Absolute power comes from absolute control of food

Is this what we have done to our planet.? A painting by French artist Michel Granger. 

An interview with Devinder Sharma by French journalist Catherine Andre.

The industrial food production model, developed in the United States and Europe since WWII, and lately widely adopted in South America, is unsustainable and is destroying both the planet and its inhabitants…

Industrial food production has already struck a death-knell for the planet. The large high-input, high-yield monocultures, coming equipped with heavy farm machinery running on subsidised fossil-fuel, and laced with potent agro-chemicals have not only depleted soil health, but polluted oceans, rivers as well as ground water and has massively contaminated the environment. The decimation of plant and animal biodiversity, and the loss of accompanying ‘traditional knowledge’ has in turn impoverished communities that have lived in synergy with the bio-resources. With the natural resource base highly plundered over the past few decades, modern agriculture has left behind a trail of sorrow.

Whether it is Argentina and Mexico where a circle of poison escalated by the application of chemical pesticides, including the controversial Glyphosate pesticide, has caused extensive suffering among women and children; or in India where aerial spray of Endosulfan in cashew plantations in Kerala for some decades had inflicted innumerable diseases/disorders among the people, and lately a train carrying cancer patients from the food bowl of Punjab, engaged in high-intensive agriculture, to neighbouring Rajasthan has come to be known as ‘Cancer Train’, the devastation chemicals have left behind is enormous. With six companies controlling pesticides production, and the same companies also claiming intellectual propriety over ‘improved’ seeds, the control over agriculture becomes complete.

The emergence of commodity value chains and eventually the way the international trade regime have been designed, developing country farmers have been forced to de-skill, abandon agriculture and migrate to the cities in search of menial jobs. Still worse, the forceful opening of the developing country trade barriers, and consequently inundating with highly subsidised food supplies, has already turned 105 of the 149-odd Third World Countries into food importing countries. Thank heavens, US President Donald Trumps has dumped the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade treaties otherwise the damage would have been irretrievable. The North would have produced food, and the South would have been perpetually standing with a begging bowl.

What role/responsibility does it play/have on the hunger crisis in many regions, on climate change and on farmers crisis in many part of the globe?

The demise of the farmer has been the biggest casualty that a combination of industrial agriculture, emergence of factory farms and suitably-tailored trade policies has inflicted on the developing countries. After the US, followed by EU and now the developing countries, farmers are being pushed out of agriculture. Way back in 1996, the World Bank had directed India to move out 400 million people – double the combined population of UK, France and Germany – from the rural to the urban areas in the next 20 years, by 2015. International Financial Institutions and Credit rating agencies have been reminding time and again. Successive governments have been merely following the directive, creating policies that make agriculture non-economical in the bargain so that farmers have little choice but to quit agriculture. Farming is increasingly coming into the hands of Corporate.

Producing food and then carrying it all the way to different parts of the world has created ‘food miles’ which exacerbates global warming. But ever since the Global food crisis in 2007/8, the multinational companies are now in a race to grab farm land. Studies have shown that an area equivalent to the cultivable area in China and India has already been purchased or leased in Africa, South America and Asia. On the contrary, in my understanding the best way to address hunger for any developing country is to have production by the masses, and not production for the masses. Small farmers need to be gainfully employed, in the sense that farming is turned into a profitable enterprise. At a time when the world is in the midst of a jobless growth, only a sustainably vibrant agriculture can now provide livelihoods, save environment, reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions, and thereby boost the global economy.

With severe droughts for many months now, millions of people across the world are facing starvation and water shortages (Horn of Africa, North-east Nigeria, Yemen etc). How did we get to that point again?

In 1987, ten years after Pol Pot had ravaged through Cambodia, I landed in Phnom Penh, the capital of the country, then called Kampuchea (I was then a Visiting Fellow to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines). For some years, Kampuchea was reeling under a famine-like situation. I found the international media had flocked to Kampuchea expecting an official declaration of a famine. When an American journalist asked me whether I expected Kampuchea to undergo a famine I replied it is unlikely considering the country has been able to cultivate a lot of rice. The journalist was disappointed, and I recall vividly what he told me: “Then, there is no story for me.”

The fact is that Kampuchea had lost all its rice varieties during the time Pol Pot was on a rampage. Luckily, the country had deposited some 150 of traditional rice varieties with IRRI, before Pol Pot emerged on the scene. IRRI had returned the seed varieties back to Kampuchea, which had made it possible to undertake rice cultivation on a large area. Why am I narrating this incident is that although the United Nations has already declared that more than “20 million people, across four countries, face starvation and famine” and it requires an emergency aid of $ 4.4 billion to meet the extraordinary humanitarian challenge, what is needed after the emergency situation is taken care-off, is to address the “root cause of famine”. Political stability apart, the region also needs investment in livelihood options which means primarily focusing on restoring agriculture, livestock and the rural infrastructure.

