Continuing The Corporate Conquest of Cultivation

April 29, 2009

Crisis brings opportunity – an old truism I know, but it’s one of the animating principles behind modern day corporate dynamism. As Naomi Klein has documented at length in her most recent book, the Shock Doctrine, international institutions and the economists that have led them, have often employed tactics of shock therapy at times of crisis to lead economies (and the people who populate them) in congenial directions.

It was no surprise therefore, to see global agribusiness corporations using last year’s abrupt and devastating food crisis to push their preferred solutions, which revolve around much reviled genetic modification technologies and continued massive application of pesticides and fertiliser.

Corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta worked hard to dominate the agenda of a summit held in June 2008 in Rome under the auspices of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. As I wrote back then for Toward Freedom magazine, NGOs and campaigning groups like Via Campesina, which represent or advocate for indigenous and small-scale farmers, were utterly marginalized. That was at a summit which sought to offer long-term solutions to the crisis – a major opportunity for the interests of the billion plus small farmers of the world to put their case.

That case was bolstered by the release earlier in 2008 of a study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), organized by the FAO itself and the World Bank. The IAASTD, which brought together an extraordinary array of scientists from around the world to, set out to offer a vision of how science and technology could be applied in harmony with both environmental sustainability and the rights of farmers and consumers.

In doing so, it criticised the current regime of intellectual property rights – which allows corporations to plunder the biodiversity of poor countries for useful medications or foodstuffs and to patent them, before selling them back to the people who originally encouraged their cultivation, at inflated prices. It also allows the patenting of genetic information, particularly of seeds.

Scientist and campaigner Vandana Shiva writes that, when “Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits…poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity. This new expense increases poverty and leads to indebtness.”

This has contributed to an epidemic of farmer suicides in rural India. The IAASTD also criticized the current trade regime, which has been constructed so as to permit massive subsidies in developed countries while forcing poorer nations to open up their markets. It criticized biofuel cultivation as wasteful and a source of huge human rights violations. But it also offered a positive vision. Indigenous knowledge – which is often leveraged by corporations seeking medicinal compounds – could be used to make agriculture across the world more sustainable. Small farmers could, with the appropriate supports, be as productive as industrial agriculture, with many more social benefits on the side.

But the IAASTD and groups like Via Campesina were totally sidelined. As I wrote last year, “At the summit itself, civil society representatives were dismayed to discover that they alone would be forced to enter via the venue’s rear entrance. Once inside, they were permitted only a 90-minute forum with an agenda set by the FAO. Meanwhile, according to Mulvany, a private sector round-table upstairs was to be addressed by Kofi Annan, the FAO’s head Jaques Diouf and representatives of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Syngenta.”

The fight for control of the world’s food supply therefore continues apace.

One of the epicentres for this fight is India – the world’s second largest nation, and a huge producer of commodities like rice, wheat, tea and cotton. India embraced the so-called “green revolution” back in the 1960s, converting huge areas of farmland (particularly in the Punjab region) into monoculture farms. Animal manure and intercropping of cereals with fruit and vegetables was replaced with mechanised cultivation. Rain-fed agriculture acceded to irrigation. All seemed well, and production increased markedly for decades, allowing the sponsors of the “green revolution” (including the Rockefeller and Ford families) to pat themselves on the back.

Huge new markets for fertiliser (produced from fossil fuels and minerals) and pesticides (largely produced by U.S. based firms like Monsanto) developed. It seemed like a social and economic success. But there was a massive catch.

Opposition to the policies of the “green revolution” have been growing in India in recent years. As a recent NPR investigation finds, farmers in the Punjab have been seeing both declining yields, and falling prices. Irrigation has depleted groundwater supplies, necessiating ever more expensive investment in drilling equipment. Salt drawn from deep beneath the soil has contaminated the topsoil, while large-scale pesticide use has encouraged resistance amongst insect populations, which has set up a spiral of expenditure on chemicals.

At the same time, globalization has seen commodity prices falling rapidly, then picking up again with the increase in biofuel cultivation and commodity speculation. Yet any gains for Indian farmers have been more than offset by rising expenditure.

NPR’s correspondent Daniel Zwerdling travelled to the village of Chotia Khurd in Punjab, where he found farmers using three times as much fertiliser as they did thirty years ago. Groundwater depletion has led to the land sinking up to 3 metres per year, while villagers have been propelled into the clutches of “unofficial lenders” by their soaring bills.

