Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s biggest agrochemical corporations already exercise a staggering amount of control over the global food and agricultural system. After mergers and acquisitions worth USD 352 billion, just four conglomerates or the “Big Four” (Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta/ChemChina, BASF, and Corteva Agriscience formerly Dow/DuPont) now dominate 70% of the agrochemical industry.
 It is an unprecedented extent of control over commercial seeds and chemical inputs, the use of which largely defines the dominant food and agricultural system.
The pandemic has however exposed how the current system has failed to ensure food security or people’s access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. In fact, such moments of crises leave the majority of food producers who are dependent on agrochemical inputs even more vulnerable to hunger and disease. For instance, smallholder farmers in Cambodia—who before the pandemic had always been just one harvest loss away from bankruptcy—cannot buy inputs for the new planting season because of low farm gate prices and loss of farming families’ supplemental income due to business closures in the cities. In palm oil plantations in Malaysia, workers continue to work with hazardous pesticides as usual, but without adequate health protection and lowered wages due to reduced work hours.
In a communique, the UN International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has affirmed that “a paradigm shift” from corporate-controlled industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems is “more urgent than ever” due to COVID-19. It stressed that agroecology allows for the production of healthy food while protecting the environment, increases disease resistance by harnessing diversity, and reduces vulnerability to trade disruptions and price shocks.
In contrast, the widespread use of agrochemical products has been a major driving factor in the drastic decline in biodiversity, which affects food security in a profound way.  According to a FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, loss of biodiversity is affecting the world’s capacity to produce food. Approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive because of biodiversity loss. Many species crucial to food production—such as birds and pollinators—are under threat of extinction. Loss of genetic diversity has also been alarming, with only nine crops accounting for two-thirds of global food production.
Yet, the agrochemical industry and its collaborating institutions are using concerns over food security during the pandemic to push for even greater corporate control over food and agriculture, with even less accountability over the health and environmental impacts of hazardous technologies.
Bailouts and aid: Profiting from the pandemic
Data shows that the pandemic has had minimal impact on the profits of the world’s agrochemical giants, even while some have acknowledged that COVID-19 disruptions have reduced the ability of farmers to invest in chemical fertilisers and pesticides. For the first six months of 2020, Syngenta posted a 2% increase in sales to USD 12 billion, with sales in the Asia Pacific region up by 12%. The half-year sales of Corteva increased by 5% to USD 9.4 billion, while the net income of FMC Corporation also rose to 5% in the first quarter of 2020. Bayer’s CropScience division also posted a 3.2% sales increase to EUR 4 billion for the first half of 2020. Only BASF reported a decline in sales and income due to COVID-19 impacts. This, however, was mostly due to lesser demand for auto manufacturing chemicals and petrochemicals; sales of seeds and agrochemicals still increased during the first quarter of the year.
Despite retaining market share and robust profits, Bayer and BASF were among the companies that received a massive amount of bailout funds from the British government. BASF received GBP 1 billion, while Bayer was handed GBP 600 million in British taxpayers’ money under a COVID-19 emergency loan scheme. These public funds, according to Greenpeace UK, were given without conditions such as commitments for workers’ welfare or environmental protection, and were received by the two companies just weeks after they announced plans to distribute billions to shareholders in dividends.
Clearly, it is business-as-usual for the agrochemical industry. The pandemic, in fact, has provided corporations with the perfect cover to further expand their reach, especially among smallholder farmers, who provide up to 80% of food supply in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and are responsible for keeping many traditional, climate-resilient breeds alive.
Through its ‘Better Farms, Better Lives’ initiative, for instance, Bayer is targeting to donate commercial seeds, “crop protection products” (chemical inputs), and personal protective equipment to two million smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America supposedly to “help boost food security” amid the pandemic. In Thailand, this involves Bayer’s distribution, in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, of THB 20 million worth of “starter kits” to 50,000 smallholder rice farmers along the Chao Phraya River Basin. In India, 400,000 smallholder farmers in 17 states will each receive a package of Bayer’s hybrid seeds and inputs.
Syngenta is also actively involved in the Indian government’s COVID-19 relief operations. Through its network of Agri Entrepreneurs (AE), and in collaboration with state government of Bihar, Syngenta AEs claim to have “ensured the availability of 13,266 ration cards for families below the poverty line” and helped farmers to earn INR 4.87 crore amid the lockdown by “facilitating digital financial transactions.”