Revival of traditional agriculture, depending on the water availability, and providing adequate farm prices and market infrastructure is what is immediately required. Like Kampuchea, the only way to providing a lasting solution is to bring back agriculture.

What are the responsibilities of governments and their public policies and choices? In the West?

It is clear that the international community hasn’t drawn any lessons. Let me give you one example. At the World Economic Forum 2011 at Davos, business leaders from 17 private companies announced the launch of a global initiative — New Vision for Agriculture — that sets ambitious targets for increasing food production by 20 percent, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions per ton by 20 percent, and reducing rural poverty by 20 percent every decade. While all the targets seem very attractive, the fact remains that world does not need to produce more. As per USDA, the world already produces food for 13.5 billion people, which means for double the existing population. Roughly 40 per cent of the food produced globally is wasted every year. The challenge should therefore be to drastically reduce food wastage rather than to raise production thereby causing more environment depletion.

The 17 agribusiness giants include Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge Limited, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro AG, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Yara International.

Well, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Every global crisis provides an opportunity for business. Multinational giants are quick to grab it. In the years to come, the political leadership across the world had welcomed the initiative not realizing that it is the industrial farming model that has created the global food crisis in first instance — soil health devastated, excessive mining of groundwater has dried aquifers and chemical pesticides have contaminated the food chain. As if this is not enough, the G-20 countries are further trying to push in policies that provide marketing support for their industrial agriculture. For instance, the emphasis is on forcing the developing countries to open up for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. Basically, the governments in the West are only trying to prop up the commercial interests of its MNCs.

No lessons seem to have been drawn. While agriculture has turned into one of the biggest contributor of Green House Gas Emissions (GHG), a recently CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) study indicating 41 per cent contribution coming from agriculture, livestock and forests, the world is literally heading towards a tripping point. But I don’t see any international effort being made to reverse this damaging trend. Even the Paris Accord is almost silent on this. The reason is simple. The global agribusiness industry controls the global climate change narrative too. Business as usual is not the way forward. But the report of the IAASTD, jointly conducted by 400 scientists from across the globe, and supported by World Bank and UN, continues to gather dust.

Rich and industrialised countries should not use multilateral platforms to treat the developing countries as mere markets. Just like developed countries first created an appropriate environment for building self-sufficiency, they should also allow developed world to attain domestic food security.

In India? 

From an era of food self-sufficiency, India is gradually moving to be an economy of dependence. Successive governments have pushed in policies that promotes privatization of natural resources, takeover of farm land, integrating Indian agriculture with the global economy, and moving farmers out of agriculture – in essence the hallmark of the neo-liberal economic growth model. The result is clearly visible.

According to Down to Earth magazine, food import bill for 2015-16 stood at Indian Rs 1,402,680,000,000. This was three times more than the annual budget for agriculture. Successive government’s have actually been following a policy prescription that was laid out by the World Bank as early as in 1996.

A former vice-president of the World Bank and a former chairman of Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a body that governs the 16 international agricultural research centers, Dr Ismail Serageldin, had forewarned a number of years ago. At a conference organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai a few years back, he quoted the World Bank to say that the number of people estimated to migrate from rural to urban India by the year 2015 is expected to be equal to twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany.

The combined population of UK, France and Germany is 200 million. The World Bank had therefore estimated that some 400 million people would be willingly or unwillingly moving from the rural to urban centres by 2015. Subsequent studies have shown that massive distress migration will result in the years to come. For instance, 70 per cent of Tamil Nadu, 65 per cent of Punjab, and nearly 55 per cent of Uttar Pradesh is expected to migrate to urban centres by the year 2020.

These 400 million displaced will constitute the new class of migrants – agricultural refugees. Twice the number of people that are expected to be displaced by global warming worldwide are alone be pushed out of agriculture in India.

Sacrificing agriculture is being seen as a pre-requisite to economic growth. Economic reforms need cheaper labour and it is believed that people displaced from agriculture will be able to meet the ever growing demand for daily wagers. This comes coupled with economic policies that aim at reducing fiscal deficit and the current account deficit. Just like the controversial austerity measures in the European Union, the thrust of the economic policies is to cut down on social security, public investment in food, agriculture, health and education. International Financial institutions, credit rating agencies and the multilateral trading organisations have all been pushing for fiscal reforms. This is accompanied with increasing privatisation of natural resources, encouraging corporate agriculture and as well as pushing for public-private partnership projects. I don’t understand the blind acceptance of a policy directive which actually reduces dependence on domestic strengths, including the massive labour force, and instead shift to displacing a large percentage of the population from the rural areas.

For a country like India, which has 600 million people directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture, I don’t see any merit in a demographic shift. With the world facing jobless growth, and India being no exception, sensible economics tells us that the effort instead should be to make farming more profitable, more economically viable thereby providing gainful employment in the rural areas. Agriculture alone has the potential to revitalise the Indian economy, be a pivot of inclusive growth. What India needs is a production system by the masses, not production for the masses. Whether it is the US or EU, the fact is that their trading interests lie in capturing the huge domestic market that India provides. Unfortunately, India refuses to capitalise on its unique available strength that its vast market provides, and is willingly adopting policies and approaches that actually ends up benefit the western economies. All that India is likely to be content with is the trickle down impact.

