Category Archives: Food Sovereignty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Development: GMO Propaganda and Neoliberalism vs Localisation and Agroecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadening the debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberal dogma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agroecology and food sovereignty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They argue:

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

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

The letter states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They argue:

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

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

The letter states:

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

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

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

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

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

From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A question of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMOs and a post-Brexit deal with the US

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

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

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

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

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

Rommens responds:

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

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

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

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.

Rescuing Food Sovereignty in the Venezuelan Andes

Village of Gavidia in the Venezuelan Andes (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In the remote village of Gavidia, in the state of Mérida, a very interesting experience is taking place: the rescue of the native potato and other native foodstuffs; something that is fundamental in terms of food sovereignty. In this article we discuss this experience after visiting Gavidia and talking to one of the people involved, Cantalicia Torres.

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Cantalicia Torres, commonly known as “Alicia”, is a member of the Vertientes de Agua Viva cooperative. It currently has 12 members, a number that has more or less kept constant, Alicia stresses, despite some people coming in and others leaving. The name has to do with the original idea, which remains a goal, of launching a water bottling project, making use of a natural spring in Gavidia.

This village is at an altitude of over 3500 meters, and is made up of around 70 families. If we add the two other villages in sight, Micarache and Las Piñuelas, the total is of around 600 people. They mostly survive off of what they produce, and usually need to go down 13 steep kilometers to reach Mucuchíes, the municipal capital, to find other foodstuffs such as sugar or – something Cantalicia stresses as very important – coffee, which cannot be grown at this altitude.

Nevertheless, the main activity of the cooperative is rescuing the native potato. As Cantalicia explains:

We started when professor Liccia Romero came to do her thesis in Gavidia, and Bernabé – one of the founders of the cooperative – enjoys being a “rescuer” of old things, so he used to say that we were not going to let this potato disappear. The main difference is that the native potato yields a harvest every 8 months to a year, whereas the commercial potato can yield one as quickly as 5 months. So since it was less profitable the farmers stopped growing the native potato.

The rescue of the native potato is essential in the current context, not just because of general food sovereignty issues, but because, with an economic and commercial blockade, the state has ever fewer resources to import seeds. In the case of the commercial potato (also called granola potato), it comes from countries such as Canada. Additionally, seeds imported by the private sector have unaffordable prices for (small) producers.

There are currently eight potato varieties being grown, although many more exist. The differences with respect to the commercial one are not just the frequency of harvests. Cantalicia points out that, while the commercial potato rots fairly quickly, the native one can last up to a year after being harvested. The same holds true for the seeds, which last a long time without rotting.

Native potato varieties (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

In addition, the agriculture here is much more friendly towards the land. Although the sowing is manual or with cattle, it is biological, without recourse to agrochemicals. Pests are controlled with traps, or with worm humus, produced locally in garden beds, and the fertilizers are also organic, produced using cattle manure.

But it is not just the native potato being rescued up in the Andes. Cantalicia adds that:

Besides the potato there are other foodstuffs that have being rescued, such as the cuiba, the ruba or the mashua. These are not usually commercialized, but we have them here. They are native foodstuffs of the Andes that practically disappeared from consumption. Nevertheless, they have excellent nutrition properties.

Rubas are small potatoes, also called “smooth potatoes” or “ñucos”. They come in two varieties, one of them yellow or green, and the other one red, Cantalicia tells us. They are a bit juicier than a potato and can be used, for example, to make spicy sauces. Cuibas are similar to carrots, and very nutritious. They can be used in salads, soups, juices or even eaten raw. Mashuas are spicy, and mostly used in sauces, and they are said to be good for those suffering from diabetes. Their leaves can also be used to make tea or infusions.

Cuibas, one of the native foodstuffs being rescued in Gavidia (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

The isolation of Gavidia, coupled to the fact that the producers do not own a truck that would allow them to take their produce to markets, leaves them at the mercy of middlemen when they need to sell part of their crops. These intermediaries come with their trucks and effectively end up fixing prices that allow for huge profit margins when re-selling later on.

In spite of this, the isolation is being broken little by little. On one hand more and more farmers are becoming aware of this experience and coming over to acquire native potato seeds, thus extending its production. And on the other hand, initiatives of organized distribution and consumption are also springing up, allowing for a bigger protection against intermediaries, for producers and consumers alike.

The “Mano a mano, agroecological exchange” collective, like other initiatives throughout Venezuela, has a component of direct organization of producers, which includes the Vertentes de Agua Viva cooperative, in order to sell produce directly to people at fair prices. More than that, it is a market that looks to boost native foodstuffs that had been forgotten, as well as encouraging producers to switch from conventional agriculture towards agroecology. However, the worsening of the crisis – Cantalicia says – also affects the regularity and reach of this kind of initiatives.

