Category Archives: GMO

From Cotton to Brinjal: Fraudulent GMO Project in India Sustained by Deception

Insecticidal Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton is the first and only GM (genetically modified) crop that has been approved in India. It has been cultivated in the country for more than 20 years. In a formal statement to the Supreme Court of India, the Indian government has asserted that hybrid Bt cotton is an outstanding success. It therefore argues that Bt cotton is a template for the introduction of GM food crops.

However, over the last week, two important webinars took place that challenged the government’s stance. The first was on Bt cotton and involved a panel of internationally renowned scientists who conclusively debunked the myth of Bt cotton success in India. The webinar, organised by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Jatan, focused on an evidence-based evaluation of 18 years of approved Bt cotton cultivation in India.

The second webinar discussed the case of Bt brinjal, which the country’s apex regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has brought to the brink of commercialisation. The webinar highlighted deep-seated problems with regulatory processes in India and outlined how the GEAC is dogged by secrecy, conflicts of interest and (scientific) fraud: participants outlined how the GEAC has been colluding with crop developers and seed companies to drive GM crops into agriculture.

Bt cotton failure

The panel for the Bt cotton webinar (YouTube: Bt Cotton in India: Myths & Realities – An Evidence-Based Evaluation) on 24 August included Dr Andrew Paul Gutierrez, senior emeritus professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California at Berkeley; Dr Keshav Kranthi, former director of Central Institute for Cotton Research in India; Dr Peter Kenmore, former FAO representative in India, and Dr Hans Herren, World Food Prize Laureate.

Dr Herren said that “the failure of Bt cotton” is a classic representation of what an unsound science of plant protection and faulty direction of agricultural development can lead to.

He explained:

Bt hybrid technology in India represents an error-driven policy that has led to the denial and non-implementation of the real solutions for the revival of cotton in India, which lie in HDSS (high density short season) planting of non-Bt/GMO cotton in pure line varieties of native desi species and American cotton species.

He argued that a transformation of agriculture and the food system is required; one that entails a shift to agroecology, which includes regenerative, organic, biodynamic, permaculture and natural farming practices.

Dr Kenmore said that Bt cotton is an aging pest control technology:

It follows the same path worn down by generations of insecticide molecules from arsenic to DDT to BHC to endosulfan to monocrotophos to carbaryl to imidacloprid. In-house research aims for each molecule to be packaged biochemically, legally and commercially before it is released and promoted. Corporate and public policy actors then claim yield increases but deliver no more than temporary pest suppression, secondary pest release and pest resistance.

Recurrent cycles of crises have sparked public action and ecological field research which creates locally adapted agroecological strategies.

He added that this agroecology:

… now gathers global support from citizens’ groups, governments and UN-FAO. Their robust local solutions in Indian cotton do not require any new molecules, including endo-toxins like in Bt cotton.

Prof Gutierrez presented the ecological reasons as to why hybrid Bt cotton failed in India: long season Bt cotton introduced in India was incorporated into hybrids that trapped farmers into biotech and insecticide treadmills that benefited GMO seed manufacturers.

He noted:

The cultivation of long-season hybrid Bt cotton in rainfed areas is unique to India. It is a value capture mechanism that does not contribute to yield, is a major contributor to low yield stagnation and contributes to increasing production costs.

Prof Gutierrez asserted that increases in cotton farmer suicides are related to the resulting economic distress.

He argued:

A viable solution to the current GM hybrid system is adoption of improved non-GM high-density short-season fertile cotton varieties.

Presenting data on yields, insecticide usage, irrigation, fertiliser usage and pest incidence and resistance, Dr Keshav Kranthi said that a critical analysis of official statistics (eands.dacnet.nic.in and cotcorp.gov.in) shows that Bt hybrid technology has not been providing any tangible benefits in India either in yield or insecticide usage.

He said that cotton yields are the lowest in the world in Maharashtra, despite being saturated with Bt hybrids and the highest use of fertilisers. Yields in Maharashtra are less than in rainfed Africa where there is hardly any usage of technologies such as Bt, hybrids, fertilisers, pesticides or irrigation.

It is revealing that Indian cotton yields rank 36th in the world and have been stagnant in the past 15 years and insecticide usage has been constantly increasing after 2005, despite an increase in area under Bt cotton.

Dr Kranthi argued that research also shows that the Bt hybrid technology has failed the test of sustainability with resistance in pink bollworm to Bt cotton, increasing sucking pest infestation, increasing trends in insecticide and fertiliser usage, increasing costs and negative net returns in 2014 and 2015.

Dr Herren said that GMOs exemplify the case of a technology searching for an application:

It is essentially about treating symptoms, rather than taking a systems approach to create resilient, productive and bio-diverse food systems in the widest sense and to provide sustainable and affordable solutions in it’s social, environmental and economic dimensions.

He went on to argue that the failure of Bt cotton is a classic representation of what an unsound science of plant protection and a faulty direction of agricultural development can lead to:

We need to push aside the vested interests blocking the transformation with the baseless arguments of ‘the world needs more food’ and design and implement policies that are forward looking… We have all the needed scientific and practical evidence that the agroecological approaches to food and nutrition security work successfully.

Bt brinjal – the danger is back

The government’s attempt to use a failed technology as a template for driving GMOs into agriculture has been exposed. Nevertheless, the GEAC has been moving forward with late-stage trials of Bt brinjal, while ignoring the issues and arguments against its commercialisation that were forwarded a decade ago.

In February 2010, the Indian government placed an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal after numerous independent scientific experts from India and abroad had pointed out safety concerns based on data and reports in the biosafety dossier that Mahyco, the crop developer, had submitted to the regulators.

The then Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had instituted a unique four-month scientific enquiry and public hearings. His decision to reject the commercialisation of Bt brinjal was supported by advice from the renowned scientists. Their collective appraisals demonstrated serious environmental and biosafety concerns.

Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 by stating:

It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.

The moratorium has not been lifted and the conditions he set out have still not been met. Moreover, five high-level reports have advised against the adoption of GM crops in India. Appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report’ (2013) was scathing about the prevailing regulatory system and highlighted its inadequacies. The TEC went a step further by recommending a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GM crops.

The regulatory process was shown to lack competency, possessed endemic conflicts of interest and demonstrated a lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment and the assessment of environmental impacts.

Ten years on and regulators have done nothing to address this woeful state of affairs. As we have seen with the relentless push to get GM mustard commercialised, the problems persist. Through numerous submissions to the Supreme Court, Aruna Rodrigues has described how GM mustard is being forced through with flawed tests (or no tests) and a lack of public scrutiny. Regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them and then regulate them.

And this is precisely what the webinar ‘Bt brinjal – the danger is back’ (watch on YouTube) discussed on 27 August. Organised by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, the webinar was arranged because the regulators have again brought to the brink of commercialisation a new Bt brinjal ‘event’ – a different Bt brinjal than the 2010 version. Also included in the webinar were the experiences of Bt brinjal introduction in Bangladesh.

Dr Ramanjaneyulu (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture) highlighted how need has never been established for Bt brinjal of which India is a recognised centre of diversity. The argument for Bt brinjal in the run-up to Jairam Ramesh’s moratorium was that pesticide use is a problem in containing the brinjal fruit and shoot borer. He noted that Bt brinjal was promoted by Monsanto, USAID and Cornell University, but serious protocol violations, environmental contamination concerns and potential adverse health impacts were discovered.

He outlined simple non-pesticidal, agroecological management practises that can and are being used to deal with the brinjal fruit and shoot borer.

Farida Akhter of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative) outlined how the introduction of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh was not needed but imposed on the country, which has 248 varieties of brinjal. Where pesticide use is problematic, she argued that it concerns hybrid varieties rather than traditional cultivars of which 24 varieties are resistant to fruit and shoot borer.

Akhter said that poor quality brinjal and financial losses for farmers have been major issues. Many have abandoned Bt brinjal, but farmers have received incentives to cultivate and where they have done so, fertiliser use has increased and there have been many pest attacks, with 35 different types of pesticides applied.

The Bill Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations entity that promotes GM agriculture, and USAID, which serves the interests of the GMO biotech sector, tried to sell Bt brinjal on the basis it would ‘save’ people from the overuse of pesticides and related illnesses. But Akhter argued that Bangladesh was targeted because the Philippines and India had rejected Bt brinjal. Again, protocol violations occurred leading to its introduction and Akhter concluded that there was no scientific basis for Bt brinjal: its introduction was political.

As for India, event EE1, the initial Bt brinjal, has now been replaced by event 142, a different Bt brinjal. Kavitha Kuruganti (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture) explained this in the webinar and notes that the GEAC, immediately after the 2010 moratorium was announced, went straight ahead and sanctioned new trials for this Bt brinjal. The GEAC basically stated that the moratorium did not apply to this version, while ignoring all the criticisms about lack of competence, conflicts of interest, non-transparency and protocol violations. It was effectively business as usual!

With event EE1, Kuruganti implied that the GEAC acted more like a servant for Mayco and its Monsanto master. Nothing has changed. She noted the ongoing revolving door between crop developers (even patent holders) and regulators. As before, developers-cum-lobbyists were actually sitting on regulatory bodies as event 142 was proceeding.

Under public-private-partnership arrangements, event 142 has been licensed to private companies for biosafety testing/commercialisation. Despite major concerns, the GEAC has pressed ahead with various trials. In May 2020, under lockdown, Kuruganti notes that the GEAC held a virtual meeting and sanctioned what were effectively final trials prior to commercialisation. She explains that important information and vital data is not in the public domain.

According to Kuruganti, the regulator sits with the crop developer and the companies and grant biosafety clearance, claiming all tests (soil, pollen flow, toxicity, etc) are complete. What is also disturbing is that these licensed companies have closed and opened under new names (with the same people in charge), thereby making accountability and liability fixing very difficult if something were to go wrong further down the line.

She concludes that the story of event 142 is even worse than event EE1:

Once again, they are certainly hiding things that they don’t want conscientious scientists and aware citizens to see and know.

