Monoculture Agribusiness: Harvesting the Seeds of Suicide
Monday, 03 February 2014 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Commentary

Indian Farmer photo by Ananth BSIn just the single month of April 2009, more than 1,500 farmers in the state of Chattisgarh, India’s rice bowl, committed suicide after being driven into crippling debt due to crop failure resulting from low water levels, drought and switching to green-revolution, genetically modified rice varieties that require heavier irrigation.

Compared to the Kool-Aid mass-suicide over three decades earlier that involved 918 cult followers in Jonestown, Guyana, the Indian event barely made a detectable blip on the news radar. But it foreshadows a spike in rich nations’ scramble to snatch up arable land in poorer nations, which then have to struggle for food sovereignty—the belief that local farmers, not multinational corporations, should have the last word about what kinds of food they cultivate, how they should go about it, and how they choose to trade it.

Overpopulation, water shortages, high production costs, deforestation and desertification are among the reasons several rich countries, including India, are making deals to secure farmland in developing countries for food and biofuel crop production. The mass suicide in Chattisgarh illustrates both sides of food-sovereignty: first the Indian government’s bartering sovereignty away in favor of water-intensive, monoculture agribusiness, and—after its miserable failure—the motivation to land-grab elsewhere.

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva points to a correlation between more than 160,000 Indian farmer-suicides since 1997 in the cotton belt (land that was traditionally cultivated with diverse grains, legumes and oilseeds) and the deregulation of seed companies like Monsanto. This GMO [genetically modified organism – Ed.] giant transformed the role of seed from renewable life-source to intellectual property by engineering it with “terminator” genes, making it sterile and requiring a new purchase of seed for each sowing.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) compiled reports showing that China, Middle Eastern countries and India either signed deals or requested investment in several African countries between 2006 and 2009. Chidu Makunike, a Senegalese agricultural exporter and consultant, referenced IFPRI’s research and added, “Vast tracts of land and huge amounts of money are involved: 15 million to 20 million hectares, almost equivalent to the total area under cultivation in Germany… Investment so far adds up to $20 billion to $30 billion, dwarfing foreign-aid budgets for agriculture.”

Besides having to feed a population that is growing by some 10 million people annually, one of China’s reasons for securing farmland in Africa is that the Mongolian grasslands have been overgrazed by sheep and goats (driven partly by consumer demand for cashmere sweaters). The US grazes roughly 8 million sheep and goats, while in China the number is nearly 300 million. Overgrazing has caused the Gobi Desert to creep up on Beijing, now less than 150 miles away. Other reasons include boundless industrial activity, mining and agrochemical practices that have poisoned a sixth of their arable soil—problems that increasingly beset the US as well. (Case in point: The EPA just approved 42 permits for mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.)

To fend off voracious empires that live beyond their means, La Via Campesina, an international coalition of 148 organizations, defends the values of indigenous people, peasants, and small and medium-sized agricultural operations—and their rights to food sovereignty. These values include social and economic justice; gender parity; the preservation of land, water, seeds and other natural resources; and the right to protect domestic markets from agricultural surplus and low-price import dumping from other countries. Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mali and Senegal have also adopted food sovereignty policies within their legal frameworks.

The United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development held its 17th Session in May 2009, at which UN Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter presented on the right to food. He also called for adopting international guidelines on large-scale offshore land purchases. Via Campesina responded that these were “false solutions,” asserting that “this is the time to defend a sustainable and egalitarian production and consumption model and bring to an end the production model driven by the big corporations and promoted and financed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, among others.”

Promoters of food sovereignty are kindling international awareness with events such as the Asian Peoples’ Summit against the Asian Development Bank, mobilizations against corporate food in Europe, campaigns against counter-agrarian reforms in Japan and Pakistan, and the World Social Forum, which meets annually during the same time as its “great capitalist rival”—the World Economic Forum.

As corporate and financial mechanisms for the commodification of nature abound, food sovereignty should be enshrined in the policy framework of every nation. It ensures the human right to culturally and bio-regionally significant food, and preserves biodiversity, which is critical to the health of our planet. Most importantly, it respects the wisdom of traditional farmers, rather than regarding them as backward, ignorant and helpless.

Perhaps we should ask not only whether we have enough food in the world, but also who controls it. And we should challenge the agribusiness model of chemical farming that is harvesting seeds of suicide—and quite possibly the seeds of our own destruction.

Additional resources:
The Secret History of the American Empire by John Perkins
Food for Thought and Action: A Food Sovereignty Curriculum
GMOs Cause Increase in Chronic Diseases, Infertility and Birth Defects

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