Category Archives: Agroecology

India’s Agrarian Crisis: Dismantling “Development”

In his 1978 book India MortgagedT.N. Reddy predicted the country would one day open all sectors to foreign direct investment and surrender economic sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Today, the US and Europe cling to a moribund form of capitalism and have used various mechanisms to bolster the system 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. Via ‘globalisation’, Western powers have also been on an unrelenting drive to plunder what they regard as ‘untapped markets’ in other areas of the globe.

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

Western agribusiness is shaping the ‘development’ agenda in India. Over 300,000 farmers 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 (GMO) cash crops and economic liberalisation.

Other sectors have not been immune to this bogus notion of development. Millions of people have been displaced to facilitate the needs of resource extraction industries, land grabs for Special Economic Zones, nuclear plants and other large-scale projects. And the full military backing of the state has been on hand to forcibly evict people, place them in camps and inflict human rights abuses on them.

To help open the nation to foreign capital, proponents of economic neoliberalism are fond of stating that ‘regulatory blockages’ must be removed. If particular ‘blockages’ stemming from legitimate protest, rights to land and dissent cannot be dealt with by peaceful means, other methods are used. And when increasing mass surveillance or widespread ideological attempts to discredit and smear does not secure compliance or dilute the power of protest, brute force is on hand.

India’s agrarian crisis

India is currently witnessing a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) agricapital and the running down of the existing system of agriculture. Millions of small-scale and marginal farmers are suffering economic distress as the sector is deliberately made financially non-viable for them.

At the same time, the country’s spurt of GDP growth – the holy grail of ‘development’ – has largely been fueled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories per head of population than it did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, unlike farmers, corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans but have failed to spur job creation.

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 remaining farmers 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.

US agribusiness corporations are spearheading the process, the very companies that fuel and thrive on a five-year US taxpayer-funded farm bill subsidy of around $500 billion. Their industrial model in the US is based on the overproduction of certain commodities often sold at prices below the cost of production and dumped on the rest of the world, thereby undermining farmers’ livelihoods and agriculture in other countries.

It is a model designed to facilitate the needs and profits of these corporations which belong to the agritech, agrochemicals, commodity trading, food processing and retail sectors. A model that can only survive thanks to taxpayer handouts and by subsidising the farmer who is squeezed at one end by seed and agrochemical manufacturers and at the other, by powerful retail interests. A model that can only function by externalising its massive health, environmental and social costs. And a model that only leads to the destruction of rural communities and jobs, degraded soil, less diverse and nutrient-deficient diets, polluted water, water shortages and poor health.

If we look at the US model, it serves the needs of agribusiness corporations and large-scale retailers, not farmers, the public nor the environment. So by bowing to their needs via World Bank directives and the US-Indo Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, what is the future to be for India?

A mainly urbanised country reliant on an industrial agriculture and all it entails, including denutrified food, increasingly monolithic diets, the massive use of agrochemicals and food contaminated by hormones, steroids, antibiotics and a range of chemical additives. A country with spiralling rates of ill health, degraded soil, a collapse in the insect population, contaminated and depleted water supplies and a cartel of seed, chemical and food processing companies with ever-greater control over the global food production and supply chain.

But we don’t need a crystal ball to look into the future. Much of the above is already taking place, not least the destruction of rural communities, the impoverishment of the countryside and continuing urbanisation, which is itself causing problems for India’s crowded cities and eating up valuable agricultural land.

So why would India want to let the foxes guard the hen house? Why mimic the model of intensive, chemical-dependent agriculture of the US and be further incorporated into a corrupt US-dominated global food regime that undermines food security and food sovereignty? After all, numerous 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.

Yet the trend in India continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational players.

The plan is to shift hundreds of millions from the countryside into the cities to serve as a cheap army of labour for offshored foreign companies, mirroring what China has become: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, rural migrants 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 jobless ‘growth’ seems to have arrived as the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

If we look at the various Western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to in order to ‘modernise’ the country’s food and agriculture, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialism. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared?

