gut microbiome – the up to six pounds of bacteria, viruses and microbes akin to human soil. And as with actual soil, the microbiome can become degraded according to what we ingest (or fail to ingest). Many nerve endings from major organs are located in the gut and the microbiome effectively nourishes them. There is ongoing research taking place into how the microbiome is disrupted by the modern globalised food production/processing system and the chemical bombardment it is subjected to.

Capitalism colonises (and degrades) all aspects of life but is colonising the very essence of our being – even on a physiological level. With their agrochemicals and food additives, powerful companies are attacking this ‘soil’ and with it the human body. As soon as we stopped eating locally-grown, traditionally-processed food, cultivated in healthy soils and began eating food subjected to chemical-laden cultivation and processing activities, we began to change ourselves. Along with cultural traditions surrounding food production and the seasons, we also lost our deep-rooted microbiological connection with our localities. We traded it in for corporate chemicals and seeds and global food chains dominated by the likes of Monsanto (now Bayer), Nestle and Cargill.

Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, neurotransmitters in the gut affect our moods and thinking. 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.

Science writer and neurobiologist Mo Costandi has discussed gut bacteria and their balance and importance in brain development. Gut microbes controls 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 there are going to be serious implications for children and adolescents.

In addition, UK-based environmentalist Rosemary Mason notes that increasing levels of obesity are associated with low bacterial richness in the gut. Indeed, it has been noted that tribes not exposed to the modern food system have richer microbiomes. Mason lays the blame squarely at the door of agrochemicals, not least the use of the world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. Mason argues that it also kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria.

To ensure genuine food security (and good health), India must transition to a notion of food sovereignty based on optimal self-sufficiency, agroecological principles and local ownership and stewardship of common resources – land, water, soil, seeds, etc. Agroecology outperforms the prevailing resource-depleting, fossil-fuel dependent industrial food system in terms of diversity of food output, nutrition per acre, soil health and efficient water use.

Moreover, it is important to note that such a system would not be reliant on oil or natural gas. Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent on finite fossil fuels, from the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides to all stages of food production, including planting, irrigation, harvesting, processing, distribution, shipping and packaging. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels.

A food system so heavily reliant on fossil fuel is fragile to say the least, especially given the geopolitical machinations that affect the supply and price of oil. Consider the UK, for instance, which has to import 40% of its food; and much of the rest depends on oil to produce it, which also has to be imported.

The scaling up of agroecology has the potential to more effectively tackle hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation and climate change. By creating securely paid labour-intensive agricultural work, it can also address the interrelated links between labour offshoring by rich countries and the removal of rural populations elsewhere who end up in sweat shops to carry out the outsourced jobs.

The principles of agroecology include self-reliance and localisation. This model does not rely on shipping food over long distances, corporate owned or controlled seeds or proprietary inputs. It is potentially more climate resilient, profitable for farmers and can make a significant contribution to carbon storage (and draw down carbon from the atmosphere), water conservation, soil quality and nutrient-dense diets.

However, this represents a challenge to international capital: low input, agroecological models of food production and notions of independence and local self-reliance do not provide opportunities to global agribusiness or international funds to exploit markets, sell their products and cash in on APCO’s vision of a multi-billion-dollar corporate hijack of India.

Fast Food Nations and Global Nutrition


Daniel Maingi works with small farmers in Kenya and belongs to the organisation Growth Partners for Africa. He remembers a time when his family would grow and eat a diversity of crops, such as mung beans, green grams, pigeon peas and a variety of fruits now considered ‘wild’.

Following the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, the foods of his childhood have been replaced with maize. He says that in the morning you make porridge from maize. For lunch, it’s boiled maize and a few green beans. In the evening, a dough-like maize dish is served with meat. He adds that it is now a monoculture diet.

The situation is encapsulated by Vandana Shiva who says if we grow millets and pulses, we will have more nutrition per capita. But If we grow food by using chemicals, we are growing monocultures, which leads to less nutrition per acre, per capita. Monocultures do not produce more food and nutrition but use more chemicals and are therefore profitable for agrochemical companies.

Junk food and free trade

Moving from Africa to Mexico, we can see that agri-food concerns have infiltrated the food system there too. They are taking over food distribution channels and replacing local foods with cheap processed commodities. Free trade and investment agreements have been critical to this process and an alarming picture is set out of the consequences for ordinary people, not least in terms of their diet and health.

