Posts Tagged 'seeds'

Global Assault on Seed Sovereignty.

Global Assault on Seed Sovereignty through Trade Deals Is Assault on Human Rights, Protest is Fertile

The multinational seed industry is continuing its multipronged attack on the most basic of human rights, the access to seed. Lobbyists of the seed industry are using trade agreements to pressure nations into adopting strict measures such as UPOV agreements that ensure the protection and ownership of new plant varieties for plant breeders. On top of this, corporate seed industry lobbyists are proposing revisions to the UPOV convention that promote further monopolisation of the seed industry through ‘harmonisation’ of procedures for registering and testing new plant varieties.

Protests in many regions around the world are putting up much needed resistance against this corporate takeover of the food system, successfully forcing governments to delay and even repeal the agreements. These movements are an inspiration for our continual global struggle against the relentless onslaught of agribusiness whose current biggest targets are the ‘untapped’ markets of the global South, with the spotlight on Africa and other regions where seeds have not yet been commercialized, and are still used in traditional systems that allow seed saving and exchange.

What is UPOV?

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants or UPOV is a Geneva-based intergovernmental union so far of around 70 countries that accept common rules for recognizing and protecting the ownership of new plant varieties by plant breeders. First established in 1961, the convention entered into force in 1968 and was revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991. The latest version, UPOV-91 significantly increases the protection of plant breeders, handing over monopoly of seed rights, and even making it illegal for the farmer to save and exchange seeds for replanting.  See [1] The Corporate Takeover of Seed under Many GuisesSiS 64, for more details.

UPOV builds on the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that was adopted in 1994 as the first international treaty to establish global standards for intellectual property rights over seeds. This has allowed corporations to force the “harmonisation” of patent laws across countries, ostensibly to create a unified global intellectual property regime with minimum standards and establish a dispute settle system to ensure its application and compliance.

Today all member countries are part of the 1978 or 1991 Act. Back in 1998, there were only 37 countries in UPOV, the majority industrialised. With recent international trade agreements however, the global South have been pressured to join, being told that intellectual property protection benefits the biotechnology industry and hence the national economy as well as food security. These claims are unfounded, and in fact untrue; UPOV works to increase the profit of multinational corporations in the North, and is proving to be a threat to food security especially for people in the South.

Proposed ‘harmonisation’ of UPOV system further erodes seed sovereignty

In the 88th meeting of the Consultative Committee (CC) of UPOV on 15 October 2014 in Geneva, lobby organisations representing the corporate seed industry pushed for further ‘harmonisation’ of the UPOV plant breeders system [2]. Their proposals include an international filing system,  a UPOV quality assurance program and a central examination system for variety denominations, disguised as an “international system of cooperation” that would actually provide further protection to breeders with regards to filing and examination of new varieties in destination countries. In reality, these changes would increase patenting and biopiracy by commercial plant breeders, while placing the costs of the new system on individual nations and not the corporations commercialising the seed variety.

The International Seed Federation, the International Community of Breeders of Asexually Ornamental Fruit Plants (CIOPORA) and CropLife International, represent corporations that include Monsanto, DowAgroSciences, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont Pioneer, which together already control 75 % of private sector plant breeding research and 60 % of the commercial seed market. The new proposals would further increase the monopoly. These pro-industry organisations proposed an international filing system of cooperation (IFC) for registering a plant variety that would use a single application form in the language of choice of the breeder and submitted to the destination country for planting the seeds. The IFC would then be involved in distributing processed applications to target countries. This, they suggested would result in more applications by breeders for more crops, in more regions and countries. One of the most dangerous aspects of the proposals is that such applications would be confidential with regards to the pedigree and parental lines of hybrids, thereby greatly facilitating biopiracy.  A preliminary review of the IFC would be sent to the destination country for DUS (Distinct, Uniform and Stable) testing, all at the expense of the destination country, which the lobbyists proposed, should take place in centralised “centres of excellence” that would need to be developed. Breeders would send plant materials and fees for DUS testing to the centres of their choice, likely leaving governments without access to the plant material. The industry lobbyists further propose that the IFC should force UPOV member countries to implement these procedures themselves. These changes will compromise the right of UPOV member states to control the processing and examination of plant variety protection applications, and hence their national right to control their own food system in accordance with local climactic and ecological conditions that can decide the success or failure of a crop.

The proposed changes, such as the potential to increase the number of crop varieties, do not necessarily translate to lower food prices or higher food production. It does however impact small-scale farmers who rely on informal seed saving and swapping systems, a common practice in most developing nations, pushing up the price of seed and affecting livelihoods and food access in the process.