Agroecological market “Mano a Mano” (Photo: “Mano a Mano” facebook page)

When we discuss rescuing native seeds, it is important to point out that (imported) genetically modified seeds have two fundamental problems.1 First of all, there is the fact that it is impossible to reproduce or reuse the seeds, since they have patents, which leaves farmers totally in the hands of multinational corporations such as Monsanto (now Bayer), who acquire monopolistic positions in the market. Secondly, and this is related to the previous issue, the use of genetically modified seeds also requires the use of herbicides such as glyphosate, which carry deadly health and environmental effects.

In this sense, the seed law approved in December 2015, after a process of tremendous mobilization and popular organization, was an important step to lay the bases for a model of ecological agriculture that would allow Venezuela to safeguard its food security and sovereignty.

The experience in Gavidia is, so to speak, a little seed in this journey. It is not a matter of glorifying a model of subsistence farming, or yearning for an idealized and glorious past, but of understanding that food sovereignty, as an essential element in any emancipation project, requires control over the entire production chain, and this naturally starts with seeds23 The challenge is to strengthen and articulate these kinds of experiences, joining a bunch of remote corners in a stream of dignity and popular power.

• Special thanks to Silvana Solano for having come with us to Gavidia and for her comments and suggestions on the article.

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. This without going into the health effects of genetically modified food.
  2. Naturally, there is a previous step that has to do with ownership of the land.
  3. For a detailed analysis of these issues see this article by Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni and Liccia Romero.

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.

Diet, Ignorance and the Environmental Crisis

Climate change sounds vast and impersonal, but it’s really a very personal matter; a global crisis caused by the individual actions humanity has collectively taken. All too often such actions proceed from a position of ignorance, selfishness and habit, and are undertaken with little or no understanding of the effects on the natural environment.

The debate around climate change commonly focuses on transportation, deforestation, and energy – replacing fossil fuels with renewables. This is right and urgent, and some countries are taking steps; however, what is not tackled at all is the devastating impact of a meat/dairy diet – common to 97% of humanity. According to Reducing Foods Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers (RFEI), a detailed report published in the journal Science, consumption of animal produce is “degrading terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change.”

Industrial farming of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, plus harvesting fish, for human consumption is the single greatest cause of the interconnected environmental catastrophe; unless urgent substantive change takes place this could single-handedly lead to a polluting point beyond redemption. Misinformed, irresponsible lifestyle choices are behind the environmental crisis. The vast majority of people are unaware of the devastating effects of our collective eating habits, and from this position of uninformed ignorance disaster flows; the earth is poisoned, the climate disrupted and all manner of lives are lost.

Animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is more than any other sector, including manufacturing and transportation. The principal climate change contaminate is methane (44%), which comes mainly from rearing cattle – the source of 65% of all livestock GGE’s. While methane’s atmospheric life is only decades compared to centuries/millennia for carbon-dioxide (Co2) Scientific American reports that it “warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2,” before degrading to become CO2: So it’s a double whammy, an intensely damaging one.

In addition to high levels of GGE’s the meat and dairy industry is responsible for a range of environmental ills: Colossal amounts of both land and water are used to produce meat and dairy for the dinner plate a third of all the Earths fresh water is soaked up by the industry, according to PNAS, and Waterfootprint relates that over 15,000 litres of water are required to produce a kilogram of beef, compared to the 322 litres of water needed for a kilo of vegetables. In America, 55% of total water usage goes to animal agriculture, compared to 5% for domestic use.

Globally the human population drinks around 5.2 billion gallons of water and eats 21 billion pounds of food daily, the documentary Conspiracy states. Though a lot, this pales into insignificance compared to the 45 billion gallons of water the world’s 1.5 billion cows drink daily and the 135 billion pounds of food they consume.

Land: use and degradation

The demand livestock farming makes on worldwide land resources is equally alarming. Between 25% and 30% of all (ice-free) land is utilized for grazing (up to 60 times more than the combined urban conurbations of the world); add in land used to grow feed crops and the figure leaps to 45% according to the International Livestock Research Institute. This voracious appetite for land is the primary cause of rainforest deforestation (which generates 10% of global GGE, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists) as huge tracts of land are cleared to graze cattle and grow genetically manipulated soya beans and maize, which are used in animal feed.

The World Resource Institute estimates that only 15% of the world’s rainforests remain, the other 85% has been leveled, badly degraded or broken up, destroying ancient ecosystems and displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people; and 91% of the lost rainforest is due to farming livestock to feed human beings with meat and dairy.

Tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, but an acre of this most precious land is being cleared every second, and it’s increasing: In the world’s largest rainforest, the Brazilian Amazon, from August 2015 to July 2016 deforestation rose sharply, to, The New York Times (NYT) reported “nearly two million acres…. that’s a jump from about 1.5 million acres a year earlier.” In neighboring Bolivia, the Bolivia Documentation and Information Center estimates that 865,000 acres of land have been cleared every year since 2011 – a huge increase on the 366,000 acres a year during the 1990’s and the 667,000 acres a year in the early 2000’s. The reason for the increase is “a strategy by multinational food companies to source their agricultural commodities from ever more remote areas around the world.” Areas where law is weak and corporations can do as they like – all in the name of profit.