In 2012, Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health released the results of a national survey of food security and nutrition. Between 1988 and 2012, the proportion of obese women between the ages of 20 and 49 increased from 9 to 37 per cent. Mexican children are increasingly overweight, while one in ten school age children suffered from anaemia. Diabetes is now the third most common cause of death in Mexico.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter concluded that the trade policies currently in place favour greater reliance on heavily processed and refined foods. He added that the overweight and obesity emergency that Mexico is facing could have been avoided or largely mitigated if the health concerns linked to shifting diets had been integrated into the design of those policies.

The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has led to foreign direct investment in food processing and a change in the country’s retail structure. As well as the emergence of global agribusiness companies in Mexico, there has been an explosive growth of chain supermarkets and convenience stores. Traditional corner shops are giving way to corporate retailers that offer the processed food companies even greater opportunities for sales. For example, Oxxo (owned by Coca-cola subsidiary Femsa) was on course to open its 14,000th store sometime during 2015.

In Mexico, the loss of food sovereignty has induced catastrophic changes in the nation’s diet and trade policies have effectively displaced large numbers of smallholder farmers. India should take heed. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18 highlights similar disturbing trends in India.

Bad food in India

Policy makers have been facilitating the corporatisation of Indian agriculture and the food processing and retail sectors, both of which have tended to be small scale and key to supporting local (rural) economies and livelihoods. There are of course major implications for food security and food sovereignty, but what this could mean for the nation’s diet and health is clear to see.

The commodification of seeds, the selling of more and more chemicals to spray on crops or soil, the chemicalisation of food and the selling of pharmaceuticals or the expansion of private hospitals to address the health impacts of the modern junk food system is ‘good for business’. And what is good for business is good for GDP growth, or so we are told. This is nonsense.

In the latest edition of India’s Current Science journal, a guest editorial by Seema Purushothaman notes the importance that small farms could play in addressing poverty, inequality, hunger, health and climate issues. But the development paradigm is obsessed with a misguided urban-centric GDP ‘growth’ model.

And that author is correct. Whether it involves Mexico or India, to address nutrition, we must focus on small farmers. They and their families constitute a substantial percentage of the country’s poor (and undernourished) and are the ones that can best supply both rural and urban populations with nutritious foods cultivated using agroecological farming practices. Numerous high-level official reports have emphasised the key role that such farmers could have in providing food security.

However, western agri-food corporations are acquiring wider entry into India and are looking to gain a dominant footprint within the sector. This is being facilitated by World Bank ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ directives as well as the implementation of the corporate-driven Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), which was signed with the US in 2005.

These corporations’ front groups are also hard at work. According to a September 2019 report in the New York Times, ‘A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World’, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies. The article lays bare ILSI’s influence on the shaping of high-level food policy globally, not least in India.

ILSI helps to shape narratives and policies that sanction the roll out of processed foods containing high levels of fat, sugar and salt. In India, ILSI’s expanding influence coincides with mounting rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Accused of being little more than a front group for its 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, ILSI’s members include Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone. The report says ILSI has received more than $2 million from chemical companies, among them Monsanto. In 2016, a UN committee issued a ruling that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, was “probably not carcinogenic,” contradicting an earlier report by the WHO’s cancer agency. The committee was led by two ILSI officials.

From India to China, whether it has involved warning labels on unhealthy packaged food or shaping anti-obesity education campaigns that stress physical activity and divert attention from the role of food corporations, prominent figures with close ties to the corridors of power have been co-opted to influence policy in order to protect agri-food corporations’ bottom line.

Cultivation

In the absence of government support for agriculture or an effective programme for delivering optimal nutrition, farmers are also being driven to plant crops that potentially bring in the best financial returns. A recent article on the People’s Archive of Rural India website highlights farmers in a region of Odisha are being pushed towards a reliance on (illegal) expensive genetically modified herbicide tolerant cotton seeds and are replacing their traditional food crops.

The region’s strength lay in multiple cropping systems, but commercial cotton monoculture has altered crop diversity, soil structure, household income stability, farmers’ independence and, ultimately, food security. It is also undermining farmers’ traditional knowledge of agroecology which has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Although agri-food capital has been moving in on India for some time, India is an agrarian-based country underpinned by smallholder agriculture and decentralised food processing. Foreign capital therefore first needs to displace the current model before bringing India’s food and agriculture sector under its control. This is precisely what is happening.

Although this article touches on many issues, at the heart of the discussion is how we regard food. Are we to be denied the fundamental right to healthy food and well-being or is food just another commodity to be controlled by rich corporations to boost their bottom line?

