All posts by Colin Todhunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They argue:

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

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

The letter states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They argue:

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

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

The letter states:

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

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

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

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

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

From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A question of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMOs and a post-Brexit deal with the US

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

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

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

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

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

Rommens responds:

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

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

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

Food, Justice, Violence and Capitalism

In 2015, India’s internal intelligence agency wrote a report that depicted various campaigners and groups as working against the national interest. The report singled out environmental activists and NGOs that had been protesting against state-corporate policies. Those largely undemocratic and unconstitutional policies were endangering rivers, forests and local ecologies, destroying and oppressing marginalised communities, entrenching the corporatisation of agriculture and usurping land rights.

These issues are not unique to India. Resistance against similar practices and injustices is happening across the world. And for their efforts, campaigners are being abused, incarcerated and murdered. Whether people are campaigning for the land rights of tribal communities in India or for the rights of peasant farmers in Latin America or are campaigning against the fracking industry in the UK or against pipelines in the US, there is a common thread: non-violent protest to help bring about a more just and environmentally sustainable world.

What is ultimately fueling the push towards the relentless plunder of land, peoples and the environment is a strident globalised capitalism, euphemistically termed ‘globalisation’, which is underpinned by increasing state surveillance, paramilitary-type law enforcement and a US-backed push towards militarism.

The deregulation of international capital movement (financial liberalisation) effectively turned the world into a free-for-all for global capital. The ramping up of this militarism comes at the back end of a deregulating/pro-privatising neoliberal agenda that has sacked public budgets, depressed wages, expanded credit to consumers and to governments (to sustain spending and consumption) and unbridled financial speculation. In effect, spending on war is in part a desperate attempt to boost a stagnant US economy.

We may read the writings of the likes of John Perkins (economic hitmen), Michel Chossudovsky (the globalisation of poverty), Michael Hudson (treasury bond super-imperialism) or Paul Craig Roberts (the US’s descent into militarism and mass surveillance) to understand the machinations of billionaire capitalists and the economic system and massive levels of exploitation and suffering they preside over.

Food activists are very much part of the global push-back and the struggle for peace, equality and justice and in one form or another are campaigning against violence, corruption and cronyism. There is a determination to question and to hold to account those with wealth and power, namely, transnational agribusiness corporations and their cronies who hold political office.

There is sufficient evidence for us to know that these companies lie and cover up truth. And we also know that their bought politicians, academics, journalists and right-wing neoliberal backers and front groups smear critics and attempt to marginalise alternative visions of food and agriculture.

They are first to man the barricades when their interests are threatened. Those interests are tied to corporate power, neoliberal capitalism and the roll out of food for profit. These companies and their cheerleaders would be the last to speak up about the human rights abuses faced by environmentalists in various places across the world. They have little to say about the injustices of a global food regime that creates and perpetuates food surpluses in rich countries and food deficits elsewhere, resulting in a billion people with insufficient food for their daily needs. Instead all they have to offer are clichés about the need for more corporate freedom and deregulation if we are to ‘feed the world’.

And they attempt to gloss over or just plain ignore the land grabs and the marginalisation of peasant farmers across the world, the agrarian crisis in India or the harm done by agrochemicals because it is all tied to the neoliberal globalisation agenda which fuels corporate profit, lavish salaries or research grants.

It is the type of globalisation that has in the UK led to deindustrialisation, massive inequalities, the erosion of the welfare state and an increasing reliance on food banks. In South America, there has been the colonisation of lands and farmers to feed richer countries’ unsustainable, environment-destroying appetite for meat. In effect what Helena Paul once described in The Ecologist as genocide and ecocide.  From India to Argentina, we have witnessed (are witnessing) the destruction of indigenous practices and cultures under the guise of ‘development’.

And from various bilateral trade agreements and WTO policies to IMF and World Bank directives, we have seen the influence of transnational agricapital shaping and benefiting from ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘structural adjustment’ type strategies.

We also see the globalisation of bad food and illness and the deleterious impacts of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture on health, rivers, soils and oceans. The global food regime thrives on the degradation of health, environment, labour and communities and the narrowing of the range of crops grown resulting in increasingly monolithic, nutrient-deficient diets.

Whether it includes any or all of the above or the hollowing out of regulatory agencies and the range of human rights abuses we saw documented during The Monsanto Tribunal, what we see is the tacit acceptance of neoliberal policies and the perpetuation of structural (economic, social and political) violence by mainstream politicians and agricapital and its cheerleaders.

At the same time, however, what we are also witnessing is a loosely defined food movement becoming increasingly aware of the connection between these issues.

Of course, to insinuate that those campaigning for the labelling of GM food, the right to healthy food or access to farmers markets in the West and peasant movements involved with wider issues pertaining to food sovereignty, corporate imperialism and development in the Global South form part of a unified ‘movement’ in terms of material conditions or ideological outlook would be stretching a point.

After all, if you campaign for, say, healthy organic food in your supermarket, while overlooking the fact that the food in question derives from a cash crop which displaced traditional cropping systems and its introduction effectively destroyed largely food self-sufficient communities and turned them into food importing basket cases three thousand miles away, where is the unity?

However, despite the provisos, among an increasing number of food activists the struggle for healthy food in the West, wider issues related to the impact of geopolitical IMF-World Bank lending strategies and WTO policies and the securing of local community ownership of ‘the commons’ (land, water, seeds, research, technology, etc) are understood as being interconnected.

There is an emerging unity of purpose within the food movement and the embracing of a vision for a better, more just food system that can only deliver genuine solutions by challenging and replacing capitalism and its international relations of production and consumption.

Public Space and the Bicycle: Copenhagenizing Cities

Indian cities are in crisis. Spend any length of time in a large city there and you will notice the overcrowding, the power and water shortages and, during monsoon, the streets that transform into stinking, litter-strewn rivers. At times, these cities can be almost unbearable to live in. Little wonder then that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is taking hold among policy makers, however flawed the notion might seem to be.

And, not least, of course, there is the horrendous traffic chaos and congestion, the choking pollution and the increasing number of massive concrete flyovers: monstrosities that have taken their place among numerous other planning disasters that blight so many Indian cities.

A couple of years back, Delhi introduced an ‘odd-even’ traffic policy whereby vehicles with certain registration numbers were allowed on the road only on designated days to try to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution. But this failed to solve the underlying problem that stems from a model of ‘development’ that associates a (wholly unnecessary) push for urbanisation and car ownership with progress.

Despite the problems, the greater the urban sprawl and the more road building that takes place, the happier are the real estate, construction and car manufacturing sectors. That’s not idle speculation: the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World describes how the car and oil industry criminally conspired to undermine public transport systems in US cities to get the population and urban planners hooked on the car.

As long as urban planners prioritise the car and wrong-headed notions of ‘development’ governed by powerful players continue, Indian cities will not only sprawl ever outwards and be defined by traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, but residents will experience an ever-worsening decline in their quality of life and increasing dependency on motorized transport.

Indian planners might wish to take note of a recent New York Times article which highlighted that Los Angeles has decided against adding lanes to a freeway. Although Andre Gorz noted this back in 1973, policy makers are waking up to the fact that building extra lanes merely means more cars, more pollution and journey times increasing. As soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity (known as induced traffic demand).

This induced demand imposes costs on us all in terms of degraded public space and serious health risks (recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children).

Just as some countries are now realising the folly of widening and building ever more roads and jamming cities with cars, Indian planners carry on regardless by blighting the urban landscape with ever more huge concrete flyovers and expressways snaking across cities and dividing and destroying communities.

Smart thinking

A day before Delhi implemented the second phase of its ‘odd-even’ vehicle policy, the city announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion by enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers and underpasses.

One would have thought that smart cities call for smart thinking. Not so in Delhi.

If there is one city that seems to be on the right track, it is Copenhagen. The city believes that cycling should be the foundation for sustainable transport strategies and is key to making cities clean, green and liveable. Copenhagen’s urban transport solution gives space to cars but more importantly to bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Back in the early 1970s, Copenhagen was just as traffic-clogged as anywhere. Now it has around 400 km of cycle paths. The city’s 2017 Annual Bicycle Report confirms that cycling is the preferred mode of transport for the city’s inhabitants. Each day, some 62% of Copenhageners use their bikes to go to work or school/college.

Copenhagen has in recent years been voted the ‘best city for cyclists’ and the ‘world’s most liveable city’. Throughout the world, there is now a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. As a result, Copenhagen’s renowned cycle-friendly policies are serving as a template for some of the world’s most congested cities.

Aside from health and environmental considerations, an effective urban transport policy should be democratic. Unlike cars, even the poorest segments of society can gain access to a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed democratic, not just for those who cycle but also for the rest of the population who are too often impacted by planning blight, pollution and the colonisation of urban space as a result of planning that privileges car users ahead of everyone else.

However, the bicycle is only truly democratic when spatial segregation is limited and bike lanes and appropriate cycle-friendly infrastructure exist to properly connect all areas. Inspired by Copenhagen, Mexico City’s bicycle strategy is attempting to address this issue through a comprehensive cycle path network, which aims to create mobility through areas that have been closed off due to previous planning strategies.

The arrogance of space

For cities to fully embrace the bicycle, city planners must stop thinking like motorists or capitulating to powerful lobby groups and plan for the needs of cyclists. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen-Albertslund route is the first of a planned network that will comprise 26 Cycle Super Highways, covering a total of 300 km. The network is predicted to reduce public expenditure by €40.3 million annually thanks to improved health.