Deforestation and soil degradation/erosion leading to desertification are closely connected. The UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), records that “12 million hectares of arable land, enough to grow 20 tonnes of grain, are lost to desertification annually. With over 70% of the global arable land being used to grow crops for livestock, its clear that “animal agriculture is the leading driver for approximately 1/3 of the land lost on earth due to desertification.”

Animal agriculture is also the principal cause behind the unprecedented level of species extinction, and this because of a variety of factors: Clearing forests destroys natural habitat; wild animals are hunted to protect livestock; pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used in the production of feed crops “interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poison water supplies.” Together with the broader impact animal agriculture is having on climate change, this all contributes, Conspiracy relates “to global depletion of species and resources.”

The industrial farming of livestock is a multi-layered environmental disaster, a global industry worth an estimated 3.178 $Trillions per year according to the World Bank that is growing at a phenomenal rate. Over the past 50 years global meat production increased fourfold. In 1963 it was 78 million tonnes, now, Global Agriculture records that it’s around 308 million tonnes per year. It’s expected to rise a further 75% by 2050 and demand for dairy to increase by 65%. If this trend continues, research published in Nature calculate that by 2050 agricultural emissions will take up the entire world’s carbon budget, with livestock a major contributor. This would “mean every other sector, including energy, industry and transport, would have to be zero carbon, which is described as ‘impossible’.”

The enormous rise in production, of cheap low-quality food stuff is being generated through large-scale factory farming; it is how 70% of all farm animals are now reared, is the biggest cause of animal cruelty, and the source of many of the health pandemics in recent years. Livestock is regarded as human property – living commodities within a world of commodification to be used and profited from with no concern for the well-being of the animals.

Regionally, Asia produces almost half of the total meat production, Europe and America account for 19 and 15% respectively. The countries that consume most are currently the industrialized nations, Australia tops the chart of meat eaters, with, Forbes tells us, an average Australian eating “205 lbs. of beef and veal, poultry, pork and sheep meat a year”. America follows with 200 lbs. a year, then comes Israel at 189 lbs. It’s interesting to note that these countries also lead the world in wealth and income inequality.

Some will argue that even more livestock is needed to feed a growing global population. This claim is totally unfounded. Whilst the world is certainly overpopulated (7.6 billion), enough food is being produced to feed an estimated 10–12 billion people, but as FAO relates, “an estimated one-third of all food produced for human use, valued at $1 trillion, is lost or wasted each year.” In full sight of this criminal act almost a billion people are starving, whilst 1.9 billion are overweight. As the Meat Atlas makes clear, the global system for producing food is totally broken, it is a failed industry controlled by a handful of multinational corporations sitting within a dysfunctional economic system that places profit before people and the planet.

Change of Lifestyle

If humanity is to overcome the environmental crisis, a major shift in behavior is needed, including a change in diet. The RFEI report reveals that adopting diets which exclude animal products “has [enormous] transformative potential: reducing food’s land use by 2.8-3.3 billion hectares (a 76% reduction), including a 19% reduction in arable land; food’s GHG emissions by 49%; acidification by between 45-54%; eutrophication [excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water] by up to 56%.” In large meat eating societies like America, where meat consumption is three times the global average and a mere 3.5% are vegetarian, changing diet “has the potential for a far greater effect on food’s different emissions, reducing them by up to 73%.”

Awareness is the critical ingredient in change, individually and collectively. In order to raise awareness of the impact of meat/dairy production and create a well-informed society, information needs to be widely available. The lead researcher on RFEI, Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford, proposes labeling which reveals product impact should be made available. Such a step should be compulsory, so “consumers could choose the least damaging options.” In addition, Poore suggests governments subsidize “sustainable and healthy foods” while “reallocating agricultural subsidies that now exceed half a trillion dollars a year worldwide.”

These measures would greatly help, but changing behavior is extremely difficult, particularly on the scale and within the time-frame required, and it won’t happen without incentives. In 2013 a group of scientists proposed “implementing a tax or emission trading scheme on livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions”, this “economically sound policy would modify consumer prices and affect consumption patterns.” Such a common-sense scheme should be implemented throughout the world as part of a set of global policies, consistently enforced, designed to change harmful behaviour and encourage responsible action. We all have a duty to do everything we can to restore the Earth to health and safeguard it for future generations and the most effective way to do this, as the RFEI study shows, is to stop eating animal produce.

Dangerous Liaison: Corporate Agriculture and the Reductionist Mindset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destroying indigenous systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers or groundwater tables. The living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs. Half a century ago, most parts of India had enough fresh water all year round, long after the rains had stopped and gone. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry.

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

More than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. For example, one acre of chemically grown sugarcane requires as much water as would suffice 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. The sugar factories too consume huge quantities.

From cultivation to processing, each kilo of refined sugar needs two to three tonnes of water. Save argued this could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More of the same: a bogus ‘solution’

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

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

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

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

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

As Bhaskar Save wrote about India:

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

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

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

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

Agroecology offers a genuine solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agroecology requires that shift in fundamental beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thick legitimacy

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

Olivier De Schutter says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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