  • A shorter version of this article initially appeared on Outlook India Poshan.
  • The Right to Healthy Food: Poisoned with Pesticides    

    Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason has just written an open letter addressed to three senior officials in Britain: John Gardiner, Under Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the British government; Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England; and Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security.

    Her letter focuses on the issue of food and the herbicide glyphosate. But the issues she discusses should not be regarded as being specific to the situation in Britain: they apply equally to countries across the world which are facilitating the interests of global agrochemicals conglomerates.

    For instance, according to a September 2019 report in the New York Times, ‘A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World’, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies. The article lays bare ILSI’s influence on the shaping of high-level food policy globally, not least in India and China.

    Accused of being little more than a front group for its 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, ILSI’s members include Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone. The report says ILSI has received more than $2 million from chemical companies, among them Monsanto. In 2016, a UN committee issued a ruling that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, was “probably not carcinogenic,” contradicting an earlier report by the WHO’s cancer agency. The committee, it turned out, was led by two ILSI officials.

    And this brings us to Rosemary Mason’s letter.

    In it, she describes how she established a very successful nature reserve in South Wales, which attracted huge numbers of insects, two bat species and many swallows, house martins and swifts. She says that it was miraculous. But disaster soon followed.

    In 2011, the local council was asked to attempt to destroy Japanese Knotweed using the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup.  Japanese Knotweed had become resistant to Roundup in the 1980s. That meant that however much of the chemical was sprayed, it was impossible to kill it; the plant just grew bigger and stronger. Between 2012 and 2017, Mason notes that the number of insects on her reserve began to decline. It ultimately became a wildlife desert.

    Mason asks:

    Monsanto, the British government and the UK and EU regulators say that glyphosate is safer than table salt. But would table salt kill all these insects that we recorded in our photo-journals or cause apocalyptic declines globally?

    She adds that the invertebrates in her nature reserve were poisoned. But that was only the half of it:

    My neurologist concluded that I had developed a toxic neurodegenerative disorder secondary to long-term exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides.

    Mason proceeds to outline the cosy relationship between the agrochemicals sector, Cancer Research UK and the British government, the result of which is to promote a disease narrative that diverts attention from the effects of toxic agrochemicals and place the blame on individual lifestyle behaviour, choice of diet and alcohol consumption. She asks:

    Where is the scientific evidence for this?

    Aside from the government’s collusion with pesticides manufacturers, Mason says the corporate media, most notably in Britain, are silent about pesticides that are poisoning the public:

    They haven’t informed the British people about the trials involving Roundup in the US. Bayer estimates that there are currently more than 42,000 plaintiffs alleging that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by Monsanto caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the UK, there were 13,605 new cases of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2015 (and 4,920 deaths in 2016).

    Mason refers to Robert F Kennedy Jr, one of the US attorneys fighting Bayer (which bought Monsanto). He says that Monsanto told Bayer that a $270-million set-aside would cover all its outstanding liabilities arising from Monsanto’s 5,000 Roundup cancer lawsuits. However, Bayer never saw certain internal Monsanto documents prior to the purchase.

    Kennedy explains that for four decades Monsanto manoeuvred to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning.

    He adds that Monsanto also faces cascading scientific evidence linking glyphosate to a constellation of other injuries that have become prevalent since its introduction, including obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts.

    Moreover, strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10.

    Whether as a weed killer or as a desiccant to dry oats and wheat immediately before harvest, farmers have been spraying Roundup directly on food. Roundup sales rose dramatically to 300 million pounds annually in the US, with farmers spraying enough to cover every tillable acre in the country with a gallon of Roundup.

    Glyphosate now accounts for about 50% of all herbicide use in the US. About 75% of use has occurred since 2006, with the global glyphosate market projected to reach $11.74 billion by 2023.

    Kennedy asserts that never in history has a chemical been used so pervasively: glyphosate is in our air, water, plants, animals, grains, vegetables and meats. And it’s in beer and wine, children’s breakfast cereal and snack bars and mother’s breast milk. It’s even in our vaccines.

    And yet, in the UK, as Mason explains, the Department of Health says pesticides are not its concern. None of the more than 400 pesticides that have been authorised in the UK have been tested for long-term actions on the brain; in the foetus, the child or the adult. But perhaps that’s to be expected: between May 2010 and the end of 2013, the Department of Health alone had 130 meetings with representatives of the agri-food industry.

    Mason then says that the Department of Health’s School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme has residues of 123 different pesticides, some of which are linked to serious health problems such as cancer and disruption of the hormone system. Moreover, the scientific community has little understanding about the complex interaction of different chemicals in what is termed the ‘cocktail’ effect.

