Category Archives: Food/Nutrition

Toxic Silence: Public Officials, Monsanto and the Media

Are you being lied to or misled? Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason certainly thinks so and has provided much supporting evidence. She has been campaigning against the agrochemical industry for many years (all her work can be accessed here) and has borne witness to the destruction of her own nature reserve in South Wales, which she argues is due to the widespread spraying of glyphosate in the area.

In 2016, she wrote an open letter to journalists at The Guardian newspaper in the UK outlining how the media is failing the public by not properly reporting on the regulatory delinquency relating to the harmful chemicals being applied to crops (read it here). Her assertion was that not only humans and the environment are silently being poisoned by thousands of untested and unmonitored chemicals, but that the UK media are silent about the agrochemical industry’s role in this.

She has now sent a new ‘open letter’ to some major newspapers with a six-page document attached: “The British Government and Monsanto should stand accused of crimes against humanity“.

It has been sent to the editors-in-chief of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, the London Evening Standard and The Independent as well as the director general of the BBC and its senior executives. Channel 4 News (UK) reporters have also been sent the document, including senior presenter Jon Snow, and a number of prominent UK government agencies and ministers.

The document discusses the lawsuits that have recently been brought against agrochemical and seed giant Monsanto, issues surrounding the renewal of the licence for glyphosate (key ingredient in Monsanto’s multi-billion-dollar, money-spinning herbicide Roundup) in the EU, rising rates of illness and disease (linked to glyphosate and other agrochemicals), the increasing use of pesticides and the lack of adequate testing and epidemiological studies pertaining to the cocktail of chemicals sprayed on crops.

Mason feels the media should be holding officials and the industry to account. Instead, there seems to be an agenda to confuse the public or to push the issue to one side. For instance, she has in the past argued that too many journalists are reinforcing the pesticides industry’s assertion that cancers are caused by alcohol use and that the catalogue of diseases now affecting modern society comes down to individual choice and lifestyle decisions. The media constantly link alcohol consumption with various cancers and this ‘fact’ is endlessly reinforced until people believe it to be true.

This, Mason argues, neatly diverts attention from the strong links between the increasing amounts of chemicals used in food and agriculture and serious diseases, including cancers.

In her various documents, Mason has over the years highlighted how international and national health and food safety agencies have dismissed key studies and findings in their assessments of the herbicide glyphosate, and she has provided much evidence that the chemical industry has created a toxic (political and natural) environment which affects us all. She argues that these agencies are guilty of regulatory delinquency due to conflicts of interest and have effectively been co-opted, enabling companies to dodge effective regulation.

Mason has gone to great lengths to show how a combination of propaganda disseminated by industry front groups and conflicts of interest allow dangerous chemicals into the food chain and serve to keep the public in the dark about what is taking place and the impacts on their health.

Aside from the subversion of democratic procedures, the result is rivers, streams and oceans polluted with agrochemical run-offs, spiralling rates of illness among the public and the destruction of wildlife and biodiversity.

By writing to major news outlets, Mason is pressing for at least one to take up this issue and finally begin holding public officials and agrochemical companies to account. To its credit, the French newspaper Le Monde has on occasion been unafraid to report on the activities of this industry.

Regardless of industry propaganda, it is not that we need the model of agriculture that these companies profit from. The increasingly globalized industrial food regime that transnational agribusiness is integral to is not feeding the world. It is, moreover, responsible for some of the planet’s most pressing political, social and environmental crises.

There are credible alternatives that actually can feed the world equitably (see ‘United Nations: Agroecology, not Pesticides, is the Future for Food‘).

So, isn’t it about time integrity and public health took precedence over profit and vested interest?

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver says:

The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important. If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies.

When speaking truth to power, however, perhaps for many well-paid media personnel with careers to protect it is easier to stay silent.

India Mortgaged? Forced-Fed Illness and the Neoliberal Food Regime

Like many countries, India’s food system was essentially clean just a generation or two ago but is now being comprehensively contaminated with sugar, bad fats, synthetic additives, GMOs and pesticides under the country’s neoliberal ‘great leap forward’. The result has been a surge in obesity, diabetes and cancer incidence, while there has been no let-up in the under-nutrition of those too poor to join in the over-consumption.

Indian government data indicates that cancer showed a 5% increase in prevalence between 2012 and 2014 with the number of new cases doubling between 1990 and 2013. The incidence of cancer for some major organs in India is the highest in the world.

The increase in prevalence of diabetes is also worrying. By 2030, the number of diabetes patients in India is likely to rise to 101 million (World Health Organization estimate). The figure doubled to 63 million in 2013 from 32 million in 2000. Over 8% of the adult male population in India has diabetes. The figure is 7% for women. Almost 76,000 men and 52,000 women in the 30-69 age group in India died due to diabetes in 2015, according to the WHO.

study in The Lancet from a couple of years ago found that India leads the world in underweight people. Some 102 million men and 101 million women are underweight, which makes the country home to over 40% of the global underweight population.

Contrast this with India’s surge in obesity. In 1975, the country had 0.4 million obese men or 1.3% of the global obese men’s population. In 2014, it was in fifth position globally with 9.8 million obese men or 3.7% of the global obese men’s population. Among women, India is globally ranked third, with 20 million obese women or 5.3% of global population.

According to India’s 2015–16 National Family Health Survey, 38% of under-5s are stunted (height is significantly low for their age). The survey also stated that 21% under-5s are significantly underweight for their height, a sign of recent acute hunger. The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world; at the same time, the country is fast becoming the diabetes and heart disease capital of the world.

India’s mineral deficient soils haven’t helped. This has been made worse by Green Revolution practices. Green Revolution crops, unlike their predecessors, fail to adequately take up minerals such as iron and zinc from the soil. So even though people might consume more calories (possibly leading to obesity), their intake of these key micronutrients has fallen. A quarter of the world’s population are affected by Green Revolution iron deficiency and research indicates that the condition impairs the learning ability of more than half of India’s schoolchildren.

Many of the older crops carried dramatically higher counts of nutrients per calorie. The amount of cereal each person must therefore consume to fulfill daily dietary requirements has gone up. For instance, the iron content of millet is four times that of rice. Oats carry four times more zinc than wheat. As a result, between 1961 and 2011, the protein, zinc and iron contents of the world’s directly consumed cereals declined by 4%, 5% and 19%, respectively.

While it is true that many other factors, including pollution, poor sanitation, working and living conditions, lack of income and economic distress, lack of access to healthcare and poverty, contribute to ill health and disease, a range of conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers and obesity, have all been linked to modern food production and diets.

‘Free trade’ and poor health

To improve health, lifestyle change is often promoted, as if poor health is a matter of individual responsibility and personal choice. This message conveniently sidesteps wider issues concerning the global capitalist food regime and how our access to food is shaped.

If we look at the North American Free Trade Agreement, we can see how the subsequent flood of cheap US processed food into Mexico adversely affected the health of ordinary people. Western ‘convenience’ (junk) food has displaced more traditional-based diets and is now readily available in every neighbourhood. Increasing rates of diabetes, obesity and other health issues have followed. This report by GRAIN describes how US agribusiness and retailers have captured the market south of the border and outlines the subsequent negative impact on the health of Mexican people. This could be what is in store for India.

Western agribusiness, food processing companies and retail concerns are gaining wider entry into India and through various strategic trade deals are looking to gain a more significant footprint within the country. The opening of the food and retail sector to more foreign direct investment and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (see page 13 here) have raised serious concerns about the stranglehold that transnational corporations could have on the agriculture and food sectors.

We can already see one outcome in the edible oils sector. India was virtually self-sufficient in edible oils up till the mid-1990s, using healthy practices to extract oil from, for example, indigenous mustard, linseed, ground nut and sesame, all of which are deeply rooted in Indian culture. Due to the unscrupulous undermining of the indigenous edible oil seeds sector  and the influx of cheap subsidised imports, some 70% of the population now consumes a narrower range of oils, not least (rain forest-destroying) palm oil and (GM) soy, processed using unhealthy solvents. To facilitate this, thousands of small-scale food oil processing enterprises were put out of business to make way for grain trader and food processor company Cargill, whose role in drawing up health and safety rules was instrumental in driving the competition out of business.