Taken together, the two webinars highlighted how hybrid Bt cotton is being deceptively used as a template for rolling out GM food crops: a fraud being used to promote another fraud in order to force unnecessary GMOs into Indian agriculture.

The post From Cotton to Brinjal: Fraudulent GMO Project in India Sustained by Deception first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Pushing GMO Crops Into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success

On 6 July 2020, an article extolling the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops appeared on the BloombergQuint website based on an interview with Dr Ramesh Chand, a member of the key Indian Government think tank Niti Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) . On 17 July, another piece that placed a positive spin on GM crops and gene editing technology (Feeding 10 Billion People will Require Genetically Modified Food) appeared on the same site.

According to Prof Andrew Paul Gutierrez, Dr Hans R Herren and Dr Peter E Kenmore, internationally renowned agricultural researchers, the pieces reported “sweeping unsupported claims” about the benefits of and need for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and related technologies in agriculture in India.

The three academics felt that “a responsible and factual response” was required and have written a letter — containing what could be described as the definitive analysis of Bt cotton in India — to Dr Ramesh Chand, Dr Rajiv Kumar (Niti Aayog Vice Chancellor) and Dr Amitabh Kant (Niti Aayog CEO).

Chand is reported as saying that there is no credible study to show any adverse impact of growing Bt cotton in the last 18 years in the country (India’s only officially approved GM crop). This is simply not the case. Moreover, Gutierrez et al argue that all of the credible evidence shows any meagre increases in cotton yield after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002 were largely due to increases in fertiliser use.

Before proceeding, it is pertinent to address the claim that ‘feeding 10 billion people will require genetically modified food’. If we take the case of India and its 1.3 billion-plus population, it has achieved self-sufficiency in food grains and has ensured that, in theory at least, there is enough food available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables and fruit.

However, food security for many Indians remains a distant dream. Hunger and malnutrition remain prevalent. But that is not because farmers don’t produce enough food. These problems result from other factors, including inadequate food distribution, social and economic policies, inequality and poverty. It is a case of ‘scarcity’ amid abundance (reflecting the situation globally). India even continues to export food while millions remain hungry. Productivity is not the issue.

And while proponents say GM will boost productivity and help secure cultivators a better income, this too ignores crucial political and economic contexts; with bumper harvests, Indian farmers still find themselves in financial distress. India’s farmers are not experiencing hardship due to low productivity. They are reeling from the effects of neoliberal policies and years of neglect. It’s for good reason that the calorie and essential nutrient intake of the rural poor has drastically fallen.

Yet the pro-GMO lobby has wasted no time in wrenching these issues from their political contexts to use the notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynch pins of its promotional strategy.

Valid concerns

The Chand interview occurred at a book release event for a new volume titled Socio Economic Impact Assessment of GM crops: Global Implications Based on Case Studies from India edited by Sachin Chaturvedi and Krishna Ravi Srinivas of the Delhi-based Research and Information System (RIS) for developing countries – a policy research think tank in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Gutierrez et al state that what Niti Aayog and RIS representatives say and write are existentially important because of their deep links to Indian policy makers: their views can have a large impact on the future development of policy in the area of genetic engineering and related technologies such as genomic editing, which will affect the long-term health, livelihood and welfare of Indian farmers and the nation.

Chand posits that opposition and uncertainty to GM technology lingers because it has created fear in the minds of people. He appears to imply this is one reason why the Indian government did not embrace the technology and that media reporting has relied more on activists than on scientists.

GMO biotech lobbyists have often stated that science has been sidelined by activists who have swayed the policy agenda.

In the journal Current Science (September 2019), Dr Deepak Pental responded to a previous paper in the same journal by eminent scientists P C Kesavan and M S Swaminathan, whose piece cited good evidence that questioned the efficacy of and the need for GMO agriculture in India. Pental argued that the two authors had aligned themselves with environmentalists and ideologues who have “mindlessly” attacked the use of GM technology and that aspects of their analysis are a reflection of their “ideological proclivities”.

However, in India it was a unique four-month scientific inquiry, not activism, that led to the rejection of the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal in 2010. And if we look at Europe, robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GMOs as it is agreed they are not substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. Numerous studies have highlighted the flawed premise of ‘substantial equivalence’. Furthermore, from the outset of the GMO project, the sidelining of serious concerns about the technology has occurred and, despite industry claims to the contrary, there is no scientific consensus on the health impacts of GM crops.

Both the Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GM crops and foods in that they agree that GM differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GMOs are used in food or released into the environment.

These concerns cannot be brushed aside as being non-science based. Such accusations are political posturing, part of a strategy to slant the policy agenda and divert attention away from evidence that leads to the questioning of the safety, environmental impacts and record of GM crops.

False narrative of Bt cotton

Gutierrez et al also comment on the Chaturvedi–Srinivas book in their letter and note that, in contrast to pro-GMO statements about the book reported in the press, most of the chapters contain some points that temper or criticise this over-simplified enthusiasm.

In reviewing the book, the three researchers note the general policy position, that Bt cotton benefits smaller and poorly connected farmers, is not always supported by the case study data presented. Moreover, Bt cotton yields were not necessarily higher (than non-Bt cotton) for all farmers and even when economic gains occurred, it was not demonstrated that those gains came from Bt traits: higher fertiliser levels usually increased yields.

Bt cotton is also not scale neutral: it has mainly benefited larger farmers and high Bt cotton seed prices are a big concern for many farmers as are monopolistic pricing practices.

Gutierrez and his colleagues conclude that the RIS volume cited gains in yield and reductions in insecticide use in Bt cotton that are inaccurate.

They add:

… a failed picture emerges of an unsustainable eco-social Bt cotton system based on a dystopic relationship between those who control and sell the inputs, and the vast majority of farmers… Nowhere in the volume is there mention of potential viable non-GMO alternatives.

The three researchers note that at least 25-30 peer reviewed papers have been published recently in India from almost all the agricultural universities dealing with cotton, validating the short-season high-density (SS-HD) concepts using non-Bt varieties. In all the studies, SS-HD plantings invariably got the highest yields, clearly pointing to the inappropriateness of the current long-season low-density hybrid system. Yet, none of these studies were cited in the Chaturvedi–Srinivas RIS volume.

Gutierrez et al note that hybrid cottons unique to India were introduced in the mid-1970s purportedly to increase yield and quality, but the hybrid seed is considerably more expensive, the plants require more fertiliser and stable water and the hybrid technology serves as a value capture mechanism requiring annual purchases of seed.

They argue that Indian farmers are planting inappropriate long-season hybrid cotton varieties at inappropriate low planting densities due to high seed costs, which contributes to low yield stagnation.

They also provide an overview of how, in long-season hybrid cotton, insecticide use caused ecological disruption, inducing outbreaks of secondary insect pests:

Farmers were spending money on insecticides to lose money from (insecticide) induced pests… While the Bt technology initially solved the bollworm problems, outbreaks of secondary pests not controlled by the Bt toxins began to occur, again increasing insecticide use in Bt cotton that by 2013 surpassed pre-2002 levels. This caused ecological disruption and induced outbreaks of still newer secondary pests… and increased levels of resistance to insecticides. By 2013, Indian farmers were solidly on both the insecticide and biotechnology treadmills.

The three researchers conclude that Bt cotton did not increase yields but did contribute to increased cost of production in the face of stagnant yields, leading to economic distress.

They argue that hybrid Bt cotton in India is a failure or at best very suboptimal for farmer welfare and say that HD-SS non-GMO pure line rain-fed cotton varieties have been developed in India that could double yield and triple net income. The potential exists for development of even higher yielding HD-SS non-hybrid non-GMO varieties in India, which would allow seed saving by Indian farmers.

However, they assert that this approach has been sidelined: we now see hybrid Bt cotton falsely being used as an example of success and as a template for rolling out GMOs, gene editing and other technologies across Indian agriculture.

On 12 August 2013, an article in The Hindu (‘Nip this in the bud’) noted that the Ministry of Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and the Ministry of Science and Technology were deeply compromised due to their strong and active ties with the GMO biotech industry. Indeed, Monsanto had been granted access to agri-research public institutions, which had placed that company in a position to seriously influence policy. By 2014, 95 per cent of cotton grown in India was GM and non-GM seeds had almost disappeared from the market.

The push is now on to see a similar value-capture scenario take root with genetically engineered food crops based on a myth of Bt cotton success, which has in recent years been promoted by a number of government officials in India. Science and reason (and farmers and the public) are in danger of being sacrificed for the “ideological proclivities” of key figures and bodies directly linked to national policy making.

The letter mentioned in this article can be read in full on the GMWatch.org website. It contains a more in-depth analysis of Bt cotton in India than presented here, including numerous graphics and references to key studies.

Post-Brexit Agrochemical Apocalypse for the UK?

The British government, regulators and global agrochemical corporations are colluding with each other and are thus engaging in criminal behaviour. That’s the message put forward in a new report written by environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason and sent to the UK Environment Agency. It follows her January 2019 open letter to Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer CropScience, where she made it clear to him that she considers Bayer CropScience and Monsanto criminal corporations.

Her letter to Baumann outlined a cocktail of corporate duplicity, cover-ups and criminality which the public and the environment are paying the price for, not least in terms of the effects of glyphosate. Later in 2019, Mason wrote to Bayer Crop Science shareholders, appealing to them to put human health and nature ahead of profit and to stop funding Bayer.

Mason outlined with supporting evidence how the gradual onset of the global extinction of many species is largely the result of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture. She argued that Monsanto’s (now Bayer) glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide and Bayer’s clothianidin are largely responsible for the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and that the use of glyphosate and neonicotinoid insecticides are wiping out wildlife species across the globe.

In February 2020, Mason wrote the report ‘Bayer Crop Science rules Britain after Brexit – the public and the press are being poisoned by pesticides’. She noted that PM Boris Johnson plans to do a trade deal with the US that could see the gutting of food and environment standards. In a speech setting out his goals for trade after Brexit, Johnson talked up the prospect of an agreement with Washington and downplayed the need for one with Brussels – if the EU insists the UK must stick to its regulatory regime. In other words, he wants to ditch EU regulations.