    The effects of these toxins carry through to adulthood. Mason discusses the deleterious effects of glyphosate on the gut microbiome. Glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway within these gut bacteria and is a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. In addition, it kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria to flourish. She adds that we are facing a global metabolic health crisis provoked by an obesity epidemic linked to glyphosate.

    Gut bacteria are vitally important to our well-being. Many key neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking. Findings published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in 2014 provided 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.

    Mason then proceeds to provides evidence that shows that Britain (and the US) is in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis.

    She refers to a letter written in 2013 by the late Marion Copley (US EPA toxicologist) to her colleague Jess Rowland. She accused Rowland of conniving with Monsanto to bury the agency’s own hard scientific evidence that it is “essentially certain” that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, causes cancer. The date of the letter comes after Copley left the EPA in 2012 and shortly before she died from breast cancer at the age of 66 in January 2014:

    Jess, Since I left the agency with cancer [breast] I have studied the tumor process extensively… based on my decades of pathology experience. Glyphosate was originally designed as a chelating agent and I strongly believe that is the identical process involved in tumor formation.

    Dr Copley makes 14 observations about chelators and/or glyphosate, including that they are endocrine disruptors and suppress the immune system and damage the kidneys or pancreas, which can lead to clinical chemistry changes that favour tumour growth. She notes glyphosate kills bacteria in the gut: the gastrointestinal system is 80% of the immune system making the body susceptible to tumours.

    Copley adds:

    It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer.

    Mason concludes her letter by saying:

    The probability is that the population in Britain will increasingly suffer from the diseases associated with glyphosate-based herbicides and with the 400-odd pesticides that contaminate our food. The deleterious effects of glyphosate on trees and crops will also continue because it is in the soil, water, air and rainfall.

    On the back of Brexit, the Conservative government in Britain is set to jump into bed with the US via a trade deal hammered out without public scrutiny or parliamentary oversight. That deal could see the gutting of food safety and environmental standards so that they are brought in line with those in the US. With its recent ‘landslide’ election victory (having gained just 29.5% of the electorate’s votes), it seems increasingly likely that, given his stated commitment to do so, Boris Johnson will usher in herbicide-tolerant GM crops.

    US agrochemicals and GM seeds manufacturers must be salivating at the prospects of any such trade deal. With the privatisation of an increasingly burdened NHS likely to be part of a deal, private healthcare providers and insurers must be too.

    You may read Rosemary Mason’s open letter in full (with all relevant citations) here.

    Don’t Look, Don’t See: Time for Honest Media Reporting on Impacts of Pesticides

    The UK-based Independent online newspaper recently published an article about a potential link between air pollution from vehicles and glaucoma. It stated that according to a new study air pollution is linked to the eye condition that causes blindness.

    The report explained that researchers had looked at vision tests carried out on more than 111,000 people across Britain between 2006 and 2010 and cross-referenced results against levels of air pollution in their neighbourhoods. Those living in areas with higher amounts of fine particulate matter were at least 6% more likely to have glaucoma than those in the least polluted areas.

    Glaucoma affects half a million people in the UK and can cause blindness if left untreated. However, the study cited by The Independent, published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, was unable to prove that air pollution was a trigger.

    Following the article, environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason put together a 20-page report on glyphosate and has sent it out to key public health officials and media outlets, including The Independent’s editor. In her report, she states that the European Chemicals Agency classifies glyphosate as a substance that causes serious eye damage and is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects. But she claims that the media still remains silent on the matter. Even in UK towns and cities, glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide is still being sprayed on weeds and super-weeds which have become Roundup-resistant.

    Mason implores The Independent and other mainstream media outlets to write with honesty about the use and harmful effects of glyphosate-based weedicides and other agrochemicals. She quotes the UN expert on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, who in 2017 urged the EU to put children’s health before pesticides. Children form the most vulnerable part of the population as pesticides can adversely affect their development.

    Offering insight into the incidence of cataracts in England, Mason notes that annual rates of admission for cataract surgery rose 10‐fold from 1968 to 2004: from 62 episodes per 100,000 population to 637. A 2016 study by the WHO also confirmed that the incidence of cataracts had greatly increased: in ‘A global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks’ it says that cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Globally, cataracts are responsible for 51% of blindness. An estimated 20 million individuals suffer from this degenerative eye disease.

    Mason discusses long waiting lists for cataracts in England. Because the NHS cannot cope with the pressure, private companies are cashing in. The growing demand for cataract operations is forcing the NHS to send increasing numbers of patients to be treated privately.

