Category Archives: Food/Nutrition

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.

Children: Civilization’s Future, Victims of Western Brutality

The United Nations Universal Children’s Day – 20 November – has come and gone and nothing has changed. No action that would now protect children any more than before, no move even by the UN to call on nations at war to take special care to protect children if for nothing else but the fact that children are our planet’s future. They are the standard bearer of human generations to come and of our civilization as a whole, if we don’t run it into the ground. Yet, children are among the most vulnerable, discriminated and abjectly exploited and abused species within human kind.

The culture of greed and instant profit has no space for children, for their rights, for their up-bringing within a frame of human rights, fair education, access to shelter and health services everywhere. For much of our western society, children are a nuisance, at best, a tool for cheap labor, especially when the west outsources its production processes to poor developing countries, mostly in Asia and Central America, so poor that they cannot enforce laws against child labor, all to maximize corporate profits.

Otherwise the western driven killing and war machine indiscriminately slaughters children, by famine, by drones, by bombs, by disease, by abuse. Collateral damage? I doubt it. Children could be protected, even in illegal wars. But eradicating by death and poverty entire generations in nations the west intends to subdue has a purpose: rebuilding of these nations will not take place under the watch of educated children, grown adults, who would most likely oppose their ‘hangmen’, those that have destroyed their homes and families, their villages and towns, their schools and hospital, their drinking water supply systems, leaving them to the plight of cholera and other diseases brought about by lack of hygiene and sanitation. So, in the interest of the empire and its puppet allies, children’s calamities and crimes on them are at best under reported. In most cases nobody even cares.

Look at Syria. The poison gas attacks instigated by US and NATO forces, carried out by their proxies ISIS and Saudi Arabia, to blame them on President Bashar al-Assad, were directed at children for greater public relations impact, further helped by the fake heroes, the White Helmets. Can you imagine! (I’m sure you can!) Children have to be poisoned and killed by western forces who want to topple the Syrian Assad regime to put their puppet in Assad’s place, so that they can control the country and eventually the region. Yes, children are sacrificed – a huge crime against humanity – to commit another horrendous international crime – forcefully change a democratically elected regime. That’s what the west does and is – and probably always was for the last 2000 years.

Take the situation of Yemen, where for the last 3 ½ years the network of the world’s biggest mafia killer scheme, led by Saudi Arabia, as the patsy and foreign money funnel aiding the United States and her allies in crime, the UK, France, Spain, several of the Gulf States, until recently also Germany, and many more – has killed by bombs, starvation and cholera induced by willingly destroyed water supply and sanitation systems, maybe hundreds of thousands of children.

According to Save the Children, some 85,000 children below 5 years of age may have already died from famine; mind you, a purposefully induced famine, as Saudi and Gulf forces destroyed and blocked the port of Hodeida, where about 80% – 90% of imported food enters the country. The most vulnerable ones, as with every man-made disaster, are children and women.

Already a year ago, the UN warned that the cholera outbreak in Yemen is the fastest spreading cholera epidemic since records began and that it will affect at least a million people, including at least 600,000 children. A year later – how many of them have died? Extreme food shortages, destroyed shelters and hospitals, lack of medication, as medicine is also blocked at the points of import, have reduced children’s natural immune systems even further.

Imagine the suffering caused not just to the children, but to their parents, families, communities! What the west is doing is beyond words. It’s beyond crime; and all those ‘leaders’ (sic) responsible will most likely never face a criminal court, as they are controlling all the major justice systems in the world. Though, no justice could make good for the killing and misery, but at least it could demonstrate that universal crime – as is the war on Yemen and many others fought for greed and power – is not tolerated with impunity.

UNHCR – the UN refugee agency — reports that worldwide some 70 million refugees are on the move or in refugee camps. This figure does not include a large number of unreported cases, perhaps up to a third more. Most of the refugees are generated in the Middle East by western initiated wars; wars for greed, for natural resources, for controlling a geopolitically and strategically important region on the seemingly ‘unstoppable’ way to full power world dominance.

At least two thirds of the refugees are children – no health care, no education, no suitable shelter, or none at all, malnourished-to-starving, raped, abused, enslaved – you name it.

