There is no doubt that, contingent on World Bank aid to be given to poorer countries in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns, agrifood conglomerates will aim to further expand their influence.
It’s a sector which demands the entrenchment of capitalist agriculture via deregulation and the corporate control of seeds, land, fertilisers, water, pesticides, food processing and retail – domination of the entire chain from seed to plate.
These firms have been integral to the consolidation of a global food regime that has emerged in recent decades based on chemical- and proprietary-input-dependent agriculture which incurs massive social, environmental and health costs picked up by taxpayers. As if to pour oil on the fire, the food crisis that could follow in the wake of the various lockdowns may serve to further strengthen the prevailing system.
We are already seeing food shortages in the making. In India, for instance, supply chains have been disrupted, farm input systems for the supply of seeds and fertilisers have almost collapsed in some places and crops are not being harvested. Moreover, cultivation has been adversely affected prior to the monsoon and farm incomes are drying up. Farmers closer to major urban centres are faring a bit better due to shorter supply chains.
Veteran rural reporter P Sainath has urged India’s farmers to move away from planting cash crops and to start cultivating food crops, saying that you cannot eat cotton. It’s a good point. According to a report that appear on the ruralindiaonline website, in a region of southern Odisha, farmers have been pushed towards a reliance on (illegal) expensive genetically modified herbicide tolerant cotton seeds and have replaced their traditional food crops. Farmers used to sow mixed plots of heirloom seeds, which had been saved from family harvests the previous year and would yield a basket of food crops. They are now dependent on seed vendors, chemical inputs and a volatile international market to make a living and are no longer food secure.
But what is happening in India is a microcosm of global trends. Reliance on commodity monocropping for international markets, long global supply chains and dependency on external inputs for cultivation make the food system vulnerable to shocks, whether resulting from public health scares, oil price spikes (the global food system is heavily fossil-fuel dependent) or conflict. An increasing number of countries are recognising the need to respond by becoming more food self-sufficient, preferably by securing control over their own food and reducing supply chains.
Various coronavirus lockdowns have disrupted many transport and production activities, exposing the weaknesses of our current food system. While one part of the world (the richer countries) experiences surplus food but crop destruction due to farm labour shortages, millions of people elsewhere could face hunger due to rising food prices – or a lack of food availability altogether.
If the current situation tells us anything, it is that structural solutions are needed to reorganise food production, not further strengthen the status quo. In 2014, UN special rapporteur Olivier De Schutter’s report concluded that by applying agroecological principles to democratically controlled agricultural systems we can help to put an end to food crises and poverty challenges. He argued that agroecological approaches could tackle food needs in critical regions and could double food production in 10 years.
The 2009 IAASTD peer-reviewed report, produced by 400 scientists and supported by 60 countries, recommended agroecology to maintain and increase the productivity of global agriculture. And the recent UN FAO High Level Panel of Experts concluded that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture.
Agroecology is based on traditional knowledge and modern agricultural research, utilising elements of contemporary ecology, soil biology and the biological control of pests. This system combines sound ecological management by using on-farm renewable resources and privileging endogenous solutions to manage pests and disease without the use of agrochemicals and corporate seeds. It outperforms the prevailing industrial food system in terms of diversity of food output, nutrition per acre, soil health, water table stability and climate resilience.
Writer and academic Raj Patel outlines some of the basic practices of agroecology by saying that nitrogen-fixing beans are grown instead of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. The result is a sophisticated polyculture—that is, it produces many crops simultaneously, instead of just one.
Much has been written about agroecology, its successes and the challenges it faces, not least in the 2017 Fertile Ground: Scaling agroecology from the ground up. Agroecology can offer concrete, practical solutions to many of the world’s problems. In doing so, it challenges – and offers alternatives to – the prevailing moribund doctrinaire economics of a neoliberalism that drives a failing system chemical-intensive industrial agriculture.
For instance, by creating securely paid labour-intensive agricultural work, it can also address the interrelated links between labour offshoring by rich countries and the removal of rural populations elsewhere who end up in sweat shops to carry out the outsourced jobs: the two-pronged process of neoliberal globalisation that has hollowed out the economies of the US and UK and which is displacing existing indigenous food production systems and undermining the rural infrastructure in places like India.
The Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology by Nyeleni in 2015 argued for building grass-root local food systems that create new rural-urban links, based on genuine agroecological food production. It added that agroecology requires local producers and communities to challenge and transform structures of power in society, not least by putting the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of those who feed the world.
It would mean that what ends up in our food and how it is grown is determined by the public good and not powerful private interests driven by commercial gain and the compulsion to subjugate farmers, consumers and entire regions to their global supply chains and questionable products (whether unhealthy food or proprietary pesticides and seeds). For consumers, the public good includes more diverse diets leading to better nutrition and enhanced immunity when faced with any future pandemic.
As Florence Tartanac, senior officer at Nutrition and Food Systems Division of the UN FAO, sated in April 2018:
[…]agroecological markets bring an increase in the availability of more diverse food, especially of local varieties, that are linked to traditional diets. Therefore, consumers’ awareness should be increased on the importance of diet diversification and its effects on physical and mental health as well as on the positive impacts of sustainable, local and traditional consumption on the social, economic and environmental compartments.”
She made these comments during the second FAO international symposium ‘Scaling up Agroecology to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’. And it’s a valid point seeing that the modern diet has become less diverse and is driving a major public health crisis in many countries.
Across the world, decentralised, regional and local community-owned food systems based on short(er) food supply chains that can cope with future shocks are now needed more than ever. But there are major obstacles given the power of agrifood concerns whose business models are based on global chains with all the devastating consequences it entails.
However, the report Towards a Food Revolution: Food Hubs and Cooperatives in the US and Italy offers some pointers for creating sustainable support systems for small food producers and food distribution. Moreover, the last few months have underscored the advantages of shorter supply chains, alternative food models and community supported agriculture. As Natasha Soares of Better Food Traders says:
It’s about diversity of supply; supermarkets have a stranglehold on the food retail business, but in order to have a resilient food supply we need to source our food from local, sustainable farmers.
But are governments ready to listen? Even if they are, many could have their hands tied.
Following the devastation caused by coronavirus-related lockdowns, World Bank Group President David Malpass has stated that poorer countries will be ‘helped’ to get back on their feet – on the condition that further neoliberal reforms and the undermining of public services are implemented and become further embedded.
He says that countries will need to implement structural reforms to help shorten the time to recovery and create confidence that the recovery can be strong:
For those countries that have excessive regulations, subsidies, licensing regimes, trade protection or litigiousness as obstacles, we will work with them to foster markets, choice and faster growth prospects during the recovery.”
In the face of economic crisis and stagnation at home, this seems like an ideal opportunity for Western capital to further open up and loot economies abroad.
In effect, the coronavirus provides cover for the entrenchment of dependency and dispossession. Global conglomerates will be able to hollow out the remnants of nation state sovereignty.
In the meantime, the UK government at least seems to be content in supporting the status quo. BASF, the world’s largest chemicals company, makes agricultural, industrial and automotive products at its eight UK plants. It has received £1 billion in ‘coronavirus support’ funding (‘emergency loans’). This is by far the biggest payout so far agreed under the UK scheme. And Bayer shareholders voted to pay £2.75 billion in dividends just weeks before the firm received £600m as part of the British government’s emergency loan scheme which according to the Unearthed website comes without conditions.
Given that the UK imports almost half its food, maybe such money would be better spent by funding and developing a national network of producer-consumer food hubs in every town/city.