Category Archives: Food Sovereignty

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.

“Pueblo a Pueblo”, Building Food Sovereignty

“Feeding Popular Power” (“Alimenta el Poder Popular”) (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

(Investig’Action/Ricardo Vaz in Caracas) – “Pueblo a Pueblo” is an initiative undertaken to fight back against the economic war that has hurt the Venezuelan people in their access to food. The idea is to organise the different links of the chain (production, distribution and consumption) in order to be rid of intermediaries. This way food is taken directly from the “pueblo” in the countryside to the “pueblo” in the city.1 We had the opportunity to talk to Martha Lía Grajales and Ana Graciela Barrios, who are part of the “Unidos San Agustín Convive” cooperative, which is involved in this experience, as well as witness a cooperative assembly and the food consumption event.

San Agustín is a neighbourhood that starts close to the centre of Caracas and then runs up the hills. With an Afro-Venezuelan majority, it is known for its music, artistic talent and cultural riches, and more recently for the cable car that connects San Agustín to the centre of Caracas.

Nevertheless, our visit to San Agustín is due to another “tradition”: popular organisation. In the midst of an economic war that has meant severe difficulties in terms of access to food, the communities of San Agustín, through the Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative, joined the “Pueblo a Pueblo” program. It is an initiative created by peasants in the west of the country that Martha describes as follows:

The idea is to generate processes of organisation and politicisation with a logic that is an alternative to capitalism. Processes centred on the peasants/farmers, which assume a class-oriented logic, in which the common problems related to production are presented and their solutions found collectively as well.

Some of these problems have to do with the dependence on imported seeds, which becomes harder in times when the government has been forced to cut back on imports. Therefore peasant communities have been developing processes to rescue native seeds, as well as implementing agricultural practices that are less harmful to the land, with less agro-chemicals. Especially important, Martha sustains, is planning the harvests, so that producers are not as vulnerable to the fluctuations of the market.

San Agustín cable-car (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

Beyond the organisation at the level of production, it is also necessary to do it at the level of distribution and consumption, in order to be rid of the intermediaries, as Martha explains:

What we have been doing is organising the final link of the production chain, which is consumption, framing it as practical exercise of socialism. As such we can see an emphasis on democratic processes, horizontal assemblies, an equal distribution of food, public processes of accountability after each food consumption event, and if there is any surplus left it is re-invested in the cooperative.

Martha also points out that the challenge is not just to consume in an organised fashion, but also to produce. It is impossible to grow food in San Agustín, but the cooperative is moving forward to raise egg-laying hens. And a small group has been producing clothing, for now underwear for children (girls), which will be exchanged in the opposite direction with the “Pueblo a Pueblo” peasants, in a friendly manner and with a transparent cost structure.

It is worth noting that, in one of the most violent neighbourhoods of the Libertador municipality, this initiative has succeeded in mobilising people from different sectors, something they might have avoided doing in the past. In fact, the consumption events that take place every two weeks rotate between three places: Hornos de Cal, El Manguito and Terrazas del Alba. The initiative started one-and-a-half years ago, and the number of families participating has risen to about 150 in each of the three locations.

San Agustín seen from the cable-car (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In times of economic war, with food prices constantly rising, this is an important initiative, as Ana describes:

The access to vegetables allows families to complement their diet, with natural products that have little use of chemicals. Not only that, they are much cheaper than what one would pay on the street. Alongside the CLAP bag2, which contains processed products that are important in the Venezuelan diet. This is an important contribution.

It also helps to reduce the dependency on the CLAP deliveries, which do not always happen on a regular basis, sometimes due to the financial blockade being imposed against Venezuela. As for the consequences of the crisis and inflation on the program itself, Ana points out that prices have gone up. This is in part due to rising production costs, but also because the peasants that take part also see their living costs rise. This produces difficulties on the consumption side, because even though the vegetables are sold much cheaper than outside, it still takes a reasonable amount of money to buy a large amount of vegetables at once.

Nevertheless, Ana assures us that the continuity of the process is not in question, because besides its organisational and political potential, in concrete terms it offers a solution in terms of access to food.”

The Cooperative Assembly

The assembly, to prepare the consumption event, is masterfully chaired by Martha, who strikes a seemingly impossible balance, on one hand allowing everyone to intervene and feel comfortable, and on the other moving forward with the schedule so that the meeting does not last for hours. Amongst the 35 participants only 4 are men, and Martha addresses the group calling them “muchachas” or “compañeras” with nobody flinching.