Where do all these children go? What is their future? There will be societies – Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan – missing a full generation. The countries are suffering a gap in educated people. This wanton gap will likely prevent rebuilding and developing their nations according to their sovereign rights. These countries are easier to control, subdue and enslave.

Just imagine, many of the lost children pass under the radar of human statistics, ignored, many of them are totally abandoned, no parents, no family, nobody to care for them, nobody to love them – they may quietly die – die in the gutters, unknown, anonymous. We – the brutal west – let them.

And the UN-declared Children’s Day has come and gone and nothing has changed, Nothing will change as long as the west is devastating indiscriminately countries, cities, villages for sheer greed. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan — never were threatening the United States, nor Israel, of course. But they have resources the west covets, or they are geopolitically of strategic importance – for step by bloody step advancing towards world hegemony.

According to the UN, about 300 million children around the world do not go to school. Again, the unreported figure is possibly double or higher, especially including those that attend school only sporadically. Many of the children are abducted, sold into slavery, prostitution, imprisoned for medical testing and for use in orgies of blood thirsty secret societies, their organs harvested and traded by mafia type organizations. Organ trading allegations are levied against Israel’s armed forces killing thousands of children in Israel’s open prison and extermination camp, called Gaza; and against Ukraine’s Kiev Nazi Government.

Did you know, 60% of all children in Gaza are mutilated and amputated as a result of Israel’s war against the Palestine population? And the world looks on, not daring to protest and stand up against this criminal nation – God’s chosen people.

In the UK, 1 of 4 children live in poverty. In the US, 60 million children go to bed hungry every night. As I write these lines, at the US-Mexican border refugee children and their mothers are being shot at with teargas canons by US police and military forces, to prevent them from entering Mr. Trump’s Holy Land, the Great United States of America.

The former UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan, winner of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, referring to the horrific siege on Aleppo and calling for international action to stop the war, said:

The assault on Aleppo is an assault on the whole world. When hospitals, schools and homes are bombed indiscriminately, killing and maiming hundreds of innocent children, these are acts that constitute an attack on our shared, fundamental human values. Our collective cry for action must be heard, and acted upon, by all those engaged in this dreadful war.

But, how could the world of today be described better than by Caitlin Johnstone in her recent poem “Welcome to Planet Earth”, where she says:

Welcome to Planet Earth…… where children who do not know how to live, teach their children how to live; where children pray for miracles, using minds that are made of miracles; with clasped hands that are made of miracles; where children wander in search of God, upon feet that are made of God, looking with eyes that are made of God.

Where have all the children gone?

• First published in New Eastern Outlook (NE0)

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!

Can President-elect Lopez Obrador pull Mexico out of slumber?

After decades of stagnation, corruption and deadly dependency on the United States, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is considered by many ordinary people, as well as by intellectuals, to be the last chance for Mexico.

His only hope is Obrador

Two important news developments are circulating all over North America: US President Donald Trump will not attend the inauguration of the Mexican left-wing President elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). And, yes, despite all tensions and disagreements, the new deal to replace NAFTA has been reached. It is called the USMCA – the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Paradoxically, if Obrador is to fulfill at least half of his electoral promises, it would inevitably lead to a clash between Mexico and both the United States and Canada. The US absorbs around 80 percent of Mexican exports. Various Mexican intellectuals believe that their country was, until now, nothing more than a colony of their ‘big brother’ in the north. Canadian mining companies are brutally exploiting Mexico’s natural resources, and united with local politicians and paramilitaries, are tormenting almost defenseless native people.

National Folcloric Ballet of Mexico marching, joining revolution

After decades of inertia and decay, Mexico is ready for dramatic, essential change which, many argue, will this time not arrive directly under red banners and through revolutionary songs, but with the carefully calculated, precise moves of a chess player.

Only a genius can break, without terrible casualties, the deadly embrace of the United States. And many believe that President-elect Obrador is precisely such leader.

‘Not a poker player, but a chess player’

Mexico is in a ‘bad mood’, despite the victory of a left-wing leader. Hope is in the air, but it is fragile hope, some even say ‘angry hope’. Decades of stagnation, corruption and deadly dependency on the US, have had an extremely negative impact on the nation.