Mason pondered just who could be pulling Johnson’s strings. A big clue came in February 2019 at a Brexit meeting on the UK chemicals sector where UK regulators and senior officials from government departments listened to the priorities of Bayer Crop Science. During the meeting (Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for UK chemicals sector – challenges, opportunities and the future for regulation post-Brexit), Janet Williams, head of regulatory science at Bayer Crop Science Division, made the priorities for agricultural chemical manufacturers known.

Dave Bench was also a speaker. Bench is a senior scientist at the UK Chemicals, Health and Safety Executive and director of the agency’s EU exit plan and has previously stated that the regulatory system for pesticides is robust and balances the risks of pesticides against the benefits to society.

In an open letter to Bench, Mason responded:

That statement is rubbish. It is for the benefit of the agrochemical industry. The industry (for it is the industry that does the testing, on behalf of regulators) only tests one pesticide at a time, whereas farmers spray a cocktail of pesticides, including over children and babies, without warning.

It seems that post-Brexit the UK could authorise the continued use of glyphosate. Of course, with a US trade deal in the pipeline, there are major concerns about glyphosate-resistant GMOs and the lowering of food standards across the board.

Mason says that glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals: diseases skip a generation. Washington State University researchers found a variety of diseases and other health problems in the second- and third-generation offspring of rats exposed to glyphosate. In the first study of its kind, the researchers saw descendants of exposed rats developing prostate, kidney and ovarian diseases, obesity and birth abnormalities.

Glyphosate has been the subject of numerous studies about its health effects. Robert F Kennedy Jr, one of the attorney’s fighting Bayer (which has bought Monsanto) in the US courts, has explained that for four decades Monsanto manoeuvred to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning.

Kennedy says there is also cascading scientific evidence linking glyphosate to a constellation of other injuries that have become prevalent since its introduction, including obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts.

In her new document sent to the UK Environment Agency, Mason argues there is criminal collusion between the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Chemicals Regulation Division and Bayer over Brexit. She also claims the National Farmers Union has been lying about how much pesticides farmers use and have ignored the side effects of chlorpyrifos, chlorothalonil, glyphosate and neonicotinoids. The NFU says farmers couldn’t do without these inputs, even though they destroy human health and the environment.

Of course, farmers can and do go without using these chemicals. And the shift away from chemical-intensive agriculture is perfectly feasible. In a recent article on the AgWeb site, for instance, US farmer Adam Chappell describes how he made the shift on his 8,000-acre farm. Chappell was not some dyed-in-the-wool organic evangelist. He made the shift for financial and practical reasons and is glad he did. The article states:

He was on the brink of bankruptcy and facing a go broke or go green proposition. Drowning in a whirlpool of input costs, Chappell cut bait from conventional agriculture and dove headfirst into a bootstrap version of innovative farming. Roughly 10 years later, his operation is transformed, and the 41-year-old grower doesn’t mince words: It was all about the money.

Surely there is a lesson there for UK farmers who in 2016 used glyphosate on 2,634,573 ha of cropland. It is not just their bottom line that could improve but the health of the nation. Mason says that five peer-reviewed animal studies from the US and Argentina released in July 2020 have focused minds on the infertility crisis being caused by glyphosate-based herbicides. Researchers at The National University of Litoral in Sante Fe, Argentina, have published three concerning peer-reviewed papers including two studies on ewes and rats and one review. In one study, researchers concluded that glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides are endocrine disruptors. They also stated that glyphosate-based herbicides alter reproductive outcomes in females.

But such is the British government’s willingness to protect pesticide companies that it is handing agrochemical giants BASF and Bayer enormous pay-outs of Covid-19 support cash. The announcement came just weeks after Bayer shareholders voted to pay £2.75 billion in dividends. The fact that Bayer then went on to receive £600 million from the government speaks volumes of where the government’s priorities lie.

According to Mason, the new Agriculture Bill provides a real opportunity for the UK to adopt a paradigm shift which embraces non-chemical farming policy. However, Defra has stated that after Brexit Roundup Ready GA21 glyphosate tolerant crops could be introduced.

It is also concerning that a post-Brexit funding gap could further undermine the impartiality of university research. Mason refers to Greenpeace, which notes that Bayer and Syngenta, both sell neonicotinoid insecticides linked to harmful effects on bees, gave a combined total of £16.1m to 70 British universities over five years to fund a range of research. Such private funding could create a conflict of interest for academics and after Brexit a potential shortage of public money for science could force universities to seek more finance from the private sector.

Neonicotinoids were once thought to have little or no negative effects on the environment because they are used in low doses and as a seed coating, rather than being sprayed. But evidence has been mounting that the chemicals harm bees – important pollinators of food crops. As a result, neonicotinoids have been banned by the EU, although they can still be used under license.

According to Bayer’s website, academics who reviewed 15 years of research found “no adverse effects to bee colonies were ever observed in field studies”. Between 2011 and 2016, the figures obtained from the 70 universities – about half the total in the UK – show Bayer gave £9m to fund research, including more than £345,000 on plant sciences. Syngenta spent nearly £7.1m, including just under £2.3m on plant sciences and stated that many years of independent monitoring prove that when used properly neonicotinoids do not damage the health of bee populations.

However, in 2016, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace UK’s Brexit response team, said that the decline in bee populations is a major environmental and food security concern – it’s causes need to be properly investigated.

He added:

But for this research to command public confidence, it needs to be independent and impartial, which is why public funding is so crucial. You wouldn’t want lung cancer studies to be heavily reliant on funds from tobacco firms, nor research on pesticides to be dependent on the companies making them.

Stewart concluded:

As Brexit threatens to cut off vital public funds for this scientific field, our universities need a cast-iron guarantee from our government that EU money will not be replaced by corporate cash.

But Mason notes that the government long ago showed its true colours by refusing to legislate on the EU Directive (2009/128/EC) on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. The government merely stated that current statutory and voluntary controls related to pesticides and the protection of water, if followed, afford a high degree of protection and it would primarily seek to work with the pesticides industry to enhance voluntary measures.

Mason first questioned the government on this in January 2011. In an open letter to the Chemical Regulation Directorate. The government claimed that no compelling evidence was provided to justify further extending existing regulations and voluntary controls.

Lord Henley, the Under-Secretary of State for Defra, expanded further:

By making a small number of changes to our existing approach we can continue to help feed a growing global population with high-quality food that’s affordable – while minimising the risks of using pesticides.

In her numerous reports and open letters to officials, Mason has shown that far from having ‘high-quality food’, there is an ongoing public health crisis due to the pesticides being used.

She responded to Henley by stating:

… instead of strengthening the legislation, the responses of the UK government and the CRD have considerably weakened it. In the case of aerial spraying, you have opted for derogation.

Mason says that, recently, the day that Monsanto lost its appeal against Dewayne Lee Johnson the sprayers came around the Marina in Cardiff breaking all the rules that the EU had set for Roundup.

We can only wonder what could lie in store for the British public if a trade deal is done with the US. Despite the Conservative government pledging that it would not compromise on the UK’s food and environment standards, it now proposes that chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from animals treated with ractopamine and many other toxic foods produced in the US will be allowed into the UK. All for the bottom line of US agribusiness corporations. It is also worth mentioning at this point that there are around 2,000 untested chemicals in packaged foods in the US.

Ultimately, the situation comes down to a concentration of power played out within an interlocking directorate of state-corporate interests – in this case, global agrochemical conglomerates and the British government – and above the heads of ordinary people. It is clear that these institutions value the health of powerful corporations at the expense of the health of the population and the state of the environment.

Readers can access Mason’s new paper ‘Criminal collusion between Defra, the Chemicals Regulation Division and Bayer over Brexit Agenda’ via academia.edu website (which cites relevant sources), where all her other documents can also be found.

Eugenic Euphemism

George Orwell (Eric Blair) was not the first or only person to write that empire needs euphemism as well as control over language and not just the people who use it.1 Mark Twain and even Ernest Hemingway also captured this quality although they were usually less explicit in their illustrations. In contemporary memory George Carlin gave what was probably the best classic rendition of the pathology.

RT reported that Texas estate agents have decided that residential property descriptions should no longer use the term “master bedroom”. Instead the term “primary bedroom” is to be used.2  Perhaps the proper consequence of eliminating the term “master bedroom” ought to be to rename all ordinary accommodation “slave quarters”. After all if someone has a mortgage rather than clear title or is dependent upon a job to raise “hut tax” (local property taxes), then he or she is certainly no master.

The diversion of protest energy into the Northern elite’s ideological war against the populist South is a more than unfortunate development. It will consume lots of time and energy that would better be focussed on the real content of white supremacy in the US. However, by removing all the Confederate and other traces of the white supremacist culture propagated by the ruling elite, it will be possible to sanitize the language of the new versions of slavery that have been in operation and expanding. It will remove the traces of the dominant culture from physical space — having already achieved the concealment of the dominant culture in the media space.

The truth is that of all the lives that do not matter to the ruling elite, Black lives are simply those kept historically at the least value. Being Black in the US can be compared to the treatment of an underlying asset in a financial derivative transaction. Such a model was described sarcastically in Dead Souls.3  The book’s hero, Chichikov, in anticipation of the czar’s decree abolishing serfdom, with its promise of compensation to those who lose their serfs, travels throughout the country buying the dead serfs from landowners. He has a careful plan, which he conceals with his jovial sociability and willingness to pay above average prices. The dead serfs he wants are those not yet registered as dead. Even those who suspect him of sharp dealing do not grasp that he plans to recover his fortune by filing for compensation for all the dead serfs he has bought — once the czar’s decree becomes law. While the system of white supremacy in the US Empire — like serfdom — is odious, there are those who see every option to profit even from ostensible attacks on it.