In the Philippines, Bayer and Corteva have expressed support for the government’s “Plant, Plant, Plant” program, an initiative led by the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) to ensure food security amid COVID-19. Since last year, Corteva has partnered with the DA to establish 80 Educational Farms (EduFarms) covering 50,000 hectares in 40 municipalities. Farmers are trained on “new seed preparation and crop protection technologies” in these EduFarms, and since the pandemic, Corteva has conducted activities in nearby farming communities as well. Meanwhile, Bayer said that it will intensify its processing and distribution of Dekalb corn seeds to help boost food production during the pandemic. Many of Bayer’s Dekalb corn hybrid products are genetically modified to resist the popular weedkiller Round Up or glyphosate, a Monsanto product at the center of thousands of lawsuits in the US because of its link to cancer and other diseases. Last March, at a time when COVID-19 cases started rising in the country, Bayer announced plans to penetrate the market in Mindanao, Southern Philippines with Vt Double Pro Dekalb, a new product that is genetically engineered to be both glyphosate-tolerant and resistant to the fall armyworm.
Bayer has also capitalised on growing public interest in urban farming as a result of the pandemic. It recently partnered with Singapore-based Temasek to launch Unfold, a joint investment company that focuses on developing new seed varieties tailored for the indoor environment or vertical farming, which, according to Bayer is “an efficient way of boosting food supply in cities and urban areas amid the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The German firm has already built a 300-square-meter urban farm in the village of Ususan, Taguig City in the Philippines.
Skirting health and environmental rules
The COVID-19 pandemic not only gave agrochemical companies the opportunity to aggressively promote their products under the guise of aid and ensuring food security, it also allowed them to use pandemic-related restrictions to flout environmental and health standards.
Last March, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would indefinitely suspend the enforcement of environmental laws, and that the agency will not “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations” during the coronavirus outbreak. Not surprisingly, the EPA granted Syngenta’s request a couple of months later to suspend atrazine monitoring in US waterways due to COVID-19 restrictions. Atrazine, a weedkiller linked to reproductive issues and cancer, is banned by the European Union. The US has required Syngenta to conduct ecological monitoring of atrazine since 2004—an obligation that the company had tried to get out of as early as December 2019 or prior to the pandemic outbreak.
Civil society organisations in the US also accused the EPA of using the pandemic to secretly approve BASF’s herbicide isoxaflutole, a likely human carcinogen that can drift up to 1,000 feet and cause significant damage to plants and wildlife. The agency sidestepped the usual public input process by not listing isoxaflutole’s registration for public comment in the federal register.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency permitted the relaxation of standards on the use of pesticides in salmon farming, “to help salmon farms cope with staff shortages and social distancing.” Following industry pressure, salmon farms were allowed to breach safety limits on the use of anti-lice insecticides emamectin and azamethiphos, resulting to increased toxic discharge into the seas.
Another example is the Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI). In the PMFAI’s appeal to the Indian government to strengthen the domestic pesticides industry to ensure supplies amid the pandemic, it called for the suspension of “unreasonable stringent environmental requirements” by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Central Pollution Control Board, and the National Green Tribunal. “Presently, unscientific pollution mitigation measures lead to industrial stress rather than encouraging investment in the chemical sector,” the PMFAI said.
Everywhere, the agrochemical industry seems to be one of mind in trying to wheedle regulatory agencies to further loosen environmental and health rules; ironically using what is essentially a health and ecological crisis to do so.
It is notable that in a set of key actionables for implementing the prescriptions of the World Health Organization (WHO) Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19, the WHO recommended the promotion of agrobiodiversity and reduction of the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides. It also recommended to “eliminate or reform incentives, including subsidies that are harmful to biodiversity, including those that promote monoculture production systems.”
Yet, the pandemic has been used to push for the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops, which have increased the global usage of chemical inputs, notably herbicides, and led to the rise of monocultures and loss of agrobiodiversity. In this regard, collaborating research institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) play a big role.
In the webinar “The future of food systems in Southeast Asia post-COVID19” organised by IRRI and the FAO, Jean Balie, IRRI’s head of Agri-Food Policy, said that they are “looking to increase the mineral and vitamin content in rice grains” or crop biofortification as a response to the pandemic. One such biofortified crop is the genetically modified Golden Rice, which was recently approved for commercial use in the Philippines. Golden Rice is being opposed by farmers and other groups as a tool of corporate dominance and for its deceptive claims of addressing hunger and malnutrition—its negligible Vitamin A content, lack of safety, and potential to cause contamination of native rice varieties.
In Bolivia, the pandemic was used to railroad the approval of GM crops. Citing the coronavirus emergency and the need to “reactivate the economy,” Bolivian de-facto President Jeanine Añez passed on May 7 Supreme Decree 4232 allowing the use of GM seeds for corn, soy, wheat, sugar cane, and cotton. In its opposition, the farmers group Coordinator of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba said that the move was an abuse of power and will only serve the interests of “sectors of the national oligarchy.”