John Ackerman, US-born, Mexican naturalized legendary academic at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) explained during our encounter in Coyoacan:

This has been a long time coming. Throughout Latin America there has been great transformation, except in Mexico. Mexico has been the same since 1946 since PRI was created… Education, healthcare, serious commitment to social system, infrastructure; he promises to improve all this… in terms of working-class population, he expresses great interest in the union democracy, which could be a true vehicle of revolution … unions could be used to create democratic participation in the country.

We both agree that Obrador is not Fidel, or Chavez. He is pragmatic and he knows how dangerous the proximity of Mexico to the US is. Governments get overthrown from the north, and entire socialist systems get derailed, or liquidated.

Professor Ackerman points out:

Obrador is not a poker player, like Trump; Obrador is a chess player.

He is extremely well informed; on his own and through his wife, an accomplished Mexican academic from a prominent left-wing family, Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros. She will soon become Minister of Public Administration in the Obrador administration, which means she will fight against endemic Mexican corruption.  This will be, no doubt, one of the toughest jobs in the country.

The author and Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros

Among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries Mexico has the second highest degree of economic disparity between the extremely poor and extremely rich. According to the government, about 53.4 million of Mexico’s 122 million people were poor in 2016.

Crime is out of control, and so is corruption. According to Seguridad Justicia y Paz, a citizen watch dog NGO in Mexico, five out of ten cities with the highest homicide rates in the world are located in Mexico: Los Cabos (1), Acapulco (3), Tijuana (5), La Paz (6), and Ciudad Victoria (8).

Gang land, Tijuana

Some 460,000 children have been recruited by the drug rings in Mexico, according to the incoming Minister of Public Security of the Obrador government. As bodies are piling up and insecurity grows (recently, at least 100 dead bodies have been found in the state of Jalisco), the Mexican police continues to be hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. But it is now everywhere, ‘true reason for astronomic crime rate’, say many.

Misery everywhere

It is all elegance and style at one of an old hacienda, lost in time in the middle of jungle, in the State of Yucatan. Some twenty years ago I used to live very near this place, working on my novel, in self-imposed-exile. Even then, Yucatan was poor, conservative, and traditional. But there was pride and dignity even in the poorest of the villages.

Things changed dramatically, and not for the better. Now naked misery is everywhere. Just two kilometers from the hacienda Temozon, traditional rural houses have holes in the roofs, and many dwellings have already been abandoned. People are not starving; not yet, but that is mainly due to the fact that in Yucatan, there is still a great sense of community and solidarity.

Don Alfredo Lopez Cham and Dona Consuelo

Don Alfredo Lopez Cham lives in a village of Sihunchen. Half of the roof of his house is missing. He is blind in one eye. He is dirt poor. I asked him how things have been here, since I left. He just nodded his head, in despair:

You just saw my house, there… You can imagine how it is…I cannot fix anything. For years I did not have any work. And now I am old.

Senora Consuelo Rodriguez, his neighbor, jumps in. She is an outspoken, tough but good-hearted matron, always surrounded by a flock of chickens:

Look, he has really nothing! Here, we are trying to help those in need, but ourselves we have close to nothing. Few years ago, the government sent some people to help to fix our houses, but they never came back again.

In theory, Mexico has free education and health care, but in practice, it is just for those who hold government or good private jobs. President-elect AMLO  is promising to fix all that, but people all over the country are skeptical, including Senora Consuela.

If we get sick, we have to pay, unless we have insurance from our work. And most of us, here, don’t have any steady job.

Do people here have faith in the new government? She shrugs her shoulders:

We will see.

This is what I hear everywhere, from coast to coast of this enormous and potentially rich country, which is the 15th largest economy in the world. There is very little enthusiasm: the majority of people adopted a ‘wait and see strategy’.

Don Rudy Alvarez who has worked for more than 20 years at one of the luxury hotels in Yucatan, is only cautiously optimistic about the future.