There are clearly multiple waves on this sea of troubles. This year the wave of resistance and opposition to police terror against Blacks (but also in general) was joined by the wave created by the ruling class under the auspices of its eugenicists, Gates, Rockefellers, et al., namely, the virus wave unabashedly promoted for profit and population control. The virus wave meant the extended incarceration of much of the workforce that is not already serving as bonded labour in US prisons. The violence done to millions who were or will be deprived of their sources of income was compounded by the quasi-house arrest imposed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) counter-insurgency command together with its sister components in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After four years of non-stop assault against the POTUS with utter disregard for any other social or economic policy (unless for personal enrichment of those in office and their friends), the discrepancy between the euphemism of America’s return to “greatness” and the real conditions for ordinary people in the Empire had become almost intolerable.

It is not clear yet whether all these waves could merge into a tsunami or “killer wave”. BLM (Black Lives Matter™) has been shaped by its three “founders” and trademark holders into an American “Pussy Riot” — desecrating the icons of the South instead of fornicating in Orthodox churches.4  Meanwhile less than lip service is paid to the wanton destruction of the SME sector in the US and Europe. Instead hot and cold hysteria are being applied along with the same kind of censorship and repression from the worst anti-communist purges. Masks are not just metaphors for muzzles. They physically restrain debate about the criminal liability of the great corporate cartels that rule the US through their proxies in Washington and the state capitals. Western Europe is held hostage by its own viral vassals of the Pharmaceutical and Banking cartels– determined to wage this phony war at least until Trump is defeated or they get their wonder vaccination into the hands of the UN Witch Hunting Organisation (WHO) and can start turning all of us into GMOs.5 It is not ironic nor is it accidental that the two biggest waves in the storm that hit us were catalysed by people and forces for whom fewer lives matter.

We are witnessing a massive counter-insurgency program. The forces that combined a century ago to wage war against the German Empire have again combined to wage war against what they imagine will be the empire to supersede them. To wage that war a century ago, the fathers and grandfathers of our rulers felt no amount of death and destruction was too much if it meant crushing their opponents at home and abroad. Working and lower class manhood was slaughtered from 1915 until 1920 and again from 1939 until 1945.6  Samuel Cohen, renowned as the father of the “neutron bomb”, felt he had conceived the ultimate weapon for making atomic war tolerable — just killing people, without destroying buildings and infrastructure.7

Ronald Reagan — who together with Margaret Thatcher — initiated the campaign to destroy what remained of social benefits in the 20th century state– became a sponsor of this solution. No later than the ascendancy of Reagan as the first surrogate for the Bush dynasty, did the concerted effort begin which has culminated in the viral solution to the population problem. The destruction of the public sector and its capacity — in the US always very limited — to mediate the real needs of the population was a prerequisite for imposing loyalty and dependency upon private business corporations. Defunding health, education and housing long preceded today’s demand to defund the police. Defunding the police would potentially make them even less accountable by returning them to the private sector from which they originated. That is not an argument against abolition but a warning of the conflicting interests causing the waves throughout the West. When the ruling class decides to abolish an institution that serves it, then that is most certainly not motivated by desire for its own demise. Rather it usually means a nascent replacement is in the nest, waiting to be hatched.

One indication for the kind of institution has been the obsessive work in the field of gene manipulation over the past three decades. One profit stream already envisioned — which would complement the disabling and closure of most large hospital systems — is the individual medicine based on patented genetic therapies. No generic health care will be offered but only medical treatment tuned for people who have registered genetic properties to match with appropriate individual (patented and exceedingly specific) measures that cannot be easily reproduced and certainly are not generic — suitable for mass production at lower costs. Another profit stream is the vaccine-based treatment of regularly updated viruses. This is simply the “Medical Microsoft model”. Applied, however, on a large scale like that being pushed through the WHO, this profit stream is analogous to the GMO model used to consolidate global agriculture (to the extent not already owned by the biggest agro-cartels). The GMO model is the successor to the Monsanto product pair of hybrid seed with Roundup herbicide.8

The investments of Gates in Monsanto were also philosophical. For those who are unfamiliar with this: Roundup basically killed every plant in a field except the hybrid seed, which was immune to it. The CIA applied the same principle in Korea and Vietnam — kill everyone who has not been put in a strategic hamlet, those who are alive behind barbed wire will survive as non-communists (or anti-communists). Vaccines are essentially weapons. Bill Gates likes to call them “therapeutics”; it is a nice euphemism — sounds friendly, helpful, courteous, kind — and all the rest of the Boy Scout oath.9 The “therapeutics” for the masses will include identifiers. It is a kind of electro-chemical identity policy. Yes, identity policy derived from identity politics — the agenda of the ruling class which is now backing covertly and philanthropically (with money washed away from taxation with the detergent of “charity”) the purging of the culture from a range of unacceptable identities, especially those with historical significance.10 The ultimate euphemism is the language that can be used free of any traces of what it dare not name.

  1. George Orwell, Politics in the English Language, 1946.
  2. “Texas realtors ditch term ‘master’ for bedrooms and bathrooms, despite it having no connection to slavery”, RT News, 26 June 2020.
  3. Nikolai Gogol, 1842.
  4. BLM (2013) founders are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. Pussy Riot has been described as a “feminist protest punk rock and performance art group” in Russia, notorious for a performance staged in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on 21 February 2012. They were arrested, charged and convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. It became a cause celebre for Putin opponents, especially in the West.
  5. Also known officially as the World Health Organisation (WHO). GMO is a genetically modified organism.
  6. See, for example, The Great Class War, reviewed by this author “Romanticism and War”, Dissident Voice, 15 September 2015.
  7. Samuel T. Cohen (1921-2010), American physicist. The neutron bomb was also referred to as a low-yield tactical atomic weapon.
  8. Roundup is a glyphosate herbicide launched by Monsanto in 1974. Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018.
  9. BBC Breakfast Interview cited in “The First Circle”, Dissident Voice, 24 April 2020.
  10. Paul Street, “What would the Black Panthers think of Black Lives Matter?

From Toxic Food to Agrarian Disaster: Dirty Deals Done Dirt Cheap

During the early days of the coronavirus lockdowns, in some quarters there was a certain degree of optimism around. Although millions of people were suffering, the hope was that the Covid-19 crisis would shine light on societal and economic systems across the world, exposing some of the deep-rooted flaws of capitalism. There was a belief that people working together with their respective governments could start building a fairer capitalism and more sustainable economies.

However, we see exactly the opposite taking place. In the UK, we now witness a post-Brexit trade deal being negotiated behind closed doors with the US that could see a lowering of food and environment standards, despite the Conservative government pledge that it would not compromise on standards in these areas. The government now proposes that chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from ractopamine-injected animals and many other toxic foods produced in the US will be allowed into the UK. Sanctioning the entry of (chemical-resistant) GM crops and GM food are also likely to be part of any deal.

It would effectively mean sacrificing UK farmers’ livelihoods, the environment and the nation’s health to suit the bottom line of US agribusiness corporations.

The UK isn’t the only country that US agribusiness has set its sights on. World Bank Group President David Malpass has stated that poorer countries will be ‘helped’ to get back on their feet after the various coronavirus lockdowns. This ‘help’ will be on condition that neoliberal reforms are implemented and become further embedded. Ranil Salgado, mission chief for India at the IMF, says that when the economic shock passes, it’s important that India returns to its path of undertaking such long-term reforms.

But haven’t ordinary Indians already had enough of these ‘structural adjustments’ and their impacts? Rural affairs commentator P Sainath has highlighted the desperate plight of migrant workers in India. He notes that millions of rural livelihoods have been deliberately snuffed out over a period of many years, sparking an agrarian crisis. As a result of lockdown, tens of millions went back to their villages but there is no work there because rural jobs have been extinguished – the reason for urban migration in the first place.

The US has been pushing to bring Indian agriculture under corporate control for a long time. Further ‘reforms’ would serve to accelerate this process. US agribusiness wants to force GMO food crops into the country, further displace peasant farmers thereby driving even more people to cities and ensure corporate consolidation and commercialisation of the sector based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants.

Like the UK, India is also involved in trade talks with the US. If this deal goes through and India capitulates to US demands, it could devastate the dairy, poultry, soybean, maize and other sectors and severely deepen the crisis in the countryside. India could also see GMO food flooding the country and the further corporate consolidation of the seed sector. The article ‘Perils of the US-India free trade agreement for Indian farmers’ published on the grain.org website highlights what could be in store.

In the wake of India deciding to not participate in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, another trade deal that would have had devastating consequences for farmers and the food system. the article concludes:

It would be inconsistent, and a slap in the face, to now start US-India trade talks that will pose much bigger challenges for India’s rural communities and agriculture sector. Such a deal would greatly compromise India’s huge diversity of local seeds and plants which are conserved and reused by millions of Indian farmers year after year. It will also destroy India’s hope for food sovereignty.

Any such trade deal will be for the benefit of powerful agribusiness giants and will reinforce the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of these corporations. It would also send millions more to the cities in search of jobs that are just not there. This will be the result of the ‘reforms’ demanded by the World Bank and IMF.

If lockdown has shown anything, it is that many of those who sought better lives in the cities have failed to establish a firm foothold. They are marginalised and employed in the worst jobs working long hours for minimal wages. The fragility of their position is demonstrated by the reverse migrations we have witnessed and the callous treatment they are used to was demonstrated by the government’s attitude to their plight under lockdown.

The various lockdowns around the globe have also exposed the fragility of the global food system, dominated by long-line supply chains and global conglomerates – which effectively suck food and wealth from the Global South to the richer nations.

What we have seen underscores the need for a radical transformation of the prevailing globalised food regime based on a system of agroecology which reduces dependency on external proprietary inputs, distant volatile commodity markets and patented technologies. It would help to shorten chains, increase crop diversity, improve diets, regenerate soils, support food sovereignty, re-localise production and consumption and boost local economies, which in India would stem the flow of people moving to the cities and would even create livelihoods for those who have returned to the countryside.

