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Issue #1684      May 13, 2015

Driving agriculture into the ground

In 1960, there were some three billion people on the planet. Around that time, the Green Revolution with its package of so-called “modern technologies” for agriculture was launched with the announced aim of feeding the poor, especially in the developing world. Yet in 2009, after almost a half-century of “modern” agriculture, the number of hungry shot over the one-billion mark for the first time with the worst food crisis of the decade. This made up one-sixth of the world’s population.

Chemical pesticides and fertilisers, pushed farm costs of production up and reducing farmers’ net incomes to the point of debt, bankruptcy and even suicide.

Although the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says 805 million people suffer from hunger today, other sources cite much higher figures. If we include micronutrient deficiency, the number rises to over two billion.

In 2008, at the height of the food crisis, non-governmental organisation GRAIN issued a timely report titled “Making a Killing from Hunger” which identified who the real profiteers in the global food system were: “It seems that nearly every corporate player in the global food chain is making a killing from the food crisis.”

According to the report, Canada’s Potash Corp, the world’s largest producer of potash, a key ingredient in chemical fertilisers, made over US$1 billion in profits, an increase of more than 70% from 2006. Cargill, the world’s leading grain producer, recorded a whopping 86% increase in profits from agricultural commodity trading in the first quarter of 2008 compared to the same quarter the year before.

Meanwhile, UK supermarket giant Tesco reported an upturn in profits of 12.3% from 2007, a record rise. Monsanto, the largest seed company globally, gained a 44% increase in overall profits in 2007, followed by DuPont, the second-largest, with a 19% increase in profits from seed sales, and Syngenta, the third largest seed company and one of the top pesticide manufacturers, which saw a jump in profits of 28% in the first quarter of 2008.

In 2008, over 400 experts from around the globe submitted the findings of four years of research on the state of agriculture in the world. Entitled Agriculture at a Crossroads, the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) declared that “business as usual is not an option”, referring to the current toxic corporate model of agriculture introduced by the Green Revolution and citing compelling evidence of its ill effects on human health and the environment.

Agribusiness displaces agriculture

Traditional agriculture consists of small biodiverse farms which provide families and communities with different varieties of their staple food (rice, corn, potatoes etc), vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, crabs, birds, poultry, eggs, milk, meat, fruits, medicines, herbs, wild edibles, flowers, fodder, fuel, housing material and even material to make clothing (e.g. cotton). Organic materials were used to fertilise the soil and pests were managed by eco-friendly traditional methods. For generations, this was the face of agriculture, which was the bedrock of world food production by small farming communities especially in the Global South.

With the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of oil, the face of development and the world’s political economy changed drastically. Neo-liberal globalisation widened the divide between the rich and technologically superior countries and the poor ones, against the backdrop of a sharply rising global population.

In the 1950s, the so-called Green Revolution in agriculture was launched, spearheaded primarily by the United States. It focused on the world’s leading staple crops: wheat, corn and rice. In Asia, the US established the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1960, funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The publicly declared objectives were to eradicate hunger and poverty in rural Asia, which had a large population of small-scale rice farmers. The hidden motives, however, were to open up markets for the US agrochemical industry and to establish US control over Asia through its food production.

The Green Revolution came with a “package” of what were called “high-yielding varieties” (HYVs), mechanised irrigation, mechanisation, and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides manufactured by foreign agro-chemical companies. Monocultures of these HYVs became the face of farming. Governments were urged to encourage their farmers to adopt high-input technologies with free or subsidised start-up supplies of HYVs and synthetic chemicals. This was the birth of industrial agriculture or rather “agribusiness”, since the culture of small-scale farming was no longer the order of the day.

The HYVs were heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and irrigation to produce the desired yields. Funds became available to developing countries to build irrigation facilities and loans were offered to farmers who grew the recommended HYVs. Such subsidies continued for decades in many countries in Asia and still exist in some to this day. By the 1990s, an estimated 40 percent of farmers in the Global South, led by Asia, were using Green Revolution seeds.

A bitter harvest

The Green Revolution dealt the single most destructive blow to agriculture and is responsible for the widespread destruction of the traditional farming culture, community wisdom and richness of biodiversity of small rice farms which had sustained the people for centuries before the Green Revolution. It is aptly described as the “colonisation of indigenous agriculture”.

Biodiversity gave way to monocropping. Thousands of traditional local crop varieties have been lost in the last five decades of the Green Revolution, sometimes up to 95% as in Andhra Pradesh, India, replaced by a small number of HYVs. From over 100,000 traditional rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, 30 years later, only five HYVs accounted for 90% of rice fields in Malaysia and Pakistan, nearly 50% of the rice acreage in Thailand and Myanmar, and about 25% of rice farms in China and Indonesia.

