Special Series: Fast Forward
Follow the Money
By David Kattenburg
People need to eat.
For almost their entire existence as a species, human beings satisfied their hunger by hunting and farming, roaming forests and fields and planting root crops on small plots of land.
At the dawn of the industrial revolution, two hundred years ago, cities were famously packed, less food self-reliant. Still, the vast majority of the planet’s human population continued to turn for their nutritional requirements either to themselves or humble farmers — people they knew, just beyond city limits.
But the times were fast a-changin’. By mid-twentieth century, with global population at 2.5 billion, clever entrepreneurs dreamed up ways to produce food industrially, and to market it along food chains.
Key innovations paved the way: advanced livestock and plant breeding techniques; synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; farm machinery; refrigeration, processing and packaging technology; long-distance transport and marketing, along improved national rail and road networks.
Governments pitched in with subsidies and tariffs, and by occasionally invading foreign countries in support of endangered “national interests.” Politicians, powerful bureaucrats and corporate moguls played musical chairs.
Startling discoveries led to further advancements in food science and industry. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick cracked the genetic code. By the 1970s, molecular biologists had figured out how to created transgenic DNA, mixing and matching the genomes of animals and plants. Fish genes were inserted into tomatoes, to increase their shelf life. Genes conferring herbicide-resistance were plugged into staple crops, sparing them from the destruction meted out on surrounding weeds.
Among the most useful discoveries: how to ‘hybridize’ the world’s key staple crops — wheat, rice and corn — so that yields would increase, more and more mouths could be feed, and mountains of money made.
Some of this scientific innovation was carried out by university researchers who patented their techniques, parlaying their now-private property into for-profit companies. Underfunded public sector researchers joined forces, in hope of generating momentum and income.
Before too long, after much shaking down, powerful corporations emerged, many of them specializing in genetically modified seeds designed to grow well in the presence of their own proprietary pesticides and fertilizers. Seed producers gobbled up or merged with agrochemical manufacturers, in order to sell seeds and chemicals to farmers in the most efficient and lucrative manner. Others reaped fortunes through the development of farm equipment, food processing or marketing enterprises.
Never far from the action, governments continued to help out through global trade, investment and “intellectual property” pacts. Much of this activity was couched in the altruistic language of global “aid” and “development,” aimed at impoverished, hungry nations ostensibly on the road to “development.”
The Green Revolution, culminating in the 1960s and 1970s, was the greatest of these ventures. Governments, supranational banking and aid agencies and private corporations joined forces to “feed the world.” Small-scale peasant farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America would be encouraged to exchange their cornucopia of traditional crops for higher yielding, hybridized varieties of wheat, rice and other cereals, that would grow well on large tracts of land, under intensive irrigation — and with the use of fertilizer.
Results were impressive. World grain production skyrocketed, billions of mouths were fed, calorie intake rose, big corporations grew bigger, and the “Father of the Green Revolution” — Norman Borlaug –won a Nobel Prize.
Not everyone was pleased, though. Vast swaths of genetic diversity vanished from farmers’ fields, replaced by a handful of bumper crops destined for export, livestock feed or biofuel. Farming became more chemical and energy-dependent. Self-reliant peasant farmers became contract workers, stripped of their land and food sovereignty. Governments were structurally adjusted, for good measure.
In the Global North, the legacy of industrial farming has been much the same: the demise of family farms and rural communities; the collapse of food diversity; tasteless, nutritionally depleted fruit and vegetables laden with chemicals, produced and shipped at enormous energy expense; beef, pork and chicken laced with antibiotics.
On the up side (or perhaps not), affluent northerners have had the wherewithal to survive at the far end of industrial food chains, where economies of scale yield exotic food from far off places, at remarkably cheap prices. (With the exception of truly northern communities — places like Nunavut, in Arctic Canada — where non-traditional food costs a fortune).
For those who thought that corporate concentration in the food industry couldn’t get tighter, wake up and smell the coffee. The Big Six seed and agrochemical producers are now on the verge of coalescing into three. The proposed merger of agrochemical giants Dow and Dupont is the subject of an antitrust probe in Europe. Meanwhile, China National Chemical Corp. is negotiating with Swiss pesticide and seed giant Syngenta, and German Bayer is seeking to take over that company everyone loves to hate — Monsanto.
Farm machinery, crop insurance, food processing, marketing and retail giants aren’t standing by the sidelines. Within the next decade, says seed technology expert Pat Mooney (Right Livelihood Award, 1985; Pearson Peace Prize, 1998) corporations who’ve mastered the crucial DNA and Big Data tech platforms (D-squared-NA, Mooney calls it) — John Deere is the biggest — will be collaborating with Amazon to deliver food to our door by drone or Uber taxi. Mega grocery store chains will be a quaint memory.
Back on the farm, The Economist recently claimed, food production will be “tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products.” Genetically edited crop species (“liveware”) will be sowed, cultivated and harvested with the aid of GPS-guided robotic tractors, under the watchful eye of drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras. Key to the mastery and distribution of such technology: mega-corporations like John Deere, with massive volumes of fine-scale, proprietary farmland data — over which they hold a monopoly.
The justification for monopolies of this sort? The paired crises of global population — racing towards nine billion — and planetary climate change. Food production has to adapt, big corporations say, and they’re the ones to lead the way, armed with powerful Big Data/genome-editing “platform technologies.”
Salvation from withering heat will be achieved through “Climate-Friendly Agriculture.” The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition — a government-corporate partnership launched in 2012 — will provide ten African nations with the very best corporate seed, agrochemicals and industrial farm consulting, in exchange for national economic “reforms.” The mega-scheme has its critics. Read this and this.
Will Planet Earth’s giant monopolists get away with it? Pat Mooney doesn’t think so. But “follow the money,” he urged his audience at the World Social Forum, in Montreal, this past August. Click on the audiopics in this story, and on the SoundCloud link below.
There’s an upside to this startling story of challenge and change. A hundred and fifty thousand years after human beings first came onto the scene, an astonishing 80 percent of the world’s food supply continues to be produced by family farmers and smallholders (Item 12 in this report). Ordinary people know how to grow food.
Listen to Pat Mooney’s structural analysis of the current situation. Click on this audio link:
Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor, and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Live ambiance: David Kattenburg; Electronica: Mo Karrouze; Guitar: Shawn O’Halloran; harmonics and triangle: Shawn and Paul Panchezak. “The Hungry Caterpillar” by Tobias Tinker, performed by Dan Weisenberger and Caridwine Irvine. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.