It is part of the wider push by the global industrial food processing lobby to impose standardised, less nutrient-rich products and manufacturing processes along with unhealthy fats, sugars and chemical additives – courtesy of compliant regulators and policy makers in India – in order to consolidate its grip on the country’s food base. As with the edible oils sector, it entails displacing more diverse, indigenous foodstuffs and healthy low-input food production processes, while robbing hundreds of thousands of their livelihoods.

We not only have Wal-Mart making inroads to complete the global food regime chain from seed to plate in India, but Western style fast-food outlets have already been soaring in number throughout the country. For example, Pizza Hut now operates in 46 Indian cities with 181 restaurants and 132 home delivery locations (2016). KFC is in 73 cities with 296 restaurants, a 770% increase over five years. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Applied Research, the Indian fast food market is growing at the rate of 30-35% per annum (see this).

Heart disease, liver damage, stroke, obesity and diabetes are just some of the diseases linked to diets revolving around processed ‘convenience’ food. Frequent consumption of this food has been associated with increased body mass index as well as higher intakes of fat, sodium, added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages and lower intakes of fruits, vegetables, fibre and milk in children, adolescents and adults.

Modern processed food also tends to have higher energy densities and poorer nutritional quality than foods prepared at home and in comparison with dietary recommendations (see this). To further appreciate just how unhealthy today’s food is, a 2015 report in the Guardian reveals the cocktails of additives, colourants and preservatives that the industry adds to our food.

Moreover, in many regions across the globe industrialised factory farming has replaced traditional livestock agriculture. For example, just 40 years ago the Philippines’ entire population was fed on native eggs and chickens produced by family farmers. Now, most of those farmers are out of business.

As world trade rules encourage nations from imposing tariffs on subsidised imported products, they are compelled to allow cheap, factory-farmed US meat into the country. These products are then sold at lower prices than domestic meat. There is therefore pressure for local producers to scale up and industrialise to compete.

Factory farms increase the risk of pathogens like E coli and salmonella that cause food-borne illness in people. Overuse of antibiotics can fuel the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the use of arsenic and growth hormones can increase the risk of cancer in people, and crowded conditions can be a breeding ground for disease.

The Modi administration’s restrictions on cow slaughter – making it difficult for many livestock farmers to operate – are regarded by some as a tool to facilitate the running down of small-scale livestock farming, paving the way for the industrialisation and corporatisation of the livestock industry.

Green Revolution, micronutrient-deficient soil and human health

We often hear unsubstantiated claims about the green revolution having saved hundreds of millions of lives, but any short-term gains in productivity have been offset. This high-input chemical-intensive model helped the drive towards greater monocropping and has resulted in less diverse diets and less nutritious foods. Its long-term impact has led to soil degradation and mineral imbalances, which in turn have adversely affected human health (see this informative report on India by botanist Stuart Newton – p.9 onward).

Adding weight to this argument, the authors of this paper from the International Journal of Environmental and Rural Development state:

Cropping systems promoted by the green revolution have increased the food production but also resulted in reduced food-crop diversity and decreased availability of micronutrients. Micronutrient malnutrition is causing increased rates of chronic diseases (cancer, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis) in many developing nations; more than 3 billion people are directly affected by the micronutrient deficiencies. Unbalanced use of mineral fertilizers and a decrease in the use of organic manure are the main causes of the nutrient deficiency in the regions where the cropping intensity is high.

India might now be self-sufficient in various staples, but many of these foodstuffs are high calorie low nutrient, have led to the displacement of more nutritionally diverse cropping systems and have effectively mined the soil of nutrients. The importance of renowned agronomist William Albrecht, who died in 1974, should not be overlooked here and his work on healthy soils and healthy people.

In this respect, botanist Stuart Newton’s states:

The answers to Indian agricultural productivity is not that of embracing the international, monopolistic, corporate-conglomerate promotion of chemically-dependent GM crops… India has to restore and nurture her depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further, with dubious chemical overload, which are endangering human and animal health. (p. 24).

India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion because of the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research reports that soil is become deficient in nutrients and fertility.

Newton provides insight into the importance of soils and their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the ‘green revolution’. In turn, these depleted soils cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the Green Revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition. Newton favours a system of agroecology, a sound understanding of soil and the eradication of poisonous chemical inputs.

Although this system is certainly gaining traction in India – there are encouraging signs for agroecological farming in places like Andhra and Karnataka – what we are also seeing is GMOs illegally creeping into the food system. Recent reports show GMOs are in commonly used food products and GM seeds are prevalent. The fear is that approval by contamination is what the GM industry has desired all along.

There are well-documented economic, environmental, ethical, social and health implications associated with GM. And unlike the Green Revolution, once the GM genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in and the changes to the genetic core of the world’s food will be the legacy bequeathed to subsequent generations.

Pesticides, food and the environment

There are currently 34,000 pesticides registered for use in the US. Drinking water is often contaminated by pesticides and more babies are being born with preventable birth defects due to pesticide exposure.

Illnesses are on the rise too, including asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and several types of cancer. The association with pesticide exposure is becoming stronger with each new study.

In Punjab, pesticide run-offs into water sources have turned the state into a ‘cancer epicentre‘. India is one of the world’s largest users of pesticides and a profitable market for the corporations that manufacture them. Ladyfinger, cabbage, tomato and cauliflower in particular may contain dangerously high levels because farmers tend to harvest them almost immediately after spraying. Fruit and vegetables are sprayed and tampered with to make them more colourful, and harmful fungicides are sprayed on fruit to ripen them in order to rush them off to market.

Research by the School of Natural Sciences and Engineering (SNSE) at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore has indicated disturbing trends in the increased use of pesticide. In 2008, it reported that many crops for export had been rejected internationally due to high pesticide residues. Moreover, India is one of the largest users of World Health Organization (WHO) ‘Class 1A’ pesticides, which are extremely hazardous.

Research by SNSE shows farmers use a cocktail of pesticides and often use three to four times the recommended amounts. It may come as no surprise that a recent report about children in Hyderabad are consuming 10 to 40 more times pesticides in their food than kids in the US.

Forced-fed development

In 1978, T.N. Reddy predicted in the book ‘India Mortgaged’ that the country would one day open all sectors to foreign direct investment and surrender economic sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Today, the US-led West, clings to a moribund form of capitalism and has used various mechanisms in the face of economic stagnation and massive inequalities: the raiding of public budgets, the expansion of credit to consumers and governments to sustain spending and consumption, financial speculation and increased militarism.

Under the guise of globalisation, we also see an unrelenting drive to plunder what capital regards as ‘untapped markets’ in other areas of the globe. International agri-capital has been moving in on Indian food and agriculture for some time. But as an agrarian-based country underpinned by smallholder agriculture, it first needs to displace the current model before bringing India’s food and agriculture sector under its control.

Devinder Sharma describes the situation:

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

In return for up to £90 billion in loans, in the 90s India was instructed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies and run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange. According to the World Bank’s lending report, based on data compiled up to 2015, India was easily the largest recipient of its loans in the history of the institution. To push through the programme, hundreds of millions are to be shifted out of agriculture.

Successive Indian administrations have been quite obliging. While India’s current government talks about ‘make in India’ (self-sufficiency), the reality is subservience to western capital. Agriculture is deliberately being made economically non-viable for small-scale farmers: financial distress and ‘economic liberalisation’ have resulted in between 300,000 and 400,000 farmer suicides since 1997 with millions more experiencing economic distress and over 6,000 leaving the sector each day. This lies at the root of the ongoing agrarian crisis. But it goes much further. We are witnessing not only the structural transformation of India’s rural base but an all-encompassing strategy designed to incorporate India into the US’s corporate-financial-intel architecture.

Whether it involves the displacement of indigenous food and agriculture by a model dominated by western conglomerates or it is the selling of pharmaceuticals and the expansion of private hospitals to address the health impacts of the modern junk food system (in India, the healthcare sector is projected to grow by 16% a year), either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for the population.

But it all forms part of the holy grail of neoliberalism, GDP growth. A notion based on an economic system defined by bad food and ill health, joblessness, mass surveillance, spiralling inequalities, environmental degradation, militarism and debt on one hand; on the other, by bail outs, tax havens, massive profits and subsidies for large corporations and banks.

So, what can be done? Whether we are discussing India or elsewhere, the scaling up of agroecology based on the notion of food sovereignty offers an alternative. Much has been written on agroecology as a model of agriculture but also as a movement for political change. Part of the process involves resisting the dismantling of rural economies and indigenous agriculture and instituting a sustainable food system rooted in local communities, whereby producing for local and regional needs takes precedence over supplying distant markets.