The first point on the agenda are the reports from the multiple work-groups of the cooperative. The process to raise laying hens has been moving forward, the hen houses have been built, and now it is a matter of choosing where to place them. The group of textile workers talks about the production of underwear for children, the difficulties due to skyrocketing raw material costs, and the assembly decides that the most recently produced batch should be taken to Spain by the member who is going to receive a prize.3

Cooperative assembly (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

The following work-group announces, to everyone’s delight, that the process of legally registering the cooperative is almost completed. This will open up new possibilities, for instance, to request that the municipality award them space to build a storage facility. On the matter of production there is also talk of what comes after the hens, namely, raising rabbits and sheep. Equally welcomed are the news that there has been progress in the process of requesting a truck from the Interior Ministry (see below). The only work-group that has yet to start moving is the processing one, which has as a first task the processing of 7 kg of corn supplied by the El Maizal commune. The spokesperson for the group assumes her responsibility which is mitigated due to having brought coffee!

Then comes the time to register volunteers for the different tasks of the consumption event: registration, unloading, logistics and accounting. People volunteer, sometimes complaining of other difficulties, to which Yamile Anderson, one of the participants, replies reminding everyone that “here everything is done with love”.

The Consumption Event

Finally the day of the consumption event arrives. The truck arrives early in the morning with the vegetables, which are then unloaded, weighed and divided in equal parts, in this case 100. In this parking lot under the cable car station, 100 bags are placed on a grid, and the different foods are also placed in grids. The vegetables being distributed today are potatoes, onions, carrots, scallions, yams, cassava, pumpkins, cabbages, cilantro and garlic.

Distributing food into bags (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

What happens next could, for a second, be mistaken for a fordist assembly line. A group of people lines up in a row, each with a blue bag in front of them. A second group lines up from this first one towards the particular vegetable being distributed. And a third one gathers the small empty bags from the first group in order to fill them up and hand them over to the second one. Once a row of bags is filled, the first group takes a step forward, and so on and so forth.

Of course, this is a process that has nothing fordist about it. From the blaring salsa music that infects everyone to the rounds of applause that follow whenever the distribution of a given vegetable has been completed, it is impossible not to recall the words of Yamile – everything is truly done with love. The final result is 100 bags with 10 kg of vegetables, to be sold around 70% cheaper than through the conventional market. When this is done, the people who registered for the consumption are called, one by one, to gather their bag, weigh it, and pay for it.

Vegetable bags at the end of the process (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

While all of this is going on, a group of women prepares the mandatory sancocho (a hearty soup). With some ingredients from the consumption event and others that people brought, the giant pot over the fire symbolises a process that is almost synonymous with the construction of a communal spirit.

Preparing the sancocho (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

A truck for San Agustin

The Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative is currently in a crowdfunding campaign to buy a (used) truck. The main motivation, as Martha and Ana explain, is to connect to producers, most of them women, in Carayaca (Vargas state). This is a very isolated region, only accessible with a 4×4 car, which makes producers more vulnerable to intermediaries. This is not meant to be a separate project but a new axis of the Pueblo a Pueblo platform.

The cooperative has also asked that the Interior Ministry assign them a truck out of the ones apprehended for drug trafficking or contraband. Although there have been positive developments in this regard, the question is far from settled. And even if it does work, the truck will surely need a sizeable expenditure to get back up and running, especially with the growing costs of tires, batteries and other car parts. So the campaign funds would thus be destined for this purpose.

It is a tremendous mistake that leftist people and organisations limit themselves to analysing Venezuela through the prism of (supposedly more evolved) western democracy. Especially because they end up, directly or indirectly, lending more strength to the imperialist aggression that Venezuela is facing. On the other hand, experiences such as this one, of people organising in a logic that is alternative to capitalism, should be worthy of interest and support from all those who consider themselves leftists. Not only that, they are essential to understand what is truly revolutionary about the Bolivarian Revolution. In the end, Martha sums it up better than anyone:

Despite all the difficulties and contradictions of this process, there is a pueblo that has decided to be free, and it is out there fighting.

• First published in Investigat’Action

  1. We are deliberately keeping the word “pueblo” in Spanish, because it is not just used with the meaning of “people” (“gente”) but with the connotation of community or organised people.
  2. The CLAP (Local Committees for Supply and Production) are a government initiative that delivers boxes/bags at subsidised prices containing some of the main staples of the Venezuelan diet: cornflour, pasta, rice, black beans, cooking oil, and more. These are delivered door to door through local community organisations.
  3. The Unidos San Agustín Convive cooperative and the Colectivo Surgentes were awarded a prize by the Bienal Internacional de Educación en Arquitectura para la Infancia y Juventud for its project with local children to turn (paint) a stairwell into a river.