It is the type of system that Prof Michel Pimbert and Colin Anderson of Coventry University in the UK advocate. In contrast to corporate-driven trade deals, centrally controlled hi-tech innovations, people-free farming, drones replacing bees, genetically engineered crops and a future of synthetic lab-based food, the two academics argue:

Agroecological innovations… are being driven largely from the bottom up by civil society, social movements and allied researchers. In this context, priorities for innovations are ones that increase citizen control for food sovereignty and decentralise power.

Instead of trade deals hammered out behind closed doors above the heads of ordinary people by elite interests, the authors state that deliberative, inclusive processes like citizens’ juries, peoples’ assemblies and community-led participatory actions are urgently needed.

It is these types of processes that should guide all economic sectors, not just agriculture. Processes underpinned by a vision for a better, more just world that can only be delivered by challenging capitalism’s dispossessive strategies which fuel India’s agrarian crisis and the types of human and environmental degradation and exploitation we see across the globe.

Can We Simultaneously Oppose Bayer/Monsanto’s Biotechnology and Support Cuba’s Interferon Alpha 2B?

Genetically engineered crops are a form of food imperialism.  This technology allows mega-corporations like Bayer/Monsanto to patent seeds, lure farmers into buying them with visions of high yields, and then destroy the ability of small farmers to survive.

Genetic engineering produces an artificial combination of plant traits which often results in foods with less nutritional value while introducing health problems to animals and humans who eat them.  It increases costs of food production, pushing millions of farmers throughout the world into poverty and driving them off their land.

Agricultural corporations get control of enormous quantities of land in Africa, Latin America and Asia which they use to control the world’s food supply and reap super-profits from the cheap labor of those who work for them, sometimes people who once owned the same land.  These crops can be developed in open-field testing which allows the novel pollen to contaminate wild relatives of the engineered crops.

Agro-industries which dominate this process have the resources to lobby two sections of governments.  They tell one government agency that their plants do not need to pass safety tests because they are “substantively equivalent” to already existing plants.  Yet, out of the other side of their mouths, corporate lawyers argue that, far from being equivalent to existing plants, their engineered ones are so novel as to deserve patents, patents which allow companies to sue farmers who save seeds for planting during the next season.

As a resident of St. Louis, a veritable plantation of Monsanto (now Bayer), I have participated in and organized dozens of demonstrations at the company’s world headquarters, as well as forums and conferences. It is necessary to compare the use of biotechnology by food corporations with that of Cuba to decide if they are the same or fundamentally different.

Medicine in Cuba

John Kirk’s Health Care without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism (2015) provides a wealth of information regarding Cuba’s early use of biotechnology in medicine.  It is a poor country suffering effects of a blockade by the US which interferes with its access to materials, equipment, technologies, finance, and even exchange of information.  This makes it remarkable that Cuba’s research institutes have produced so many important medications.  Even a partial list is impressive.  The use of Heberprot B to treat diabetes has reduced amputations by 80 percent.  Cuba is the only country to create an effective vaccine against type-B bacterial meningitis, and it developed the first synthetic vaccine for Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), which causes almost half of pediatric meningitis infections.  It has also produced the vaccine Racotumomab against advanced lung cancer and has begun clinical tests for Itolizumab to fight severe psoriasis.

By far, the best known efforts of Cuban biotechnology followed an outbreak of dengue fever in 1981 when its researchers found that it could combat the disease with Interferon Alpha 2B.  The same drug became vitally important decades later as a potential cure for COVID-19.  Interferons are signaling proteins which can respond to infections by strengthening anti-viral defenses.  In this way, they decrease complications which could cause death.  Cuba’s interferons have also shown their usefulness and safety in treating viral diseases including Hepatitis B and C, shingles and HIV-AIDS.

A Tale of Two Technologies

There are marked differences between corporate biotechnology for food and Cuba’s medications for health.  First, corporations produce food that fails to be healthier than non-engineered food which it replaces.  Cuba’s biotechnology improves human health to such a degree that dozens of nations have requested Interferon Alpha 2B.

Second, corporate food production drives people off of their land while making a few investors very  rich.  No one loses their home due to Cuban medical advances.

Third, food imperialism fosters dependency but Cuba promotes medical independence.  While corporate biotechnology drains money from poor counties by monopolizing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Cuba strives to produce drugs as cheaply as possible.

Patents for its many medical innovations are held by the Cuban government. There is no impetus to increase profits by charging outrageously high prices for new drugs – these medications become available to Cubans at much lower cost than they would in a market-based health care system like that of the United States. This has a profound impact on Cuban medical internationalism. The country provides drugs, including vaccines, at a cost low enough to make humanitarian campaign goals abroad more achievable.  Its use of synthetic vaccines for meningitis and pneumonia has resulted in the immunization of millions of Latin American children.

Cuba’s other phase of medical biotechnology is also unknown in the corporate world. This is the transfer of new technology to poor countries so that they can produce drugs themselves and do not have to rely on purchasing them from rich countries.  Collaboration with Brazil has resulted in meningitis vaccines at a cost of 95¢ rather than $15 to $20 per dose. Cuba and Brazil worked together on several other biotechnology projects, including Interferon Alpha 2B, for hepatitis C, and recombinant human erythropoletin (rHuEPO), for anemia caused by chronic kidney problems.

In Perspective

The bigger picture is that technology of all types is not “value free” – it reflects social factors in its development and use.  Nuclear plants require military forces for protection from attack, making them attractive in any society dominated by those who employ a high degree of violence to suppress dissent.

Market forces within capitalism select technologies that are profitable, even if they are destructive to human welfare.  Of course, medicine such as antibiotics benefit humanity even if their original goal was profits for pharmaceutical giants.

At other times, products that damage society as a whole are pursued because they augment corporate profits by weakening labor unions.  Planting and harvesting equipment have been used to undermine organizing efforts of agricultural workers.  In the mid-1880s Chicago McCormick adopted new molding machines which could be run by unskilled workers.  The company used them to replace skilled workers of the National Union of Iron Molders.

Expensive technologies can destroy small competitors so that large companies with more capital can better control the market. No case is clearer than the use of GMOs in agriculture.  By use of market control (making non-GMO seeds unavailable), financial terrorism (such as lawsuits against resistant farmers), and the pesticide addiction treadmill, GMO giants such as Bayer/Monsanto have increased the cost of food production.  This destroys the livelihood of small farmers across the globe while transforming the large farmers who remain into semi-vassals of these multinational lords of seeds and pesticides.

Though a century separated them and they affected different types of labor, actions by McCormick and Bayer/Monsanto had something in common.  They both utilized novel technology which resulted in less desirable products but increased profits.

Because they were an invaluable weapon against the union, McCormick used molding machines that produced inferior castings and cost consumers more.  GMOs in agriculture result in lower-quality food.  Since two-thirds of GMOs are designed to create plants that can tolerate poisonous pesticides such as Roundup, pesticide residues increase with GMO usage.

GMOs are also used to increase the production of corn syrup which sweetens a growing quantity of processed foods, and thereby contributes to the obesity crisis. At the same time, food engineered to be uniform, survive transportation, and have a longer shelf life contains less nutritional value. The use of GMOs in corporate agriculture is one of the largest contributing factors to the phenomenon of people simultaneously being overweight and undernourished.

Cuba’s use of biotechnology to create medications is in sharp contrast to both McCormick and Bayer/Monsanto.  Its drugs, especially Interferon Alfpha 2B, are used to help people overcome illnesses.  They are created to share throughout the world rather drive people into worse poverty.  Making a distinction between the biotechnology of Bayer/Monsanto and Cuba requires understanding the difference between bioimperialism and biosolidarity.  Imperialism subdues.  Biosolidarity empowers.

Coronavirus Capitalism: Entrenching Dispossession and Dependency

There is surprisingly a certain degree of optimism around at the moment, despite virtually entire populations and economies on lockdown. Although things are really bad for millions right now due to the effects of lockdown, economist Mariana Mazzucato believes that the Covid-19 crisis will shine light on societal and economic systems all across the world, exposing some of the deep-rooted flaws of capitalism.

After lockdown ends, Mazzucato believes societies can be reshaped to become more inclusive. She says an overly financialised business sector has been siphoning value out of the economy by rewarding shareholders through stock-buyback schemes, rather than shoring up long-run growth by investing in research and development, wages and worker training. Mazzacuto thinks we can use the current state of emergency to start building a fairer and more sustainable economy with the state playing a leading role to serve the public interest over the long term.

Her optimism is also shared by others who think that out the wreckage of the current crisis, the state and citizens can work together to shift towards more stakeholder capitalist or even more socialist oriented societies.

The reality, however, may merely mean the entrenchment of the prevailing system. For example, does anyone really believe that the ruling Conservative administration in the UK genuinely cares about the well-being of ordinary people or has any kind of commitment to publicly funded institutions? The Conservative Party has devastated millions of lives courtesy of an ideologically driven austerity agenda for over a decade. And for over three decades, it has been waging war on workers, unions and the public sector on behalf of global capital.

The situation is not unique to the UK. In India, successive administrations have been facilitating neoliberal policies that have led to a wholly avoidable agrarian crisis, marked by farmer suicides, child malnourishment, growing unemployment, increased informalisation, indebtedness and an overall collapse of agriculture. If anything, the current Modi administration has been keen to further open up the sector to the demands of Western agrocapital.

Things in the US hardly merit optimism for radical change either. The Federal Reserve estimates over 47 million will lose their jobs in the US, taking unemployment to almost a third of the labour force. This is more than during the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, in a series of short explanatory films for the layperson, analyst John Titus shows that US capitalism and the privately owned Fed are not going to change their spots: Wall Street and its top executives will continue to enrich themselves, while the public will suffer throughout the duration of lockdown, which could persist in various forms for 18 months.

Even if we take a brief, more general look at what is happening, we can see that, for instance, factory farms in the US are expected to receive $23.5 billion in stimulus money. The Center for Biological Diversity and allies have urged congress to direct these funds to small and mid-size farmers instead of big agri-food concerns. With the threat of environmental regulation rollbacks also on the cards, it is clear the current crisis is being used to consolidate the position of major players in the sector.