Consider that in Europe 50% of most city land is dedicated to streets and roads, parking, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs. And yet the average European car is parked for 92% of the time. Of the other 8% of time, 1.5% is spent looking for a parking space, 1% in congestion and just 5% is spent driving. There are 30,000 deaths per year on European roads and four times as many disabling injuries. Consider too that an average European car has five seats but carries 1.5 persons per journey.

In Copenhagen, city planners tend to give an adequate proportion of road space to cyclists: proper cycle lanes with curbs that separate cycling space from car space; cycle lanes that are usually also sufficiently wide. After all, why should cars hog so much road space when the majority of road users are cyclists?

In the article ‘The Arrogance of Space’, it says:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with its distribution of space.

For too long the arrogance of car-obsessed urban planners has degraded our health and our quality of life. But when you have good-quality public transport and the opportunity to cycle thanks to appropriate infrastructure, there is no need to hand over excess space to cars and produce endless concrete sprawl for car parks.

Walk (or cycle) around Copenhagen and you will immediately appreciate there is much less traffic noise and pollution compared with other cities. It is indeed a spatially friendly and a compact city – and a less “arrogant city”. It is also less hectic and more tranquil than many other cities and – taking things even further – arguably more community-oriented.

The slow life

Of course, community-oriented living isn’t just due to transport strategies, although Andre Gorz said that to love your place or space, it must first of all be made liveable, not trafficable. He went on to state that the neighbourhood or community should be shaped by and for all human activities, “where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common.”

In Copenhagen, the municipality encourages outdoor living by offering open-access communal table tennis tables, basketball facilities, well thought out kids’ parks, landscaped parkland and lakes. Even during cold weather, Copenhageners congregate on the streets and in the parks to socialise and embrace the concept of ‘hygge’, probably best defined as: a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to recognise and enjoy the present. Get to know the city and you will soon realise that hygge isn’t just a cliché.

The key word in that definition is ‘slowness’ because from there we arrive at the concept of ‘slow living’.

Writing in 1973, activist and writer Ivan Illich stated:

The use of the bicycle… allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance… In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule [the car] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed, epitomised by car worship. Cars, speed and high-energy living have become essential facts of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed ‘slow living’ – in terms of intimacy, friendship and neighbourliness – for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

Where would be the need for the car when work, school or healthcare facilities are close by? Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through.

Instead, how about an enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment defined by community and intimacy? An environment free from traffic pollution or noise and where ‘neighbourhood’ has not been deadened and stripped of its neighbourliness, local stores and facilities.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with modern cities are not just due to cars or transport systems. Urban planning and the colonisation of space mirrors capitalism and the needs of powerful corporations.

By focusing on capitalism and how culture reflects the division of labour, Andre Gorz said:

It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

Although it would be naïve and misguided to think that the bicycle (and cultural change) could transform the social relations of capitalism, it is at least emblematic of a different form of urban planning and smart thinking.

Recolonising India: Gross Maladministration and the Illegal Entry of GMOs

Despite five high-level reports (listed here) in India advising against the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops, the drive to get GM mustard commercialised (which would be India’s first officially-approved GM food crop) has been relentless. Although the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has given it the nod, GM mustard remains held up in the Supreme Court mainly due to a public interest litigation by environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues.

Rodrigues argues that GM mustard is being undemocratically forced through with flawed tests (or no testing) and a lack of public scrutiny and that unremitting scientific fraud and outright regulatory delinquency has taken place. She is seeking a moratorium on the environmental release of any genetically modified organism (GMO) in the absence of: comprehensive, transparent and rigorous biosafety protocols; biosafety studies conducted by independent expert bodies; and access to biosafety protocols and data in the public domain.

On Friday 24 August 2018 and in relation to the ongoing court proceedings surrounding GM mustard, Rodrigues filed an additional court application concerning the ongoing illegal imports of GM seed, GM soy cultivation in Gujarat and the presence of GMO imports in processed foods and oils. All of this represents a back-door entry of GMOs into India.

The application is scathing about what it calls proof of ultimate ‘regulatory delinquency’ and of the regulators and attendant government ministries mortgaging the public interest.

This new 78-page submission to court asserts that the GEAC has provided cover for the illegal trade in imports of GM processed foods, including huge quantities of GM seeds as well as processed and crude soy oil. The GEAC is also accused of deliberately allowing the contamination of India’s food chain with untested GMOs, thereby potentially endangering the health of Indians.

In addition to the illegal cultivation of herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybean in Gujarat, there have also been reports of HT cotton illegally growing in India (insecticide-containing Bt cotton is the only legally sanctioned GM crop in India).

Interestingly, this 2017 paper discusses how cotton farmers have been encouraged to change their crop planting practices, leading to more weeds appearing in their fields. The outcome of this change in terms of yields or farmer profit is no better than before. These changes, however, coincide with illegal HT cotton seeds appearing on the market: farmers are being pushed towards a treadmill reliance on illegal cotton seeds genetically engineered designed to withstand chemical herbicides.

The authors, Glenn Stone and Andrew Flachs, say that traditional planting practices and ox-plough weeding are:

… being actively undermined by parties intent on expanding herbicide markets and opening a niche for next-generation genetically modified cotton.

They observe:

The challenge for agrocapital is how to break the dependence on double-lining and ox-weeding to open the door to herbicide-based management…. how could farmers be pushed onto an herbicide-intensive path?

In 2018, the Centre for Science and Environment tested 65 imported and domestically produced processed food samples in India. Some 32 per cent of the samples tested were GM positive: 46 per cent of those imported and 17 per cent of those samples manufactured in India. Out of the 20 GM-positive packaged samples, 13 did not mention use of GM ingredients on their labels. Some brands had claims on their labels suggesting that they had no GM ingredients but were found to be GM positive.

The situation has prompted calls for probes into the workings of the GEAC and other official bodies who seem to be asleep at the wheel or deliberately looking the other way.

But this wouldn’t be the first time: India’s only (now legal) GM crop cultivation – Bt cotton – was discovered in 2001 growing on thousands of hectares in Gujarat. The GEAC was caught off-guard when news about large scale illegal cultivation of Bt cotton emerged, even as field trials that were to decide whether India would opt for this GM crop were still underway.

In March 2002, the GEAC ended up approving Bt cotton for commercial cultivation in India. To this day, no liability has been fixed for the illegal spread.

The tactic of contaminate first then legalise has benefited industry players elsewhere too. In 2006, for instance, the US Department of Agriculture granted marketing approval of GM Liberty Link 601 (Bayer CropScience) rice variety following its illegal contamination of the food supply and rice exports. The USDA effectively sanctioned an ‘approval-by-contamination’ policy.

In her evidence submitted to court, Aruna Rodrgues argues that what is happening must invite the gravest charges. At least four institutions stand accused of unconscionable gross maladministration: The GEAC, Ministry of Commerce, the Food Safety Standards Authority, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, the Directorate of Plant Protection and Quarantine & Storage.

Corruption at the core of the global GM project

Corruption and illegality go hand in hand with the global GM project. For instance, a jury in San Francisco recently found that Monsanto had failed to warn former groundsman Dewayne Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers. It awarded him $39 million in compensatory and $250 million in punitive damages.

The jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.

The warning signs seen in scientific research about the dangers of glyphosate dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. However, Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products but to create its own science, designed to appear independent and thus more credible, to show they were safe.

To have Roundup removed from the market or its use heavily restricted would pull the rug from under much of Monsanto’s GM endeavour to date, which has relied on the roll-out of two crop traits: herbicide tolerance and bt insecticide. Monsanto genetically engineered crops to withstand direct spraying of Roundup (HT trait): these seeds and the herbicide are huge money spinners for the company. It comes as little surprise to many therefore that the company would use all means necessary to protect its product and its bottom line.

Glyphosate-based herbicides are widely used around the globe. Residues are commonly found in food and water supplies, and in soil, air samples and rainfall. Regulators, however, have failed to heed the warnings of independent scientists, even brushing aside the findings of the World Health Organization’s top cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen”.

Another trial will take place in October in St Louis involving roughly 4,000 plaintiffs whose claims are pending with the potential outcomes resulting in many more hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in damage awards. They all allege that their cancers were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides and that Monsanto has long known about, and covered up, the dangers (it is no coincidence that in Argentina, where glyphosate is liberally sprayed on GM HT crops, there has been dramatic increases in birth defects and cancers).

Unsurprisingly, many in India have called for a ban on HT tolerant crops. The Supreme Court appointed TEC Committee recommended a ban on HT crops (2013) and the Swaminathan Task Force Report (2004) recommendation was that HT crops are completely unsuited to Indian agriculture. Health dangers aside, in a country of small farms where multi-cropping is common, sanctioning the liberal spraying of herbicides on GM HT crops would be grossly negligent. Even in the US, with its huge farms and mono crop expanses, the spraying of the herbicide dicamba is causing big problems for farmers, many of whom claim the chemical has drifted onto their fields, damaging crops that are not genetically modified to withstand it.

But India’s regulators and attendant ministries have tried to introduce GM mustard which is tolerant to another herbicide, glufosinate (contained in Bayer’s brand ‘Basta’), a neurotoxin even more toxic than glyphosate.

Prof. Dave Schubert (Salk Institute for Biological Studies) in his document ‘A Hidden Epidemic’, says that we have reached the point where the evidence against probable carcinogen, glyphosate (active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup), is “directly analogous with DDT, asbestos, lead and tobacco, where industries were able to block regulatory actions for many years by perpetually muddying the waters about their safety with false or misleading data.”