Fueled by capitalism’s compulsion to overproduce and then seek out new markets, the same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda: terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ embody little more than the tenets of neoliberal fundamentalism wrapped in benign-sounding words. It boils down to one thing: Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations will decide on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed.

Alternatives to development

Current policies seek to tie agriculture to an environmentally destructive, moribund system of capitalism. Practical solutions to the agrarian crisis must be based on sustainable agriculture which places the small farmer at the centre of policies: far-sighted and sustained policy initiatives centred on self-sufficiency, localisation, food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture and agroecology.

The scaling up of agroecological approaches should be a lynch pin of genuine rural development. Other measures involve implementing land reforms, correcting rigged trade, delinking from capitalist globalisation (capital controls) and managing foreign trade to suit smallholder farmers’ interests not those of foreign agricapital.

More generally, there is the need to recognise that genuine sustainable agriculture can only be achieved by challenging power relations, especially resisting the industrial model of agriculture being rolled out by powerful agribusiness corporations and the neoliberal policies that serve their interests.

What is required is an ‘alternative to development’ as post-development theorist Arturo Escobar explains:

Because seven decades after World War II, certain fundamentals have not changed. Global inequality remains severe, both between and within nations. Environmental devastation and human dislocation, driven by political as well as ecological factors, continues to worsen. These are symptoms of the failure of “development,” indicators that the intellectual and political post-development project remains an urgent task.

Looking at the situation in Latin America, Escobar says development strategies have centred on large-scale interventions, such as the expansion of oil palm plantations, mining, and large port development.

And it is similar in India: commodity monocropping; immiseration in the countryside; the appropriation of biodiversity, the means of subsistence for millions of rural dwellers; unnecessary and inappropriate environment-destroying, people-displacing infrastructure projects; and state-backed violence against the poorest and most marginalised sections of society.

These problems, says Escobar, are not the result of a lack of development but of ‘excessive development’. Escobar looks towards the worldviews of indigenous peoples and the inseparability and interdependence of humans and nature for solutions.

He is not alone. Writers Felix Padel and Malvika Gupta argue that adivasi (India’s indigenous peoples) economics may be the only hope for the future because India’s tribal cultures remain the antithesis of capitalism and industrialisation. Their age-old knowledge and value systems promote long-term sustainability through restraint in what is taken from nature. Their societies also emphasise equality and sharing rather than hierarchy and competition.

These principles must guide our actions regardless of where we live on the planet because what’s the alternative? A system driven by narcissism, domination, ego, anthropocentrism, speciesism and plunder. A system that is using up oil, water and other resources much faster than they can ever be regenerated. We have poisoned the rivers and oceans, destroyed natural habitats, driven wildlife species to (the edge of) extinction and have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the point that runaway climate change seems more and more likely.

And, as we see all around us, the outcome is endless conflicts over fewer and fewer resources, while nuclear missiles hang over humanity’s head like a sword of Damocles.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil, empire and agriculture

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

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

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

Norman J Church (2005)

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

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

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

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

Jason Hickel (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous Liaison: Corporate Agriculture and the Reductionist Mindset

Food and agriculture across the world is in crisis. Food is becoming denutrified and unhealthy and diets less diverse. There is a loss of biodiversity, which threatens food security, soils are being degraded, water sources polluted and depleted and smallholder farmers, so vital to global food production, are being squeezed off their land and out of farming.

A minority of the global population has access to so much food that it can afford to waste much of it, while food insecurity has become a fact of life for hundreds of millions. This crisis stems from food and agriculture being wedded to power structures that serve the interests of the powerful global agribusiness corporations.

Over the last 60 years, agriculture has become increasingly industrialised, globalised and tied to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for the international market, indebtedness to international financial institutions (IMF/World Bank).

This has resulted in food surplus and food deficit areas, of which the latter have become dependent on (US) agricultural imports and strings-attached aid. Food deficits in the Global South mirror food surpluses in the North, based on a ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy.