Consider too that, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, the $2 trillion-plus coronavirus relief package making its way through US congress will give bailouts to a number of key industries and companies that have indulged in the types of shameful activities that Mazzucato outlines. The airline industry is expected to get some $50 billion in cash and loans and Boeing, which asked for $60 billion, is widely expected to receive some part of a $17 billion fund.

During the past decade, most of the companies in line to get taxpayer money did not prepare for a downturn. For example, the airline industry, which is prone to booms and busts, collectively spent more than $45 billion on stock buybacks over the past eight years. Viewed in context, The New York Times says the relief package still amounts to a bailout of private capital and the endorsement of self-enriching practices.

Further Neoliberal reforms

The current crisis is hitting workers hard across the world, possibly more so in India than elsewhere. Consider that nearly half of India’s workforce of 467 million is self-employed, 36 percent are casual wage workers, while only 17 percent are regular wage workers. Two-thirds of them work without contracts and more than 90 percent lack any social security or health benefits in the workplace. The six-week coronavirus lockdown has made survival extremely difficult for them.

But is there hope on the horizon? World Bank Group President David Malpass recently stated that poorer countries will be ‘helped’ to get back on their feet after the various lockdowns that have been implemented in response to the Covid-19 crisis. However, before getting anyone’s hopes up too much, this ‘help’ will be on condition that neoliberal reforms and the undermining of public services are implemented and become further embedded.

Malpass says:

Countries will need to implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery and create confidence that the recovery can be strong.  For those countries that have excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection or litigiousness as obstacles, we will work with them to foster markets, choice and faster growth prospects during the recovery.

Ranil Salgado, mission chief for India at the IMF, echoes the views of Malpass by saying that when the economic shock passes, it’s important that India returns to its path of undertaking long-term reforms.

In the face of economic crisis and stagnation at home, this would seem like an ideal opportunity for Western capital to further open up and loot economies abroad. On 20 April, the Wall Street Journal ran the headline ‘IMF, World Bank Face Deluge of Aid Requests From Developing World. Scores of countries are asking for bailouts and loans from financial institutions with $1.2 trillion to lend. An ideal recipe for fuelling dependency.

Global conglomerates will be able to hollow out the remnants of nation state sovereignty, while ordinary people’s rights and ability to organise and challenge the corporate hijack of economies and livelihoods will be undermined by the intensified, globalised system of surveillance that beckons.

This is a sentiment shared by economics professor Michel Chossudovsky, who implies Covid-19 provides ideal cover for rebooting the global economy via a global debt crisis and the subsequent privatization of national states. The current crisis will certainly have the effect of impoverishing hundreds of millions of workers and increasing the national debt of nations. It could prove so devastating to economies that bailout packages from global financial institutions might saddle nation states with debts that prove almost impossible to pay back.

Dollar denominated loans will help secure the global hegemony of the dollar, which has been looking increasingly fragile in recent years.

At the same time, with mass unemployment and workers’ pay decimated, ordinary people in both rich and poor countries will have finally reached the finishing line in the race towards the bottom. Workers’ rights and well-paid jobs will be at a premium, with a global reserve army of labour waiting in the wings to snap up any work that is available.

In India, neoliberal reforms have already devastated many livelihoods and the US – via the WTO and World Bank – has since the 1990s been pushing India to further open up to Western goods and corporations. Pressure has been applied to further reduce subsidies to the farm sector and to dismantle mechanisms which have ensured some degree of food security for the hundreds of millions who rely on state support.

As the lockdown plays out in India, we see stories of fractured supply chains and of farmers who cannot sell their produce. In rural areas, millions of migrant workers have returned to the countryside. Rural affairs commentator P Sainath paints a dreary picture of the impacts of India’s lockdown. He discusses the desperate plight of migrant workers, a shortage of cash to buy food and a potential shortage of food as farmers are unable to complete their harvests.

He notes that Dr. Sundararaman, a former executive director of the National Health Systems Resources Centre, asserts that there is a desperate need to “identify and act on the reverse migrations problem and the loss of livelihoods. Failing that, deaths from diseases that have long tormented mostly poor Indians could outstrip those brought about by the corona virus.”

But no doubt cash-rich Western capital which will gain from the trillions being pumped into the system will see many strategic opportunities to benefit. It has been pushing via the World Bank to bring Indian agriculture under corporate control for a long time. This would involve forcing GMO food crops into the country, the displacement of peasant farmers, corporate consolidation and commercialisation based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants.

This would amount to the wholesale restructuring of Indian society. What we could see is the acceleration of existing processes which have already led to what Sainath describes as a crisis of civilisation proportions.

Across the world, people need to question the narrative, the data and the data collection methods surrounding Covid-19 and assess whether lockdowns and their devastating effects are in line with the risks involved. Because, five years from now, given what is at stake and the massive hardships being endured, it will then be too late to look back and say it was all based on flawed data and wrongheaded responses and was driven by vested interests who were set to benefit financially.

What’s the Matter With Science?

Science for the People at 2017’s March for Science. John Vandermeer/Science for the People Ann Arbor

What’s the matter with science? By that, do I mean, why don’t we turn away from corrupt politics and religion and follow the way of science? Or do I mean, why have we allowed science to so corrupt our politics and our culture? I mean, of course, both.

We don’t need an uneducated jackass telling people how to control a viral pandemic because he’s a president. At the same time, we don’t need corporate, for-profit, and ignorant media outlets using the arrogant science of computer models to predict the course of a pandemic in a manner at odds with what has already happened in the actual world with this pandemic, not to mention past ones.

We don’t need politicians bought and paid for by oil companies telling us that the earth’s climate is doing fine. But, of course, the oil companies bought and paid for scientists (and university departments) before they bought and paid for politicians. Scientists are telling the public that nuclear energy is the answer, that war is good for them, that relocating to another planet is possible, and that a scientific solution to climate change will be here soon, not to mention that blissfully destroying the earth with all sorts of machinery developed by scientists is simply not to be questioned.

The Governor of New York has no qualifications whatsoever to decide how people should behave to save lives during a plague. But mathematicians at RAND have absolutely no business telling politicians to base their foreign policy on nuclear deterrence, secrecy, and dishonesty.

So, is the answer science or not science? Can’t you just put it in a tweet, for godsake?

The answer is that public decisions need to be made on a basis of morality, independence from corruption, maximum information and education, and maximum democratic public control, and that one tool in acquiring information should be science — meaning not just anything with numbers or scientistic vocabulary or a scientistic source, but independently verifiable research into areas that have been selected on a basis of morality, independence from corruption, maximum information and education, and maximum democratic public control.

Clifford Conner’s new book, The Tragedy of American Science: From Truman to Trump, takes us on a tour of what’s the matter with science. He blames two chief evils: corporatization and militarization. He addresses them in that order, creating the possibility that at least a few people not previously ready to question militarism will be by the time they reach the middle of the book — a book packed with wonderful examples and insights into both new and familiar topics.

Conner takes us through numerous accounts of the corruption of science. Coca-Cola and other sugar profiteers backed science that led the U.S. government to drive people away from fat, but not away from sugar, and straight toward carbohydrates — which made the U.S. public fatter. The science wasn’t simply lies, but it was simply too simplistic to be a basis for guidance on the topic at hand.

Scientists developed new varieties of wheat, rice, and corn. And it’s not that they didn’t work. But they required huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticide, which poor people could not afford. This poisoned the earth while concentrating big agriculture. Even more farmers suffered when too much food was produced, which destroyed prices. And people continued to go hungry because the main problem had always been poverty, not the type of wheat being grown.

Scientists developed GMO crops to require less fertilizer and pesticide, and to withstand increased use of herbicides used on weeds, thereby creating new problems while solving problems of their own creation, and never addressing the primary problems in need of solution. Scientists have simultaneously been paid to claim that GMO crops are safe for human consumption and produce more food, without actually providing evidence of either claim. Meanwhile corporate-captive governments block the public from being able to know whether food in stores contains GMOs or not — a move that can only fuel suspicion.

Because science is a field of expertise that reaches a public that knows scientists have lied for a buck about cigarettes, diet, pollution, climate, racism, evolution, and so on, and because it reaches us through highly distrusted government agencies and corporate media outlets, and because there’s always been a huge market for baseless, magical, mystical, and optimistic claims anyway, distrust of science is prevalent. That distrust is often wrong and often right, but always partially to blame on the garbage people are presented with as science.

Tobacco is a story we think we all know already. But how many know the origins of big tobacco’s lies in the nuclear Manhattan Project? And how many know that 480,000 deaths a year in the United States are still caused by smoking, or that globally the figure is 8 million and rising, or that the tobacco industry still pays its scientific researchers 20 times what the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association combined spend on theirs? This is typical of many reasons to read The Tragedy of American Science.

My view, of course, is that once you make science American it’s doomed. It needs to be human to have a chance. American exceptionalism is not just part of basing pandemic predictions on computer models rather than on the other 96% of humanity. It’s also part of denying the possibility of success for universal health coverage or workplace rights or required sick leave or a reasonable distribution of wealth. As long as something has never worked in the United States, an American Science can deny its legitimacy, even if the rest of the world finds it successful.

Conner also finds for-profit pharmaceutical pain-profiteers to blame for the opioid crisis, not to mention for the failure to do the world of good that could have been done had research been directed elsewhere. One choice in science is what to research. Melanoma and cystic fibrosis and ovarian cancer get funding, while sickle-cell anemia doesn’t. The former mainly impact white people, the latter black. Similarly, deadly viruses that only impact other countries are not a top priority — until they threaten the people who matter.

Beyond big money deciding the priorities of big medicine, Conner chronicles an array of methods used to produce the desired science. These include seeding trials (phony trials intended simply to introduce a drug to doctors), medical ghostwriting, predatory journals, and disease mongering. Drug advertising is unique to the United States and New Zealand, and it’s part of the creation of diseases to fit drugs, as opposed to the development of drugs to fit diseases.