Where GM is concerned, we are witnessing an unnecessary gamble with the genetic core of food, the environment and human health. Unnecessary because the US authorities themselves have conceded that GM crops have failed to achieve desired benefits. For example, regarding drought tolerance, the USDA has admitted that Monsanto’s drought-tolerant corn performs no better than existing drought-tolerant varieties of non-GM corn.

Regarding yields, in 2016 the US National Academies of Sciences concluded:

The nation-wide data on maize, cotton, or soybean in the United States do not show a significant signature of genetic engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.

In India and Burkina Faso, Bt cotton has not been a success. Moreover, a largely non-GMO Europe tends to outperform the US, which largely relies on GM crops. In general, “GM crops have not consistently increased yields or farmer incomes, or reduced pesticide use in North America or in the Global South1

“Currently available GM crops would not lead to major yield gains in Europe,” says Matin Qaim, a researcher at Georg-August-University of Göttingen, Germany.

Consider too that once the genetic genie is out of the bottle, there may be no way of going back. For instance, Roger Levett, specialist in sustainable development, argues:

If some people are allowed to choose to grow, sell and consume GMO foods, soon nobody will be able to choose food, or a biosphere, free of GMOs. It’s a one-way choice… once it’s made, it can’t be reversed.2

HT crops have also led to serious problems (as set out here) in countries where they are used.

Moreover, non-GM alternatives can outperform GM, yet officialdom in India seems to be facilitating the contamination of agriculture with illegal GMOs.

And what of India’s only legally permitted GM crop to date? The peer reviewed study “Deconstructing Indian cotton: weather, yields and suicides” concludes that “annual farmers’ suicide rates in rain-fed areas are inversely related to farm size and yield and directly related to increases in Bt-cotton adoption (i.e. costs)”.

Despite evidence of the failure of Bt cotton, Aruna Rodrigues notes that for the regulators it nevertheless strangely remains the official template of ‘success’ for other GM crops.

GMO based on a fraud

GM has not delivered as promised, is not ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM counterparts and poses unique risks (previously discussed here).

And the corporations behind the roll-out of GM have done little to inspire confidence. According to Steven Druker, we can see that GMOs were approved fraudulently in the face of scientific warnings: clear, early warnings right from the start of possible harm. As the latest application to India’s Supreme Court states:

These early warnings have been confirmed and reinforced up to the present time, through independent studies; this despite great difficulties faced by scientists, which include ‘persecution’, and sackings, nothing short.

There are major uncertainties concerning the technology (not least regarding its precision and health safety aspects), which are brushed aside by industry lobbyists with claims of ‘the science’ is decided and the ‘facts’ about GM are indisputable. Such claims are merely political posturing and part of the plan to tip the policy agenda in favour of GM. Tipping that agenda also involves corruption and the subversion of democratic institutions.

Following the court decision to award in favour of Dewayne Johnson, attorney Bobby 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…

He then went on to say glyphosate is ubiquitous in the food supply and is related to so many terrible life-threatening conditions, which he listed.

Given the failure or lukewarm performance of GM technology, the risks to health and the environment and the devastation caused by India’s only legal GM crop to date, many might be wondering why Indian authorities are facilitating the entry of (chemical-dependent) GMOs into the food system.

Why is there so much support for a technology mired in fraud that has to date created more problems and risks than benefits?

Why – despite increasing support for highly productive, sustainable zero-budget farming in places like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka – is a bogus technology being pushed?

Why, based on India’s unnecessary and rising import bill, is unadulterated (non-GM) food, self-reliance and food security an anathema to policy makers?

In other words, whose interests are ultimately being served: the public, the farmers or those of transnational agrocapital?

  1. Benbrook, 2012; Gurian-Sherman, 2009” (from the report ‘Persistent Narratives, Persistent Failure’).
  2. ‘Choice: Less can be more, in Food Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn 2008.

India: The State of Independence

India celebrates its independence from Britain on 15 August. However, the system of British colonial dominance has been replaced by a new hegemony based on the systemic rule of transnational capital, enforced by global institutions like the World Bank and WTO. At the same time, global agribusiness corporations are stepping into the boots of the former East India Company.

The long-term goal of US capitalism has been to restructure indigenous agriculture across the world and tie it to an international system of trade underpinned by export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for the global market and debtThe result has been food surplus and food deficit areas, of which the latter have become dependent on agricultural imports and strings-attached aid.

Whether through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes, as occurred in Africa, trade agreements like NAFTA and its impact on Mexico or, more generally, deregulated global trade rules, the outcome has been similar: the displacement of traditional, indigenous agriculture by a corporatized model centred on transnational agribusiness and the undermining of both regional and world food security. The global food regime is in effect increasingly beholden to unregulated global markets, financial speculators and global monopolies.

India, of course, has not been immune to this. It is on course to be subjugated by US state-corporate interests  and is heading towards environmental catastrophe much faster than many might think. As I outlined in this previous piece, the IMF and World Bank wants India to shift hundreds of millions out of agriculture and has been directed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies and run down public agriculture institutions.

The plan for India involves the mass displacement of people to restructure agriculture for the benefit of western agricapital. This involves shifting at least 400 million from the countryside into cities. A 2016 UN report said that by 2030, Delhi’s population will be 37 million.

One of the report’s principal authors, Felix Creutzig, says:

The emerging mega-cities will rely increasingly on industrial-scale agricultural and supermarket chains, crowding out local food chains.

The drive is to entrench industrial agriculture, commercialise the countryside and to replace small-scale farming, the backbone of food production in India. It could mean hundreds of millions of former rural dwellers without any work (India is heading for ‘jobless growth’). Given the trajectory the country seems to be on, it does not take much to imagine a countryside with vast swathes of chemically-drenched monocrop fields containing genetically modified plants or soils rapidly degrading to become a mere repository for a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides.

The plan is to displace the existing system of livelihood-sustaining smallholder agriculture with one dominated from seed to plate by transnational agribusiness and retail concerns. To facilitate this, independent cultivators are being bankrupted, land is to be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation and those farmers that are left will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts, the terms of which will be dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

Some like to call this adopting a market-based approach: a system in the ‘market-driven’ US that receives a taxpayer farm bill subsidy of around $100 million annually.

The WTO and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture are facilitating the process. To push the plan along, there is a strategy to make agriculture financially non-viable for India’s small farms. The result is that hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to cash crops and economic liberalisation.

The number of cultivators in India declined from 166 million to 146 million between 2004 and 2011. Some 6,700 left farming each day. Between 2015 and 2022 the number of cultivators is likely to decrease to around 127 million.

For all the discussion in India about loan waivers for farmers and raising their income levels, this does not address the core of the problem affecting agriculture: the running down of the sector for decades, spiralling input costs, lack of government assistance and the impacts of cheap, subsidised imports which depress farmers’ incomes.

Take the cultivation of pulses, for instance. According to a report in the Indian Express (September 2017), pulses production increased by 40% during the previous 12 months (a year of record production). At the same time, however, imports also rose resulting in black gram selling at 4,000 rupees per quintal (much less than during the previous 12 months). This has effectively driven down prices thereby reducing farmers’ already meagre incomes. We have already witnessed a running down of the indigenous edible oils sector thanks to Indonesian palm oil imports on the back of World Bank pressure to reduce tariffs (India was virtually self-sufficient in edible oils in the 1990s but now faces increasing import costs).

On the one hand, there is talk of India becoming food secure and self-sufficient; on the other, there is pressure from the richer nations for the Indian government to further reduce support given to farmers and open up to imports and ‘free’ trade. But this is based on hypocrisy.

Writing on the ‘Down to Earth’ website in late 2017, Sachin Kumar Jain states some 3.2 million people were engaged in agriculture in the US in 2015. The US govt provided them each with a subsidy of $7,860 on average. Japan provides a subsidy of $14,136 and New Zealand $2,623 to its farmers. In 2015, a British farmer earned $2,800 and $37,000 was added through subsidies. The Indian government provides on average a subsidy of $873 to farmers. However, between 2012 and 2014, India reduced the subsidy on agriculture by $3 billion.

According to policy analyst Devinder Sharma, subsidies provided to US wheat and rice farmers are more than the market worth of these two crops. He also notes that, per day, each cow in Europe receives subsidy worth more than an Indian farmer’s daily income.

How can the Indian farmer compete with an influx of artificially cheap imports? The simple answer is that s/he cannot and is not meant to.

In the book The Invention of Capitalism, Michael Perelmen lays bare the iron fist which whipped the English peasantry into a workforce willing to accept factory wage labour. A series of laws and measures served to force peasants off the land and deprive them of their productive means. In India, we are currently witnessing a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) capital and turn farmers into a reserve army of cheap industrial/service sector labour. By moving people into cities, it seems India wants to emulate China: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, migrants – stripped of their livelihoods in the countryside – are to become the new ‘serfs’ of the informal services and construction sectors or to be trained for low-level industrial jobs.

Even here, however, India might have missed the boat as it is not creating anything like the number of jobs required and the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

India’s high GDP growth has been fuelled on the back of debt, environmental degradation, cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population, including public sector workers, has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories per head than it did 40 years ago.

Amartya Sen and former World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu have argued that the bulk of India’s aggregate growth occurred through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder. Furthermore, Global Finance Integrity has shown that the outflow of illicit funds into foreign bank accounts has accelerated since opening up the economy to neoliberalism in the early nineties. ‘High net worth individuals’ (i.e. the very rich) are the biggest culprits here.

While corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans, they have failed to spur job creation; yet any proposed financial injections (or loan waivers) for agriculture (which would pale into insignificance compared to corporate subsidies/written off loans) are depicted as a drain on the economy.

Making India ‘business friendly’

PM Modi is on record as saying that India is now one of the most business-friendly countries in the world. The code for being ‘business friendly’ translates into a willingness by the government to facilitate much of the above, while reducing taxes and tariffs and allowing the acquisition of public assets via privatisation as well as instituting policy frameworks that work to the advantage of foreign corporations.

When the World Bank rates countries on their level of ‘ease of doing business’, it means national states facilitating policies that force working people to take part in a race to the bottom based on free market fundamentalism. The more ‘compliant’ national governments make their populations and regulations, the more ‘business friendly’ a country is.

The World Bank’s ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’ entails opening up markets to Western agribusiness and their fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and patented seeds with farmers working to supply transnational corporations’ global supply chains. Rather than working towards food security based on food sovereignty and eradicating corruption, building storage facilities and dealing with inept bureaucracies and deficiencies in food logistics, the mantra is to let ‘the market’ intervene: a euphemism for letting powerful corporations take control; the very transnational corporations that receive massive taxpayer subsidies, manipulate markets, write trade agreements and institute a regime of intellectual property rights thereby indicating that the ‘free’ market only exists in the warped delusions of those who churn out clichés about letting the market decide.

Foreign direct investment is said to be good for jobs and good for business. But just how many get created is another matter – as is the amount of jobs destroyed in the first place to pave the way for the entry of foreign corporations. For example, Cargill sets up a food or seed processing plant that employs a few hundred people; but what about the agricultural jobs that were deliberately eradicated in the first place to import seeds or the village-level processors who were cynically put out of business via bogus health and safety measures so that Cargill could gain a financially lucrative foothold?

The process resembles what Michel Chossudovsky notes in his 1997 book about the ‘structural adjustment’ of African countries. In The Globalization of Poverty, he says that economies are:

opened up through the concurrent displacement of a pre-existing productive system. Small and medium-sized enterprises are pushed into bankruptcy or obliged to produce for a global distributor, state enterprises are privatised or closed down, independent agricultural producers are impoverished. (p.16)

The opening up of India to foreign capital is supported by rhetoric about increasing agricultural productivity, creating jobs and boosting GDP growth. But India is already self-sufficient in key staples and even where productivity is among the best in the world (as in Punjab) farmers still face massive financial distress. Clearly, productivity is not the problem: even with bumper harvests, the agrarian crisis persists.

India is looking to US corporations to ‘develop’ its food, retail and agriculture sectors. What could this mean for India? We only have to look at the business model that keeps these companies in profit in the US: an industrialised system that relies on massive taxpayer subsidies and has destroyed many small-scale farmers’ livelihoods.

The fact that US agriculture now employs a tiny fraction of the population serves as a stark reminder for what is in store for Indian farmers. Agribusiness companies’ taxpayer-subsidised business models are based on overproduction and dumping on the world market to depress prices and rob farmers elsewhere of the ability to cover the costs of production. They rake in huge returns, while depressed farmer incomes and massive profits for food retailers is the norm.

The long-term plan is for an overwhelmingly urbanised India with a fraction of the population left in farming working on contracts for large suppliers and Walmart-type supermarkets that offer a largely monoculture diet of highly processed, denutrified, genetically altered food based on crops soaked 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.

Various high-level reports have concluded that policies need to support more resilient, diverse, sustainable (smallholder) agroecological methods of farming and develop decentralised, locally-based food economies. There is also a need to protect indigenous agriculture from rigged global trade and trade deals. However, the trend continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer and other transnational players.

Devinder Sharma has highlighted where Indian policy makers’ priorities lie when he says that agriculture has been systematically killed over the last few decades. Some 60% of the population live in rural areas and are involved in agriculture but less than 2% of the annual budget goes to agriculture. Sharma says that when you are not investing in agriculture, you are not wanting it to perform.

It is worth considering that the loans provided to just five large corporations in India are equal to the entire farm debt. Where have those loans gone? Have they increased ‘value’ in the economy. No, loans to corporate houses left the banks without liquidity.

‘Demonetisation’ was in part a bail-out for the banks and the corporates, which farmers and other ordinary folk paid the price for. It was a symptom of a country whose GDP growth was based on a debt-inflated economy. While farmers commit suicide and are heavily indebted, a handful of billionaires get access to cheap money with no pressure to pay it back and with little ‘added value’ for society as a whole.

Corporate-industrial India has failed to deliver in terms of boosting exports or creating jobs, despite the hand outs and tax exemptions given to it. The number of jobs created in India between 2005 and 2010 was 2.7 million (the years of high GDP growth). According to International Business Times, 15 million enter the workforce every year. And data released by the Labour Bureau shows that in 2015, jobless ‘growth’ had finally arrived in India.

So where are the jobs going to come from to cater for hundreds of millions of agricultural workers who are to be displaced from the land or those whose livelihoods will be destroyed as transnational corporations move in and seek to capitalise small-scale village-level industries that currently employ tens of millions?

Development used to be about breaking with colonial exploitation and radically redefining power structures. Now we have dogma masquerading as economic theory that compels developing countries to adopt neoliberal policies. The notion of ‘development’ has become hijacked by rich corporations and the concept of poverty depoliticised and separated from structurally embedded power relations, not least US-driven globalisation policies resulting in the deregulation of international capital that ensures giant transnational conglomerates are able to ride roughshod over national sovereignty.

Across the world we are seeing treaties and agreements over breeders’ rights and intellectual property being enacted to prevent peasant farmers from freely improving, sharing or replanting their traditional seeds. Large corporations with their proprietary seeds and synthetic chemical inputs are trying to eradicate traditional systems of seed exchange. They have effectively hijacked seeds, pirated germ plasm that farmers developed over millennia and have ‘rented’ the seeds back to farmers

Corporate-dominated agriculture is not only an attack on the integrity of ‘the commons’ (soil, water, land, food, forests, diets and health) but is also an attack on the integrity of international institutions, governments and officials which have too often been corrupted by powerful transnational entities.

Whereas some want to bring about a fairer, more equitable system of production and distribution to improve people’s quality of lives (particularly pertinent in India with its unimaginable inequalities, which have spiralled since India adopted neoliberal policies), US capitalism regards ‘development’ as a geopolitical tool.

As economics professor Michael Hudson said during a 2014 interview (published on prosper.org under the title ‘Think Tank Times’):

American foreign policy has almost always been based on agricultural exports, not on industrial exports as people might think. It’s by agriculture and control of the food supply that American diplomacy has been able to control most of the Third World. The World Bank’s geopolitical lending strategy has been to turn countries into food deficit areas by convincing them to grow cash crops – plantation export crops – not to feed themselves with their own food crops.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could further accelerate the corporatisation of Indian agriculture. A trade deal now being negotiated by 16 countries across Asia-Pacific, the RCEP would cover half the world’s population, including 420 million small family farms that produce 80% of the region’s food.

RCEP is expected to create powerful rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment. It could allow foreign corporations to buy up land, thereby driving up land prices, fuelling speculation and pushing small farmers out. If RCEP is adopted, it could intensify the great land grab that has been taking place in India. It could also lead to further corporate control over seeds.

Capitalism and environmental catastrophe joined at the hip

In India, an industrialised chemical-intensive model of agriculture is being facilitated. This model brings with it the numerous now well-documented externalised social, environmental and health costs. We need look no further than the current situation in South India and the drying up of the Cauvery river in places to see the impact that this model has contributed to: an ecological crisis fuelled by environmental devastation due to mining, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture based on big dams, water-intensive crops and Green Revolution ideology imported from the West.

But we have known for a long time now that India faces major environmental problems, many of which are rooted in agriculture. For example, in an open letter written to officials in 2006, the late campaigner and farmer Bhaskar Save noted that India, next to South America, receives the highest rainfall in the world. Where thick vegetation covers the ground, and the soil is alive and porous, at least half of this rain is soaked and stored in the soil and sub-soil strata. A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers, or ‘groundwater tables’. Save argued that the living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs gifted free by nature.

Half a century ago, most parts of India had enough fresh water all year round, long after the rains had stopped and gone. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry.

Save went on to note that while the recharge of groundwater has greatly reduced, its extraction has been mounting. India is presently mining over 20 times more groundwater each day than it did in 1950. Much of this is mindless wastage by a minority. But most of India’s people – living on hand-drawn or hand-pumped water in villages and practising only rain-fed farming – continue to use the same amount of ground water per person, as they did generations ago.

According to Save, more than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. Maharashtra, for example, has the maximum number of big and medium dams in the country. But sugarcane alone, grown on barely 3-4% of its cultivable land, guzzles about 70% of its irrigation waters.

One acre of chemically grown sugarcane requires as much water as would suffice 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. The sugar factories too consume huge quantities. From cultivation to processing, each kilo of refined sugar needs two to three tonnes of water. This could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

While rice is suitable for rain-fed farming, its extensive multiple cropping with irrigation in winter and summer as well is similarly hogging water resources and depleting aquifers. As with sugarcane, it is also irreversibly ruining the land through salinization.

Save argued that soil salinization is the greatest scourge of irrigation-intensive agriculture, as a progressively thicker crust of salts is formed on the land. Many million hectares of cropland have been ruined by it. The most serious problems are caused where water-guzzling crops like sugarcane or basmati rice are grown round the year, abandoning the traditional mixed-cropping and rotation systems of the past, which required minimal or no watering.