    In Wales, where Mason resides, 35,000 patients are at risk of going blind from macular degeneration and glaucoma while on the NHS waiting list. All the municipal councils in Wales use glyphosate-based herbicides. Glyphosate now accounts for about 50% of all herbicide use in the US. About 75% of glyphosate use has occurred since 2006, with the global glyphosate market projected to reach $11.74 billion by 2023.

    Figures for the use of glyphosate in the UK show a similar trend, which Mason has documented in her many reports. And let us not forget at this point that the current Conservative government regards Brexit as an ideal opportunity to usher in crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of glyphosate or similar chemicals. The agrochemicals sector stands in the wings salivating at the prospect. This has nothing to do with boosting yields or ‘feeding the world’ as Boris Johnson asserts (claims which fail to stand up to scrutiny) but has everything to do with facilitating industry ambitions.

    Never in history has a chemical been used so pervasively. Glyphosate is in our air, water, plants, animals, grains, vegetables and meats. It’s in beer and wine, children’s breakfast cereal and snack bars and mother’s breast milk. It’s even in our vaccines.

    Of course, the power of the pesticides companies has been well noted. In 2017, global agrochemical corporations were severely criticised by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver. A report presented to the UN human rights council accused them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions.”

    The report authored by Hilal Elver and Baskut Tuncak says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”, including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning. Its authors said: “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

    Hilal Elver says:

    Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are able to feed nine billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.

    Elver said many of the pesticides are used on commodity crops, such as palm oil and soy, not the food needed by the world’s hungry people:

    The corporations are not dealing with world hunger; they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.

    Mason notes that chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to a range of diseases and conditions and that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity and destroying the natural enemies of pests. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies. Moreover, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides is particularly worrying because they are linked to a systematic collapse in the number of bees around the world. Some 71% of crop species are bee pollinated.

    Mason goes on to describe the various lawsuits in the US against Bayer (which bought Monsanto) and the tactics used by Monsanto to conceal glyphosate-based Roundup’s carcinogenicity, including capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning.

    Following the court decision to award in favour of Dewayne Johnson, attorney Robert Kennedy Jr said the following at the post-trial press conference:

    … you not only see many people injured, but you also see a subversion of democracy. You see the corruption of public officials, the capture of agencies that are supposed to protect us all from pollution. The agencies become captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. The corruption of science, the falsification of science, and we saw all those things happen here. This is a company (Monsanto) that used all of the plays in the playbook developed over 60 years by the tobacco industry to escape the consequences of killing one of every five of its customers… Monsanto… has used those strategies…

    There is now also a good deal of scientific evidence linking glyphosate to obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease and brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts. Strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10. Researchers also peg glyphosate as a potent endocrine disruptor, which interferes with sexual development in children.

    The compound is also a chelator that removes important minerals from the body, including iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and molybdenum. Roundup disrupts the microbiome destroying beneficial bacteria in the human gut and triggering brain inflammation and other ill effects.

    Neurotransmitter changes in the brain have been detected due to exposure to glyphosate. This is why, according to Mason, there are so many mental health and psychiatric disorders, depression, suicides, anxiety and violence among children and adults. It is even found in popular breakfast cereals marketed for UK children.

    And this says nothing about the cocktail of pesticides sprayed on crops. The Soil Association and PAN UK have indicated that exposure to mixtures of pesticides commonly found in UK food, water and soil may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife. A quarter of all food and over a third of fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK contain pesticide cocktails, with some items containing traces of up to 14 different pesticides.

    The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment has identified the rights threatened by environmental harm, including the rights to life, health, food and water and has mapped obligations to protect against such harm from private actors. In effect, where pesticides are concerned, the public are being denied the right to a healthy environment.

    But it’s not just the powerful pesticides lobby that is to blame here. Rosemary Mason says the British public (and indeed people across the world) have a right to information. However, she concludes that the public have been denied this because mainstream media outlets have on the whole for too long opted to remain silent on the pesticides issue.

    This article touches on just a few of the points in Rosemary Mason’s report. Readers can access the full text of ‘Glyphosatecauses serious eye damage’ on the academia.edu site.

    Hunger Games: Food Abundance and Twisted Truths 

    The world already produces enough food to feed 10 million people but over two billion are experiencing micronutrient deficiencies (of which 821 million were classed as chronically undernourished in 2018). However, supporters of genetic engineering (GE) crops continually push the narrative that GE technology is required if we are to feed the world and properly support farmers.