It also entails rejecting the agenda of the WTO which subjugates local agriculture to the needs of global markets (determined by agribusiness interests). And, unlike the current system, it includes supporting healthy and culturally appropriate food, encouraging diversified food production and recognising that food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.

Corporate Spin: Genetically Modifying the Way to Food Security?

Those familiar with the debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be forgiven for thinking that science alone can solve the world’s food problems. The industry asserts that GMOs are vital if the world is to increase agricultural productivity and we are going to feed a growing global population. There is also the distinct impression that the GMO issue is all about ‘science’ and little else.

People who question the need for and efficacy of GM have been labelled anti-science elitists who are responsible for crimes against humanity as they supposedly deny GM food to the hungry. Critics stand accused of waging a campaign of fear about the dangers of GM. In doing so, the argument goes that, due to ideology, they are somehow denying a technological innovation to farmers.

Critics have valid concerns about GMOs and have put forward credible evidence to support their views. But instead of engaging in open and honest debate, we see some scientists hardening their positions, lashing out at critics and forwarding personal opinions (unrelated to their specific discipline) based on their perceived authority as scientists. There’s a fine line between science and industry-inspired lobbying and spin. Unfortunately, a number of scientists have difficulty locating it.

The problem: global food regime or GM technology itself

An accusation sometimes levelled at critics of GM is that they have trouble when it comes to differentiating between the technology and the companies who have come to dominate GM: they are thus overly concerned with waging an assault on big business and capitalism, losing sight of the potential benefits of GM.

For sure, GM technology has become associated with large conglomerates that have rolled it out as a tool to further consolidate their dominant market position. These corporations are embedded in a system of capitalism that facilitates corporatisation of the global food regime and all that entails; for instance, a push towards seed monopolies, the roll-out of highly profitable proprietary inputs and chemical/biotech treadmills, leverage over legislation, trade deals and treaties and the general boosting and amalgamation of corporate power (as seen by recent mergers and acquisitions).

However, it is unfair to accuse critics of being unable to differentiate between the food regime and GM itself. Both scientists and non-scientists have concluded that genetic engineering poses unique scientific risks and has political, cultural, ethical and economic ramifications.

There are good reasons why in Europe robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GM. GM food/crops are not substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. More and more studies are highlighting the flawed premise of substantial equivalence. Given the risks, the precautionary principle is recognised as a sensible approach.

International consensus exists that the products of genetic engineering are not equivalent to their conventional counterparts. Many of the potential hazards are inherent in the GE process itself, and “are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection” (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, on page 7 of this document, where the example of GM maize and the amino acid lysine is also discussed; in addition, see references 5-10 at the bottom this page here).

There is sufficient reason to hold back on commercialising GM and subject each GMO to independent, transparent environmental, social and health impact evaluations: there can be no blanket statement that all GMO crops/foods are safe or somehow ‘good’. The claim of substantial equivalence is an industry get-out tactic to avoid the inconvenience of proper assessment and regulation. And any claim that there is consensus on the safety/efficacy of GM within the ‘scientific community’ is based on spin rather than reality. This, along with the claims that ‘the science is decided’ on GM is mere rhetoric designed to close down debate.

There are major uncertainties concerning the technology (not least regarding its precision and health safety aspects), which are brushed aside by claims of ‘the science’ is decided and the ‘facts’ about GM are indisputable. Such claims – alongside the attempt to sideline non-scientists from the debate – are merely political posturing and part of the agenda to tip the policy agenda in favour of GM.

We must consider too that many things that scientists are trying to achieve with GMOs have already been surpassed by means of conventional breeding. We should not accept the premise that only GM can solve problems in agriculture. Non-GMO options and innovations have out-performed GM. So why press ahead with a technology that changes the genetic basis of food with all that entails for human health and the environment?

Despite critics’ concerns, they continue to be attacked for supposedly being anti-science and anti-choice. For instance, the pro-GMO line of blaming people in richer countries for denying the benefits of GM to others elsewhere has become part of industry rhetoric. The case of Golden Rice is often used as an example. UK politician Owen Patterson is on record as saying that wicked activists are denying food to little children.

Glenn Stone and Dominic Glover (Washington University and the University of Sussex) have noted that this claim just does not stack up. Golden Rice has not come to market because ongoing tests show it has failed to deliver as a technology. Meanwhile, Vitamin A deficiency is falling dramatically in the Philippines, while the claims about Golden Rice remain wishful thinking.

It is convenient and misleading to accuse ‘privileged activists’ in affluent countries of denying choice to poor people by preventing the commercialisation and cultivation of GM crops across the globe. In  South America and Africa, for example, it is not some affluent bunch of activists in rich countries who are against GM. It is local farmers and it is because corporations with US govt help and philanthropic colonialists like Bill Gates are moving in to assert their leverage in agriculture and over indigenous farming.

According to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (ASFA):

White male European so-called experts are channelling the message of the biotech industry, heavily controlled by US-European seed and chemical giants Monsanto/Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. The message once again is that failure of African farmers to adopt GMO technology is the root cause of hunger and poverty on the continent. It is ironic that GMO foods are banned by law as unsafe in the European home countries of those giving the advice. Meanwhile the African biotech scientists seem more concerned that the strict liability measures will chase away donor funding and investment for their costly and “prestigious” research.

They blame the anti-GMO activists, rather than their own technological failure, for the impasse. They claim that if only the activists would shut up and go away, the industry backed researchers could fix the food insecurity problem once and for all!  Once again Africa is being compelled to adopt others’ views, others’ technologies, others’ interests. Have we not seen this before? They claim to have ‘sound science’ on their side but what kind of science resolutely ignores the evidence? What has actually happened in those African countries where GMOs have been rolled out? Let’s take a look at the facts.

ASFA then goes on to highlight the false promises and failures of GM in Africa. Clearly, it is not just the politics of GM that ASFA has concerns about: it is the technology itself.

It is misleading when supporters of GM call people’s attention to apparent public sector funding of GM and the apparent altruism that is claimed to underpin the GM project. Even when not directly pushing GM to boost the bottom line, big business (and US state interests) is certainly present in the not too distant background. As with the current push for GM mustard (also misleadingly portrayed as a public service endeavour ) in India, ‘pioneering’ crops have a role in opening the GM floodgates in a region or country (there are sound reasons for rejecting GM mustard as described by Aruna Rodrigues in her submitted court documents).

But is this type of ‘activism’ denying choice to farmers? Not at all, as I have outlined elsewhere. If anything, large corporations do their best to break traditional practices and environmental learning pathways developed over time with the aim of getting farmers on technological treadmills. These same companies also exert their leverage on a wider level via the WTO, Codex and various international agreements.

But you never see supporters of GM campaigning against any of this. Perhaps they are too busy helping the process along via the right-wing neoliberal think tanks they are associated with. Instead, they fixate on Greenpeace or ‘activists’ whose leverage is dwarfed by the power of these corporations.

Pro-GMO activists make great play about ‘potential’ benefits of GM and roll out examples to ‘prove’ the point. Fine, if these benefits really do stack up in reality; but we need to look at this objectively because plenty of evidence indicates that GM is not beneficial and that non-GM alternatives are a better option. Most of all, we need to put commercial interests and the career/funding interests of scientists to one side when determining the need for and the efficacy of GM.

Solution based on food sovereignty

Banning GMOs will not solve the problems associated with lobbying and corruption, the adverse impacts of pesticide use, corporate monopolies, monocultures, food commodity speculation, the denial of peasant’s land rights or any other problems associated with the capitalist food regime. But neither will GM lead to ensuring global food security.

We must look away from the industrial yield-output paradigm and adopt a more integrated systems approach to food and agriculture that accounts for many different factors, including local food security and sovereignty, local calorific production, cropping patterns and diverse nutrition production per acre, water table stability, climate resilience, good soil structure and the ability to cope with evolving pests and disease pressures. This is precisely why, from Africa to India, locally owned, grass-root agroecology and zero budget farming are gaining traction.

Scaling up agroecology offers potential solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems, whether, for instance, climate change and carbon storage, soil degradation, water shortages, unemployment or food security. Working with the natural environment (as Bhaskar Save notes) involves a different mindset from that which wants to genetically engineer it and all the risks and unforeseen consequences that it inevitably entails. If readers take time to click on the previous link for Bhaskar Save, it becomes patently clear that undermining or eradicating one system of farming by imposing another has serious ethical, environmental, social and political ramifications. Something that scientific research does not concern itself with.