All such tails are only half the story. The other half is war-making. Conner traces the militarization of science from the Atoms for Peace pretense to today. Over half of U.S. government spending on scientific research over the past 50 years has been on war, including research into nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, “conventional” weapons, drones, torture techniques, and even imaginary weapons never scientifically found to work (such as “missile defense” or “brain washing”).

While New York City suffers through coronavirus, it’s worth recalling that in the name of science in 1966, the U.S. government released bacteria in the New York subways. The bacteria that was released is a frequent cause of food poisoning and can be deadly.

What do we need instead of the current state of affairs?

Conner proposes 100% public funding and control of all scientific research, with agencies like the EPA, FDA, and CDC free of corporate corruption. He also seems to favor open global sharing of research, which would be our best hope against coronavirus and much else.

He also puts a spin on Grover Norquist’s madness with this:

“I don’t want to abolish the military-industrial complex. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

I don’t know whether 100% public funding is possible. I don’t agree with Conner regurgitating accusations of chemical weapons use by Syria without providing any evidence. I’m not sure he’s right that stopping and reversing global warming would be a relatively simple step if we got science out of the hands of the military. And I have a serious question about his take on military spending.

But I highly recommend this book and consideration of what I take to be its main message: science could have worked wonders if properly used (and if a bit of military budgets were spent on something useful) and perhaps it still can.

Dependency, Distress and No Durable Agronomic Benefits: The Story of Bt Cotton in India

In the early 2000s, genetically modified (GM) Bt insecticidal cotton was being heavily promoted in India on the basis that it would cut pesticide use dramatically, boost yields and contribute to the financial well-being of farmers. Private sector Bt cotton hybrids now cover over 90% of the area under cotton.

Supporters of Bt cotton have wasted little time in claiming that GM technology has increased cotton yields, reduced pesticide use and has been of enormous benefit to farmers due to increased crop profitability. If we consider Prof Glenn Stone’s 2012 paper ‘Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India‘, however, it becomes clear that such claims are too often weaved from flawed data and studies and merely serve to bolster vested interests.

In an attempt to shed further light on the role of Bt cotton in India, Glenn Stone (Washington University in St Louis) and his colleague K R Kranthi (International Cotton Advisory Committee) have jointly authored a new paper – ‘Long-term impacts of Bt Cotton in India’ – that appears in the journal Nature Plants (March 2020). Unlike previous assessments, the paper is quite unique as it is based on a long-term analysis that spans a period of 20 years.

While proponents of Bt cotton say that GM technology is responsible for tripling cotton production between 2002 (when Bt cotton was commercialised in India) and 2014, Stone argues that the largest production gains came prior to widespread GM seed adoption and must be viewed in line with changes in fertilisation practices and other pest population dynamics.

Stone says:

There are two particularly devastating caterpillar pests for cotton in India, and, from the beginning, Bt cotton did control one of them: the (misnamed) American bollworm. It initially controlled the other one, too – the pink bollworm – but that pest quickly developed resistance and now it is a worse problem than ever.

He adds that Bt plants were highly vulnerable to other insect pests that proliferated as more and more farmers adopted the crop.

According to Stone:

Farmers are now spending much more on insecticides than before they had ever heard of Bt cotton. And the situation is worsening.

Although yields in all crops jumped in 2003, the increase was especially large in cotton.

However, Stone says:

… Bt cotton had virtually no effect on the rise in cotton yields because it accounted for less than 5% of India’s cotton crop at the time.

Stone argues that any changes in productivity have more to do with huge increases in insecticides and fertilisers and that farmers in India are now spending more on seeds, more on fertiliser and more on insecticides.

So, what has been the overall impact of Bt cotton in India?

Stone says that Bt cotton’s primary impact on agriculture will be its role in making farming more capital-intensive, rather than any enduring agronomic benefits. And this conclusion appears to confirm what others have been saying in recent years.

During a September 2019 media event in Delhi, for instance, Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva showed that pesticide use is back to pre-Bt levels and yields have stagnated or are falling. Moreover, they noted that some 31 countries rank above India in terms of cotton yield and of these only 10 grow GM cotton. They concluded that farmers now find themselves on a (capital-intensive) chemical-biotech treadmill and have to deal with an increasing number of Bt/insecticide resistant pests and rising costs of production.

Their data indicated that overall net profit for cotton farmers in the pre-Bt era had plummeted to average net losses in 2015, while fertiliser use kg/ha had exhibited a 2.2-fold increase. As Bt technology was being rolled out, costs of production were thus increasing. And these costs have increased in the face of stagnant yields. They too indicated that increased fertiliser and insecticides along with high-yielding hybrid trait value (independent of Bt technology) and increased acreage under cotton cultivation were responsible for any increase in productivity.

In fact, based on his own research, Prof A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put many farmers in a corporate noose. Although Bt cotton hybrids perform better under irrigation, 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of highly variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use and debt have placed many poor (marginal) smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.

Based on extensive field research in India, cultural anthropologist Andrew Flachs argues that independent cultivators have become dependent on corporate products, including off-farm commodified corporate knowledge. In the past, they cultivated, saved and exchanged seeds; now, as far as cotton cultivation is concerned, they must purchase GM hybrid seeds (and necessary chemical inputs) each year.

While Bt cotton farmers are losing their traditional knowledge and skills due to increasing market dependency, they are now trapped in a scenario of debt and rising input costs. In the meantime, maybe one in four seasons a farmer will attain a good enough yield to break even. Flachs notes that negotiating risk and gambling on seeds, weather and pesticide use have become an integral part of the corporate cotton seed and chemical treadmill.

It all begs the question: just who has benefitted from Bt cotton? For the answer to this, let us turn to Imran Siddiqi from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, who notes that India opted to use hybrids seeds for Bt technology. Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters and the plants have more biomass than both parents and capacity for greater yields. But they also require more inputs, including fertiliser and water, and require suboptimal planting (more space).

Siddiqi notes that all other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilisation. He argues that  the advantages of non-hybrids are considerable: twice the productivity, half the fertiliser, reduced water requirement and less vulnerability to pest damage due to a shorter field duration. He concludes that agricultural distress is extremely high among Indian cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor.

The introduction of hybrids disallowed seed saving, forcing farmers to purchase new, expensive hybrid Bt cotton seed each year, as hybridisation – unlike pure line varieties – affords one-time vigour. The use of hybrids in India gave pricing control to seed companies and Monsanto that issued licenses for the technology, while ensuring a continuous market.

When viewed in this light, Bt hybrid cotton technology has been integral to what veteran rural reporter P Sainath terms the ‘predatory commercialisation of the countryside’ by corporate interests. Its main role from the outset has been value capture and the creation of market dependency. It this respect, Bt cotton has been an outstanding success.

Toxic Agriculture and the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 and has $46.8 billion in assets (December 2018). It is the largest charitable foundation in the world and distributes more aid for global health than any government. One of the foundation’s stated goals is to globally enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the CGIAR system (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) — a global partnership whose stated aim is to strive for a food-secured future. Its research is aimed at reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources.

In 2016, the Gates Foundation was accused of dangerously and unaccountably distorting the direction of international development. The charges were laid out in a report by Global Justice Now: ‘Gated Development – Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?‘ According to the report, the foundation’s strategy is based on deepening the role of multinational companies in the Global South.

On release of the report, Polly Jones, the head of campaigns and policy at Global Justice Now, said:

The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed.

She added that this concentration of power and influence is even more problematic when you consider that the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of ‘corporate America’:

The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.

The report’s author, Mark Curtis, outlines the foundation’s promotion of industrial agriculture across Africa, which would undermine existing sustainable, small-scale farming that is providing the vast majority of food across the continent.

Curtis describes how the foundation is working with US agri-commodity trader Cargill in an $8 million project to “develop the soya value chain” in southern Africa. Cargill is the biggest global player in the production of and trade in soya with heavy investments in South America where GM soya monocrops (and associated agrochemicals) have displaced rural populations and caused health problems and environmental damage.

According to Curtis, the Gates-funded project will likely enable Cargill to capture a hitherto untapped African soya market and eventually introduce GM soya onto the continent. The Gates foundation is also supporting projects involving other chemical and seed corporations, including DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer. It is effectively promoting a model of industrial agriculture, the increasing use of agrochemicals and patented seeds, the privatisation of extension services and a very large focus on genetically modified crops.

What the Gates Foundation is doing is part of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) initiative, which is based on the premise that hunger and malnutrition in Africa are mainly the result of a lack of technology and functioning markets. Curtis says AGRA has been intervening directly in the formulation of African governments’ agricultural policies on issues like seeds and land, opening up African markets to US agribusiness.

More than 80% of Africa’s seed supply comes from millions of small-scale farmers recycling and exchanging seed from year to year. But AGRA is promoting the commercial production of seed and is thus supporting the introduction of commercial (chemical-dependent) seed systems, which risk enabling a few large companies to control seed research and development, production and distribution.

The report notes that over the past two decades a long and slow process of national seed law reviews, sponsored by USAID and the G8 along with Bill Gates and others, has opened the door to multinational corporations’ involvement in seed production, including the acquisition of every sizeable seed enterprise on the African continent.

Gates, pesticides and global health

The Gates Foundation is also very active in the area of health, which is ironic given its promotion of industrial agriculture and its reliance on health-damaging agrochemicals. This is something that has not been lost on environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason.

Mason notes that the Gates Foundation is a heavy pusher of agrochemicals and patented seeds. She adds that the Gates Foundation is also reported to be collaborating in Bayer’s promotion of “new chemical approaches” and “biological crop protection” (i.e. encouraging agrochemical sales and GM crops) in the Global South.

After having read the recent ‘A Future for the World’s Children? A WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission’, Mason noticed that pesticides were conspicuous by their absence and therefore decided to write to Professor Anthony Costello, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, who is the lead author of the report.

In her open 19-page letter, ‘Why Don’t Pesticides Feature in the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission?’, she notes in the Costello-led report that there is much talk about greater regulation of marketing of tobacco, alcohol, formula milk and sugar-sweetened beverages but no mention of pesticides.