Unfortunately, policy makers continue to look towards the likes of Monsanto-Bayer for ‘solutions’. Such companies merely seek to break farmers’ environmental learning ‘pathways’ based on centuries of indigenous knowledge, learning and practices with the aim of getting farmers hooked on chemical treadmills for corporate profit (see Glenn Stone and Andrew Flach’s paper on path-breaking and technology treadmills in Indian cotton agriculture).

Wrong-headed policies in agriculture have already resulted in drought, expensive dam-building projects, population displacement and degraded soils. The rivers are drying, farmers are dying and the cities are creaking as a result of the unbridled push towards urbanisation.

In terms of maintaining and creating jobs, managing water resources, regenerating soils and cultivating climate resilient crops, agroecology as a solution is there for all to see. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are now making a concerted effort to roll out and scale up zero budget agroecological agriculture.

Solutions to India’s agrarian crisis (and indeed the world’s) are available, not least the scaling up of agroecological approaches which could be the lynchpin of rural development. However, successive administrations have bowed to and continue to acquiesce to the grip of global capitalism and have demonstrated their allegiance to corporate power. The danger is that without changing the capitalist relations of production, agroecology would simply be co-opted by corporations and incorporated into their global production and distribution chains.

In the meantime, India faces huge problems in terms of securing access to water. As Bhaskar Save noted, the shift to Green Revolution thinking and practices has placed enormous strain on water resources. From glacial melt in the Himalayas that will contribute to the drying up of important rivers to the effects of temperature rises across the Indo Gangetic plain, which will adversely impact wheat productivity, India has more than its fair share of problems. But despite this, high-level policy makers are pushing for a certain model of ‘development’ that will only exacerbate the problems.

This model is being driven by some of the world’s largest corporate players: a model that by its very nature leads to environment catastrophe:

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

— Jason Hickel

While politicians and bureaucrats in Delhi might be facilitating this economic model and all it entails for agriculture, it is ultimately stamped with the logo ‘made in Washington’. Surrendering the nation’s food sovereignty and the incorporation of India into US financial and geopolitical structures is the current state of independence.

Final thoughts

Neoliberalism and the drive for urbanisation in India have been underpinned by unconstitutional land takeovers and the trampling of democratic rights. For supporters of cronyism and manipulated markets, which to all extents and purposes is what economic ‘neoliberalism’ across the world has entailed (see thisthis and this), there have been untold opportunities for well-placed individuals to make an under-the-table fast buck from various infrastructure projects and privatisation sell-offs.

According to the Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development, the doubling of income inequality has made India one of the worst performers in the category of emerging economies.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, struggles (violent and non-violent) are taking place in India. The Naxalites/Maoists are referred to by the dominant class as left-wing extremists who are exploiting the situation of the poor. But how easy it is to ignore the true nature of the poor’s exploitation and too often lump all protesters together and create an ‘enemy within’. How easy it is to ignore the state-corporate extremism across the world that results in the central state abdicating its redistributive responsibilities by submitting to the tenets of Wall Street-backed ‘structural adjustment’ pro-privatisation policies, free capital flows and largely unaccountable corporations.

Powerful (mining) corporations are shaping the ‘development’ agenda in India and have signed secretive Memorandums of Understanding with the government. The full backing of the state is on hand to forcibly evict peoples from their land in order to hand it over to mineral-hungry industries to fuel a wholly unsustainable model of development. Around the world, this oil-dependent, urban-centric, high-energy model of endless consumption is stripping the environment bare and negatively impacting the climate and ecology.

In addition to displacing people to facilitate the needs of resource extraction industries, unconstitutional land grabs for Special Economic Zones, nuclear plants and other projects have additionally forced many others from the land.

Farmers (and others) represent a ‘problem’: a problem while on the land and a problem to be somehow dealt with once displaced. But food producers, the genuine wealth creators of a nation, only became a problem when western agribusiness was given the green light to take power away from farmers and uproot traditional agriculture in India and recast it in its own corporate-controlled image.

This is a country where the majority sanctifies certain animals, places, rivers and mountains. It’s also a country run by Wall Street sanctioned politicians who convince people to accept or be oblivious to the destruction of the same.

Many are working strenuously to challenge the selling of the heart and soul of India. Yet how easy will it be for them to be swept aside by officialdom which seeks to cast them as ‘subversive’. How easy it will be for the corrosive impacts of a rapacious capitalism to take hold and for hugely powerful corporations to colonise almost every area of social, cultural and economic life and encourage greed, selfishness, apathy, irretrievable materialism and acquisitive individualism.

The corporations behind it all achieve hegemony by altering mindsets via advertising, clever PR or by sponsoring (hijacking) major events, by funding research in public institutes and thus slanting findings and the knowledge paradigm in their favour or by securing key positions in international trade negotiations in an attempt to structurally readjust retail, food production and agriculture. They do it by many methods and means.

Before you realise it, culture, politics and the economy have become colonised by powerful private interests and the world is cast in their image. The prevailing economic system soon becomes cloaked with an aura of matter of factuality, an air of naturalness, which is never to be viewed for the controlling hegemonic culture or power play that it really is.

Seeds, mountains, water, forests and biodiversity are being sold off. The farmers and tribals are being sold out. And the more that gets sold off, the more who get sold out, the greater the amount of cash that changes hands and the easier it is for the misinformed to swallow the lie of Wall Street’s bogus notion of ‘growth’ – GDP.

If anyone perceives the type of ‘development’ being sold to the masses is actually possible in the first instance, they should note that ‘developing’ nations account for more than 80% of world population but consume only about a third of the world’s energy. US citizens constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as two Japanese, six Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians and 370 Ethiopians.

Consider that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old and if you scale this to 46 years then humans have been here for just four hours. The Industrial Revolution began just one minute ago, and in that time, 50% of the Earth’s forests have been destroyed.

We are using up oil, water and other resources much faster than they can ever be regenerated. We have also poisoned the rivers, destroyed natural habitats, driven species to extinction and altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere – among many other things.

Levels of consumption were unsustainable long before India and other countries began striving to emulate a bogus notion of ‘development’. The West continues to live way beyond its (environmental) limits.

This wasteful, high-energy model is tied to what ultimately constitutes the plundering of peoples and the planet by powerful transnational corporations. And, as we see all around us, from Libya and Syria to Afghanistan and Iraq, the outcome is endless conflicts over fewer and fewer resources.

The type of ‘progress and development’ and consumerism being sold makes beneficiaries of it blind to the misery and plight of the hundreds of millions who are deprived of their lands and livelihoods. In Congo, rich corporations profit from war and conflict. And in India, tens of thousands of militias (including in 2005, Salwa Judum) were put into tribal areas to forcibly displace 300,000 people and place 50,000 in camps. In the process, rapes and human rights abuses have been common.

If what is set out above tells us anything, it is that India and other regions of the world are suffering from internal haemorrhaging. They are being bled dry from both within and without:

There are sectors of the global population trying to impede the global catastrophe. There are other sectors trying to accelerate it. Take a look at whom they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward, indigenous populations – the First Nations in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, the tribal people in India. Who is accelerating it? The most privileged, so-called advanced, educated populations of the world.

— Noam Chomsky.

Underpinning the arrogance of such a mindset is what Vandana Shiva calls a view of the world which encourages humans to regard man as conqueror and owner of the Earth. This has led to the technological hubris of geo-engineering, genetic engineering and nuclear energy. Shiva argues that it has led to the ethical outrage of owning life forms through patents, water through privatization, the air through carbon trading. It is leading to appropriation of the biodiversity that serves the poor.

And therein lies the true enemy of genuine development: a system that facilitates such plunder, which is presided over by well-funded and influential foreign foundations and powerful financial-corporate entities and their handmaidens in the IMF, World Bank and WTO.

If we look at the various western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to for inspiration, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialist intent. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared? The same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda hidden behind terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’.

Is India willing to see Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations deciding on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed. A corporate takeover spearheaded by companies whose character is clear for all to see:

The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture with agribusinesses like Monsanto, WalMart, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and ITC in its Board made efforts to turn the direction of agricultural research and policy in such a manner as to cater their demands for profit maximisation. Companies like Monsanto during the Vietnam War produced tonnes and tonnes of ‘Agent Orange’ unmindful of its consequences for Vietnamese people as it raked in super profits and that character remains.

— Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Behind the World Bank/corporate-inspired rhetoric that is driving the overhaul of Indian agriculture is a brand of corporate imperialism which is turning out to be no less brutal for Indian farmers than early industrial capitalism was in England for its peasantry. The East India company might have gone, but today the bidding of elite interests (private capital) is being carried out by compliant politicians, the World Bank, the WTO and lop-sided, egregious back-room trade deals.

Toxic Silence: Public Officials, Monsanto and the Media

Are you being lied to or misled? Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason certainly thinks so and has provided much supporting evidence. She has been campaigning against the agrochemical industry for many years (all her work can be accessed here) and has borne witness to the destruction of her own nature reserve in South Wales, which she argues is due to the widespread spraying of glyphosate in the area.

In 2016, she wrote an open letter to journalists at The Guardian newspaper in the UK outlining how the media is failing the public by not properly reporting on the regulatory delinquency relating to the harmful chemicals being applied to crops (read it here). Her assertion was that not only humans and the environment are silently being poisoned by thousands of untested and unmonitored chemicals, but that the UK media are silent about the agrochemical industry’s role in this.