The consequences of GM do not just relate to unpredictable changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of the resulting GM crop. Introducing GM can involve disrupting cultures and knowledge systems and farmers’ relationships with their environments. Who is to say that GM is somehow ‘better’ or should take precedence over these traditional systems?

Corporate boardroom executives or well-funded microbiologists each with their own agendas and looking at things from their own blinkered perspectives? Once those systems are disrupted, the knowledge and practices that underpin them become lost forever. For instance, in terms of an integrated pest management strategy, Devinder Sharma talks of women who can identify 110 non-vegetarian insects and 60 vegetarian insects. Can such knowledge survive? To be wiped out for corporate profit and a flawed GM experiment?

As described in this paper, for thousands of years farmers experimented with different plant and animal specimens acquired through migration, trading networks, gift exchanges or accidental diffusion. By learning and doing, trial and error, new knowledge was blended with older, traditional knowledge systems. The farmer therefore possessed acute observation and has traditionally engaged in risk minimising strategies. Farmers took measures to manage drought, grow cereals with long stalks that can be used as fodder, engage in cropping practices that promote biodiversity, ethno-engineer soil and water conservation, use self-provisioning systems on farm recycling and use collective sharing systems such as managing common resource properties.

Farmers know their micro-environment, so they can plant crops that mature at different times, thereby facilitating more rapid crop rotation without exhausting the soil. Today, however, large-scale industrial-based agricultural production erodes biodiversity by depleting the organisms that live in soil and by making adverse changes to the structure of the soil and the kind of plants that can be grown in such artificially-created environments.

Many of the practices of small farmers are now recognised as sophisticated and appropriate. It is no surprise therefore that various high-level reports have called for agroecology and smallholder farmers to be prioritised and invested in to achieve global sustainable food security. Instead, what we see is the marginalisation traditional organic agriculture by corporate interests.

Traditional food production systems depend on using the knowledge and expertise of village communities and cultures in contrast to prioritising imported ‘solutions’. The widespread but artificial conditions created by the latter work against the survival of traditional knowledge, which creates and sustains unique indigenous farming practices and food culture.

None of this is based on a romantic yearning for the past or ‘the peasantry’. It is for good reason that the reports referred to call for investment in this type of agriculture centred on small farms: despite the pressures (including the fact that industrial agriculture grabs 80%of subsidies and 90% of research funds), it continues to feed most of the world.

Cultural, ethical, political and environmental considerations matter just as much – even more – than the science of GM. And that’s even before we consider how the ill thought out introduction (or imposition) of GM can have dire financial impacts for communities, as has been the case with Bt cotton in many areas where it has been adopted.

In acknowledging the type of food regime that exists and the risks, motives and implications of GM, pushing back against the large corporations that hold sway over the global food system, food sovereignty based on localisation and (political) agroecology is necessary. This involves reclaiming the food system and challenging the leverage that private capital has over all our lives.

In the meantime, we are not talking about ‘banning’ anything. Where GMOs, gene editing, synthetic biology or other similar technologies are concerned, we require a responsible approach based on transparent social, health and environmental impact assessments. In the absence of this, there should be a moratorium because the potential for a responsible approach is most definitely lacking: Rosemary, Mason, Carol van Strum, the late Shiv Chopra, Evaggelos Vallianatos and others have described how high-level institutions responsible for food and environmental safety have been subverted and corrupted over the years by commercial interests.

Decades on from Rachel Carson, have we learned nothing? If the people listed above tell us anything, it is that the ‘pesticide revolution’ was based on widespread fraud. We are now trying to deal with the health and environmental impacts of dousing the land with agrotoxins year in, year out.  They also tell us that commercial interests should not determine regulatory regimes. We need transparency, democratic accountability, science untainted by corporate interests and robust public institutions which guard against commercial interests that undermine regulatory decisions.

While the pro-GM lobby rushes to experiment with the genetic core of the world’s food and leave a potentially detrimental legacy for future generations, the question remains:

How is it possible that in the 21st century the world has the capacity to feed every single human being on the planet, yet the majority of people in Africa and the rest of the Global South, who are poor – whilst obesity soars in the West – go rampantly hungry?

Walden Bello, Structural Adjustment Programmes dictated by the IMF and World Bank destroyed African Agriculture, September 22, 2009

It is because food and agriculture have become wedded to power structures that have created food surplus and food deficit areas and which have restructured indigenous agriculture across the world and tied it to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for a manipulated and volatile international market and indebtedness to international financial institutions.

Once you understand how global capitalism and its corporate food regime operates and how private capital shapes and benefits from a food regime based on an exploitative ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy, you realise that genuine political and economic solutions are required if we are to feed the world and ensure equitable food security.

We must not be deterred by the “haughty imperialism” that exists in scientific circles that aggressively pushes for a GMO techno-fix. We must not be distracted from the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

Rescuing Food Sovereignty in the Venezuelan Andes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• First published at Investig’Action

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

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

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

According to the World Bank’s lending report, based on data compiled up to 2015, India was easily the largest recipient of its loans in the history of the institution. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the World Bank exerts a certain hold over India. In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank wanted India to shift hundreds of millions out of agriculture. In return for up to £90 billion in loans, India was directed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies, run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange.

The plan for India involves the mass displacement of people to restructure agriculture for the benefit of powerful corporations. This involves shifting at least 400 million from the countryside into cities. A 2016 UN report said that by 2030, Delhi’s population will be 37 million.

Quoted in The Guardian, one of the report’s principal authors, Felix Creutzig, says:

The emerging mega-cities will rely increasingly on industrial-scale agricultural and supermarket chains, crowding out local food chains.

The drive is to entrench industrial farming, commercialise the countryside and to replace small-scale farming, the backbone of food production in India. It could mean hundreds of millions of former rural dwellers without any work given that India is heading (or has already reached) ‘jobless growth’. Given the trajectory the country seems to be on, it does not take much to imagine a countryside with vast swathes of chemically-drenched monocrop fields containing genetically modified plants or soils rapidly turning into a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides, dirt and dust.

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

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

For all the discussion in India about loan waivers for farmers and raising income levels, this does not address the core of the problem affecting agriculture: the running down of the sector for decades, spiralling input costs, lack of government assistance and the impacts of cheap, subsidised imports which depress farmers’ incomes.

Take the cultivation of pulses, for instance. According to a report in the Indian Express (September 2017), pulses production increased by 40% during the previous 12 months (a year of record production). At the same time, however, imports also rose resulting in black gram selling at 4,000 rupees per quintal (much less than during the previous 12 months). This has effectively driven down prices thereby reducing farmers already meagre incomes. We have already witnessed a running down of the indigenous edible oils sector thanks to Indonesian palm oil imports on the back of World Bank pressure to reduce tariffs (India was virtually self-sufficient in edible oils in the 1990s but now faces increasing import costs).

On the one hand, there is talk of India becoming food secure and self-sufficient; on the other, there is pressure from the richer nations for the Indian government to further reduce support given to farmers and open up to imports and ‘free’ trade. But this is based on hypocrisy.

Writing on the ‘Down to Earth’ website in late 2017, Sachin Kumar Jain states some 3.2 million people were engaged in agriculture in the US in 2015. The US govt provided them each with a subsidy of $7,860 on average. Japan provides a subsidy of $14,136 and New Zealand $2,623 to its farmers. In 2015, a British farmer earned $2,800 and $37,000 was added through subsidies. The Indian government provides on average a subsidy of $873 to farmers. However, between 2012 and 2014, India reduced the subsidy on agriculture and food security by $3 billion.

According to policy analyst Devinder Sharma subsidies provided to US wheat and rice farmers are more than the market worth of these two crops. He also notes that, per day, each cow in Europe receives subsidy worth more than an Indian farmer’s daily income.

How can the Indian farmer compete with an influx of artificially cheap imports? The simple answer is that s/he cannot and is not meant to.

The opening up of India to foreign capital is supported by rhetoric about increasing agricultural productivity, creating jobs and boosting GDP growth. But India is already self-sufficient in key staples and even where productivity is among the best in the world, farmers still face massive financial distress. Given that jobs are being destroyed, relatively few are being created and that as a measure of development GDP growth is unsustainable and has actually come at the expense of deliberately impoverished farmers in India (low food prices), what we are hearing is mere rhetoric to try to convince the public that an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a relative few corporations – via deregulations, privatisations and lower labour and environmental protection standards – constitutes progress.

