Category Archives: Argoecology

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 However, the system of British colonial dominance has been replaced by a new hegemony based on the systemic rule of transnational capital, enforced by global institutions like the World Bank and WTO.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.

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.

Agrarian Crisis and Climate Catastrophe: Forged in India, Made in Washington

India is under siege from international capital. It is on course not only to be permanently beholden to US state-corporate interests but is heading towards environmental catastrophe much faster than many may think.

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. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the World Bank exerts a certain hold over India. In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank wanted India to shift hundreds of millions out of agriculture. In return for up to £90 billion in loans, India was directed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies, run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange.

The plan for India involves the mass displacement of people to restructure agriculture for the benefit of powerful corporations. 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.

Quoted in The Guardian, 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 farming, 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 given that India is heading (or has already reached) ‘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 turning into a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides, dirt and dust.

The WTO and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture are facilitating the process. To push the plan along, there is a deliberate strategy to make agriculture financially non-viable for India’s small farms and to get most farmers out of farming. As Felix Creutig suggests, the aim is to replace current structures with a system of industrial (GM) agriculture suited to the needs of Western agribusiness, food processing and retail concerns.

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. 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 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 and food security 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.

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, farmers still face massive financial distress. Given that jobs are being destroyed, relatively few are being created and that as a measure of development GDP growth is unsustainable and has actually come at the expense of deliberately impoverished farmers in India (low food prices), what we are hearing is mere rhetoric to try to convince the public that an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a relative few corporations – via deregulations, privatisations and lower labour and environmental protection standards – constitutes progress.

We can already see the outcome of these policies across the world: the increasing power of unaccountable financial institutions, record profits and massive increases in wealth for elite interests and, for the rest, disempowerment, mass surveillance, austerity, job losses, the erosion of rights, weak unions, cuts to public services, environmental degradation, spiraling national debt and opaque, corrupt trade deals, such as TTIP, CETA, RCEP (affecting India) and TPA.

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.

In the realm of agriculture, the World Bank’s ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’ entails opening up markets to Western agribusiness and their fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and patented seeds. Rather than work to eradicate corruption, improve poor management, build storage facilities and deal 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.

According to the neoliberal ideologues, foreign investment is good for jobs and good for business. But just how many actually 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 or the village-level processors who were cynically put out of business via bogus health and safety measures so 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)

If people are inclined to think farmers would be better off as foreign firms enter the supply chain, we need only look at the plight of farmers in India who were tied into contracts with Pepsico. Farmers were pushed into debt, reliance on one company and were paid a pittance

India is looking to US corporations to ‘develop’ its food and agriculture sector. With regard to what this could mean for India, we only have to look at how the industrialised US system of food and agriculture relies on massive taxpayer subsidies and has destroyed 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 (whose business model in the US is based on overproduction and dependent on taxpayer subsidies) 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.

The alternative would be to protect indigenous agriculture from rigged global trade and trade deals and to implement a shift to sustainable, localised agriculture which grows a diverse range of crops and offers a healthy diet to the public.

Instead, we see the push for bogus ‘solutions’ like GMOs and an adherence to neoliberal ideology that ultimately privileges profit and control of the food supply by powerful private interests, which have no concern whatsoever for the health of the public.

Taxpayer-subsidised agriculture in the US ultimately promotes obesity and disease by supporting the health damaging practices of the food industry. Is this what Indians want to see happen in India to their food and health?

Unfortunately, the process is already well on track as ‘Western diseases’ take hold in the country’s urban centres. For instance, there are massive spikes in the rates of obesity and diabetes. Although around 40 per cent of the nation’s under-5s are underweight, 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.

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

Support given to agriculture is portrayed as a drain on the economy and is reduced and farmers suffer yet it still manages to deliver bumper harvests year after year. On the other hand, 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 neo-liberal 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 neoliberal globalisation policies resulting in the deregulation of international capital that ensures giant transnational conglomerates have too often been able to ride roughshod over national sovereignty.

Across the world we are seeing treaties and agreements over breeders’ rights and intellectual property have been enacted to prevent peasant farmers from freely improving, sharing or replanting their traditional seeds. Large corporations with their proprietary seeds and synthetic chemical inputs have eradicated 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. As a result, genetic diversity among food crops has been drastically reduced, and we have bad food and diets, degraded soils, water pollution and scarcity and spiralling rates of poor health.

Corporate-dominated agriculture is not only an attack on the integrity of ‘the commons’, soil, water, food, 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 spiraled since India adopted neoliberal policies), Washington regards ‘development’ as a way to further US interests globally.