Even more seriously, Zwerdling reports that “Studies show that their intensive farming methods, which government policies subsidize, are destroying the soil” as “high-yield crops gobble up nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, iron and manganese, making the soil anemic.”

These conditions led the chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, VS Kalkat to tell Zwerdling that “Farmers are committing a kind of suicide” and, in the process, triggering a dust-bowl scenario. This was not the intended result of the “green revolution” – but it is the reality for millions of farmers large and small who have adopted its methods. And it was the reality for the 200,000 or more Indian farmers who have, according to Shiva, committed suicide since 1997.

So with that in mind, it may seem surprising that the corporations behind the “green revolution” are now making the case for its successor, a variant centred around the application of advanced genetic techniques that will pass a steam roller of science over the problems arising from its predecessor. The Rockefeller Foundation is firmly on board, seeking particularly to export its solutions to the continent of Africa. As is the Gates Foundation and, of course, Monsanto, whose technologies will be at the heart of any new “revolution.”

The much criticized agri-giant is now funding an ambitious scheme to dominate the training of Indian agricultural scientists, under its Beeachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, operating out of Texas A&M Universities Agri-Life Research division. The $10 million program will “encourage young Phd scholars to pursue their research in rice and wheat breeding” – and it may not seem like much, but with India losing agricultural experts by the month, it has the potential to extend the reach of GM technologies into the Indian academy.

As the Hindu reports, India now has just 240 specialist wheat breeders (not counting, of course, the millions of small farmers who constantly refine native varieties). That’s a decline from around 400 in the 1960s. Monsanto wants to make up this shortfall with its own people. As Ed Runge, the leader of the program, told the Hindu, “Since the main challenges for crop scientists are climate change and developing more drought-tolerant varieties, this requires a more innovative approach to plant breeding and molecular genetics,” adding that “in view of such talent shortage…[Monsanto] is going to play a key role in establishing a talent pool of wheat breeders.”

This corporate push to control the way that knowledge is produced and disseminated is the counterpart of a political effort to promote GM technologies across the world. Norman Borlaug, the 95 year-old “father” of the first “green revolution” is now working with Republican Senator Richard Lugar to pass the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act.

That Act, which ostensibly seeks to propose solutions to the global food crisis, is actually another form of disaster capitalism. As Lugar put it to Congress when introducing the legislation in early April, “Food insecurity is a global tragedy, but it is also an opportunity for the United States.” Being “the indisputable world leader in agricultural production and technology,” the United States should “join with other nations to increase yields, create economic opportunities for the rural poor, and broaden agricultural knowledge could begin a new era in U.S. diplomacy.”

Moreover, the Bill itself as it stands includes a “comprehensive food strategy” which seeks “to the greatest extent possible, to encourage the leverage of…resources of private sector providers of agriculture inputs, processors, and marketers, including through the Global Development Alliances of the United States Agency for International Development and other measures.”

This is not simply a Bill to increase U.S. support for farmers in the developing world. Far from it. The Lugar-Casey Act would enshrine the promotion of Genetic Modification Technology as U.S. strategy while being promoted in a naked spirit of national self interest. That may be necessary to get such legislation passed, but regardless of that, the Bill reflects the Monsanto view of tackling global agricultural problems, which reflects the view of American business, which contradicts the spirit of the IAASTD and the aspirations of over a billion small farmers.

Agribusiness giants have not been chastened by the disappointing outcomes of their previous efforts. Nor have they been moderated by last year’s food crisis, the furore over biofuels and climate change or the growing perception that industrial agriculture is neither sustainable or socially just. They are profit machines, and effective ones too. As such, they continue to make inroads into the way that nations like India grow their food, with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, the FAO quietly reported this week that the food crisis, which has been largely forgotten in the western media, is an ongoing reality for millions of people in poorer nations. “Cereal prices in developing countries remain generally very high – in some cases at record levels” a press release related, while “the global economic recession is drying up remittances from family members working abroad that often sustain the food consumption levels of vulnerable households.”

In 80 percent of developing countries surveyed by the FAO, “food prices are higher than 12 months ago, and in around 40 percent higher than three months ago.” In many nations the price of dinner continues to rise, while indebtedness spirals and aid dries up.

A perfect time for the corporate vultures to swoop.


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