Even we who have permanent jobs at the multi-national establishments, cannot dream very big. I can feed my family well, and I can send one son to study law at the university. But no bigger dreams. My family would never be able to afford a car or any other luxury. We hope that Obrador (AMLO) will change things. Here, many people feel that Yucatan has been sold to tourists as the ‘Mayan Disneyland’, with very little respect for our culture.

Mexico is the second most visited country in the Western hemisphere, right after the United States. But income from tourism very rarely brings a better life for local people.

Crime and drug wars are far from being the only concerns. In the center of the indigenous and historic city of Oaxaca, the armed forces are blocking the entrance to the Governor’s Palace. Why? The graffiti protesting against disappearances and extrajudicial killings of the activists, as well as forced evictions of indigenous people by the multinational companies.

Ms. Lisetta, who lives with many others, as a protest, in a tent right in front of the palace, explained:

For 9 years we have no home. Paramilitaries and the government forces came and threw us out of our dwellings, in San Juan Copala. Some people were killed, women raped, many disappeared. We are here to demand justice.

Recently, police came, broke my cell phone, and then injured my arm…

She showed me her bruises.

At night, live bands are playing old ballads, all over the city center. People are dancing, drinking and promenading. But displaced men, women and children living in the tents are brutal reminder of real Mexico, of true suffering of many poor and almost all native people.

Sra. Lorena Merina Martinez, Spokesperson of the Displaced Persons from the Autonomous Community of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca State.

I found Sra. Lorena Merina Martinez, Spokesperson of the Displaced Persons from the Autonomous Community of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca State. She spoke to me bravely, coherently and with passion:

In 2007, San Juan Copala declared autonomy and became autonomous municipality.  There was much peace and tranquility in our community. Then in 2009 the PRI-led government of Oaxaca started making noise as San Juan Copala is the ‘head’ of 32 communities of Trique District. The PRI-government did not want autonomy of San Juan Copala, thus unilaterally finished it in 2009. From 2010 we resisted for 10 months so that we could bring food to our children. They had blocked our roads. We didn’t have anything to eat anymore. They were killing our colleagues, but also children. Women were raped as they went looking for food and brought it back to their children. They cut off their hair as well. I am talking about the rape of a 65-year-old community member, for instance.  Another woman was gravely injured. The attackers and rapists all escaped.

For ten months we resisted with no water, no food, no electricity as the PRI-government had cut us off from everything. The date of 16 September 2010 was when PRI-backed paramilitaries entered our community, first to the municipality building, and used big microphone to tell us to leave our houses. We were not given any time at all to leave. Because they saw smoke come from houses, which was basically because we were cooking, they were shooting at our houses and us. We just had to escape with nothing and were forced to find a way to survive with our children, with nothing at all, not even our id cards. We needed to make sure to escape with our children because we were warned that if we didn’t, then they would burn alive our children. By 18 September 2010, PRI-backed paramilitaries started entering our houses, burning and destroying them.  We fled as by then they had killed another community member who had been resisting forced displacement. This is when a group of women started demanding the State Government to intervene in our community. The State nor Federal Government ever intervened.  We demanded that something is done, so that we could safely return to our community. Since September 2010, we have been here.  But they have never done anything to let us return, nor to get rid of those who displaced us because they were the accomplice of those paramilitaries who made us forcibly displaced.

I asked her why it happened? Were multi-national companies involved?

Yes, there are mineral resources. The government wants to take charge of this community. We have very futile lands. Lots of water, vegetables, fruits. The government wants to suck everything from our community.

I recalled massacres in Chiapas, that I covered some two decades ago and later described, under different name in my revolutionary political novel Point of No Return  (Point of No Return – ebook).

At the Center of Photography Manuel Alvarez Bravoin Oaxaca, Mr. Leo (who only gave his first name), confirmed:

It is terrible what happened to those people. Imagine that you are at home, and suddenly someone comes, with armed forces, and kicks you out. But in Mexico it’s normal, and not only in this area. Multinational companies, particularly Canadian ones, are controlling around 80 percent of the mining in this country. People, particularly indigenous ones, are treated brutally. Mexico suffered terribly from the Spanish colonialism, but it often feels that things didn’t change much. We are not in full control of our country!

And the new administration of Obrador? Leo and his colleagues are only moderately optimistic.