She has now sent a new ‘open letter’ to some major newspapers with a six-page document attached: “The British Government and Monsanto should stand accused of crimes against humanity“.

It has been sent to the editors-in-chief of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, the London Evening Standard and The Independent as well as the director general of the BBC and its senior executives. Channel 4 News (UK) reporters have also been sent the document, including senior presenter Jon Snow, and a number of prominent UK government agencies and ministers.

The document discusses the lawsuits that have recently been brought against agrochemical and seed giant Monsanto, issues surrounding the renewal of the licence for glyphosate (key ingredient in Monsanto’s multi-billion-dollar, money-spinning herbicide Roundup) in the EU, rising rates of illness and disease (linked to glyphosate and other agrochemicals), the increasing use of pesticides and the lack of adequate testing and epidemiological studies pertaining to the cocktail of chemicals sprayed on crops.

Mason feels the media should be holding officials and the industry to account. Instead, there seems to be an agenda to confuse the public or to push the issue to one side. For instance, she has in the past argued that too many journalists are reinforcing the pesticides industry’s assertion that cancers are caused by alcohol use and that the catalogue of diseases now affecting modern society comes down to individual choice and lifestyle decisions. The media constantly link alcohol consumption with various cancers and this ‘fact’ is endlessly reinforced until people believe it to be true.

This, Mason argues, neatly diverts attention from the strong links between the increasing amounts of chemicals used in food and agriculture and serious diseases, including cancers.

In her various documents, Mason has over the years highlighted how international and national health and food safety agencies have dismissed key studies and findings in their assessments of the herbicide glyphosate, and she has provided much evidence that the chemical industry has created a toxic (political and natural) environment which affects us all. She argues that these agencies are guilty of regulatory delinquency due to conflicts of interest and have effectively been co-opted, enabling companies to dodge effective regulation.

Mason has gone to great lengths to show how a combination of propaganda disseminated by industry front groups and conflicts of interest allow dangerous chemicals into the food chain and serve to keep the public in the dark about what is taking place and the impacts on their health.

Aside from the subversion of democratic procedures, the result is rivers, streams and oceans polluted with agrochemical run-offs, spiralling rates of illness among the public and the destruction of wildlife and biodiversity.

By writing to major news outlets, Mason is pressing for at least one to take up this issue and finally begin holding public officials and agrochemical companies to account. To its credit, the French newspaper Le Monde has on occasion been unafraid to report on the activities of this industry.

Regardless of industry propaganda, it is not that we need the model of agriculture that these companies profit from. The increasingly globalized industrial food regime that transnational agribusiness is integral to is not feeding the world. It is, moreover, responsible for some of the planet’s most pressing political, social and environmental crises.

There are credible alternatives that actually can feed the world equitably (see ‘United Nations: Agroecology, not Pesticides, is the Future for Food‘).

So, isn’t it about time integrity and public health took precedence over profit and vested interest?

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver says:

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

When speaking truth to power, however, perhaps for many well-paid media personnel with careers to protect it is easier to stay silent.

India Mortgaged? Forced-Fed Illness and the Neoliberal Food Regime

Like many countries, India’s food system was essentially clean just a generation or two ago but is now being comprehensively contaminated with sugar, bad fats, synthetic additives, GMOs and pesticides under the country’s neoliberal ‘great leap forward’. The result has been a surge in obesity, diabetes and cancer incidence, while there has been no let-up in the under-nutrition of those too poor to join in the over-consumption.

Indian government data indicates that cancer showed a 5% increase in prevalence between 2012 and 2014 with the number of new cases doubling between 1990 and 2013. The incidence of cancer for some major organs in India is the highest in the world.

The increase in prevalence of diabetes is also worrying. By 2030, the number of diabetes patients in India is likely to rise to 101 million (World Health Organization estimate). The figure doubled to 63 million in 2013 from 32 million in 2000. Over 8% of the adult male population in India has diabetes. The figure is 7% for women. Almost 76,000 men and 52,000 women in the 30-69 age group in India died due to diabetes in 2015, according to the WHO.

study in The Lancet from a couple of years ago found that India leads the world in underweight people. Some 102 million men and 101 million women are underweight, which makes the country home to over 40% of the global underweight population.

Contrast this with India’s surge in obesity. In 1975, the country had 0.4 million obese men or 1.3% of the global obese men’s population. In 2014, it was in fifth position globally with 9.8 million obese men or 3.7% of the global obese men’s population. Among women, India is globally ranked third, with 20 million obese women or 5.3% of global population.

According to India’s 2015–16 National Family Health Survey, 38% of under-5s are stunted (height is significantly low for their age). The survey also stated that 21% under-5s are significantly underweight for their height, a sign of recent acute hunger. The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world; at the same time, the country is fast becoming the diabetes and heart disease capital of the world.

India’s mineral deficient soils haven’t helped. This has been made worse by Green Revolution practices. Green Revolution crops, unlike their predecessors, fail to adequately take up minerals such as iron and zinc from the soil. So even though people might consume more calories (possibly leading to obesity), their intake of these key micronutrients has fallen. A quarter of the world’s population are affected by Green Revolution iron deficiency and research indicates that the condition impairs the learning ability of more than half of India’s schoolchildren.

Many of the older crops carried dramatically higher counts of nutrients per calorie. The amount of cereal each person must therefore consume to fulfill daily dietary requirements has gone up. For instance, the iron content of millet is four times that of rice. Oats carry four times more zinc than wheat. As a result, between 1961 and 2011, the protein, zinc and iron contents of the world’s directly consumed cereals declined by 4%, 5% and 19%, respectively.

While it is true that many other factors, including pollution, poor sanitation, working and living conditions, lack of income and economic distress, lack of access to healthcare and poverty, contribute to ill health and disease, a range of conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers and obesity, have all been linked to modern food production and diets.

‘Free trade’ and poor health

To improve health, lifestyle change is often promoted, as if poor health is a matter of individual responsibility and personal choice. This message conveniently sidesteps wider issues concerning the global capitalist food regime and how our access to food is shaped.

If we look at the North American Free Trade Agreement, we can see how the subsequent flood of cheap US processed food into Mexico adversely affected the health of ordinary people. Western ‘convenience’ (junk) food has displaced more traditional-based diets and is now readily available in every neighbourhood. Increasing rates of diabetes, obesity and other health issues have followed. This report by GRAIN describes how US agribusiness and retailers have captured the market south of the border and outlines the subsequent negative impact on the health of Mexican people. This could be what is in store for India.

Western agribusiness, food processing companies and retail concerns are gaining wider entry into India and through various strategic trade deals are looking to gain a more significant footprint within the country. The opening of the food and retail sector to more foreign direct investment and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (see page 13 here) have raised serious concerns about the stranglehold that transnational corporations could have on the agriculture and food sectors.

We can already see one outcome in the edible oils sector. India was virtually self-sufficient in edible oils up till the mid-1990s, using healthy practices to extract oil from, for example, indigenous mustard, linseed, ground nut and sesame, all of which are deeply rooted in Indian culture. Due to the unscrupulous undermining of the indigenous edible oil seeds sector  and the influx of cheap subsidised imports, some 70% of the population now consumes a narrower range of oils, not least (rain forest-destroying) palm oil and (GM) soy, processed using unhealthy solvents. To facilitate this, thousands of small-scale food oil processing enterprises were put out of business to make way for grain trader and food processor company Cargill, whose role in drawing up health and safety rules was instrumental in driving the competition out of business.

It is part of the wider push by the global industrial food processing lobby to impose standardised, less nutrient-rich products and manufacturing processes along with unhealthy fats, sugars and chemical additives – courtesy of compliant regulators and policy makers in India – in order to consolidate its grip on the country’s food base. As with the edible oils sector, it entails displacing more diverse, indigenous foodstuffs and healthy low-input food production processes, while robbing hundreds of thousands of their livelihoods.

We not only have Wal-Mart making inroads to complete the global food regime chain from seed to plate in India, but Western style fast-food outlets have already been soaring in number throughout the country. For example, Pizza Hut now operates in 46 Indian cities with 181 restaurants and 132 home delivery locations (2016). KFC is in 73 cities with 296 restaurants, a 770% increase over five years. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Applied Research, the Indian fast food market is growing at the rate of 30-35% per annum (see this).

Heart disease, liver damage, stroke, obesity and diabetes are just some of the diseases linked to diets revolving around processed ‘convenience’ food. Frequent consumption of this food has been associated with increased body mass index as well as higher intakes of fat, sodium, added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages and lower intakes of fruits, vegetables, fibre and milk in children, adolescents and adults.

Modern processed food also tends to have higher energy densities and poorer nutritional quality than foods prepared at home and in comparison with dietary recommendations (see this). To further appreciate just how unhealthy today’s food is, a 2015 report in the Guardian reveals the cocktails of additives, colourants and preservatives that the industry adds to our food.

Moreover, in many regions across the globe industrialised factory farming has replaced traditional livestock agriculture. For example, just 40 years ago the Philippines’ entire population was fed on native eggs and chickens produced by family farmers. Now, most of those farmers are out of business.

As world trade rules encourage nations from imposing tariffs on subsidised imported products, they are compelled to allow cheap, factory-farmed US meat into the country. These products are then sold at lower prices than domestic meat. There is therefore pressure for local producers to scale up and industrialise to compete.