But perhaps this should come as little surprise: some 42 authors’ names are attached to the report and Mason says that in one way or another via the organisations they belong to, many (if not most) have received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is a prominent funder of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Gates has been the largest or second largest contributor to the WHO’s budget in recent years. His foundation provided 11% of the WHO’s entire budget in 2015, which is 14 times greater than the UK government’s contribution.

Perhaps this sheds some light on to why a major report on child health would omit the effects of pesticides. Mason implies this is a serious omission given what the UN expert on toxics  Baskut Tuncak said in a November 2017 article in the Guardian:

Our children are growing up exposed to a toxic cocktail of weedkillers, insecticides, and fungicides. It’s on their food and in their water, and it’s even doused over their parks and playgrounds. Many governments insist that our standards of protection from these pesticides are strong enough. But as a scientist and a lawyer who specialises in chemicals and their potential impact on people’s fundamental rights, I beg to differ. Last month it was revealed that in recommending that glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used pesticide – was safe, the EU’s food safety watchdog copied and pasted pages of a report directly from Monsanto, the pesticide’s manufacturer. Revelations like these are simply shocking.

Mason notes that in February 2020, Tuncak rejected the idea that the risks posed by highly hazardous pesticides could be managed safely. He told Unearthed (GreenPeace UK’s journalism website) that there is nothing sustainable about the widespread use of highly hazardous pesticides for agriculture. Whether they poison workers, extinguish biodiversity, persist in the environment or accumulate in a mother’s breast milk, Tuncak argued that these are unsustainable, cannot be used safely and should have been phased out of use long ago.

In his 2017 article, he stated:

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most ratified international human rights treaty in the world (only the US is not a party), makes it clear that states have an explicit obligation to protect children from exposure to toxic chemicals, from contaminated food and polluted water, and to ensure that every child can realise their right to the highest attainable standard of health. These and many other rights of the child are abused by the current pesticide regime. These chemicals are everywhere and they are invisible.

Tuncak added that paediatricians have referred to childhood exposure to pesticides as creating a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability. He noted that exposure in pregnancy and childhood is linked to birth defects, diabetes, and cancer and stated that children are particularly vulnerable to these toxic chemicals: increasing evidence shows that even at ‘low’ doses of childhood exposure, irreversible health impacts can result.

He concluded that the overwhelming reliance of regulators on industry-funded studies, the exclusion of independent science from assessments and the confidentiality of studies relied upon by authorities must change.

However, it seems that the profits of agrochemical manufacturers trump the rights of  children and the public at large: a joint investigation by Unearthed and the NGO Public Eye has found the world’s five biggest pesticide manufacturers are making more than a third of their income from leading products, chemicals that pose serious hazards to human health and the environment.

Mason refers to an analysis of a huge database of 2018’s top-selling ‘crop protection products’ which revealed the world’s leading agrochemical companies made more than 35% of their sales from pesticides classed as “highly hazardous” to people, animals or ecosystems. The investigation identified billions of dollars of income for agrochemical giants BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC and Syngenta from chemicals found by regulatory authorities to pose health hazards like cancer or reproductive failure.

This investigation is based on an analysis of a huge dataset of pesticide sales from the agribusiness intelligence company Phillips McDougall. This firm conducts detailed market research all over the world and sells databases and intelligence to pesticide companies. The data covers around 40% of the $57.6bn global market for agricultural pesticides in 2018. It focuses on 43 countries, which between them represent more than 90% of the global pesticide market by value.

While Bill Gates promotes a chemical-intensive model of agriculture that dovetails with the needs and value chains of agri-food conglomerates, Mason outlines the spiraling rates of disease in the UK and the US and lays the blame at the door of the agrochemical corporations that Gates has opted to get into bed with. She focuses on the impact of glyphosate-based herbicides as well as the cocktail of chemicals sprayed on crops.

Mason has discussed the health-related impacts of glyphosate in numerous previous reports and in her open letter to Costello again refers to peer-reviewed studies and official statistics which indicate that glyphosate affects the gut microbiome and is responsible for a global metabolic health crisis provoked by an obesity epidemic. Moreover, she presents evidence that glyphosate causes epigenetic changes in humans and animals – diseases skip a generation then appear.

However, the mainstream narrative is to blame individuals for their ailments and conditions which are said to result from ‘lifestyle choices’. Yet Monsanto’s German owner Bayer has confirmed that more than 42,700 people have filed suits against Monsanto alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto covered up the risks.

Mason says that each year there are steady increases in the numbers of new cancers and increases in deaths from the same cancers, with no treatments making any difference to the numbers; at the same time, she argues, these treatments maximise the bottom line of the drug companies while the impacts of agrochemicals remains conspicuously absent from the disease narrative.

She states that we are exposed to a lifetime’s exposure to thousands of synthetic chemicals that contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested – “a global mass poisoning.”

Gates Foundation in perspective

As part of its hegemonic strategy, the Gates Foundation says it wants to ensure global food security and optimise health and nutrition.

However, Rosemary Mason alludes to the fact that the Gates Foundation seems happy to ignore the deleterious health impacts of agrochemicals while promoting the interests of the firms that produce them, but it facilitates many health programmes that help boost the bottom line of drug companies.  Health and health programmes seem only to be defined with certain parameters which facilitate the selling of the products of the major pharmaceutical companies which the foundation partners with. Indeed, researcher Jacob Levich argues that the Gates Foundation not merely facilitates unethical low-cost clinical trials (with often devastating effects for participants) in the Global South but also assists in the creating new markets for the “dubious” products of pharmaceuticals corporations.

As for food security, the foundation would do better by supporting agroecological  (agrochemical-free) approaches to agriculture, which various high-level UN reports have advocated for ensuring equitable global food security. But this would leave smallholder agriculture both intact and independent from Western agro-capital, something which runs counter to the underlying aims of the corporations that the foundation supports – dispossession and market dependency.

And these aims have been part of a decades-long strategy where we have seen the strengthening of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF ‘structural adjustment’ directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas.

While Bill Gates is busy supporting the consolidation of Western agro-capital in Africa under the guise of ensuring ‘food security’, it is very convenient for him to ignore the fact that at the time of decolonisation in the 1960s Africa was not just self-sufficient in food but was actually a net food exporter with exports averaging 1.3 million tons a year between 1966-70. The continent now imports 25% of its food, with almost every country being a net food importer. More generally, developing countries produced a billion-dollar yearly surplus in the 1970s but by 2004 were importing US$ 11 billion a year.

The Gates Foundation promotes a (heavily subsidised and inefficient – certainly when the externalised health, social and environment costs are factored in) corporate-industrial farming system and the strengthening of a global neoliberal, fossil-fuel-dependent food regime that by its very nature fuels and thrives on, among other things, unjust trade policies, population displacement and land dispossession (something which the Gates Foundation once called for but euphemistically termed “land mobility”), commodity monocropping, soil and environmental degradation, illness, nutrient-deficient diets, a narrowing of the range of food crops, water shortages, pollution and the eradication of biodiversity.

At the same time, the foundation is helping powerful corporate interests to appropriate and commodify knowledge. For instance, since 2003, CGIAR (mentioned at the start of this article) and its 15 centres have received more than $720 million from the Gates Foundation. In a June 2016 article in The Asian Age, Vandana Shiva says the centres are accelerating the transfer of research and seeds to corporations, facilitating intellectual property piracy and seed monopolies created through IP laws and seed regulations.

Besides taking control of the seeds of farmers in CGIAR seed banks, Shiva adds that the Gates Foundation (along with the Rockefeller Foundation) is investing heavily in collecting seeds from across the world and storing them in a facility in Svalbard in the Arctic — the ‘doomsday vault’.

The foundation is also funding Diversity Seek (DivSeek), a global initiative to take patents on the seed collections through genomic mapping. Seven million crop accessions are in public seed banks.

Shiva says that DivSeek could allow five corporations to own this diversity and argues:

Today, biopiracy is carried out through the convergence of information technology and biotechnology. It is done by taking patents by ‘mapping’ genomes and genome sequences… DivSeek is a global project launched in 2015 to map the genetic data of the peasant diversity of seeds held in gene banks. It robs the peasants of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to ‘code’. It is an extractive project to ‘mine’ the data in the seed to ‘censor’ out the commons.

She notes that the peasants who evolved this diversity have no place in DivSeek — their knowledge is being mined and not recognised, honoured or conserved: an enclosure of the genetic commons.

This process is the very foundation of capitalism – appropriation of the commons (seeds, water, knowledge, land, etc.), which are then made artificially scarce and transformed into marketable commodities.

The Gates Foundation talks about health but facilitates the roll-out of a toxic form of agriculture whose agrochemicals cause immense damage. It talks of alleviating poverty and malnutrition and tackling food insecurity but it bolsters an inherently unjust global food regime which is responsible for perpetuating food insecurity, population displacement, land dispossession, privatisation of the commons and neoliberal policies that remove support from the vulnerable and marginalised, while providing lavish subsidies to corporations.

The Gates Foundation is part of the problem, not the solution. To more fully appreciate this, let us turn to a February 2020 article in the journal Globalizations. Its author, Ashok Kumbamu, argues that the ultimate aim of promoting new technologies – whether GM seeds, agrochemicals or commodified knowledge — on a colossal scale is to make agricultural inputs and outputs essential commodities, create dependency and bring all farming operations into the capitalist fold.

To properly understand Bill Gates’s ‘philanthropy’ is not to take stated goals and objectives at face value but to regard his ideology as an attempt to manufacture consent and prevent and marginalise more radical agrarian change that would challenge prevailing power structures and act as impediments to capitalist interests. The foundation’s activities must be located within the hegemonic and dispossessive strategies of imperialism: displacement of the peasantry and subjugating those who remain in agriculture to the needs of global distribution and supply chains dominated by the Western agri-food conglomerates whose interests the Gates Foundation facilitates and legitimises.

The full text of Rosemary Mason’s 19-page document (with relevant references) — ‘Why Don’t Pesticides Feature in the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission?’ — can be accessed via the academia.edu website)