One IRRI variety accounts for 84% of Cambodia’s dry season crop. From 1970 to the 1990s, the land area in Asia under HYVs rose from 30% to 70%.

In effect, the Green Revolution reduced total farm productivity and biodiversity in the field and diminished nutrition on the table, leading to an increase in micronutrient deficiency which affects some two billion people worldwide. GRAIN described this as “a trade-off between quantity and quality in peoples’ diets, especially amongst the poor”.

While HYVs initially led to increased yields, the persistent use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers gradually caused land/soil degradation, which led to yields levelling off and then falling. Annual rice growth rates in Asia dropped from an average of 3.4% in 1977 to 1.5% in 1997, trailing off to an average of 0.8% by 2004.

The constant use of chemical pesticides increased pest resistance and the HYVs became susceptible to more pest outbreaks. In 1975, Indonesian rice farmers lost half a million acres of rice to the brown plant hopper, while the Philippines lost almost its whole rice harvest in 1973-74 to tungro, a virus carried by the rice hopper. Most HYVs in India have been reported to be vulnerable to major pest attacks resulting in crop losses of 30-100%, requiring new varieties to be introduced every three years. In 2007, IRRIs rice varieties in Punjab, India, were found to be susceptible to about 40 insect pests and 12 diseases.

The Green Revolution was both capital- and fossil-fuel-intensive. IRRIs HYVs required vast amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, pushing farm costs of production up and reducing farmers’ net incomes to the point of debt, bankruptcy and even suicide in some places like India. Fertiliser use in Asia increased almost threefold from 52 kg/ha in 1979 to 138 kg/ha in 1999.

Since the introduction of chemical pesticides, farming communities all over the world have suffered from acute and chronic pesticide poisoning. In 2004, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that one to five million people a year suffered from acute pesticide poisoning, resulting in 20,000 fatalities among agricultural workers. The World Bank cited 355,000 deaths annually due to unintentional poisoning, with about half occurring in agriculture, with 41 million people suffering from health effects. Hoffman et al., however, put the number of cases of pesticide poisoning at around 25 million a year.

IRRI itself used toxic pesticides such as endrin and paraquat (made by Syngenta), endosulfan (Bayer), glyphosate (Monsanto), benomyl (DuPont) and chlorpyrifos (Dow Chemical) in its experimental fields in Laguna, Philippines. A study in 2000 found that about 70% of former IRRI workers exposed to these pesticides were suffering from cancer, diabetes, lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease or thyroid, liver and kidney diseases; many of them have since died.

In 2008, FAO itself admitted that the Green Revolution “has not necessarily translated into benefits for the lower strata of the rural poor in terms of greater food security or greater economic opportunity and well-being”. IAASTD researchers reported in the same year that 1.9 billion hectares (involving 2.6 billion people) had been affected by land degradation, the abuse of fertilisers had led to the formation of large dead zones, the abuse of (chemical) pesticides had led to groundwater pollution and loss of biodiversity, and 70% of the world’s freshwater was withdrawn globally for irrigation, which in turn caused salinisation in some areas.

Their main conclusions were that the emphasis on increasing yields and productivity had had negative consequences on environmental sustainability, the paradigm of industrial energy-intensive and pesticide-dependent agriculture was an outdated concept, and small-scale farmers and agroecological methods provided the way forward.

A consolidated report by ETC Group in 2014 declared that the industrial food system provides only 30% of all food consumed but uses 70-80% of the world’s arable land to grow 30-40% of crop-derived food; accounts for more than 80% of fossil fuel and 70% of water used in agriculture; is responsible for 44-57% of greenhouse gases emitted annually; deforests 13 million hectares; destroys 75 billion tonnes of topsoil every year; and dominates the US$7 trillion commercial grocery market, while leaving almost 3.4 billion either undernourished or overweight. In sharp contrast, the peasant food web supplies 70% of the world’s food with only 30% of its agricultural resources, and using only 20% of the fossil fuel and 30% of the water in agriculture.

Conclusion

The 2008-09 food crisis was a structural collapse that had been waiting to happen. It showed the world just how perverse and fundamentally flawed the industrialised global food production and distribution system truly was and pinpointed the root cause: the corporatisation of the food chain. In 2013, Olivier De Schutter, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, declared that the new global target set at the 1996 World Food Summit to halve the absolute number of hungry people by 2015 (rather than the percentage) was “today out of reach by far”.

The industrialised global food and agriculture system set in place by the first Green Revolution, which was supposed to feed the world, has in effect undermined the very basis for realising this aim. In spite of this, corporations together with international institutions like IRRI are pushing ahead with the “Second Green Revolution”, with genetically engineered seeds taking centre stage in what is simply a “more of the same” formula as the first fiasco. Thus, the hijack and ruin of our food chain continue.

For footnotes seeResurgencepublication available online at www.twn.my

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Britain’s elections and the Royal Baby Bounce

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