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.

Of course, many others such as Walden Bello, Raj Patel and Eric Holtz-Gimenez have written on how a geopolitical ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy has fuelled this process over the decades.

Capitalism and environmental catastrophe joined at the hip

In India, an industrialised chemical-intensive model of agriculture is being facilitated that 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 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.

Salinization aside, looking at the issue of soil more generally, Stuart Newton, a researcher and botanist living in India, says that India must restore and nurture its depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further with chemical overload. Through his analyses of Indian soils, he has offered detailed insights into their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the Green Revolution. In turn, these depleted soils in the long-term cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the Green Revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition.

Various high-level official reports, not least the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge and Science for Development Report, state that smallholder, traditional farming can deliver food security in low-income countries through sustainable agroecological systems. Moreover, given India’s huge range of biodiversity (India is one of Nikolai Vavilov’s strategically globally important centres of plant diversity) that has been developed over millennia to cope with diverse soil and climate conditions, the country should on its own be more than capable of addressing challenges that lie ahead due to climate change.

Instead, policy makers continue to look towards the likes of Monsanto-Bayer for ‘solutions’. Such companies merely seed 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 2017 paper in the Journal of Peasant Studies, ‘The ox fall down: 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 managing water resources, regenerating soils, and cultivating climate resilient crops, agroecology as a solution is there for all to see. Andhra Pradesh is now making a concerted effort to roll-out zero budget agroecological agriculture across the state. However, in the absence of this elsewhere across India, agroecological approaches will be marginalised.

India faces huge problems in terms of securing access to water. As Bhaskar Save noted, the shift to Green Revolution thinking and practices (underpinned by geopolitical and commercial interests: World Bank loans; export-oriented monocropping, commodity crop trade and dependency on the US dollar; seed sovereignty issues and costly proprietary inputs, etc) 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.1

Politicians and bureaucrats in Delhi might be facilitating this model and the system of agriculture it is tied to, but it is ultimately stamped with the logo ‘made in Washington’.

  1. Jason Hickel, writing in The Guardian (July 2016.

GMO Agriculture and the Narrative of Choice

The pro-GMO lobby claim critics of the technology ‘deny farmers choice’. They say that farmers should have access to a range of tools and technologies. It is all about maximising choice and options. Taken at face value, who would want to deny choice?

At the same time, however, we do not want to end up offering a false choice (rolling out technologies that have little value and only serve to benefit those who control the technology), to unleash an innovation that has an adverse impact on those who do not use it or to manipulate a situation whereby only one option is available because other options have been deliberately made unavailable or less attractive. And we would certainly not wish to roll out a technology that traps farmers on a treadmill that they find difficult to get off.

When discussing choice, it is can be very convenient to focus on end processes (choices made available – or denied – to farmers at the farm level), while ignoring the procedures and decisions that were made in corporate boardrooms, by government agencies and by regulatory bodies which result in the shaping and roll-out of options.

Where GMOs are concerned, Steven Druker argues that the decision to commercialise GM seeds and food in the US was based on regulatory delinquency. Druker indicates that if the US Food and Drug Administration had heeded its own experts’ advice and publicly acknowledged their warnings about risk, the GM venture would have imploded and would have never gained traction

It is fine to talk about choice while ignoring what amounts to a subversion of democratic processes, which could result in (and arguably is resulting in) changing the genetic core of the world’s food. Whose ‘choice’ was it to do this? Was the choice given to the US public, the consumers of GM food? Did ordinary people choose for GM food to appear on their supermarket shelves?

No, that choice was denied. The decision was carried out above their heads, ultimately to benefit Monsanto’s bottom line and to gain strategic leverage over global agriculture. And, now that GM food is on the market, can they choose whether to buy it? Again, the answer is no. The massive lobbying firepower of GMO agritech and food corporations have ensured this food is unlabelled and the public has been denied the right to choose.

Of course, let’s not also forget that the GMO venture, like the original Green Revolution, often works with bio-pirated germplasm: little more than theft from the Global South to be tweaked and sold back as hybrid or patented GM seeds to the Global South (read The Great Seed Piracy)

But any serious discussion about the corporate capture of agriculture, seed patenting, the role of the WTO or World Bank, or issues concerning dependency, development and ensuring genuine food security by addressing the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism (globalisation), are often shouted down by pro-GMO scientists and their supporters with accusations of ‘conspiracy theory’. Based on my own personal experience, this even occurs when referring to the work of respected academics who are sneered at as non-scientists and whose PhDs and the peer-reviewed journals their work appear in are somehow unworthy of recognition.