Whether through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes related to debt repayment as occurred in Africa (as a continent Africa has been transformed from a net exporter to a net importer of food), bilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and its impact on Mexico or, more generally, deregulated global trade rules, the outcome has been similar: the devastation of traditional, indigenous agriculture.

Integral to all of this has been the imposition of the ‘Green Revolution’. Farmers were encouraged to purchase hybrid seeds from corporations that were dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost yields. They required loans to purchase these corporate inputs and governments borrowed to finance irrigation and dam building projects for what was a water-intensive model.

While the Green Revolution was sold to governments and farmers on the basis it would increase productivity and earnings and would be more efficient, we now have nations and farmers incorporated into a system of international capitalism based on dependency, deregulated and manipulated commodity markets, unfair subsidies and inherent food insecurity.

As part of a wider ‘development’ plan for the Global South, millions of farmers have been forced out of agriculture to become cheap factory labour (for outsourced units from the West) or, as is increasingly the case, unemployed or underemployed slum dwellers.

In India, under the banner of a bogus notion of ‘development’, farmers are being whipped into subservience on behalf of global capital: they find themselves steadily squeezed out of farming due to falling incomes, the impact of cheap imports and policies deliberately designed to run down smallholder agriculture for the benefit of global agribusiness corporations.

Aside from the geopolitical shift in favour of the Western nations resulting from the programmed destruction of traditional agriculture across the world, the Green Revolution has adversely impacted the nature of food, soil, human health and the environment.

Sold on the premise of increased yields, improved food security and better farm incomes, the benefits of the Green Revolution have been overstated. And the often stated ‘humanitarian’ intent and outcome (‘millions of lives saved’) has had more to do with PR and cold commercial interest.

However, even when the Green Revolution did increase yields (or similarly, if claims about GMO agriculture – the second coming of the Green Revolution – improving output is to be accepted at face value), Canadian environmentalist Jodi Koberinski says pertinent questions need to be asked: what has been the cost of any increased yield of commodities in terms of local food security and local caloric production, nutrition per acre, water tables, soil structure and new pests and disease pressures?

We may also ask what the effects on rural communities and economies have been; on birds, insects and biodiversity in general; on the climate as a result of new technologies, inputs or changes to farming practices; and what has been the effects of shifting towards globalised production chains, not least in terms of transportation and fossil fuel consumption.

Moreover, if the Green Revolution found farmers in the Global South increasingly at the mercy of a US-centric system of trade and agriculture, at home they were also having to fit in with development policies that pushed for urbanisation and had to cater to the needs of a distant and expanding urban population whose food requirements were different to local rural-based communities. In addition to a focus on export-oriented farming, crops were also being grown for the urban market, regardless of farmers’ needs or the dietary requirements of local rural markets.

Destroying indigenous systems

In an open letter written in 2006 to policy makers in India, farmer and campaigner Bhaskar Save offered answers to some of these questions. He argued that the actual reason for pushing the Green Revolution was the much narrower goal of increasing marketable surplus of a few relatively less perishable cereals to fuel the urban-industrial expansion favoured by the government and a few industries at the expense of a more diverse and nutrient-sufficient agriculture, which rural folk – who make up the bulk of India’s population – had long benefited from.

Before, Indian farmers had been largely self-sufficient and even produced surpluses, though generally smaller quantities of many more items. These, particularly perishables, were tougher to supply urban markets. And so, the nation’s farmers were steered to grow chemically cultivated monocultures of a few cash-crops like wheat, rice, or sugar, rather than their traditional polycultures that needed no purchased inputs.

Tall, indigenous varieties of grain provided more biomass, shaded the soil from the sun and protected against its erosion under heavy monsoon rains, but these were replaced with dwarf varieties, which led to more vigorous growth of weeds and were able to compete successfully with the new stunted crops for sunlight.

As a result, the farmer had to spend more labour and money in weeding, or spraying herbicides. Furthermore, straw growth with the dwarf grain crops fell and much less organic matter was locally available to recycle the fertility of the soil, leading to an artificial need for externally procured inputs. Inevitably, the farmers resorted to use more chemicals and soil degradation and erosion set in.