The seed industry claims that such proposals would benefit small and medium scale farmers, though as shown in the case of the EU Community Plant Variety Rights (CPVR), which was the premise for these new changes, it increased the share of breeder’s rights for large corporations.   The CPVR, based on UPOV-91, gives sweeping intellectual property (IP) rights protection valid throughout the EU territory via a single protection title obtained in any EU country. Data from a 2011 Greens/EFA Group in the EU Parliament show that this system overwhelmingly benefits large-scale breeders such as multinational corporations, with the top five seed companies applying for 91 % of intellectual property right protection. Monsanto and Syngenta were responsible for 57 % of plant protection rights applications for tomatoes in 2011, compared to 12 % in 2000. Further, most applications come from just a few EU countries, mainly Germany, The Netherlands and France, suggesting that few countries are benefitting from this system. The European Patent Office has already gone so far as granting patents on over a hundred conventionally bred varieties, such as broccoli bred to have a large head to facilitate mechanical harvesting (EP 1597965), and fungus-resistant tomatoes. Thanks to work by the large coalition of organisations behind No Patents on Seeds, the tomato patent (EP1812575) of Monsanto has now been revoked, on grounds of fraudulent abuse of the seed laws in claiming as invention an already existing natural variety of tomato [3].

International trade agreements force seed privatisation, destroy livelihoods and enslave people

The first globalisation of the seed/food market came with European colonialism. Colonising countries forced local farmers in many nations to give up their local food production for plantations, to be replaced by enslaved and indentured labour to grow luxury crops for export back to their countries. Today, the philosophy of food production underlying the new international trade agreements align with the colonial way of thinking – that food should be produced for international export to the financial benefit of powerful corporations and nations – in a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.

One of the first international trade agreements negotiated outside the multilateral arena that incorporated seed privatisation policies was the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994. The NAFTA agreement set a precedent for all US trade deals to follow, with the EU also following suit with its own similar trade agreements so they too, would not lose out in the Mexican market. NAFTA obliged Mexico to join UPOV. Not only did the agreement directly restrict seed saving in Mexico through UPOV, but it also undermined their agricultural industry through other mechanisms including the dumping of staple crops at below production costs to Mexico. The US subsidises farmers for many overproduced stable crops which are then sold so cheaply that they undermine local agriculture, destroying farmers’ livelihoods and local peoples’ access to food. The dumping of US staple crops (corn, soy, wheat, cotton) and meat wiped an estimated 12.8 billion US dollars off the Mexican producers’ earnings during 1997-2005 [4]. Corn, in particular, originated in Central America and was considered sacred by the Mayan people and others. Another pre-condition of NAFTA was the liberalisation of the communally owned ‘ejido’ land system. Under 1991 reforms, the constitutional right to ejidos was eliminated, though already existing ejidos were allowed to remain under community control [5].  These policy changes seriously damaged the Mexican food system originally focused on local consumption and replaced it with an export-orientated fiefdom of the US. Food imports in Mexico have gone up from 16 % before NAFTA to 42 % in 2014 [4]. While the US exports its overproduced staples, it imports much of its fresh produce from Mexico.

Horrendous work conditions are endured by employees of huge mega farms that supply blemish-free, immaculate produce to the US, highlighting the real impacts of these trade agreements on peoples’ lives. A recent report by Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti for the LA Times reveals a land of mono-cropped fields, devoid of people and filled with billboards for agribusiness in these poor, rural indigenous areas of the country [6]. Following an 18 month investigation, they found that many farm labourers work 6 days a week for 8-12 US dollars a week; often trapped for months in rat-infested camps without reliable water supply and clean toilets. Many have had their wages withheld for months to prevent them leaving at peak harvest time; they face threats of violence, and can head home at the end of the week penniless after getting past the barbed wire fences designed to keep them inside working.

Mexico and the 11 other members of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and of course, the US) are now facing even more extreme attacks on their agricultural industry. The TTP is being dubbed one of the most ambitious trade agreements in history, and also one of the most dangerous not least because of the secrecy surrounding the negotiations.  Details of negotiations have come mostly through leaks. Some of the negotiation text from May 2014 called for all member states to adopt UPOV-91 and the outright patenting of plants and animals [7]. Many agreements also come with severe punishments for farmers who break the IP laws. It will also undermine local agriculture as seen with NAFTA, where harmonisation of trade policies will pit farmers from different regions against each other, forcing for example the Mexican coffee farmers to compete with Vietnamese coffee farmers. The existing communal ejido land is proposed to be under a fast-track system for privatisation. TTP will also prohibit labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, so countries with existing labelling laws such as Japan would have to reverse their policies.

