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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Imperialist food chains: The need to resist agrochemical TNCs

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One year ago, peoples from around the world gathered in unity for the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems. It was a pivotal point in the momentous struggle for just, equitable, healthy and sustainable food systemsβ€”the people’s act of resistance against imperialism’s drive to derive superprofits from agri-food systems through increasingly sophisticated ways.

Agri-food systems encompass many interrelated aspects that are most vital to humanity’s survival: Food. Culture. Livelihoods. Ecosystems. Climate. The health, well-being and sustainability of all life on the planet.

Corporations, rich nations, international finance institutions, and other neoliberal actorsΒ who had gathered last year for the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) also wax eloquent about agri-food systems, claiming to β€œtransform” it to meet Sustainable Development Goals, primarily the goals of combatting hunger, poverty, and climate change. But we exposed the UNFSS as a farce. For how can world leaders talk about ending hunger and poverty without heeding the demands of small food producers who are the hungriest, poorest, and the most affected by climate change? How can there be radical change in food systems when control over land and natural resources, policy, trade, finance, and technology, remains firmly and exclusively in the hands of the global elite? How can polluting and extractive agrochemical TNCs lead the charge in climate-resilient or sustainable farming, when they have yet to be held accountable for the catastrophic harms they have caused to human health and the environment?

The quest for power and superprofits by the two main imperialist powers is reflected in theΒ latest composition of the world’s agrochemical and seed giants, also known as the Big Four. The Syngenta Groupβ€”which became supersized due to the acquisition by China’s ChemChina & SinoChemβ€”now accounts for one-fourth of the global pesticide market. This is followed by Germany’s Bayer (which merged with the US company Monsanto), BASF, and Corteva (a merger of two US companies, Dow and DuPont). The Big Four controls 62 percent of the pesticide market. Because of how pesticides are designed to be used with hybrid and genetically modified seeds, these same corporations also dominate the seed industry. Only six companies, including the Big Four, control 58% of the global seed market. It is clear that capitalist dictates have shaped how our food is grownβ€”that is, in ways that bind farmers to expensive chemical inputs that poisons and buries them in debt.

In Asia, many farmers are caught in a debt trap because of the rising costs of inputs, forcing them to sell their lands. More thanΒ half of India’s agricultural households are in debt, with the average debt jumping by nearly 58 per cent in the five years period between 2013 and 2018. Furthermore, it is estimated that 385 million farmers and farmworkers, or almost half of the farming population, suffer from acute pesticide poisoning each year. This figure does not yet include the long-term or chronic health effects of pesticides, as well as farmer suicides. It is clear that in order for farmers to unchain themselves from imperialist domination in food and agriculture, it is also necessary to break free from agrochemical TNCs and assert agroecology as part of the movement for people’s food sovereignty.

Following the UNFSS, agrochemical TNCs have been especially aggressive in selling β€œtechno-fixes,” harping on the need to increase productivity amid the global food crisis. This is despite the fact that the skyrocketing prices of food are disconnected from the actual volume of food being produced; and the fact that techno-fixes such as genetically-modified crops are actually associated with declining productivity. Healthy and nutritious food and climate-friendly and resilient farming had always come from farmers’ agroecological practices and knowledge. But corporations are trying to redefine food nutrition and climate change solutions with proprietary technology, such as GM β€œclimate-smart” and biofortified crops. Unfortunately, governments, international financial institutions, and even UN agencies lead the way in ensuring increased market access for these companies.

Here are some examples:

  • The US government’s AIM For Climate initiative, announced after the COP26, plans to mobilize USD 1 billion in investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation over the next five years. It brings together as β€œpartners” governments and big players in the food and agriculture industry, including the Big Fourβ€”Syngenta, Bayer, BASF & Corteva. True enough,Β one of its initiatives is with CropLife International, the association of the world’s largest pesticide companies. The goal of the investment is to β€œaccelerate access and uptake of climate-smart crop protection innovations for smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa, and Central America”—in other words, an imperialist conquest to make more farmers buy CropLife member products.
  • In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the USAID committed to invest USD38 million over five years to expand large-scale food fortification supposedly β€œto address widespread malnutrition in low- and middle-income countries.” Such initiatives provide pathways for the entry of biofortified crops, many of which are genetically modified. In the Philippines, the US has been active inΒ promoting GM Golden Rice, which is patented by Syngenta and whose development was funded by the BMGF. Despite lack of biosafety studies and the fact that its Vitamin A content degrades to almost negligible levels, Golden Rice was recently commercialized in the Philippines, putting in peril the livelihoods of the country’s small farmers, food safety and rice diversity.
  • The FAO hosts the Food Systems Coordination Hub created by the United Nations post-UNFSS. In January 2022, the FAO released a white paper with the World Economic Forum entitledΒ β€œTransforming Food Systems: Pathways for Country-led Innovation.” Among their recommendations is for governments to allot at least 1% of the proportion of their nations’ gross domestic product to food systems innovation and R&D. But if you take a look at theΒ WEF’s innovations, what you find are corporate techno-fixes with potential harms to human health and the environment, such as lab grown meat, gene-edited crops, and so-called biological crop protection products that actually use risky novel RNA and nano technologies. TNCs are utilizing Big Data and digital technology to further consolidate control over land through geospatial mapping and digitalized β€œfarm management systems,” to enhance dependence on chemical inputs and proprietary seeds through β€œprecision agriculture,” to dominate global markets and ease out small farmers from the food supply chain. These so-called innovations are also being used to sell crop insurance to farmers and personalized nutrition to consumersβ€”in other words, to accumulate superprofits wherever they can in imperialist food chains.

Two years ago, the FAO signed a controversial partnership with CropLife, agreeing to collaborate with the pesticide industry on broad areas of work. PAN Asia Pacific has co-coordinated aΒ global campaign to push back against this #ToxicAlliance. While we have had some gains, it is evident that corporations are tightening their grip over policymakers at all levels. Β Recently, the FAO Director General Dongyu QuΒ met with top officials and agribusiness representatives in the USΒ to discuss β€œinnovative & digital solutions to transform global agrifood systems”—solutions clearly defined by the industry,Β including the agrochemical industry. In that tour, the US government also announced an additional USD 220 million in funding to the FAO for emergency food programs in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and West Africa and Sahel regions; fertilizer and input procurement in Sri Lanka; and promotion of β€œfertilizer efficiency” in Guatemala, Honduras, and Zambia through soil mapping.

The global β€œfood security” strategy of the United States is an imperialist strategyβ€”ensuring that global trade facilitates poor countries’ dependence on large-scale industrial food production by rich countries, and that transnational capitalists control almost every aspect of food and agricultural production.

To effectively resist agrochemical TNCs, we need to go back to the basics. We need to support peasant movements so that they can take control over land, resources and other means of production. We need to break free from top-down imperialist food chains that hinder genuine, pro-people rural development in the Global South. We need to build confidence in intergenerational knowledge and agroecological innovations of small farmers, and support their ability to produce affordable, healthy, sustainable, and culturally-appropriate food for all.

As we said over a year ago, farmers, not corporations, feed the world. Long live the toiling peasant masses! Resist agrochemical TNCs! Land to the landless, agroecology now!

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