Why are farmers considered differently – often despised – while they feed the world? Where does it come from and since when?

Since the days of the Great Depression, the US has been pushing for policies that push farmers out of agriculture. Several writers have shown that the US actually pushed nearly 100 million people out of farming in the beginning of the previous century. The dominant economic thinking was to drastically cut down on the work force engaged in farming, and shift them to industries, as the only viable way to achieve economic growth.

After the 2nd World War, US agriculture turned increasingly towards intensive cultivation, depending on application of chemicals, mostly left from the war, which in turn increasingly brought the American agriculture in corporate hands. What was achieved in the US, was quickly followed in Europe after the war. Industrial production of food, heavily subsidised, required more access to markets and therefore agriculture was aggressively pushed to be part of the World Trade

Organisation (WTO), which came into existence in 1995. Studies have shown that in the past 30 years, more so after the Structural Adjustment was unleashed by the World Bank/IMF, 105 of the 149 countries classified as Third World Countries had turned into food importing countries.

Whatever remains by way of protection for agriculture in some developing countries now faces erosion at the altar of international treaties like Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), being currently negotiated among 16 countries, including the 10-member ASEAN block and China, New Zealand and Australia. Zero per cent duty import for 92 per cent of traded goods is being negotiated, and this is likely to open up the flood gates for cheaper and highly subsidies imports, of both agricultural and industrial goods in countries like India. It will take away the right from India to protect and ensure the livelihood security of its 600 million farmers.

Over the past few decades, the economic thinking veers around the idea that farmers are no longer required. As you rightly said, they are simply despised. In India, farmers are considered to be a burden on the economy. Successive governments are looking for opportunities to offload this burden as quickly as possible. The economic thinking is that the monumental task of producing food can be performed by the corporations. Trade policies, intellectual property rights, and investment treaties are enabling concentration of rights into the hands of powerful corporations. Not more than 6 to 7 multinational corporations engaged in agribusiness are actually formulating global policies that merely strengthen their control over food. The G-7, the G-20 and platforms like the World Economic Forum are merely facilitating the process of control of food. Academia, and policy makers the world over are simply creating justification and logic for the entire food chain to be passed on into the hands of a handful of corporations.

Food is the most powerful weapon. He who controls food can easily manoeuvre the national sovereignty, including that of the emerging countries. Unfortunately, the world has failed to lean from what India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had once said: “It is very humiliating for any country to import food. So everything else can wait but not agriculture.” On the other hand, the world is being further divided. I have often feared that we are coming to a stage when the North will be the food provider. And the South will be standing with a begging bowl.

As I have often said: “Absolute power comes from absolute control of food” So far, the food chain is in the hands of three dominant players. The technology companies, like Monsanto and Bayer; the trading companies – Cargill and ADM; and finally, the Supermarkets – Walmart and Tescos. I see a convergence taking place in the years to come. Three players are swiftly merging into one – the future food factories. Many universities in US/EU have come up with designs for the future food factory, but the most worrying part is that the World Bank is considering how to subsidise it. It will be the end of farmers then. It will also be a curtain raiser for the romance of food that we have all been indulging in.

In your opinion, what is the consumer’s power – in the rich countries, in India, in China – to change things for the better ? How ?

Ever since the notorious application of Agent Orange in World War II, the powerful pesticides industry has managed to hoodwink the regulations to pollute the ecosystems and leave behind a trail of destruction. The Poison papers, a compilation of 20,000 documents that expose decades of collusion between the pesticides industry and regulators has been prepared by the BioScience resource Project. A recent University of Sheffield points to the ‘ecological footprint’ left behind by a hugely unsustainable farming system that has shrunk the future of British agriculture. But still, the international community is unwilling to work towards a pesticide-free world.

It is here the consumers can make a difference. If the consumers demand pesticides-free food, there is no reason why the retail trade will not be able to provide. Once the demand for pesticides-free food picks up, I see no reason why farmers will not increasingly come under pressure to cultivate without the application of pesticides and chemical fertiliser. The sale of organic food in recent years has picked up enormously in America, Europe and India. The sale of A2 milk too has picked up in recent years. I see this as a major development which can shape the future of agriculture, move towards sustainable farming systems.

Consumers rejecting genetically-modified food is primarily the reason why Europe has stood as a wall against the import of GM food from America. European governments are refusing to buckle under pressure to allow for GM foods. This is because of the public pressure. The challenge therefore lies in educating the consumers, creating wider awareness about their food habits. Once the consumers realise that they are responsible for the environmental damage the world is faced with, they will change. They are willing to reduce their ‘ecological footprint’.

Devinder Sharma in interview with French Journalist Catherine Andre



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