The exotic varieties, grown with chemical fertilisers, were more susceptible to ‘pests and diseases’, leading to yet more chemicals being poured. But the attacked insect species developed resistance and reproduced prolifically. Their predators – spiders, frogs, etc. – that fed on these insects and controlled their populations were exterminated. So were many beneficial species like the earthworms and bees.

Save noted that India, next to South America, receives the highest rainfall in the world. Where thick vegetation covers the ground, the soil is alive and porous and at least half of the rain is soaked and stored in the soil and sub-soil strata.

A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers or groundwater tables. The living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs. 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.

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. 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.

More than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. For example, 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. Save argued this could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

If Bhaskar Save helped open people’s eyes to what has happened on the farm, to farmers and to ecology in India, a 2015 report by GRAIN provides an overview of how US agribusiness has hijacked an entire nation’s food and agriculture under the banner of ‘free trade’ to the detriment of the environment, health and farmers.

In 2012, Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health released the results of a national survey of food security and nutrition. Between 1988 and 2012, the proportion of overweight women between the ages of 20 and 49 increased from 25% to 35% and the number of obese women in this age group increased from 9% to 37%.

Some 29% of Mexican children between the ages of 5 and 11 were found to be overweight, as were 35% of youngsters between 11 and 19, while one in 10 school age children suffered from anemia. The Mexican Diabetes Federation says that more than 7% of the Mexican population has diabetes. Diabetes is now the third most common cause of death in Mexico, directly or indirectly.

The various free trade agreements that Mexico has signed over the past two decades have had a profound impact on the country’s food system and people’s health. After his mission to Mexico in 2012, the then Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, concluded that the trade policies in place favour greater reliance on heavily processed and refined foods with a long shelf life rather than on the consumption of fresh and more perishable foods, particularly fruit and vegetables.

He added that the overweight and obesity emergency that Mexico is facing could have been avoided, or largely mitigated, if the health concerns linked to shifting diets had been integrated into the design of those policies.

The North America Free Trade Agreement led to the direct investment in food processing and a change in the retail structure (notably the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores) as well as the emergence of global agribusiness and transnational food companies in Mexico.

The country has witnessed an explosive growth of chain supermarkets, discounters and convenience stores. Local small-scale vendors have been replaced by corporate retailers that offer the processed food companies greater opportunities for sales and profits. Oxxo (owned by Coca-cola subsidiary Femsa) tripled its stores to 3,500 between 1999 and 2004. It was scheduled to open its 14,000th store sometime during 2015.

In Mexico, the loss of food sovereignty has induced catastrophic changes in the nation’s diet and has had dire consequences for agricultural workers who lost their jobs and for the nation in general. Those who have benefited include US food and agribusiness interests, drug cartels and US banks and arms manufacturers.

More of the same: a bogus ‘solution’

Transnational agribusiness has lobbied for, directed and profited from the very policies that have caused much of the above. And what we now see is these corporations (and their supporters) espousing cynical and fake concern for the plight of the poor and hungry.

GMO patented seeds represent the final stranglehold of transnational agribusiness over the control of agriculture and food. The misrepresentation of the plight of the indigenous edible oils sector in India encapsulates the duplicity at work surrounding the GM project.

After trade rules and cheap imports conspired to destroy farmers and the jobs of people involved in local food processing activities for the benefit of global agribusiness, including commodity trading and food processor companies ADM and Cargill, there is now a campaign to force GM into India on the basis that Indian agriculture is unproductive and thus the country has to rely on imports. This conveniently ignores the fact that prior to neoliberal trade rules in the mid-1990s, India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils.

In collusion with the Gates Foundation, corporate interests are also seeking to secure full spectrum dominance throughout much of Africa as well. Western seed, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers and dealers and food processing companies are in the process of securing changes to legislation and are building up logistics and infrastructure to allow them to recast food and farming in their own images.