Factory farms increase the risk of pathogens like E coli and salmonella that cause food-borne illness in people. Overuse of antibiotics can fuel the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the use of arsenic and growth hormones can increase the risk of cancer in people, and crowded conditions can be a breeding ground for disease.

The Modi administration’s restrictions on cow slaughter – making it difficult for many livestock farmers to operate – are regarded by some as a tool to facilitate the running down of small-scale livestock farming, paving the way for the industrialisation and corporatisation of the livestock industry.

Green Revolution, micronutrient-deficient soil and human health

We often hear unsubstantiated claims about the green revolution having saved hundreds of millions of lives, but any short-term gains in productivity have been offset. This high-input chemical-intensive model helped the drive towards greater monocropping and has resulted in less diverse diets and less nutritious foods. Its long-term impact has led to soil degradation and mineral imbalances, which in turn have adversely affected human health (see this informative report on India by botanist Stuart Newton – p.9 onward).

Adding weight to this argument, the authors of this paper from the International Journal of Environmental and Rural Development state:

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

India might now be self-sufficient in various staples, but many of these foodstuffs are high calorie low nutrient, have led to the displacement of more nutritionally diverse cropping systems and have effectively mined the soil of nutrients. The importance of renowned agronomist William Albrecht, who died in 1974, should not be overlooked here and his work on healthy soils and healthy people.

In this respect, botanist Stuart Newton’s states:

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

India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion because of the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research reports that soil is become deficient in nutrients and fertility.

Newton provides insight into the importance of soils and their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the ‘green revolution’. In turn, these depleted soils cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the Green Revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition. Newton favours a system of agroecology, a sound understanding of soil and the eradication of poisonous chemical inputs.

Although this system is certainly gaining traction in India – there are encouraging signs for agroecological farming in places like Andhra and Karnataka – what we are also seeing is GMOs illegally creeping into the food system. Recent reports show GMOs are in commonly used food products and GM seeds are prevalent. The fear is that approval by contamination is what the GM industry has desired all along.

There are well-documented economic, environmental, ethical, social and health implications associated with GM. And unlike the Green Revolution, once the GM genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in and the changes to the genetic core of the world’s food will be the legacy bequeathed to subsequent generations.

Pesticides, food and the environment

There are currently 34,000 pesticides registered for use in the US. Drinking water is often contaminated by pesticides and more babies are being born with preventable birth defects due to pesticide exposure.

Illnesses are on the rise too, including asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and several types of cancer. The association with pesticide exposure is becoming stronger with each new study.

In Punjab, pesticide run-offs into water sources have turned the state into a ‘cancer epicentre‘. India is one of the world’s largest users of pesticides and a profitable market for the corporations that manufacture them. Ladyfinger, cabbage, tomato and cauliflower in particular may contain dangerously high levels because farmers tend to harvest them almost immediately after spraying. Fruit and vegetables are sprayed and tampered with to make them more colourful, and harmful fungicides are sprayed on fruit to ripen them in order to rush them off to market.

Research by the School of Natural Sciences and Engineering (SNSE) at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore has indicated disturbing trends in the increased use of pesticide. In 2008, it reported that many crops for export had been rejected internationally due to high pesticide residues. Moreover, India is one of the largest users of World Health Organization (WHO) ‘Class 1A’ pesticides, which are extremely hazardous.

Research by SNSE shows farmers use a cocktail of pesticides and often use three to four times the recommended amounts. It may come as no surprise that a recent report about children in Hyderabad are consuming 10 to 40 more times pesticides in their food than kids in the US.

Forced-fed development

In 1978, T.N. Reddy predicted in the book ‘India Mortgaged’ that the country would one day open all sectors to foreign direct investment and surrender economic sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Today, the US-led West, clings to a moribund form of capitalism and has used various mechanisms in the face of economic stagnation and massive inequalities: the raiding of public budgets, the expansion of credit to consumers and governments to sustain spending and consumption, financial speculation and increased militarism.

Under the guise of globalisation, we also see an unrelenting drive to plunder what capital regards as ‘untapped markets’ in other areas of the globe. International agri-capital has been moving in on Indian food and agriculture for some time. But as an agrarian-based country underpinned by smallholder agriculture, it first needs to displace the current model before bringing India’s food and agriculture sector under its control.

Devinder Sharma describes the situation:

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

In return for up to £90 billion in loans, in the 90s India was instructed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies and run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange. According to the World Bank’s lending report, based on data compiled up to 2015, India was easily the largest recipient of its loans in the history of the institution. To push through the programme, hundreds of millions are to be shifted out of agriculture.

Successive Indian administrations have been quite obliging. While India’s current government talks about ‘make in India’ (self-sufficiency), the reality is subservience to western capital. Agriculture is deliberately being made economically non-viable for small-scale farmers: financial distress and ‘economic liberalisation’ have resulted in between 300,000 and 400,000 farmer suicides since 1997 with millions more experiencing economic distress and over 6,000 leaving the sector each day. This lies at the root of the ongoing agrarian crisis. But it goes much further. We are witnessing not only the structural transformation of India’s rural base but an all-encompassing strategy designed to incorporate India into the US’s corporate-financial-intel architecture.

Whether it involves the displacement of indigenous food and agriculture by a model dominated by western conglomerates or it is the selling of pharmaceuticals and the expansion of private hospitals to address the health impacts of the modern junk food system (in India, the healthcare sector is projected to grow by 16% a year), either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for the population.

But it all forms part of the holy grail of neoliberalism, GDP growth. A notion based on an economic system defined by bad food and ill health, joblessness, mass surveillance, spiralling inequalities, environmental degradation, militarism and debt on one hand; on the other, by bail outs, tax havens, massive profits and subsidies for large corporations and banks.

So, what can be done? Whether we are discussing India or elsewhere, the scaling up of agroecology based on the notion of food sovereignty offers an alternative. Much has been written on agroecology as a model of agriculture but also as a movement for political change. Part of the process involves resisting the dismantling of rural economies and indigenous agriculture and instituting a sustainable food system rooted in local communities, whereby producing for local and regional needs takes precedence over supplying distant markets.

It also entails rejecting the agenda of the WTO which subjugates local agriculture to the needs of global markets (determined by agribusiness interests). And, unlike the current system, it includes supporting healthy and culturally appropriate food, encouraging diversified food production and recognising that food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.

Corporate Spin: Genetically Modifying the Way to Food Security?

Those familiar with the debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be forgiven for thinking that science alone can solve the world’s food problems. The industry asserts that GMOs are vital if the world is to increase agricultural productivity and we are going to feed a growing global population. There is also the distinct impression that the GMO issue is all about ‘science’ and little else.

People who question the need for and efficacy of GM have been labelled anti-science elitists who are responsible for crimes against humanity as they supposedly deny GM food to the hungry. Critics stand accused of waging a campaign of fear about the dangers of GM. In doing so, the argument goes that, due to ideology, they are somehow denying a technological innovation to farmers.

Critics have valid concerns about GMOs and have put forward credible evidence to support their views. But instead of engaging in open and honest debate, we see some scientists hardening their positions, lashing out at critics and forwarding personal opinions (unrelated to their specific discipline) based on their perceived authority as scientists. There’s a fine line between science and industry-inspired lobbying and spin. Unfortunately, a number of scientists have difficulty locating it.

The problem: global food regime or GM technology itself

An accusation sometimes levelled at critics of GM is that they have trouble when it comes to differentiating between the technology and the companies who have come to dominate GM: they are thus overly concerned with waging an assault on big business and capitalism, losing sight of the potential benefits of GM.

For sure, GM technology has become associated with large conglomerates that have rolled it out as a tool to further consolidate their dominant market position. These corporations are embedded in a system of capitalism that facilitates corporatisation of the global food regime and all that entails; for instance, a push towards seed monopolies, the roll-out of highly profitable proprietary inputs and chemical/biotech treadmills, leverage over legislation, trade deals and treaties and the general boosting and amalgamation of corporate power (as seen by recent mergers and acquisitions).

However, it is unfair to accuse critics of being unable to differentiate between the food regime and GM itself. Both scientists and non-scientists have concluded that genetic engineering poses unique scientific risks and has political, cultural, ethical and economic ramifications.

There are good reasons why in Europe robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GM. GM food/crops are not substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. More and more studies are highlighting the flawed premise of substantial equivalence. Given the risks, the precautionary principle is recognised as a sensible approach.

International consensus exists that the products of genetic engineering are not equivalent to their conventional counterparts. Many of the potential hazards are inherent in the GE process itself, and “are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection” (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, on page 7 of this document, where the example of GM maize and the amino acid lysine is also discussed; in addition, see references 5-10 at the bottom this page here).

There is sufficient reason to hold back on commercialising GM and subject each GMO to independent, transparent environmental, social and health impact evaluations: there can be no blanket statement that all GMO crops/foods are safe or somehow ‘good’. The claim of substantial equivalence is an industry get-out tactic to avoid the inconvenience of proper assessment and regulation. And any claim that there is consensus on the safety/efficacy of GM within the ‘scientific community’ is based on spin rather than reality. This, along with the claims that ‘the science is decided’ on GM is mere rhetoric designed to close down debate.

There are major uncertainties concerning the technology (not least regarding its precision and health safety aspects), which are brushed aside by claims of ‘the science’ is decided and the ‘facts’ about GM are indisputable. Such claims – alongside the attempt to sideline non-scientists from the debate – are merely political posturing and part of the agenda to tip the policy agenda in favour of GM.