We are not sure he would dare to touch essential problems: the dependency of this country on the North, and the horrendous disparities between the rich and poor, between the descendants of the Europeans and the majority, which consists of the indigenous people. Until now you can see it everywhere: Westerners and their companies come and do what they want, while the native people are left with nothing.

But many others remain hopeful. AMLO’s left-wing Moreno Party will soon govern in a coalition with PT (Partido del Trabajo) and the conservative Social Encounter Party. Again, it is unlikely that Mexico will follow the path of Cuba or Venezuela, but the Bolivian model is very likely. It could be a silent revolution, a change based on an extremely progressive and truly socialist constitution of the country, remarkably dating back to 1916.

A Mexican academic, Dr. Ignacio Castuera who teaches at Claremont University in California, explains:

I believe Obrador has to bring several factions together to implement some of what he wants to achieve. No individual alone can solve the problems of a nation. I hope many rally around him, if that happens then significant changes can be brought about. The long shadow of the US policies and corporations will continue to exert major influence.

*****

Construction of US-Mexico wall

In Tijuana I witness absolute misery. I visit multinational maquiladoras that pay only an equivalent of $55 USD per week to their workers. I manage to enter gangland, and I see how the US is building a depressing wall between two countries.

Sra. Leticia facing the wall

I spend hours listening to stories of Sra. Leticia, who lives just one meter away from the wall.

They are cutting across our land, and it harms many creatures who live here. It also prevents water from circulating freely.

All this used to be Mexico. North Americans had stolen several states from us. Now they are building this wall. I visited their country on several occasions. And let me tell you: despite all our problems, I like where I am, at this side!

Then, late at night, I listen to a man who knows his country from north to south, from east to west. We are sitting in a small café; sirens are howling nearby, another murder has just taken place. He faces me squarely and speaks slowly:

Mexico has its back against the wall. This situation cannot continue. This is our last chance – Andrés Manuel López Obrador. We will rally behind him, we will help him. If he delivers what he promises, great; then Mexico will change and prosper. If not, I am afraid that our people will have no other choice but to take up arms.

From the revolutionary days

• Photos by Andre Vltchek

• This is extended version. Essay was originally published by RT.

Food, Justice, Violence and Capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Trade Revealed: Another Rigged Corporate Deal

Since the Clinton era, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was created, global trade has been written by and for big corporations at the expense of people’s health, worker’s rights and the environment. Trump Trade – through the renegotiation of NAFTA – continues that approach.

In some areas, people might argue the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) makes improvements over NAFTA, although many details are still being withheld. From what we do know, overall, it is a step backward for people and planet. And it undermines the US’ relationship with Canada and Mexico, as Geoffrey Getz of the neo-liberal Brooking’s Institution writes, “Trump’s aggressive, threatening approach succeeded in eliciting modest concessions from two of its closest trading partners.”

Trump is claiming a political victory merely by reaching an agreement, but it is not a victory for people or planet, as will be described below. Trump Trade should be rejected. If we are to achieve a new model of trade that protects the environment, workers and democracy, we need to demonstrate that rigged corporate trade will be rejected every time it is brought forward. The time to organize to stop this agreement is now.

Energy and the Environment

Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) because a mass social movement made it unacceptable and it could not pass in Congress. Some of the provisions in the TPP are included in the USMCA.

Like the TPP, the USMCA contains polluter-friendly non-binding terms on the environment; e.g., the text “recognizes that air pollution is a serious threat to public health,” but includes no single binding rule to reduce air pollution.

The Sierra Club reports the USMCA takes a significant step backward from environmental protections included in the last four trade deals by failing to reinforce a standard set of seven Multilateral Environmental Agreements that protect everything from wetlands to sea turtles. The absence of environmental enforcement continues the failed corporate trade of the Clinton-Obama eras.

Trade agreements could be designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but climate change is not even mentioned in the USMCA. Greenhouse gas emissions will increase. The Sierra Club reports the deal’s lack of binding environmental standards allows corporations to evade US environmental laws by shifting jobs and toxic pollution to Mexico where environmental policies are weaker. It reinforces the US’ status as the world’s largest outsourcer of climate pollution.