Today, governments continue to collude with big agribusiness corporations. These companies are being allowed to shape government policy by being granted a strategic role in trade negotiations and are increasingly framing the policy/knowledge agenda by funding and determining the nature of research carried out in public universities and institutes.

As Bhaskar Save wrote about India:

This country has more than 150 agricultural universities. But every year, each churns out several hundred ‘educated’ unemployables, trained only in misguiding farmers and spreading ecological degradation. In all the six years a student spends for an M.Sc. in agriculture, the only goal is short-term – and narrowly perceived – ‘productivity’. For this, the farmer is urged to do and buy a hundred things. But not a thought is spared to what a farmer must never do so that the land remains unharmed for future generations and other creatures. It is time our people and government wake up to the realisation that this industry-driven way of farming – promoted by our institutions – is inherently criminal and suicidal!

Save is referring to the 300,000-plus farmer suicides that have taken place in India over the past two decades due to economic distress resulting from debt, a shift to (GM)cash crops and economic ‘liberalisation’ (see this report about a peer-reviewed study, which directly links suicides to GM cotton).

The current global system of chemical-industrial agriculture, World Trade Organisation rules and bilateral trade agreements that agritech companies helped draw up are a major cause of food insecurity and environmental destruction. The system is not set up to ‘feed the world’ despite the proclamations of its supporters.

However, this model has become central to the dominant notion of ‘development’ in the Global South: unnecessary urbanisation, the commercialisation and emptying out of the countryside at the behest of the World Bank, the displacement of existing systems of food and agricultural production with one dominated by Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and the like and a one-dimensional pursuit of GDP growth as a measure of ‘progress’ with little concern for the costs and implications – mirroring the narrow, reductionist ‘output-yield’ paradigm of industrial agriculture itself.

Agroecology offers a genuine solution

Across the world, we are seeing farmers and communities pushing back and resisting the corporate takeover of seeds, soils, land, water and food. And we are also witnessing inspiring stories about the successes of agroecology.

Reflecting what Bhaskar Save achieved on his farm in Gujarat, agroecology combines sound ecological management, including minimising the use of toxic inputs, by using on-farm renewable resources and privileging natural solutions to manage pests and disease, with an approach that upholds and secures farmers’ livelihoods.

Agroecology is based on scientific research grounded in the natural sciences but marries this with farmer-generated knowledge and grassroots participation that challenges top-down approaches to research and policy making. However, it can also involve moving beyond the dynamics of the farm itself to become part of a wider agenda, which addresses the broader political and economic issues that impact farmers and agriculture (see this description of the various modes of thought that underpin agroecolgy).

Jodi Koberisnki’s nod to ‘systems thinking’ lends credence to agroecology, which recognises the potential of agriculture to properly address concerns about local food security and sovereignty as well as social, ecological and health issues. In this respect, agroecology is a refreshing point of departure from the reductionist approach to farming which emphasises securing maximum yield and corporate profit to the detriment of all else.

Wei Zhang – an economist focusing on ecosystem services, agriculture and the environment – says:

that ‘worldview’ is important to how you conceptualise issues and develop or choose tools to address those issues. Using systems thinking requires a shift in fundamental beliefs and assumptions that constitute our worldviews. These are the intellectual and moral foundations for the way we view and interpret reality, as well as our beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowing. Systems thinking can help by changing the dominant mindset and by addressing resistance to more integrated approaches.

Agroecology requires that shift in fundamental beliefs.

A few years ago, the Oakland Institute released a report on 33 case studies which highlighted the success of agroecological agriculture across Africa in the face of climate change, hunger and poverty. The studies provide facts and figures on how agricultural transformation can yield immense economic, social, and food security benefits while ensuring climate justice and restoring soils and the environment.

The research highlights the multiple benefits of agroecology, including affordable and sustainable ways to boost agricultural yields while increasing farmers’ incomes, food security and crop resilience.

The report described how agroecology uses a wide variety of techniques and practices, including plant diversification, intercropping, the application of mulch, manure or compost for soil fertility, the natural management of pests and diseases, agroforestry and the construction of water management structures.