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

Making India ‘business friendly’

PM Modi is on record as saying that India is now one of the most business-friendly countries in the world. The code for being ‘business friendly’ translates into a willingness by the government to facilitate much of the above, while reducing taxes and tariffs and allowing the acquisition of public assets via privatisation as well as instituting policy frameworks that work to the advantage of foreign corporations.

When the World Bank rates countries on their level of ‘ease of doing business’, it means national states facilitating policies that force working people to take part in a race to the bottom based on free market fundamentalism. The more ‘compliant’ national governments make their populations and regulations, the more ‘business friendly’ a country is.

In the realm of agriculture, the World Bank’s ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’ entails opening up markets to Western agribusiness and their fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and patented seeds. Rather than work to eradicate corruption, improve poor management, build storage facilities and deal with inept bureaucracies and deficiencies in food logistics, the mantra is to let ‘the market’ intervene: a euphemism for letting powerful corporations take control; the very transnational corporations that receive massive taxpayer subsidies, manipulate markets, write trade agreements and institute a regime of intellectual property rights thereby indicating that the ‘free’ market only exists in the warped delusions of those who churn out clichés about letting the market decide.

According to the neoliberal ideologues, foreign investment is good for jobs and good for business. But just how many actually get created is another matter – as is the amount of jobs destroyed in the first place to pave the way for the entry of foreign corporations. For example, Cargill sets up a food or seed processing plant that employs a few hundred people; but what about the agricultural jobs that were deliberately eradicated in the first place or the village-level processors who were cynically put out of business via bogus health and safety measures so Cargill could gain a financially lucrative foothold?

The process resembles what Michel Chossudovsky notes in his 1997 book about the ‘structural adjustment’ of African countries. In The Globalization of Poverty, he says that economies are:

opened up through the concurrent displacement of a pre-existing productive system. Small and medium-sized enterprises are pushed into bankruptcy or obliged to produce for a global distributor, state enterprises are privatised or closed down, independent agricultural producers are impoverished. (p.16)

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

India is looking to US corporations to ‘develop’ its food and agriculture sector. With regard to what this could mean for India, we only have to look at how the industrialised US system of food and agriculture relies on massive taxpayer subsidies and has destroyed farmers’ livelihoods. The fact that US agriculture now employs a tiny fraction of the population serves as a stark reminder for what is in store for Indian farmers. Agribusiness companies (whose business model in the US is based on overproduction and dependent on taxpayer subsidies) rake in huge returns, while depressed farmer incomes and massive profits for food retailers is the norm.

The long-term plan is for an overwhelmingly urbanised India with a fraction of the population left in farming working on contracts for large suppliers and Walmart-type supermarkets that offer a largely monoculture diet of highly processed, denutrified, genetically altered food based on crops soaked with chemicals and grown in increasingly degraded soils according to an unsustainable model of agriculture that is less climate/drought resistant, less diverse and unable to achieve food security.

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

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

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

Unfortunately, the process is already well on track as ‘Western diseases’ take hold in the country’s urban centres. For instance, there are massive spikes in the rates of obesity and diabetes. Although around 40 per cent of the nation’s under-5s are underweight, the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world; at the same time, the country is fast becoming the diabetes and heart disease capital of the world.

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

Support given to agriculture is portrayed as a drain on the economy and is reduced and farmers suffer yet it still manages to deliver bumper harvests year after year. On the other hand, corporate-industrial India has failed to deliver in terms of boosting exports or creating jobs, despite the hand outs and tax exemptions given to it.

The number of jobs created in India between 2005 and 2010 was 2.7 million (the years of high GDP growth). According to International Business Times, 15 million enter the workforce every year. And data released by the Labour Bureau shows that in 2015, jobless ‘growth’ had finally arrived in India.

So where are the jobs going to come from to cater for hundreds of millions of agricultural workers who are to be displaced from the land or those whose livelihoods will be destroyed as transnational corporations move in and seek to capitalise small-scale village-level industries that currently employ tens of millions?

Development used to be about breaking with colonial exploitation and radically redefining power structures. Now we have dogma masquerading as economic theory that compels developing countries to adopt neo-liberal policies. The notion of ‘development’ has become hijacked by rich corporations and the concept of poverty depoliticised and separated from structurally embedded power relations, not least US-driven neoliberal globalisation policies resulting in the deregulation of international capital that ensures giant transnational conglomerates have too often been able to ride roughshod over national sovereignty.

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

Corporate-dominated agriculture is not only an attack on the integrity of ‘the commons’, soil, water, food, diets and health but is also an attack on the integrity of international institutions, governments and officials which have too often been corrupted by powerful transnational entities.

Whereas some want to bring about a fairer, more equitable system of production and distribution to improve people’s quality of lives (particularly pertinent in India with its unimaginable inequalities which have spiraled since India adopted neoliberal policies), Washington regards ‘development’ as a way to further US interests globally.

As economics professor Michael Hudson said during a 2014 interview (published on under the title ‘Think Tank Times’):

American foreign policy has almost always been based on agricultural exports, not on industrial exports as people might think. It’s by agriculture and control of the food supply that American diplomacy has been able to control most of the Third World. The World Bank’s geopolitical lending strategy has been to turn countries into food deficit areas by convincing them to grow cash crops – plantation export crops – not to feed themselves with their own food crops.

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

Capitalism and environmental catastrophe joined at the hip

In India, an industrialised chemical-intensive model of agriculture is being facilitated that brings with it the numerous now well-documented externalised social, environmental and health costs. We need look no further than the current situation in South India and the drying up of the Cauvery river in places to see the impact that this model has contributed to: an ecological crisis fuelled by environmental devastation due to mining, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture based on big dams, water-intensive crops and Green Revolution ideology imported from the West.

But we have known for a long time now that India faces major environmental problems rooted in agriculture. For example, in an open letter written to officials in 2006, the late campaigner and farmer Bhaskar Save noted that India, next to South America, receives the highest rainfall in the world. Where thick vegetation covers the ground, and the soil is alive and porous, at least half of this rain is soaked and stored in the soil and sub-soil strata. A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers, or ‘groundwater tables’. Save argued that the living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs gifted free by nature.

Half a century ago, most parts of India had enough fresh water all year round, long after the rains had stopped and gone. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry.

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

According to Save, more than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. Maharashtra, for example, has the maximum number of big and medium dams in the country. But sugarcane alone, grown on barely 3-4% of its cultivable land, guzzles about 70% of its irrigation waters.

One acre of chemically grown sugarcane requires as much water as would suffice 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. The sugar factories too consume huge quantities. From cultivation to processing, each kilo of refined sugar needs two to three tonnes of water. This could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

While rice is suitable for rain-fed farming, its extensive multiple cropping with irrigation in winter and summer as well is similarly hogging water resources and depleting aquifers. As with sugarcane, it is also irreversibly ruining the land through salinization.

Save argued that soil salinization is the greatest scourge of irrigation-intensive agriculture, as a progressively thicker crust of salts is formed on the land. Many million hectares of cropland have been ruined by it. The most serious problems are caused where water-guzzling crops like sugarcane or basmati rice are grown round the year, abandoning the traditional mixed-cropping and rotation systems of the past, which required minimal or no watering.

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

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

Instead, policy makers continue to look towards the likes of Monsanto-Bayer for ‘solutions’. Such companies merely seed to break farmers’ environmental learning ‘pathways’ based on centuries of indigenous knowledge, learning and practices with the aim of getting farmers hooked on chemical treadmills for corporate profit (see Glenn Stone and Andrew Flach’s 2017 paper in the Journal of Peasant Studies, ‘The ox fall down: path-breaking and technology treadmills in Indian cotton agriculture’).

Wrong-headed policies in agriculture have already resulted in drought, expensive dam-building projects, population displacement and degraded soils. The rivers are drying, farmers are dying and the cities are creaking as a result of the unbridled push towards urbanisation.

In terms of managing water resources, regenerating soils, and cultivating climate resilient crops, agroecology as a solution is there for all to see. Andhra Pradesh is now making a concerted effort to roll-out zero budget agroecological agriculture across the state. However, in the absence of this elsewhere across India, agroecological approaches will be marginalised.