In 2006, the US closed big deals with Colombia and Peru that included the adoption of UPOV-91, as well as with all Central American countries through other agreements. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) made similar agreements with Colombia and Peru in 2008 and with Central American countries in 2013 (see [8] for in depth report). The Caribbean states currently have an agreement to consider adopting UPOV-91, though only one nation Trinidad and Tobago has signed up. The Americas have been where agribusiness made their largest gains in recent years, but now Africa is the new target.  African countries and the EU recently finished talks that contain a commitment to negotiate common IP standards expected to lead to UPOV commitments. The G8 New Alliance has also pushed for over 200 policy changes in participating African countries to open up their seed markets, with Ghana fighting vigorously to prevent their politicians from passing the new plant breeder’s bill that includes UPOV-91 (see [1]).

In Asia, Sri Lanka is proposing a new Seed Act that would require farmers to register and certify all seed and planting material in the country. This has led to large campaigns by organisations such as the Movement of Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) to prevent it coming into force. Elsewhere, other nations such as Canada are facing similar battles, where Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act that includes UPOV-91, was passed in November 2014. The National Farmers Union are deeply concerned over the bill [9]; the President of the Union Jan Slomp called it “one of the most farmer unfriendly mechanisms we have ever seen”, while the Vice-President Anne Slater stated: “This legislation makes it possible for seed companies to collect End-Point Royalties on a farmer’s entire crop. It also gives seed companies the possibility to create monopolies to control future breeding by others through the Act’s ‘essentially derived’ clause, which gives breeders full control of any new varieties that exhibit characteristics of a company’s already-protected variety.”

Thankfully many nations have seen successful protests hinder the free trade agreements and seed privatisation policies. Guatemala repealed the ‘Monsanto Law’ this year after it failed to meet the requirements of consulting indigenous communities, resulting in a 10-day protest. The “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties” was highly unpopular with civil societies and indigenous communities that would prevent them from saving seeds. Colombia has temporarily suspended its deals to adopt UPOV-91, also as a result of large scale protests. We need to build on the successes of these movements and comprehensively reject UPOV 91 if we are to protect the sovereignty of the seed.

October 16: World Food Sovereignty Day.

banner-16-oct-en

Today on October 16, 2013 La Via Campesina celebrates the world food sovereignty day. People around the world will carry out actions to celebrate the need of a people’s food system. The global peasants’ movement will make its voice heard loud and clear reaffirming that peasants- led agro-ecology is the real solution to global hunger. Not only do peasant farmers feed communities, they also cool the planet and protect mother nature. Unlike agribusiness, peasants do not treat food as a commodity for speculation profiting out of hunger. They do not patent nature for profit, keeping it out of the hands of the common man and woman. They share their knowledge and seeds, so everyone can have food to eat. On this day, La Via Campesina reminds society and governments that if we really want to put an end to hunger, then we must accept the central role of the peasants, and support them to feed humanity.

The 16 of October became the world food day to commemorate the founding of the FAO, the UN body whose mandate is to end global hunger and malnutrition. The theme chosen this year to celebrate this event is “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition”. This is indeed a recognition that unsustainable food systems will not lead to a future free from hunger. Yet governments, under the pressure from business interests, continue to promote unsustainable farming and false solutions to hunger. La Via Campesina argues that GMOs, agrofuels and land grabbing by private corporations, which are being promoted by governments around the world in fact increase hunger.

http://viacampesina.org/en/

The Fight for Corn.

In an era of food crisis, the fight for corn has intensified, and the importance of this grain – a staple of the diet of Mexico and a large part of the world – has been revealed to the fullest extent. The scenario we are faced with is a battle between a culture that revolves around the material and symbolic production of corn, as well as the cultural, social, and historical value placed upon this crop by humankind, and the network of commercial and political interests that sees this prodigious crop simply as another way to increase power and profit by means of plundering its native lands.

Corn is under imperialistic attack in its place of origin, primarily at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has increased Mexico’s food dependency. A popular resistance stands in opposition to this assault, playing its role in a geostrategic struggle exacerbated by climatic imbalances caused by global warming, as well as the corruption of the agroindustrial production model.

Why does corn attract transnational companies? Because it is the most efficient producer of biomass of any grain. One can get an idea of its efficiency of the corn plant is compared with that of wheat. One grain of wheat will produce one slender spike while one grain of corn will produce two robust ears. The yield per hectare of corn can be double that of wheat. Annual corn production worldwide is more than 850 million tons.

In contrast to the other cereals, there are different varieties of corn for almost any climate, from valleys to mountains, and for almost any type of soil. Its cycle is short, and rural families have created simple methods for storing it, preserving it, and preparing it.

Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz acutely observed that the invention of corn by the Mexicans is only comparable to the invention of fire by the early humans. From the inedible grass of the teocintle or teosinte, ancient Mexicans created modern corn, which was spread across Mesoamerica and eventually around the world. The 60 or so breeds and the thousands of different varieties native to Mexico act as a genetic reservoir and a crucially important strategic good in terms of the global food supply and economy, the worth of which can be expressed on a scale of billions of dollars each year. Corn has become the livelihood of families in rural communities as well as an accessible food source for poor urban families (corn makes up 60 percent of Mexicans’ caloric intake). It is also a fundamental raw material for livestock and the global food industry due to its versatility and large number of by-products and applications.

Corn is both a product and a means of support in the history and popular culture of Mexico. Both the history of the grain and the history of the people are intertwined to such an extent that correlations between price curves for corn and the vicissitudes of Mexican politics and economy have been documented from the 18th to the early 19th century. The rise of corn prices, for example, resulted in poverty, food shortages, famine, epidemics, emigration, unemployment, crime, and begging. This turmoil generated the social tension that led to the outbreak of the War for Independence.[i]

Today, corn is Mexico’s most important crop. It makes up a little more than half of the area sown and represents 30 percent of the total production value. Mexico is the fifth largest corn producer in the world, yielding around 21 million tons per year. However, Mexico imports almost 10 million tons annually – a third of what it consumes. The other primary producers of corn in order of importance are the United States, China, Brazil, and Argentina.

Because of its unique qualities, corn quickly became a coveted good and was introduced to the market with a clear tendency toward privatization. The crop’s transformation from a communal resource to an economic good has been made possible by means of a global strategy with three blocks meant to shut off the route to rural self-sufficiency through local food production.

The first block is the imposition of technology meant to appropriate the characteristics of the corn seeds, as well as the traditional knowledge associated with them. The second block is the establishment of a legal framework that legalizes dispossession through registers, certificates, and patents. The third block: agro-food policies that favor transnational companies and harm small and mid-sized producers. According to investigators Adelita San Vicente and Areli Carreón, “This is clear when we look at the earnings and the concentration of seed companies worldwide. 20 years ago there were thousands of companies that sold seeds, the majority of which were small family-owned businesses. After decades of mergers and acquisitions, today only a handful of companies manage commercial seed, especially regarding the corn and soy industry sectors. In the case of corn, four companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, and Dow – control more than three quarters of the market, excluding China. These same companies own the majority of the agro-biotechnological patents.”[ii]

The global importance of corn explains the interest that transnational companies have in controlling the crop in its place of origin and making it a private asset. These companies started out using hybrid varieties of corn associated with the use of chemical fertilizers and agro-toxins. They have now created transgenic corn, which puts the diversity of the native varieties at enormous risk. Once native crops are destroyed by genetic contamination, corn producers could find themselves defenseless against the climate crisis.

Less Corn for More Money

Even now, while the world suffers through the stampede of food prices (particularly the price of corn) and the climatic events in the United States, multinationals like Monsanto are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the profit to be made from high prices coupled with a high demand for the seeds. Climate changes in the United States have led to low expectations for the next corn harvest,[iii] which is already impacting grain prices and reverberating through other foods as well. The worst drought that the United States has seen in the last half century – caused by the highest temperatures on record – can be attributed to the climate crisis. A sixth of the corn harvest of the United States has been destroyed, prompting hyperinflation of food prices just as the financial and global energy crises have escalated.

The rise in corn prices[iv] and its repercussions on other food stirred memories of the 2008 crisis which caused revolts in numerous countries and gave rise to the tortilla crisis in Mexico. The UN acted immediately to prevent a global food crisis.[v] It urged governments to take “swift and coordinated action” in order to prevent rising food prices from creating a disaster that would have harmed millions of people by the end of that year.

Aside from corn, two other basic grains in the world food supply – wheat and soy – are rising in the inflation spiral. UN agencies assert that elevated prices of food are the symptom and not the disease, and argue that the root causes of the price crisis must be addressed. It is not exactly clear what this means, but from the rural perspective it would mean trading the agro-industrial production model for another based on food sovereignty, oriented toward the local markets at a time of growing demand for food and climate crisis.

The ongoing measures taken by many governments, however, do not point in this direction. According to data made public in the newspaper La Jornada from the Working Group on Foreign Trade Statistics, Mexico showed record-breaking corn imports[vi] during the first semester of 2012 in comparison to the same period of the previous year, when national corn production fell due to frosts and droughts. Imports were also at a record high with respect to the first half of 2007, when the tortilla crisis struck, and even compared to imports occurring during both the 2008 and 2009 lapses of the global financial crisis. According to the same source, in the first six months of 2012 1,931,000,000 dollars were spent on corn imports.