There are many other examples of successful agroecology and of farmers abandoning Green Revolution thought and practices to embrace it (see this report about El Salvador and this interview from South India).

In a recent interview appearing on the Farming Matters website, Million Belay sheds light on how agroecological agriculture is the best model of agriculture for Africa. Belay explains that one of the greatest agroecological initiatives started in 1995 in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, and continues today. It began with four villages and after good results, it was scaled up to 83 villages and finally to the whole Tigray Region. It was recommended to the Ministry of Agriculture to be scaled up at the national level. The project has now expanded to six regions of Ethiopia.

The fact that it was supported with research by the Ethiopian University at Mekele has proved to be critical in convincing decision makers that these practices work and are better for both the farmers and the land.

Bellay describes another agroecological practice that spread widely across East Africa – ‘push-pull’. This method manages pests through selective intercropping with important fodder species and wild grass relatives, in which pests are simultaneously repelled – or pushed – from the system by one or more plants and are attracted to – or pulled – toward ‘decoy’ plants, thereby protecting the crop from infestation. Push-pull has proved to be very effective at biologically controlling pest populations in fields, reducing significantly the need for pesticides, increasing production, especially for maize, increasing income to farmers, increasing fodder for animals and, due to that, increasing milk production, and improving soil fertility.

By 2015, the number of farmers using this practice increased to 95,000. One of the bedrocks of success is the incorporation of cutting edge science through the collaboration of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and the Rothamsted Research Station (UK) who have worked in East Africa for the last 15 years on an effective ecologically-based pest management solution for stem borers and striga.

But agroecology should not just be regarded as something for the Global South. Food First Executive Director Eric Holtz-Gimenez argues that it offers concrete, practical solutions to many of the world’s problems that move beyond (but which are linked to) agriculture. In doing so, it challenges – and offers alternatives to – prevailing moribund doctrinaire economics and the outright plunder of neoliberalism.

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

Thick legitimacy

Various official reports have argued that to feed the hungry and secure food security in low income regions we need to support small farms and diverse, sustainable agroecological methods of farming and strengthen local food economies (see this report on the right to food and this (IAASTD) peer-reviewed report).

Olivier De Schutter says:

To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavorable environments.

De Schutter indicates that small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods. Based on an extensive review of scientific literature, the study he was involved in calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest. The report calls on states to implement a fundamental shift towards agroecology.

The success stories of agroecology indicate what can be achieved when development is placed firmly in the hands of farmers themselves. The expansion of agroecological practices can generate a rapid, fair and inclusive development that can be sustained for future generations. This model entails policies and activities that come from the bottom-up and which the state can then invest in and facilitate.

A decentralised system of food production with access to local markets supported by proper roads, storage and other infrastructure must take priority ahead of exploitative international markets dominated and designed to serve the needs of global capital.

It has long been established that small farms are per area more productive than large-scale industrial farms and create a more resilient, diverse food system. If policy makers were to prioritise this sector and promote agroecology to the extent Green Revolution practices and technology have been pushed, many of the problems surrounding poverty, unemployment and urban migration could be solved.

However, the biggest challenge for upscaling agroecology lies in the push by big business for commercial agriculture and attempts to marginalise agroecology. Unfortunately, global agribusiness concerns have secured the status of ‘thick legitimacy’ based on an intricate web of processes successfully spun in the scientific, policy and political arenas. This allows its model to persist and appear normal and necessary. This perceived legitimacy derives from the lobbying, financial clout and political power of agribusiness conglomerates which set out to capture or shape government departments, public institutions, the agricultural research paradigm, international trade and the cultural narrative concerning food and agriculture.

Critics of this system are immediately attacked for being anti-science, for forwarding unrealistic alternatives, for endangering the lives of billions who would starve to death and for being driven by ideology and emotion. Strategically placed industry mouthpieces like Jon Entine, Owen Paterson and Henry Miller perpetuate such messages in the media and influential industry-backed bodies like the Science Media Centre feed journalists with agribusiness spin.