Some keys to preventing greenhouse gas emissions are ‘Buy American’ and ‘Buy Local’ laws that provide incentives for locally-produced goods. The USMCA negates those laws, requiring that industries based in Canada and Mexico be given equal access to US government contracts.

The USMCA exempts oil and gas corporations that have, or may have, government contracts for offshore drilling, fracking, oil and gas pipelines, refineries, or other polluting activities from reforms to Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions. These intensely polluting corporations would be allowed to challenge environmental protections in rigged corporate trade tribunals.

Trump Trade preserves a NAFTA rule that prevents the US government from determining whether gas exports to Mexico are in the public interest. This creates an automatic gas export guarantee, which will increase fracking, expand cross-border gas pipelines, and increase dependency on Mexican climate-polluting gas.

The USMCA gives corporations extra opportunities to challenge proposed regulations before they are final, and to repeal existing regulations. This makes it harder to put in place environmental regulations or rollback the pro-polluting regulations of the Trump era.

Food and Water Watch summarizes:

The energy provisions will encourage more pipelines and exports of natural gas and oil that would further expand fracking in the United States and Mexico. The text also provides new avenues for polluters to challenge and try and roll back proposed environmental safeguards, cementing Trump’s pro-polluter agenda in the trade deal.

Food and Health

The USMCA undermines food safety and health by making it more difficult to regulate and inspect foods. It limits inspections and allows food that fails to meet US safety standards to be imported. Food and Water Watch states that it requires the US to “accept imports from Mexico with less scrutiny than from other countries. The deal even creates new ways for Canada and Mexico to second-guess US border inspectors that halt suspicious food shipments, which would have a dangerously chilling effect on food safety enforcement.”

USMCA does not require Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL), nor dolphin-safe labeling and makes GMO labeling more difficult. It uses the requirement that food labels reflect ‘sound science’ to prevent accurate labeling.

USMCA serves Monsanto and other giant agro-chemical corporations by allowing unregulated GMOs, rolling back Mexico’s regulation of GMOs, and letting chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow keep data on the safety of their pesticides secret for 10 years. USMCA is designed for agribusiness, not family farmers and consumers.

Like the TPP, the USMCA increases the cost of pharmaceutical drugs through intellectual property protections that go “significantly beyond” NAFTA. USMCA gives pharmaceutical companies at minimum 10 years of market exclusivity for biologic drugs and protects US-based drug companies from generic competition, driving up the price of medicine at home and abroad.

Worker Rights and Jobs

The Labor Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Trade Negotiations (LAC) explained they do not oppose trade, but, “We oppose a set of rules made largely by and for global corporations that reward greed and irresponsibility at the expense of hardworking families across the globe.” They describe the USMCA as moving backwards from the original NAFTA in many areas important to working families:

including with respect to ‘Good Regulatory Practices’ (code for using this trade agreement to attack important consumer, health, safety, and environmental protections), Financial Services (providing new tools for Wall Street to attack efforts to rein in its continuing abuses), and affordable medicines (extending monopolies for brand name pharmaceuticals at the expense of affordability).

Similar to the environment sections, the labor sections do not provide enforcement mechanisms. Citizen’s Trade Campaign writes:

“There is a ground breaking labor annex that could help eliminate Mexican protection contracts and boost labor rights there — but only if currently absent enforcement mechanisms are added.”

As the Labor Advisory Committee states, “Unenforced rules are not worth the paper they are written on.”

Summarizing the impact of USMCA, Citizen’s Trade Campaign states:

Mexican workers will continue to be horribly exploited, American jobs will continue to be outsourced, the environment will continue to be degraded and the wages for workers in all three NAFTA countries will continue to decline.”

Corporate Trade Tribunals

A major area of concern has been ISDS, trade tribunals where corporations can sue governments if new laws or regulations undermine their profits. ISDS empowers corporations to attack environmental and health laws in trade tribunals made up of three corporate lawyers and receive monetary judgments worth billions from tax dollars. The USMCA reduces but does not eliminate the unjustifiable and indefensible ISDS settlement mechanism, which privileges foreign investors over communities regarding access to justice.

