Asia-Pacific Trade Deal: Trading Away Indian Agriculture?

Colin Todhunter

(AP Photo/Deepak Sharma)

On the back of Brexit, there are fears in the UK that a trade deal will be struck with Washington which will effectively lower food and environmental standards to those of the US. At the same time, it seems that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is being resurrected and could have a similar impact in the EU. These types of secretive, corporate-driven trade deals ride roughshod over democratic procedures and the public interest.

India has not been immune to such deals. The US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (2005) is aimed at widening access to India’s agricultural and retail sectors for US companies. This agreement was drawn up with the full and direct participation of representatives from various companies, such as Monsanto, Cargill and Walmart, in return for India receiving assistance to develop its nuclear sector.

And now, in India, there are serious concerns about another deal. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is currently being negotiated by 16 countries across Asia-Pacific and would cover half the world’s population, including 420 million small family farms that produce 80% of the region’s food. Although stumbling blocks have prevented any deal being struck thus far, there is an increased sense of urgency to get it signed.

The RCEP could further accelerate the corporatisation of Indian agriculture. The plight of farmers in India has been well documented. A combination of debt, economic liberalisation, subsidised imports, rising input costs, deliberate underinvestment and a shift to cash crops has caused massive financial distress. Over 300,000 (perhaps over 400,000) have taken their lives over the last 20 years. From the effects of the Green Revolution (degraded soils, falling water tables, drought, etc.) to the lack of minimum support prices and income guarantees, it is becoming increasingly non-viable for many smallholder farmers to continue.

Indian smallholder/peasant farmers are under attack on all fronts. Transnational corporations are seeking to capitalise the food and agriculture sector by supplanting the current system with one suited towards their needs, ably assisted by the World Bank and its various strategies and directives. There is a push to further commercialise the countryside, which will involve shifting hundreds of millions to cities.

GRAIN is an international non-profit organisation and in 2017 released a short report that outlined how RCEP is expected to create powerful new rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment.

Land acquisition and seed saving

The 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. This could intensify the ‘great land grab that has already been taking place in India.

GRAIN notes that giant agribusiness concerns want to put a stop to farmer seed saving and sharing by forcing farmers to buy their proprietary seeds each season. The global seed industry is highly concentrated today and recent mergers only further consolidate its power and influence over both governments and farmers. For example, with China having acquired Syngenta, that country has a new vested interest in seeing seed laws strengthened via tighter intellectual property rights under RCEP.

We have already seen the devastating effects on Indian farmers due to Monsanto’s illegal ‘royalties’ (on ‘trait values’) on GM cotton seeds in India. Monsanto effectively wrote and broke laws to enter India. Under RCEP, things could get much worse. If patents are allowed on inventions ‘derived from plants’ (whether hybrid or genetically modified seeds), we could see higher seed prices, a further loss of biodiversity, even greater corporate control and a possible lowering of standards (or a complete bypassing of them as with GM mustard) for high-risk products such as GMOs.

India’s dairy sector

Access to the huge Indian market is an important focus for New Zealand in the RCEP negotiations, especially where the diary sector is concerned. However, according to RS Sodhi, managing director of the country’s largest milk cooperative, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, this could rob the vibrant domestic dairy industry and the millions of farmers that are connected to it from access to a growing market in India.

The Indian government has encouraged the co-operative model in the dairy sector with active policy protection. However, the dairy trade could be opened up to unfair competition from subsidised imports under RCEP. 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. They are 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 into India’s massive dairy market. The company has openly stated that RCEP would give it important leverage to open up India’s protected market. As a result, many people fear that Indian dairy farmers will either have to work for Fonterra or go out of business.

At the same time, some RCEP members not only heavily subsidise their farmers, but they also have food safety standards that are incompatible with the small-scale food production and processing systems that dominate in other RCEP countries. There is sufficient room for concern here: during the ‘mustard crisis’ in 1998, ‘pseudo-safety’ laws were used to facilitate the entry of foreign soy oil: many village-level processors were thereby forced out of business.

The RCEP could accelerate the growth of mega food-park investments that target exports to high-value markets, as is already happening in India. These projects involve high-tech farm-to-fork supply chains that exclude and may even displace small producers and household food processing businesses, which are the mainstay of rural and peri-urban communities across Asia. This would dovetail with existing trends that are facilitating the growth of corporate-controlled supply chains, whereby farmers can easily become enslaved or small farmers simply get by-passed by powerful corporations demanding industrial-scale production.

From pesticides to big retail

Fertiliser and pesticide sales are expected to rise sharply in Asia-Pacific in the next few years. Agrochemical use is heaviest in China and growing rapidly in India. GRAIN notes that China’s acquisition of Syngenta, the world’s top agrochemical company with more than 20% of the global pesticide market, puts the country in a particularly sensitive position within RCEP.

GRAIN states that liberalized trade in farm chemicals are bound to be part of the RCEP, resulting in increased residues in food and water, more greenhouse gas emissions, rising rates of illness and further depletion of soil fertility.

The RCEP also demands the liberalisation of the retail sector and is attempting to facilitate the entry of foreign agroprocessing and retail gaints, 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 also will not be interested to buy small quantities from small producers. In effect, the RCEP will usher in a wave of corporate agri-food consolidation.

It is interesting to note that Ashwani Mahajan, economics professor and national co-convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, an Indian political and cultural organization that promotes self-reliance argues that the ‘make in India’ push by the current government is completely at odds with the RCEP. He argues that no sector seems to want the trade deal and that India’s participation in the talks have overshot the original aim. That aim was to be that of observer, so India could learn from the process. However, Mahajan suggests civil servants now seem to be fully engaged and are ready to sign up to the deal.