    First of all, it must be stressed that there is already sufficient evidence to question the efficacy of GE crops; however, despite this, conventional options and innovations that outperform GE crops are in danger of being sidelined in a rush by powerful, publicly unaccountable private interests like the Gates Foundation to facilitate the introduction of GE into global agriculture; crops whose main ‘added value’ is the financial rewards accrued by the corporations behind them.

    Secondly, even if we are to accept that at some stage GE can supplement conventional practices, we must acknowledge that from the outset of the GMO project, the sidelining of serious concerns about the technology has occurred and despite industry claims to the contrary, there is no scientific consensus on the health impacts of GE crops.

    Both the Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GE crops and foods, in that they agree that GE differs from conventional breeding. There is sufficient reason to hold back on commercialising GE crops and to subject each GMO to independent, transparent environmental, social, economic and health impact evaluations.

    To evaluate the pro-GMO lobby’s rhetoric that GE is needed to ‘feed the world’, we first need to understand the dynamics of a globalized food system that fuels hunger and malnutrition against a backdrop of food overproduction. As Andrew Smolski describes it: capitalism’s production of ‘hunger in abundance’.

    Over the last 50 years, we have seen the consolidation of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping (often with non-food commodities taking up prime agricultural land) and linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF ‘structural adjustment’ directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas.

    As long as these dynamics persist and food injustice remains an inherent feature of the global food regime, the rhetoric of GM being necessary for feeding the world is merely ideology and bluster. Furthermore, if we continue to regard food as a commodity in a globalized capitalist food system, we shall continue to see the comprehensive contamination of food with sugar, bad fats, synthetic additives, GMOs and pesticides and rising rates of diseases and serious health conditions, including surges in obesity, diabetes and cancer incidence, but no let-up in the under-nutrition of those too poor to join in the over-consumption.

    Looking at India as an example, although it continues to do poorly in world hunger rankings, the country has achieved self-sufficiency in food grains and has ensured there is enough food available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, fruit and cotton.

    Farmers, therefore, produce enough food. It stands to reason that hunger and malnutrition result from other factors (such as inadequate food distribution, inequality and poverty). It is again a case of ‘scarcity’ amid abundance. The country even continues to export food while millions remain hungry.

    While the pro-GMO lobby says GE will boost productivity and help secure cultivators a better income, this too is misleading as it again ignores crucial political and economic contexts; with bumper harvests, Indian farmers still find themselves in financial distress.

    India’s farmers are not experiencing hardship due to low productivity. They are reeling from the effects of neoliberal policies, years of neglect and a deliberate strategy to displace smallholder agriculture at the behest of the World Bank and predatory global agri-food corporations. It’s for good reason that the calorie and essential nutrient intake of the rural poor has drastically fallen.

    And yet, the pro-GMO lobby wastes no time in wrenching these issues from their political contexts to use the notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynchpins of its promotional strategy.

    Agroecological principles

    Many of the traditional practices of small farmers are now recognised as sophisticated and appropriate for high-productive, sustainable agriculture. These practices involve an integrated low-input systems approach to agriculture that emphasises, among other things, local food security and sovereignty, diverse nutrition production per acre, water table stability, climate resilience and good soil structure. Agroecology represents a shift away from the reductionist yield-output industrial paradigm, which results in enormous pressures on health and the environment.

    A recent FAO high-level report called for agroecology and smallholder farmers to be prioritised and invested in to achieve global sustainable food security. Smallholder (non-GMO) farming using low-input methods tends to be more productive in total output than large-scale industrial farms and can be more profitable and resilient to climate change.

    Despite the fact that globally industrial agriculture grabs 80 per cent of subsidies and 90 per cent of research funds, smallholder agriculture plays a major role in feeding the world. At the same time, these massive subsidies and funds support a system that is only made profitable because agri-food oligopolies externalize the massive health, social and environmental costs of their operations.

    These corporations leverage their financial clout, lobby networks, funded science and political influence to cement a ‘thick legitimacy’ among policy makers for their vision of agriculture. In turn,  World Bank ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ directives, the World Trade Organization ‘agreement on agriculture’ and trade related intellectual property rights help secure their interests.

    In the meantime, supporters of GMO agriculture continue to display a willful ignorance of the structure of the food system which produces the very problem it claims it can resolve. The pro-GMO scientific lobby arrogantly pushes its ideological agenda while ignoring the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition and denigrating genuine solutions centred on food sovereignty.