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

From glacial melt in the Himalayas that will contribute to the drying up of important rivers to the effects of temperature rises across the Indo Gangetic plain, which will adversely impact wheat productivity, India has more than its fair share of problems. But despite this, high-level policy makers are pushing for a certain model of ‘development’ that will only exacerbate the problems.

This model is being driven by some of the world’s largest corporate players: a model that by its very nature leads to environment catastrophe:

… our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.1

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

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

Diet, Ignorance and the Environmental Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land: use and degradation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change of Lifestyle

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

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

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

GM Crops in India: Approval by Contamination?

The regulatory system for GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in India is in tatters. So said the Coalition for a GMFree India (CGMFI) in 2017 after media reports about the illegal cultivation of GM soybean in the country.

In India, five high-level reports have already advised against the adoption of GM crops:

  1. The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal [February 2010];
  2. The ‘Sopory Committee Report’ [August 2012];
  3. The ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee’ [PSC] Report on GM crops [August 2012];
  4. The ‘Technical Expert Committee [TEC] Final Report’ [June-July 2013]; and
  5. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests [August 2017].

Given the issues surrounding GM crops (including the now well-documented failure of Bt cotton in the country), little wonder these reports advise against their adoption. Little wonder too given that the story of GM ‘regulation’ in India has been a case of blatant violations of biosafety norms, hasty approvals, a lack of monitoring abilities, general apathy towards the hazards of contamination and a lack of institutional oversight.

Despite these reports, the drive to get GM mustard commercialised (which would be India’s first officially-approved GM food crop) has been relentless. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has pushed ahead regardless by giving it the nod. However, the case of GM mustard remains in limbo and stuck in the Supreme Court due to various pleas lodged by environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues.

Rodrigues argues that GM mustard is being undemocratically forced through with flawed tests (or no testing) and a lack of public scrutiny: in other words, unremitting scientific fraud and outright regulatory delinquency.

Moreover, this crop is also herbicide-tolerant (HT), which is wholly inappropriate for a country like India with its small biodiverse farms that could be affected by its application.

GM crops illegally growing

Despite the ban on GM cops, in 2005, biologist Pushpa Bhargava noted that unapproved varieties of several GM crops were being sold to farmers. In 2008, Arun Shrivasatava wrote that illegal GM okra had been planted in India and poor farmers had been offered lucrative deals to plant ‘special seed’ of all sorts of vegetables.

In 2013, a group of scientists and NGOs protested in Kolkata and elsewhere against the introduction of transgenic brinjal in Bangladesh – a centre for origin and diversity of the vegetable – as it would give rise to contamination of the crop in India. As predicted, in 2014, the West Bengal government said it had received information regarding “infiltration” of commercial seeds of GM Bt brinjal from Bangladesh.

In 2017, the illegal cultivation of a GM HT soybean was reported in Gujarat. Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), a national farmers organisation, claimed that Gujarat farmers had been cultivating HT crop illegally – there is no clearance from the government for any GM food crop.

There are also reports of HT cotton illegally growing in India. In a paper appearing in the Journal of Peasant studies last year, Glenn Stone and Andrew Flachs show how cotton farmers have been encouraged to change their ploughing practices, which has led to more weeds being left in their fields. The authors suggest the outcome in terms of yields (or farmer profit) is arguably no better than before. However, it coincides with the appearance of an increasing supply (and farmer demand) for HT cotton seeds.

It doesn’t take a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to appreciate that the likes of Bayer, which has now incorporated Monsanto, must be salivating at the prospect of India becoming the global leader in the demand for GM.

All of this is prompting calls for probes into the workings of the GEAC and other official bodies who seem to be asleep at the wheel or deliberately looking the other. The latter could be the case given that, as Stone indicates, senior figures in India regard GM seeds (and their associated chemical inputs) as key to modernising Indian agriculture.

CGMFI spokesperson Kavitha Kuruganti says that the regulators have been caught sleeping. It wouldn’t be the first time: India’s first GM crop cultivation – Bt cotton – was discovered in 2001 growing on thousands of hectares in Gujarat, spread surreptitiously and illegally by the biotech industry. Kuruganti said the GEAC was caught off-guard when news about large scale illegal cultivation of Bt cotton emerged, even as field trials that were to decide whether India would opt for this GM crops were still underway.

In March 2002, the GEAC ended up approving Bt cotton for commercial cultivation in India. To this day, no liability was fixed for the illegal spread.

The tactic of contaminate first then legalise has benefited industry players before. In 2006, for instance, the US Department of Agriculture granted marketing approval of GM Liberty Link 601 (Bayer CropScience) rice variety following its illegal contamination of the food supply and rice exports. The USDA effectively sanctioned an ‘approval-by-contamination’ policy.

Illegal GM imports

Despite reasoned argument and debate having thus far prevented the cultivation of GM crops or the consumption of GM food in India, it seems we are to be witnessing GM seeds and crops entering the food system regardless.

Kuruganti says that a complaint lodged with the GEAC and a Right to Information (RTI) application seeking information regarding the illegal GM soybean cultivation in the country has stirred the apex regulatory body to bring the issue to the notice of the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT), months after the issue became public.

In reply to the RTI application, the GEAC responded by saying it had received no complaint about such illegal  cultivation. Kurauganti says this is a blatant lie: the BKS had collected illegally cultivated soybean samples for lab testing and the report was sent to the GEAC along with a letter of complaint. GM HT soybean has not been granted permission for field trials, let alone large-scale cultivation.

It is also understood that apart from the BKS, the Government of Gujarat also alerted the GEAC to the illegal cultivation.

Kuruganti says:

The fact that the GEAC is writing now to the DGFT to take action (on preventing the illegal GM imports), makes it clear that it lacks any real intent to take serious action about the violations of its own regulations. It also indicates that it is putting up a show of having “done” something, before an upcoming Supreme Court hearing on PILs related to GMOs.

Her assertion is supported by Rohit Parakh of India for Safe Food:

Commerce Ministry’s own data on imports of live seeds clearly indicates that India continues to import genetically modified seeds including GM canola, GM sugar beet, GM papaya, GM squash and GM corn seeds (apart from soybean) from countries such as the USA… with no approval from the GEAC as is the requirement.

Kuruganti concludes that the regulatory system is a shambles and is not preventing GMOs from being illegally imported into the country or planted. Moreover, the ruling BJP has reneged on its election promise not to allow GM without proper protocols.

Offshoring Indian agriculture

It is not a good situation. We have bogus arguments about GM mustard being forwarded by developers at Delhi University and the government. We also have USAID pushing for GM in Punjab and twisting a problematic situation to further Monsanto’s interests by trying to get GM soybean planted in the state. And we have regulators (deliberately) asleep at the wheel.

The fact that India is importing so many agricultural commodities in the first place doesn’t help. Relying on imports and transnational agribusiness with its proprietary (GM) seeds and inputs is not a recipe for food security. In the 1960s, Africa was not just self-sufficient in food but was actually a net food exporter. Today, courtesy of World Bank, IMF and WTO interventions, the continent imports 25% of its food, with almost every country being a net food importer.

Is this what India wants? Based on its rising import bill, self-reliance and food security seems to be an anathema to policy makers. In response to the government’s decision to abolish import duty on wheat in 2017, Ajmer Singh Lakhowala, head of the Punjab unit of Bharatiya Kisan Union, said sarcastically:

The import of cheap wheat will bring the prices down. It appears the government wants the farmers to quit farming.

As previously outlined, at the behest of the World Bank and courtesy of compliant politicians in India, it certainly seems to be the case.

Self-sufficiency is not to the liking of the US and the World Bank. Washington has for many decades regarded its leverage over global agriculture as a tool to secure its geostrategic goals.

Whether it involves the import of subsidised edible oils, wheat, pulses or soybean – alongside the ongoing neglect of indigenous agriculture and farmers by successive administrations – livelihoods are being destroyed, food quality is being undermined and Indian agriculture is slowly being offshored.