Yet, aside from the issues mentioned above which need to be addressed if we are to achieve equitable global food security (issues the pro-GMO lobby and its prominent scientists in academia seem to not want to discuss – for them, the ‘conspiracy’ slur will suffice), the fact is that the industry has placed GM on the market fraudulently, is complicit in seed piracy and has fought hard to deny consumer choice by using its political and financial clout along the way to undermine democratic processes. Issues that are highly relevant to any discussion about ‘choice’.

(For the sake of brevity, Monsanto’s subversion of science and issues emerging from the ‘Monsanto Papers’ will be put to one side, as this has been presented on numerous occasions elsewhere.)

What are critics denying?

So, just what is it that critics are said to be denying farmers when it comes to the right to choose?

Pro-GMO activists say that GM crops can increase yields, reduce the use of agrochemicals and are required if we are to feed the world. To date, however, the track record of GMOs is unimpressive.

In India and Burkina Faso, for example, Bt cotton has hardly been a success. And although critics are blamed for Golden Rice not being on the market, this is a convenient smokescreen that attempts to hide the reality that after two decades problems remain with the technology.

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 South (Benbrook, 2012; Gurian-Sherman, 2009)” (from the report ‘Persistent narratives, persistent failure’).

GM agriculture is not ‘feeding the world’, nor has it been designed to do so: the companies that push GM are located firmly within the paradigm of industrial agriculture and associated power relations that shape a ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy resulting in strategic surpluses and scarcities across the globe. The choice for farmers between a technology that is so often based on broken promises and non-GMO agriculture offers little more than a false choice.

“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. ((Choice: Less can be more, in Food Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn 2008.)

There is much evidence showing that GM and non-GM crops cannot co-exist. Indeed, contamination seems to be part of a cynical industry strategy. For instance, GM food crops are already illegally growing in India.

And if we turn our attention to India, recent reports indicate that herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton seeds are now available in certain states. Bt cotton (designed to be pest resistant) is the only legally sanctioned GM crop in India. HT crops are not only illegal in India but have led to serious problems in countries where they are used. The Supreme Court-appointed TEC Committee said that such crops are wholly inappropriate for India.

It seems that, however, according to reports, many farmers are ‘choosing’ to buy these seeds.  And this is where the pro-GMO activists jump in and yell their mantra about offering choice to farmers.

Regardless of the laws of the country being violated, things are not that simple.

Manufacturing ‘choice’

Professor Glenn Stone has conducted extensive field research concerning India’s cotton farmers. By employing the concept of technology treadmills as well as environmental, social and didactic learning, he can help us understand the ‘choices’ that farmers make.

Stone has noted where Bt cotton has been concerned, any decision by farmers to plant GM seeds was not necessarily based on objective decision-making.  There was no experimentation or the testing of seeds within agroecological contexts by farmers as has been the case traditionally.

On the back of a national media campaign about the miracle wonder seeds and a push by Monsanto to get Bt cotton into India in the 1990s, farmers eventually found themselves at the mercy of seed vendors who sold whatever seed they had in stock, regardless of what the farmers wanted. Without agricultural support services from trusted non-governmental organisations, farmers had to depend on local shopkeepers. They believed they were buying the latest and best seeds and created a rush on whatever supplies were available.

The upshot is that traditional knowledge, testing and evaluations by farmers in the field was undermined or broke down and, in many respects, gave way to an unregulated industry-orchestrated free for all. ‘Environmental learning’ gave way to ‘social learning’ (farmers merely emulated one another).

However, in agriculture, environmental learning has gone on 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.

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. In short, farmers knew their micro-environment.

To get farmers onto a corporate technology treadmill, environmental learning pathways have to be broken, and Stone offers good insight into how this occurred with Bt cotton and is now happening with HT cotton. He describes how traditional ‘double-lining’ ox ploughing is breaking down due to ‘didactic learning’ under the promise of increased productivity. After having adopted ‘single-lining’ ploughing (as advocated by didactic ‘teachers’), this promise does not seem to have materialised. However, the farmer is now faced with more weeds.

So, who could blame the farmer for being attracted towards HT cotton and the purchasing of herbicides as a perceived easy fix when faced with an increase in weeds and government policies that have inadvertently increased farm labour costs?

The breaking with traditional practices (or pathways) to implement fresh approaches (which fail to deliver much benefit) can be regarded as part of the process of nudging farmers towards seeking out alternative options to deal with the new problems that arise (the beginning of the treadmill).

