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. 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 externalised social, environmental and health costs.
Reliance on commodity monocropping for global markets, long 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 fossil-fuel dependent) or conflict and war. 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 chain lengths.
The various coronavirus lockdowns have disrupted many transport and production activities, exposing the weaknesses of the food system. If the current situation tells us anything, it is that structural solutions are needed to transform food production, not further strengthen the status quo.
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 employs sound ecological management by using on-farm 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.
Agroecology is based on the principle of food sovereignty, which encompasses the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food and the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems. ‘Culturally appropriate’ is a nod to the foods people have traditionally produced and eaten as well as the associated socially embedded practices which underpin community and a sense of communality. But it goes beyond that.
Modern food system
People have a deep microbiological connection to soils, food processing practices and fermentation processes which affect the gut microbiome – up to six pounds of bacteria, viruses and microbes akin to human soil. And as with actual soil, the microbiome can become degraded according to what we ingest (or fail to ingest). Many nerve endings from major organs are located in the gut and the microbiome effectively nourishes them. There is ongoing research taking place into how the microbiome is disrupted by the modern globalised food production/processing system and the chemical bombardment it is subjected to.
Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, neurotransmitters in the gut affect our moods and thinking. Alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome have been implicated in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, chronic pain, depression and Parkinson’s Disease.
To ensure genuine food security and good health, humanity must transition to a notion of food sovereignty based on optimal self-sufficiency, agroecological principles and local ownership and stewardship of common resources – land, water, soil, seeds, etc.
However, what we are seeing is a trend towards genetically engineered and biosynthetic lab-based food controlled by corporations. The billionaire class who are pushing this agenda think they can own nature and all humans and can control both. As part of an economic, cultural and social ‘great reset’, they seek to impose their cold dystopian vision that wants to eradicate thousands of years of culture, tradition and farming practices virtually overnight.
Consider that many of the ancient rituals and celebrations of our forebears were built around stories and myths that helped them come to terms with some of the most basic issues of existence, from death to rebirth and fertility. These culturally embedded beliefs and practices served to sanctify their practical relationship with nature and its role in sustaining human life. As agriculture became key to human survival, the planting and harvesting of crops and other seasonal activities associated with food production were central to these customs.
Humans celebrated nature and the life it gave birth to. Ancient beliefs and rituals were imbued with hope and renewal and people had a necessary and immediate relationship with the sun, seeds, animals, wind, fire, soil and rain and the changing seasons that nourished and brought life. In addition to our physiological connection, our cultural and social relationships with agrarian production and associated deities had a sound practical base.
What we are seeing in 2020, is an acceleration of such processes. In terms of food and agriculture, traditional farming in places like India will be under increasing pressure from the big-tech giants and agribusiness to open up to lab-grown food, GMOs, genetically engineered soil microbes, data harvesting tools and drones and other ‘disruptive’ technologies.
This vision includes farmerless farms being manned by driverless machines, monitored by drones and doused with chemicals to produce commodity crops from patented GM seeds for industrial ‘biomatter’ to be processed and constituted into something resembling food. What will happen to the farmers?
Post-COVID, the World Bank talks about helping countries get back on track in return for structural reforms. Are tens of millions of smallholder farmers to be enticed from their land in return for individual debt relief and universal basic income? The displacement of these farmers and the subsequent destruction of rural communities and their cultures was something the Gates Foundation once called for and cynically termed “land mobility”.
Cut through the euphemisms and it is clear that Bill Gates – and the other incredibly rich individuals behind the great reset with their ‘white saviour’ mindset – is an old-fashioned colonialist who supports the time-honoured dispossessive strategies of imperialism, whether this involves mining, appropriating and commodifying farmer knowledge, accelerating the transfer of research and seeds to corporations or facilitating intellectual property piracy and seed monopolies created through IP laws and seed regulations.
Technocratic meddling has already destroyed or undermined cultural diversity, meaningful social connections and agrarian ecosystems that draw on centuries of traditional knowledge and are increasingly recognised as valid approaches to secure food security, as outlined for example in the 2017 article Food Security and Traditional Knowledge in India in the Journal of South Asian Studies.
Such a pity that prominent commentators like George Monbiot, who writes for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, seems fully on board with this ‘great reset’. In his 2020 article ‘Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet’, he sees farmerless farms and ‘fake’ food produced in giant industrial factories from microbes as a good thing.
As an environmentalist, Monbiot supports lab-based food because he only sees a distorted method of industrial farming; he is blind to agroecological methods which do not have the disastrous environmental consequences of chemical-dependent industrial agriculture. Monbiot’s ‘solution’ is to replace one model of corporate controlled farming with another, thereby robbing us of our connection to the land, to each other and making us wholly dependent on profiteering, unscrupulous interests that have no time for concepts like food democracy or food sovereignty.
Moreover, certain lab-engineered ‘food’ will require biomatter in the form of commodity crops. This in itself raises issues related to the colonisation of land in faraway countries and the implications for food security there. We may look no further to see the adverse health, social and environmental impacts of pesticide-dependent GMO seed monocropping in Argentina as it produces soy for the global market, not least for animal feed in Europe.
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 industrial farming and global chains with all the devastating consequences this entails.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. It is naïve to suggest that in the brave new world of farmerless farms and lab-based food, things would be different. In the face of economic crisis and stagnation at home, exacerbated by COVID lockdowns and restrictions, whether through new technologies or older Green Revolution methods, Western agricapital will seek to further entrench its position across the globe.
Colin Todhunter is an extensively published independent writer and former social policy researcher based in the UK and India.