After three years, ISDS would be eliminated with Canada and dramatically scaled back with Mexico with some unacceptable exceptions. After that, US and Canadian investors would use domestic courts or administrative bodies to settle investment disputes with another government. Are there workarounds to this ISDS reform that protect investors; e.g., will domestic courts seize assets within their country to repay investors, as a US court did for a Canadian mining company this year?

Regarding Mexico, the new process is designed to protect oil and gas industry investors from the privatization of Mexico’s oil and gas sector. Global Trade Watch writes, “several additional sectors were added, including railways and infrastructure. . . followed by an open-ended list, which could provide problematic flexibility for investors to argue that their investments qualify.” In other words, what looks like ISDS reform contains a giant loophole for corporations to continue to sue governments.

Under NAFTA, corporations can receive exorbitant awards for “expected lost profits.” Under USMCA, investors can only be compensated for losses that they can prove on the “basis of satisfactory evidence and that is not inherently speculative.” How this is interpreted is up to the courts.

USMCA Continues US Imperialism and Corporatism

Popular movements in Mexico urge the incoming government to reject USMCA in an Open Letter To Andrés Manuel López Obrador And The Legislators Of MORENA. They decry the secret nature of the negotiation and the agreement as an attack on Mexico’s sovereignty. They argue the agreement will “further open up our economy for the sole benefit of the large U.S. transnational corporations, with an even greater subordination of our government to the dictates of U.S. foreign policy and its measures of internal security and migration.”

The letter describes the election of MORENA and Obrador as the people voting “to expel the oligarchy that has governed us, along with their paid servants.” The incoming government was given a clear mandate that includes rejecting corporate trade agreements. To create the transformation promised in the election requires Mexico to have full control of its resources and wealth to ensure the well-being of the population, with full rights and liberties. They see rejection of USMCA as a “first step toward reclaiming our nation.”

They urge incoming President Obrador to see this as part of the “mafia of power” that he ran against. They describe how Trump pressured the weakest negotiator, Mexico, with the right wing Peña Nieto administration, and used that to threaten Canada with exclusion and 25% tariffs if they did not agree.

Roger Jordan writes, the new agreement is an act of corporate imperialism by the United States:

Under the new deal, both Mexico, a country historically oppressed by US imperialism, and Canada, a lesser imperialist power that has long been a key US ally, made significant concessions in the face of US demands that the continental pact be refashioned to make it an even more explicit US-led protectionist trade bloc.

As the US struggles to retain power as a global empire, UMCA shows that “through ‘America First’ economic nationalism and the ruthless assertion of its interests against ostensible allies and rivals alike,” it will do what it must “to prevail in the struggle for markets and profits.”

Just as the TPP was President Obama’s attempt at economic domination of Asia, USMCA is part of President Trump’s economic war against China, which has already included “tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods.” Jordan explains how USMCA sent a message to China, writing:

It grants the US effective veto power over any attempt by Canada or Mexico to negotiate a free trade pact with a ‘non-market economy,’ a clear reference to China. This includes the right to transform USMCA into a bilateral agreement, excluding the third member if it has ratified such a free trade deal.

Stop Corporate Trade

There is still time to stop USMCA. Leaders are expected to sign the deal on December 1 at the G-20 meeting. Then President Trump has 60 days to report to Congress on changes to US law that are required by the agreement. Within 105 days of the agreement being signed, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) must complete a study of the agreement’s economic impact. Congress will have to pass legislation to implement USMCA.  After Congress receives the final bill from the president, it has 90 days of being in session to act on it under Fast Track rules. It is unlikely that all this can be accomplished before the 2019 legislative session.

Now that we know more about the contents of the new NAFTA, we need to mobilize to stop its ratification and implementation by Congress. If we are to win a new model of trade that raises the bar on protection of workers, the environment and democracy, we must show, as we did with the TPP, that rigged corporate trade will be stopped by a popular movement.

Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets.  Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds.  “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism, is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight), and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider.  Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure and possible worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found.  “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.”  Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted.  The divorce from hunter gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence.  We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities.  The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia.  Authorities are promising to find the culprit.  The culprit may have other designs.