When some people hurl such accusations, it might not just simply be spin: it may be the case that some actually believe critics are guilty of such things. If that is so, it is a result of their failure to think along the lines Zhang outlines: they are limited by their own reductionist logic and worldview.

The worrying thing is that too many policy makers may also be blinded by such a view because so many governments are working hand-in-glove with the industry to promote its technology over the heads of the public. A network of scientific bodies and regulatory agencies that supposedly serve the public interest have been subverted by the presence of key figures with industry links, while the powerful industry lobby hold sway over bureaucrats and politicians.

The World Bank is pushing a corporate-led industrial model of agriculture via its ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ strategy and corporations are given free rein to write policies. Monsanto played a key part in drafting the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights to create seed monopolies and the global food processing industry had a leading role in shaping the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (see this). From Codex, the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture aimed at restructuring Indian agriculture to the currently on-hold US-EU trade deal (TTIP), the powerful agribusiness lobby has secured privileged access to policy makers to ensure its model of agriculture prevails.

The ultimate coup d’etat by the transnational agribusiness conglomerates is that government officials, scientists and journalists take as given that profit-driven Fortune 500 corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. These corporations have convinced so many that they have the ultimate legitimacy to own and control what is essentially humanity’s common wealth. There is the premise that water, food, soil, land and agriculture should be handed over to powerful transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretence these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity.

Corporations which promote industrial agriculture have embedded themselves deeply within the policy-making machinery on both national and international levels. From the overall narrative that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world to providing lavish research grants and the capture of important policy-making institutions, global agribusiness has secured a perceived thick legitimacy within policymakers’ mindsets and mainstream discourse.

It gets to the point whereby if you – as a key figure in a public body – believe that your institution and society’s main institutions and the influence of corporations on them are basically sound, then you are probably not going to challenge or question the overall status quo. Once you have indicated an allegiance to these institutions and corporate power, it is ‘irrational’ to oppose their policies, the very ones you are there to promote. And it becomes quite ‘natural’ to oppose any research findings, analyses or questions which question the system and by implication your role in it.

But how long can the ‘legitimacy’ of a system persist given that it merely produces bad food, creates food deficit regions globally,  destroys health, impoverishes small farms, leads to less diverse diets and less nutritious food, is less productive than small farms, creates water scarcity, destroys soil and fuels/benefits from World Bank/WTO policies that create dependency and debt.

The more that agroecology is seen to work, the more policy makers see the failings of the current system and the more they become open to holistic approaches to agriculture – as practitioners and supporters of agroecology create their own thick legitimacy –  the more willing officials might be to give space to a model that has great potential to help deal with some of the world’s most pressing problems. It has happened to a certain extent in Ethiopia, for example. That is hopeful.

Of course, global agribusiness nor the system of capitalism it helps to uphold and benefits from are not going to disappear overnight and politicians (even governments) who oppose or challenge private capital tend to be replaced or subverted.

Powerful agribusiness corporations can only operate as they do because of a framework designed to allow them to capture governments and regulatory bodies, to use the WTO and bilateral trade deals to lever global influence, to profit on the back of US militarism (Iraq) and destabilisations (Ukraine), to exert undue influence over science and politics and to rake in enormous profits.

The World Bank’s ongoing commitment to global agribusiness and a wholly corrupt and rigged model of globalisation is a further recipe for plunder. Whether it involves Monsanto, Cargill or the type of corporate power grab of African agriculture that Bill Gates is helping to spearhead, private capital will continue to ensure this happens while hiding behind platitudes about ‘free trade’ and ‘development’.

Brazil and Indonesia are subsidising private corporations to effectively destroy the environment through their practices.  Canada and the UK are working with the GMO biotech sector to facilitate its needs. And India is facilitating the destruction of its agrarian base according to World Bank directives for the benefit of the likes of Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill.

If myths about the necessity for perpetuating the stranglehold of capitalism go unchallenged and real alternatives are not supported by mass movements across continents, agroecology will remain on the periphery.