It is highly convenient that illegal HT seeds now seem widely available. It dovetails with Monsanto’s stated plan to boost herbicide sales in India (which it regards as a potentially massive growth market). And if farmers demand these seeds, (farmers are a huge vote bank for politicians), Monsanto (now Bayer) might eventually achieve what is has been pushing for all along: India embracing GM agriculture.

In effect, Stone (with his colleague Andrew Flachs) helps us to understand how ‘didactic learning’ (which Monsanto has been undertaking with Indian farmers since the 1990s) can result in driving farmers towards the very option and very choice Monsanto wants them to make. Stone and Flachs also make it clear that once farmers are on an agrochemical/agritech treadmill, it is very difficult for them to get off, even when they are aware it is failing.

A question of power

When the pro-GMO lobby uses ‘choice’ as a stick to hit critics with, it fails to acknowledge these processes, which powerful agritech players are cynically manipulating for their own ends. In other words, ‘choices’ or options must be understood within the broader context of power.

Choice is also about the options that could be made available, but which have been closed off or are not even considered. Take the case of Andhra Pradesh in India. The state government is committed to scaling up zero budget natural farming to six million farmers by 2024. In Ethiopia, agroecology has been scaled up across the entire Tigray region. These types of initiatives are succeeding because of enlightened political leaders and the commitment of key institutions.

However, in places where global agribusiness/agritech corporations have levered themselves into strategic positions, their interests prevail. 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, these firms have secured a perceived thick legitimacy within policymakers’ mindsets and mainstream discourse. As a result, agroecological approaches are marginalised and receive scant attention and support.

This perceived legitimacy allows these corporations to devise and implement policies on national and international levels. For example, it was Monsanto that had a leading role in drafting the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights to create seed monopolies. The global food processing industry wrote the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. Whether it involves Codex or the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture aimed at restructuring Indian agriculture, the powerful agribusiness/food lobby has secured privileged access to policy makers.

So how can the pro-GMO lobby assert with any degree of credibility that it is a bunch of activists curtailing or defining choice when it has been powerless to prevent any of this, either at ‘field level’ in places like India or within governments and international bodies?

As Stone and Flachs describe, it is Monsanto – a Fortune 500 company with all its influence and wealth (not ‘anti-GMO activists’) – that has taken its brand of corporate activism (imperialism) to farmers to expand its influence and boost its bottom line:

“Beginning with 500 farmer programs in 2007, Monsanto India targeted a range of farmers through an herbicide research program… They also conducted more than 10,000 farm demonstrations directed at small and large farmers in 2012 to raise awareness of Roundup® and discourage knockoff products.. These efforts build on Monsanto’s didactic activities since the late 1990s. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh the Meekosam Project placed Monsanto employees in villages to demonstrate products and promote hybrid seeds and chemical inputs…”

From the World Bank’s ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ to the Gates Foundation’s role in opening up African agriculture to the global food and agribusiness oligopolies, democratic procedures at sovereign state levels are being bypassed to impose seed monopolies and proprietary inputs on farmers and to incorporate them into a global supply chain dominated by powerful corporations.

Whether it involves the destruction of indigenous agriculture in Africa or the ongoing dismantling of Indian agriculture at the behest of transnational agribusiness, where is the democratic ‘choice’?

Ukraine’s agriculture sector is being opened up to Monsanto. Iraq’s seed laws were changed to facilitate the entry of Monsanto. India’s edible oils sector was undermined to facilitate the entry of Cargill. And Bayer’s hand is possibly behind the ongoing strategy behind GM mustard in India. Through secretive trade deals, strings-attached loans and outright duplicity, the global food and agribusiness conglomerates have scant regard for democracy, let alone choice.

As Michel Chossudovsky outlines in his book The Globalization of Poverty (2003), the ongoing aim is to displace localised, indigenous methods of food production and allow transnational companies to take over, thereby tying farmers and regions into a system of neoliberal globalization. Whether it involves the undermining or destruction of what were once largely self-sufficient agrarian economies or what we are currently seeing in India, the agenda is clear.

In finishing, one final point should be noted. In their rush to readily promote neoliberal dogma and corporate-inspired PR, many government officials, scientists and journalists take as given that (corrupt) profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. There is the premise that water, seeds, food, soil 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.

These natural assets (‘the commons’) should be under common stewardship and managed in the common interest by local people assisted by public institutions and governments acting on their behalf because that’s the bottom line where genuine choice is concerned.

And how can we move towards this? It is already happening: we should take inspiration from the many successful agroecological projects around the world.