Eulogizing Anthony Bourdain

For the last few days I have had to read about Anthony Bourdain and how he was such a wonderful human being. The praise in these eulogies has been laid on thick, with Bourdain being hailed as an exceptional human being who stood up for marginalized societies and championed social justice issues. I have also read post after post on social media websites by so-called “thought leaders” or vegan activists respected in the “animal rights movement,” who complain about those of us who dared criticize the actions of Mr. Bourdain. They claim that those of us who point out his cruelty to animals are celebrating the death of a decent human being. They argue that in exposing these flaws, we give the animal rights movement a bad name; that we are simply dancing on the grave of the deceased. We disliked him, they say, because he was not a vegetarian or vegan like us. Yet their claims could not be further from the truth. We are not rejoicing that Mr. Bourdain suffered and killed himself; and we did not criticize him because he was a meat eater. Our criticisms in regard to Mr. Bourdain are not about this. Rather, they are centered on exposing his cruel actions against helpless sentient beings – actions that have and will continue to cause problems for non-human animals long after he is buried. What we are trying to do is point out how his actions were contrary to what we vegans and animal right activists stand for: compassion for all life, both human and non-human. In this commitment we mirror the sentiments of Dr Albert Schweitzer, who coined the term “Reverence for Life.” This is something that Mr. Bourdain did not believe in.

In order to fairly and justly assess Anthony Bourdain as a public figure, we need to separate the mental turmoil that led to his demise from the way in which he chose to live his life without any apparent moral compass regarding how to treat non-human animals. These two issues are separate and must not be conflated into one issue.

As I have said in response to a lot of folks who appear to believe that Mr. Bourdain walked on water, it gives me no joy knowing he suffered and killed himself. Death and suffering are not to be rejoiced in. I strongly and sincerely feel sorry for his family and extend my condolences to them. I also strongly feel we should extend our compassion to Mr.Bourdain and have the heart to forgive him for what he has done to animals; on the other hand, we should never forget these actions. I would like to point out that he may have been progressive on some social justice issues, but that his progressivism did not extend to the treatment of non-human animals. Rather, he despised animals and those human beings that stood up for them. He was an anthropocentric, speciesist individual. To reiterate, my criticism of Mr. Bourdain isn’t about him as a human being but about his actions against non-human animals. Most of the people who criticize him merely point out that this so-called celebrity was no saint, that he was excessively cruel to animals. Depicting a flawed human being who was cruel to animals as some saint in human flesh is ridiculous, yet it appears to be the perspective many adherents of his have taken in the days since his passing. Pointing out that Mr. Bourdain was not the kind soul he is portrayed as – that he had real flaws, such as his mean-spiritedness and hatred for people who refuse to eat animals out of pure compassion for defenseless beings – is not itself a hateful or unjust act.

To give some examples of the extent of his cruelty:

Bourdain once chewed on the head of a live octopus while it thrashed and struggled to get away from him. Mr. Bourdain was trying to eat his/her brain, thus killing the defenseless animal in a cruel act of torture. While with a fellow chef, who stuck his hands up a duck’s inside and ripped out the bird’s intestine, he once said “this gives them their fresh taste.” On another occasion, Bourdain sliced open the throat of a live goat and then proceeded to drink the goat’s blood, He participated in cutting out the beating heart of a live snake. One time, he was filmed shooting a deer and stated that he could do this all day. In another video Bourdain is heard saying: “first you have to kill these things and collect their blood;” soon after, someone smeared his face with the blood of a newly killed deer, while laughing. Here, one can view footage of Bourdain stabbing a tied-up, screaming pig:

Most of these cruel and unnecessary actions were filmed live. Some have argued he was just respecting the eating habits of cultures he visited. My response is that participating in grotesque acts of cruelty and taping these acts with apparent excitement and joy is not what I expect from someone of his stature and background.  He also once said, while being asked by someone who accused him of eating dog meat, that “20 more seconds of this I’m going out and shooting a puppy in the fucking head.” Another time, he posed nude with a big animal bone with meat hanging, covering his groin. Mr. Bourdain exhibited his hatred for animals in many more ways. The ones I described above are just a sample of the many statements, sentiments and actions that were customary for him. He even hated people who refrained from eating animals, and once said of Vegans and Vegetarians: “Vegans are disgusting and loathsome. I’m often asked why vegans are the enemy of everything good and decent and must be hunted down and destroyed so their genes don’t pass onto future generations.” He once said people who don’t eat cheese should kill themselves.

Bourdain inarguably relished eating defenseless, exotic and in some cases endangered species like the Ortolan bird, a tiny bird that was prepared for his consumption by drowning the bird in a vat of Armagnac before cooking. He described his experience as being orgasmic and close to ecstasy: “With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones.”

Repeatedly throughout his journalistic career, Mr. Bourdain had shown contempt and hatred for animals and total indifference to their suffering. He often gleefully participated in their suffering and torture. His gruesome killing of defenseless animals on worldwide television helped desensitize people to the suffering of other sentient beings and made it okay for foodies and chefs – as well as common folks – to seek out and hunt down endangered, exotic species for consumption. He gave support to all the psychos, or future mass murderers, who enjoy torturing animals to start or continue doing so. He has made the work of activists, in the countries where he toured and participated in the gruesome killing and devouring of innocent animals, extremely difficult. Activists who toil year after year trying to convince people in their respective countries to go vegan see their efforts evaporate within days after an American celebrity chef visits their country and when his actions are televised showing the killing and consumption of animals. This signifies to locals that it is right to mutilate and consume animals.

So why no outcry?  Why would otherwise caring, levelheaded people sing the praises of this man? The answer is speciesism, which assigns different values, rights, or special consideration to particular individuals solely on the basis of their species membership.

Just like racism and sexism, the underlying commonality between these “isms” is the idea or concept that one group is better than another, that one group is superior due to its species, racial or sexual membership. In the case of speciesism humans are considered superior to other nonhuman animals, whereas in the case of racism members of the white race consider themselves superior to those of other races.

In all these cases what makes these attitudes and beliefs possible is the use of force. The forceful ability to exert one’s will allows the dominant group to kill, rape, and/or mutilate the dominated group.

These are the power dynamics that allowed Mr. Bourdain to mutilate and torture nonhuman animals. The same speciesism allows people like Mr. Bourdain not to think twice or have a scintilla of compassion for their victims. For Mr. Bourdain they were like inanimate objects that can be tortured with no moral consequences. The same may be said for the sexist who sees nothing wrong in treating women as property to be used or abused, or the racist who sees enslaving and abusing a person of color as acceptable.

For this same reason, millions of people all over the world – including so-called vegans and animal rights advocates – praise and celebrate his work but say nothing about his incomprehensible and unacceptable cruelty. Speciesism is pervasive in societies all over the world, just like racism and sexism. It is even deeply embedded in the psyche of the most ardent animal rights advocates; a result of the indoctrination of human beings, who think we are the center of the universe. It’s hard to let go of anthropocentric memes handed down through generations and decades of subtle or not-so-subtle, intentional or non-intentional, indoctrination by parents, educational systems, religious institutions, and the media.

Let me be clear: I am not against people mourning Anthony Bourdain’s death, or appreciating his support for marginalized societies and cultures. I am not against praising him for the other good things he may have done in his life. What I am asking – no, demanding – is for the truth to be told. Let all of the information circulating about him and his life work provide a balanced depiction of his deeds that include the good, the bad and the ugly. Let the true nature of this flawed and tortured human being be exposed. Not so we can insult him, belittle him or celebrate his death or his suffering, but to show him in his totality so that people know who he really was and to let them decide if he should be eulogized in such glowing terms. People should know that it is not okay to mistreat and abuse defenseless sentient beings for gustatory delight, for ratings or for the sheer pleasure of killing. They should also know that there are millions of compassionate human beings who say “no” to such gruesome acts. Anthony Bourdain was not one of them.

Justice, for the animals Mr. Bourdain tortured and killed, demands it.

Dangerous Liaison: Corporate Agriculture and the Reductionist Mindset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destroying indigenous systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More of the same: a bogus ‘solution’

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

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

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

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

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

As Bhaskar Save wrote about India:

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

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

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

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

Agroecology offers a genuine solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agroecology requires that shift in fundamental beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thick legitimacy

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

Olivier De Schutter says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire Strikes Back Leaving Indian Farmers in the Dirt

By 2050, if current policies continue, India could have numerous mega-cities with up to 30-40 million inhabitants and just two to three hundred million people (perhaps 15-20% of the population) left in an emptied-out countryside. Given current trends in the job market, it could mean tens of millions of city-based rural migrants without much work: victims of the ill thought out policies we currently see being pushed through.

In the book The Invention of Capitalism Michael Perelmen lays bare the iron fist which whipped the English peasantry into a workforce willing to accept factory wage labour. English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in dangerous factories being set up by a new class of industrial capitalists. A series of laws and measures served to force peasants off the land and deprive them of their productive means.