We must consider too that many things that scientists are trying to achieve with GMOs have already been surpassed by means of conventional breeding. We should not accept the premise that only GM can solve problems in agriculture. Non-GMO options and innovations have out-performed GM. So why press ahead with a technology that changes the genetic basis of food with all that entails for human health and the environment?

Despite critics’ concerns, they continue to be attacked for supposedly being anti-science and anti-choice. For instance, the pro-GMO line of blaming people in richer countries for denying the benefits of GM to others elsewhere has become part of industry rhetoric. The case of Golden Rice is often used as an example. UK politician Owen Patterson is on record as saying that wicked activists are denying food to little children.

Glenn Stone and Dominic Glover (Washington University and the University of Sussex) have noted that this claim just does not stack up. Golden Rice has not come to market because ongoing tests show it has failed to deliver as a technology. Meanwhile, Vitamin A deficiency is falling dramatically in the Philippines, while the claims about Golden Rice remain wishful thinking.

It is convenient and misleading to accuse ‘privileged activists’ in affluent countries of denying choice to poor people by preventing the commercialisation and cultivation of GM crops across the globe. In  South America and Africa, for example, it is not some affluent bunch of activists in rich countries who are against GM. It is local farmers and it is because corporations with US govt help and philanthropic colonialists like Bill Gates are moving in to assert their leverage in agriculture and over indigenous farming.

According to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (ASFA):

White male European so-called experts are channelling the message of the biotech industry, heavily controlled by US-European seed and chemical giants Monsanto/Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. The message once again is that failure of African farmers to adopt GMO technology is the root cause of hunger and poverty on the continent. It is ironic that GMO foods are banned by law as unsafe in the European home countries of those giving the advice. Meanwhile the African biotech scientists seem more concerned that the strict liability measures will chase away donor funding and investment for their costly and “prestigious” research.

They blame the anti-GMO activists, rather than their own technological failure, for the impasse. They claim that if only the activists would shut up and go away, the industry backed researchers could fix the food insecurity problem once and for all!  Once again Africa is being compelled to adopt others’ views, others’ technologies, others’ interests. Have we not seen this before? They claim to have ‘sound science’ on their side but what kind of science resolutely ignores the evidence? What has actually happened in those African countries where GMOs have been rolled out? Let’s take a look at the facts.

ASFA then goes on to highlight the false promises and failures of GM in Africa. Clearly, it is not just the politics of GM that ASFA has concerns about: it is the technology itself.

It is misleading when supporters of GM call people’s attention to apparent public sector funding of GM and the apparent altruism that is claimed to underpin the GM project. Even when not directly pushing GM to boost the bottom line, big business (and US state interests) is certainly present in the not too distant background. As with the current push for GM mustard (also misleadingly portrayed as a public service endeavour ) in India, ‘pioneering’ crops have a role in opening the GM floodgates in a region or country (there are sound reasons for rejecting GM mustard as described by Aruna Rodrigues in her submitted court documents).

But is this type of ‘activism’ denying choice to farmers? Not at all, as I have outlined elsewhere. If anything, large corporations do their best to break traditional practices and environmental learning pathways developed over time with the aim of getting farmers on technological treadmills. These same companies also exert their leverage on a wider level via the WTO, Codex and various international agreements.

But you never see supporters of GM campaigning against any of this. Perhaps they are too busy helping the process along via the right-wing neoliberal think tanks they are associated with. Instead, they fixate on Greenpeace or ‘activists’ whose leverage is dwarfed by the power of these corporations.

Pro-GMO activists make great play about ‘potential’ benefits of GM and roll out examples to ‘prove’ the point. Fine, if these benefits really do stack up in reality; but we need to look at this objectively because plenty of evidence indicates that GM is not beneficial and that non-GM alternatives are a better option. Most of all, we need to put commercial interests and the career/funding interests of scientists to one side when determining the need for and the efficacy of GM.

Solution based on food sovereignty

Banning GMOs will not solve the problems associated with lobbying and corruption, the adverse impacts of pesticide use, corporate monopolies, monocultures, food commodity speculation, the denial of peasant’s land rights or any other problems associated with the capitalist food regime. But neither will GM lead to ensuring global food security.

We must look away from the industrial yield-output paradigm and adopt a more integrated systems approach to food and agriculture that accounts for many different factors, including local food security and sovereignty, 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. This is precisely why, from Africa to India, locally owned, grass-root agroecology and zero budget farming are gaining traction.

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. Working with the natural environment (as Bhaskar Save notes) involves a different mindset from that which wants to genetically engineer it and all the risks and unforeseen consequences that it inevitably entails. If readers take time to click on the previous link for Bhaskar Save, it becomes patently clear that undermining or eradicating one system of farming by imposing another has serious ethical, environmental, social and political ramifications. Something that scientific research does not concern itself with.

The consequences of GM do not just relate to unpredictable changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of the resulting GM crop. Introducing GM can involve disrupting cultures and knowledge systems and farmers’ relationships with their environments. Who is to say that GM is somehow ‘better’ or should take precedence over these traditional systems?

Corporate boardroom executives or well-funded microbiologists each with their own agendas and looking at things from their own blinkered perspectives? Once those systems are disrupted, the knowledge and practices that underpin them become lost forever. For instance, in terms of an integrated pest management strategy, Devinder Sharma talks of women who can identify 110 non-vegetarian insects and 60 vegetarian insects. Can such knowledge survive? To be wiped out for corporate profit and a flawed GM experiment?

As described in this paper, for thousands of years farmers experimented with different plant and animal specimens acquired through migration, trading networks, gift exchanges or accidental diffusion. By learning and doing, trial and error, new knowledge was blended with older, traditional knowledge systems. The farmer therefore possessed acute observation and has traditionally engaged in risk minimising strategies. Farmers took measures to manage drought, grow cereals with long stalks that can be used as fodder, engage in cropping practices that promote biodiversity, ethno-engineer soil and water conservation, use self-provisioning systems on farm recycling and use collective sharing systems such as managing common resource properties.

Farmers know their micro-environment, so they can plant crops that mature at different times, thereby facilitating more rapid crop rotation without exhausting the soil. Today, however, large-scale industrial-based agricultural production erodes biodiversity by depleting the organisms that live in soil and by making adverse changes to the structure of the soil and the kind of plants that can be grown in such artificially-created environments.

Many of the practices of small farmers are now recognised as sophisticated and appropriate. It is no surprise therefore that various high-level reports have called for agroecology and smallholder farmers to be prioritised and invested in to achieve global sustainable food security. Instead, what we see is the marginalisation traditional organic agriculture by corporate interests.

Traditional food production systems depend on using the knowledge and expertise of village communities and cultures in contrast to prioritising imported ‘solutions’. The widespread but artificial conditions created by the latter work against the survival of traditional knowledge, which creates and sustains unique indigenous farming practices and food culture.

None of this is based on a romantic yearning for the past or ‘the peasantry’. It is for good reason that the reports referred to call for investment in this type of agriculture centred on small farms: despite the pressures (including the fact that industrial agriculture grabs 80%of subsidies and 90% of research funds), it continues to feed most of the world.

Cultural, ethical, political and environmental considerations matter just as much – even more – than the science of GM. And that’s even before we consider how the ill thought out introduction (or imposition) of GM can have dire financial impacts for communities, as has been the case with Bt cotton in many areas where it has been adopted.

In acknowledging the type of food regime that exists and the risks, motives and implications of GM, pushing back against the large corporations that hold sway over the global food system, food sovereignty based on localisation and (political) agroecology is necessary. This involves reclaiming the food system and challenging the leverage that private capital has over all our lives.

In the meantime, we are not talking about ‘banning’ anything. Where GMOs, gene editing, synthetic biology or other similar technologies are concerned, we require a responsible approach based on transparent social, health and environmental impact assessments. In the absence of this, there should be a moratorium because the potential for a responsible approach is most definitely lacking: Rosemary, Mason, Carol van Strum, the late Shiv Chopra, Evaggelos Vallianatos and others have described how high-level institutions responsible for food and environmental safety have been subverted and corrupted over the years by commercial interests.

Decades on from Rachel Carson, have we learned nothing? If the people listed above tell us anything, it is that the ‘pesticide revolution’ was based on widespread fraud. We are now trying to deal with the health and environmental impacts of dousing the land with agrotoxins year in, year out.  They also tell us that commercial interests should not determine regulatory regimes. We need transparency, democratic accountability, science untainted by corporate interests and robust public institutions which guard against commercial interests that undermine regulatory decisions.

While the pro-GM lobby rushes to experiment with the genetic core of the world’s food and leave a potentially detrimental legacy for future generations, the question remains:

How is it possible that in the 21st century the world has the capacity to feed every single human being on the planet, yet the majority of people in Africa and the rest of the Global South, who are poor – whilst obesity soars in the West – go rampantly hungry?

Walden Bello, Structural Adjustment Programmes dictated by the IMF and World Bank destroyed African Agriculture, September 22, 2009

It is because food and agriculture have become wedded to power structures that have created food surplus and food deficit areas and which have restructured indigenous agriculture across the world and tied it to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for a manipulated and volatile international market and indebtedness to international financial institutions.

Once you understand how global capitalism and its corporate food regime operates and how private capital shapes and benefits from a food regime based on an exploitative ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy, you realise that genuine political and economic solutions are required if we are to feed the world and ensure equitable food security.

We must not be deterred by the “haughty imperialism” that exists in scientific circles that aggressively pushes for a GMO techno-fix. We must not be distracted from the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.