Digitalisation and corporate control
COVID-19 also fast tracked the push for digitalisation, or the use of new digital technologies in the agricultural sector, which the agrochemical industry had already made significant investments in prior to the pandemic. Bayer, for instance, had invested in drones for “precision spraying” of pesticides and image analytics and AI technology to collect farm data. In 2019, Syngenta acquired the agricultural technology firm Cropio Group, with the aim to digitally manage 40 million hectares of land globally.
Long before the pandemic, policymakers have been paving the way for the needed environment where increased monopoly control of agriculture through digital technology could thrive. As early as January 2019, for instance, agricultural ministers and multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Trade Organization) had already proposed the establishment of the International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture to the FAO. It put forth digitalisation as one of the solutions to global agri-food challenges: “With stable access to the Internet, farmers can receive and share technical information even internationally, improving productivity, resilience and access to markets…Mobile technologies and web-based devices also connect farmers to supply chains, giving access to higher quality seeds and fertilizers that can boost production and quality, and also enable them to sell directly to consumers, maximizing profitability by avoiding intermediates.”
The pandemic suddenly saw some of these possibilities realised. For instance, governments and civic organisations started using digital platforms to help farmers to sell produce directly to consumers amid restrictions. At the FAO’s recently concluded 35th Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said that big data, a digital economy and mobile technology “will lead us through the challenges presented by COVID-19 and help us conquer malnutrition and poverty.”
But digitalisation under the same neoliberal framework of the current food and agricultural system and driven by the same corporate agenda of greater monopoly control for profits is unlikely to lift food producers, especially in developing countries, from hunger and poverty as promised. It is not an issue of “leaving no one behind” in these technologies—as the World Economic Forum argues in its push for digital farming amid COVID-19—but rather, an issue of control.
Digital farming (also called “precision agriculture” and “smart agriculture”) involves “utilising digital technology to observe, monitor and manage farming activities and other parts of the supply chain in an integrated manner, with mass data collection, storage and analysis forming a fundamental component.” Big Data on agriculture exploits data on weather, plant growth, pests and pesticide spraying, among others, supposedly for increased efficiency and risk management.
But civil society organisations are raising the alarm on how corporate ownership of big data platforms could undermine the potential benefits of these technologies. In a communique, the research group ETC Group pointed out how digitalisation encompasses not just “consumption and production data related to the industrial food system,” but “control of the genomic data of the world’s flora and fauna as well.”  Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Europe observed how asset management firms, financial institutions, commodity traders, seed and agrochemical giants, as well as giant IT companies such as Microsoft and Google, are pushing for digital farming in Europe primarily to cash in on a potentially new revenue stream. “The danger is that with such unprecedented market power, firms can collaborate to set the parameters of algorithms and promote dependency on the inputs that they themselves offer, leaving producers with weak bargaining power and severely curtailed decision-making autonomy. This serves to further entrench a techno-centric model and divert attention from viable sustainable alternatives,” the group said.
Indeed, targeted “agricultural advice” using digital technologies may mean little more than farmers’ increased dependency on commercial inputs. A December 2019 study showed that transmission of agricultural information through mobile technologies in sub-Saharan Africa and India increased the odds of adoption of recommended agrochemical inputs by as much as 22 percent. The COVID-19 pandemic provided agrochemical companies with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate further how digitalisation can more efficiently market their products. Last June, Syngenta Philippines launched the TIWALA mobile application, an app that can identify geographically-specific crops and pests, and recommend Syngenta products “with corresponding application rates and optimum window of application.” Such apps increase the ease with which farmers can purchase highly toxic pesticides without proper training, protective equipment and information on their potential hazards.
Digitalisation can also facilitate the adoption of commercial seeds among smallholder farmers using local or traditional seeds. The International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), an attached CGIAR agency, pointed out that in India, there is a “strong informal seed sector through which farmers access seeds.” The ICRISAT recommends “e-Commerce platforms that offer farm inputs” to reduce the impact of disruptions caused by lockdown measures.
Another area of concern is the increasing use of drones for pesticides application. This is particularly harmful in developing countries where houses are situated near farms and aerial drift can easily poison an entire village population. In China, drone companies cited an increase in the demand for agricultural drones and unmanned aerial vehicles since the pandemic outbreak, with sales expected to quadruple by the end of the year, and the Chinese agriculture ministry planning to deploy more than 30,000 drones for “targeted crop protection.”
Moves of the agrochemical industry to further tighten their stranglehold over food producers amid the COVID-19 crisis must continuously be tracked and exposed. With more than 130 million people estimated to join the ranks of the world’s hungry and food insecure by the end of 2020 as a result of the crisis, it is more important than ever to push for essential reforms to the food and agricultural system, with agroecology and people’s food sovereignty at its core.
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