The 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

There is a need to encourage localised food economies that are shielded from the effects of rigged trade and international markets. Rather than have transnational agri-food corporations determining global and regional policies and private capital throttling democracy, we require societies run for the benefit of the mass of the population and a system of healthy food and sustainable agriculture that is run for human need.

We need only look at Mexico and what ‘free trade’ has done to that country’s food and agriculture sector: destroyed health, fuelled unemployment, transformed a rural population into a problematic group of migrants who now serve as a reserve army of labour that conveniently depresses the incomes of those in work. The writing is on the wall for India.


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sabina de sturler
sabina de sturler
Oct 28, 2019 12:28 PM

jennifer government.

Oct 25, 2019 5:42 AM

“Asia-Pacific” is an Uncle $cam trade mark; like Freedom, Democracy and Right to Protect. If huge India cannot summon the courage of little Cuba, little Vietnam and little Syria to fight off The Man from Uncle, then India will see the garrisons and treaty mongers of the British East India Company back on its soil — if they ever left.

Oct 22, 2019 6:12 AM

hey whadda bout JULIAN????

‘I can’t think properly’: Assange disoriented as court rejects delay for extradition proceedings

With his supporters rallying outside the court building, Julian Assange showed signs of exhaustion and psychological torment as his lawyer made a bid to delay US extradition proceedings – but the London court ruled against him.


Oct 22, 2019 5:05 AM

Agrochemical use is heaviest in China and growing rapidly in India. GRAIN notes that China’s acquisition of Syngenta, the world’s top agrochemical company with more than 20% of the global pesticide market, puts the country in a particularly sensitive position within RCEP.

Nice to know that Colin sideways mentions one other Asia Pacific behemoth besides his well abused hobby horse India. Never read him on Pakistan, Indonesia or Bangladesh, other Asian giants.
More un-balanced reporting on Off-Guardian.
When is he going to realize that India is an real democracy and all these small farmers have a lot of votes?

Nov 5, 2019 1:03 AM
Reply to  Antonym

India storms out of RCEP, says trade deal hurts Indian farmers

Still believe the demonization of Modi led by the Guardian & co?

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
Oct 21, 2019 10:24 PM

Look, if small farmers want to save seeds, they can save them. There is nothing to stop them doing so. They can farm organically and sell to those who want organic food.

Small farmers need to sell the benefits of their produce, not whinge about GM crops. They must emphasise that their products are healthier, more nutritious, more environmentally friendly, more local.

The GMO lot need to rig laws if they cannot compete through fair means. They need to use glyphosate, which is hardly health promoting, is it?

Small farmers need to set up their own seed cooperatives serving their own needs. Specialist seed producers serving growers. I use such seeds in Europe small scale and the quality is far higher than seeds from the big retailers.

They need to stay strong, improve their own agriculture and sell their benefits professionally.

Oct 22, 2019 1:21 AM
Reply to  Rhys Jaggar

The difficulty with what you suggest is that GM plants and organic plants of the same species are likely to be grown in the same areas so there is the risk of cross-pollination and the organic plants incorporating some of the DNA from the GM plants. Should that happen, and if Monsanto / Bayer has intellectual rights over the GM plant DNA, then the farmers growing the organic plants or their co-ops face being sued for huge amounts for saving seeds that might contain hybrid DNA. I do not know if agricultural co-ops growing organic foods in India can sell directly to the general public or if they have to sell the products to national, state or local governments or corporations. If they are not allowed to sell directly to the public but must sell everything they grow to governments and/or corporations, that would be another problem in itself. Marketing… Read more »

Oct 22, 2019 4:55 AM
Reply to  Jen

Farmers can and do even sell directly to consumers in states like Tamil Nadu in government build markets : https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Madurai/tamil-nadus-first-farmers-market-is-still-alive-and-kicking/article27907696.ece

Oct 22, 2019 1:11 PM
Reply to  Rhys Jaggar

The problems facing India’s small and marginal farmers are complex: but they cannot be reduced to ‘buck-up’; save your own seeds; and create your own market. India’s Green Revolution brought in negative downward trends that involved small and marginal farmers being ever more marginalised. Demonetisation catalysed these negative trends even further. All the major benefits and subsidies have gone to the medium and large enterprises. There are no local markets or cold storage facilities evenly distributed across the sub-continent. This has been recognised – but not rectified – since the 1970s. The synopsis seems to be that marginal farmers do not own their land. Dalits cannot go to the bank: so are forced to borrow at exorbitant rates from moneylenders. When they grow their crops: falling prices means that they are worth less than the break even level of subsistence. Which results in distress selling, dumping, and spiraling debts …leading… Read more »

Oct 25, 2019 5:57 AM
Reply to  BigB

Thanks, BigB, for a factual down-to-earth Link. Communism is the forgotten answer: even a short spell, to set India on the path of Cuba Russia and China. Communist Kerala used to have the reputation of being the best province in India.

Brian Steere
Brian Steere
Oct 21, 2019 9:03 PM

”Deals’ are contractual programming for the transference of wealth and power from consumer units to sys admins.

The notion of leaving UK the EU could have been an opportunity to invite joining a positive vision rather than simply consider it as business as usual from a different legal framework.

But what visions are there that are not corporately driven?
‘Deals’ are corporate law drawn up for governments to sign in.
Governing by bureaucracy as ‘incentivised’ behavioural programming.