In India, what we are currently witnessing is a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) capital and the running down of the existing system of agriculture. While India’s farmers suffer as the sector is deliberately being made financially non-viable for them, we see state-of-the-art airports, IT parks and highways being built to allow the corporate world to spread its tentacles everywhere to the point that every aspect of culture, infrastructure and economic activity is commodified for corporate profit.

GDP growth – the holy grail of ‘development’ which stems from an outmoded thinking and has done so much damage to the environment – has been fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population, including public sector workers, has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories than it did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans but have failed to spur job creation; yet any proposed financial injections (or loan waivers) for agriculture (which would pale into insignificance compared to corporate subsidies/written off loans) are depicted as a drain on the economy.

Let them eat dirt

Although farmers continue to produce bumper harvests, they are being put out of business by underinvestment, the lack of a secure income and support prices, exposure to artificially cheap imports, neoliberal reforms, profiteering companies which supply seeds and proprietary inputs and the overall impacts of the corporate-backed Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture.

For all the talk of ‘helping’ farmers, the plan is to displace the existing system of livelihood-sustaining smallholder agriculture with one dominated from seed to plate by transnational agribusiness and retail concerns. To facilitate this, independent cultivators are being bankrupted, land is to be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation and those farmers that are left will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts, the terms of which will be dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

Some like to call this adopting a market-based approach: a system in the ‘market-driven’ US that receives a taxpayer five-year farm bill subsidy of around $500 billion.

This is clearly a con-trick and not the way forward:

If government can be convinced or forced by the power of the global grassroots to reduce and eventually cut off these $500 billion in annual subsidies to industrial agriculture and Big Food, and instead encourage and reward family farmers and ranchers who improve soil health, biodiversity, animal health and food quality, we can simultaneously reduce global poverty, improve public health, and restore climate stability.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association

Well over 300,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and millions more are experiencing economic distress. Over 6,000 are leaving the sector each day. And yet the corporate-controlled type of agriculture being imposed and/or envisaged only leads to degraded soil, less diverse and nutrient-deficient diets, polluted water, water shortages and poor health.

Although various high-level reports (as I outlined previously) have concluded that policies need to support more resilient, diverse, sustainable (smallholder) agroecological methods of farming and develop decentralised, locally-based food economies, the trend continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer and other transnational players.

The plan is to shift hundreds of millions from the countryside and into the cities to serve as a cheap army of labour for offshored foreign companies, mirroring what China has become: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, rural migrants are to become the new ‘serfs’ of the informal services and construction sectors or to be trained for low-level industrial jobs.

Even here, however, India might have missed the boat as jobless ‘growth’ seems to be on the horizon and the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

If we look at the various western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to for inspiration, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialist intent. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared? The same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda hidden behind terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’.

Behind the World Bank/corporate-inspired rhetoric that is driving the overhaul of Indian agriculture is a brand of corporate imperialism which is turning out to be no less brutal for Indian farmers than early industrial capitalism was in England for its peasantry. The East India company might have gone, but today the bidding of elite interests (private capital) is being carried out by compliant politicians, the World Bank, the WTO and lop-sided, egregious back-room trade deals.

And all for a future of what – vast swathes of chemically-drenched monocrop fields containing genetically modified plants or soils rapidly turning into a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides, dirt and dust?

Thanks to the model of agriculture being supported and advocated, India will edge nearer to having more drought vulnerable  regions, even more degraded soils (which is already a major problem) as well as spiralling rates of illness throughout the population due to bad diets, denutrified food, agrochemical poisoning and processed food laced with toxic ingredients.

Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations will decide on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed. A corporate takeover spearheaded by companies whose character is clear for all to see:

The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture with agribusinesses like Monsanto, WalMart, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and ITC in its Board made efforts to turn the direction of agricultural research and policy in such a manner as to cater their demands for profit maximisation. Companies like Monsanto during the Vietnam War produced tonnes and tonnes of ‘Agent Orange’ unmindful of its consequences for Vietnamese people as it raked in super profits and that character remains.

Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could accelerate this process. A trade deal now being negotiated by 16 countries across Asia-Pacific, the RCEP would cover half the world’s population, including 420 million small family farms that produce 80 percent of the region’s food.

RCEP is expected to create powerful rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment. It could allow foreign corporations to buy up land, thereby driving up land prices, fuelling speculation and pushing small farmers out. If RCEP is adopted, it could intensify the great land grab that has been taking place in India. It could also lead to further corporate control over seeds.

The dairy trade could be opened up to unfair competition from subsidised imports under RCEP. According to RS Sodhi, managing director of the country’s largest milk cooperative, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, the type of deals being pushed under the banner of ‘free trade’ will rob the vibrant domestic dairy industry and the millions of farmers that are connected to it from access to a growing market in India.

India’s dairy sector is mostly self-sufficient and employs about 100 million people, the majority of whom are women. The sector is a lifeline for small and marginal farmers, landless poor and a significant source of income for millions of families. Up until now they have been the backbone of India’s dairy sector. New Zealand’s dairy giant Fonterra (the world’s biggest dairy exporter) is looking to RCEP as a way in to India’s massive dairy market. RCEP would give the company important leverage to open up India’s protected market. Many fear that Indian dairy farmers will either have to work for Fonterra or go out of business.

In effect, RCEP would dovetail with existing trends that are facilitating the growth of chemical-intensive farming and corporate-controlled supply chains, whereby farmers can easily become enslaved or small farmers simply get by-passed by powerful corporations demanding industrial-scale production.

RCEP also demands the liberalisation of the retail sector and is attempting to facilitate the entry of foreign agroprocessing and retail giants, which could threaten the livelihoods of small retailers and street vendors. The entry of retail giants would be bad for farmers because they may eventually monopolise the whole food chain from procurement to distribution. In effect, farmers will be at the mercy of such large companies as they will have the power to set prices and will not be interested in buying small quantities from small producers.

Corporate concentration will deprive hundreds of millions of their livelihoods. RCEP is a recipe for undermining biodiverse food production, food sovereignty and food security for the mass of the population. It will also massive job losses in a country like India, which has no capacity for absorbing such losses into its workforce.

Current policies seek to tie agriculture to an environmentally destructive, moribund system of capitalism. RCEP would represent a further shift away from real, practical solutions to India’s agrarian crisis based on sustainable agriculture and which place the small farmer at the centre of the development paradigm. Once you begin to consolidate land, displace the small-scale farm and amalgamate land into larger parcels for industrial-scale agriculture, you implement a more inefficient model of agriculture and undermine food security.

In a future India, people might eventually ask, why did India let this happen when far-sighted and sustained policy initiatives based on self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, smallholder-based regenerative agriculture and agroecology could have been implemented?

They might also ask why was the countryside emptied out and more effort not put into developing rural infrastructure and investing in village-based industries and smallholder farmers?

And not least of all, they might ask why did policy makers buy into neoliberal dogma, the only role of which is to seek to justify a corporate takeover?

Ultimately, it is a case of asking does India want – does any country want – industrial-scale agriculture and all it entails: denutrified food, increasingly monolithic diets, the massive use of agrochemicals, food contaminated by hormones, steroids, antibiotics and a range of chemical additives, spiralling rates of ill health, degraded soil, contaminated and depleted water supplies and a cartel of seed, chemical and food processing companies that seek to secure control over the global food production and supply chain to provide people with low-grade but highly profitable food products.

Solutions to India’s agrarian crisis (and indeed the world’s) are available, not least the scaling up of agroecological approaches which would be a lynchpin of rural development. However, in India (as elsewhere) successive administrations have bowed to and continue to acquiesce to grip of global capitalism and have demonstrated an unflinching allegiance to corporate power. It is unlikely that either the Congress or BJP, wedded as they are to neoliberalism, will ever undertake initiatives for seriously developing agroecological alternatives:

But even if for argument’s sake… the present governance structure were to embrace agroecological alternatives, the problem of extreme inequality that results from the structural logic of capitalism… would require mitigation. Without tempering the ravages of the market, hunger will continue, as will the disempowerment of small producers. Indeed, an agroecological alternative would simply be co-opted by capitalist relations of production and distribution, with community-based initiatives becoming mere decentralised production points within a supply-chain logic that centralises power and profits in the hands of seed corporations.

Milind Wani