Mexico went from importing 396,000 tons of corn in 1992, before the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to 9.8 million tons during the 2011-2012 cycle.[vii] The measures put in place by NAFTA dismantled the institutions supporting agro-food production and generated conditions of even greater inequality among the member countries. Food dependency now represents almost 50 percent of what is consumed in Mexico, and the government recognizes the existence of 28 million people who are starving[viii] – 20 million of whom live in the countryside.

The Hunger that Came from the North.

“¡Hunger, hunger! Bark the dogs of Urique”, exclaimed the elderly people, repeating a fable from the Porfirian era. During that time, the region of the Tarahumara inhabited by the Rarámuri was held prisoner by famine and was the scene of precursory uprisings to the Revolution. Time has come full circle, and now that region of Chihuahua, in the north of Mexico, is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe due to a shortage of food that has been compared by the magazine Proceso to what is occurring in many African countries.[ix]

The current famine has brought hundreds of indigenous people to the hospital with acute malnutrition, the diseases derived from which have killed many of them. This is the most extreme manifestation of the consequences of the application of the free market economic model on rural areas. This model has dismantled institutions of credit, consumable goods, insurance, wholesale, and programs supporting rural production, creating a food shortage that is aggravated by climate change.

Last year, an atypical drought that lasted for more than 18 months devastated corn and bean harvests in the region, and temperatures near -20 degrees Celsius only made the problem worse. 20 thousand tons of corn for self-consumption was lost. Of the 150 thousand tons of cereal that is produced commercially in Chihuahua, only 500 tons remained. Of the over 100 thousand tons of beans that are harvested each year, there were barely 20 thousand. The production of oats decreased by 80 percent. The lack of food affected a quarter of a million inhabitants of 4,478 rural and indigenous communities. But the problem did not stop there.

For the current spring-summer cycle, an insufficient harvest is anticipated. The Rarámuri, therefore, only planted 4 thousand of the 40 thousand hectares normally reserved for the production of basic grains, principally corn.[x] Those who dared to plant did so with native seeds without ample humidity in some areas of Guachochi, Urique, and Batopilas.

Yet this is merely a warning of what is to come. The state of food emergency is not exclusive to the indigenous zones in the north of the country. It is spread throughout practically the entire rural area, as is shown by the food poverty figures mentioned above. The agricultural policies that have been imposed upon Mexican society for more than a quarter century have primarily benefited the transnational companies and a minority of large producers, at the expense of the majority of the population. The senselessness of the model that dismantled the mechanisms and institutions responsible for regulating the domestic market, only to present it on a silver platter to the transnational companies, highlights an absurd situation: while hunger is pervasive and the United States has announced a decrease in its corn harvests, Mexico is faced with the problem of marketing more than 1,200,000 tons of grain in Sinaloa and Jalisco due to the fact that the distributors have refused to pay the international price, breaking NAFTA rules that do not work in their favor. The transnational companies not only control marketing, but also most of the branches of agro-industry, including the production, storage, and distribution of the seeds.

The Transgenic Corn Front

Monsanto and the companies that control the global transgenic seed market have made Mexican corn their preferred target because once they have conquered it, the transnationals could become the sole owners of this treasure worldwide.

Even before the Mexican government broke the moratorium on experimentation with transgenic corn in 2009, the corn had already been genetically contaminated in its place of origin. The study that presented this evidence was done by scientist Ignacio Chapela and published in the November 2001 issue of Nature. Chapela documented the presence of transgenic corn in Oaxaca, an area with one of the largest diversities of the grain. This fact was confirmed months later by Mexican researchers. Currently, almost half of the states in the country have reported the presence of transgenic contamination, and there is a widespread conviction that the contamination was caused intentionally. Whatever the case may be, it is a historic crime.

Transgenic corn does not increase yields,[xi] does not provide any consumer advantages, and does not carry any benefit for producers regarding input costs. However, if the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn is approved, the company could make a profit of close to 400 million dollars per year, according to Victor Suarez, president of the National Association of Commercial Field-Producer Companies.[xii]

This is why lobbyists for the United States-based company spare no efforts when it comes to investing some 5 million dollars per year in order to influence politicians, journalists, scientists, and community leaders. The company is also investing in its beachheads in the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at Irapuato and the Master Project of Mexican Corn, which is supported in part by the National Farm Worker Confederation.[xiii]

The clandestine contamination – a vehicle of destruction of the Mexican rural economy – is a direct consequence of NAFTA. Unlabeled corn that continues to flow into the country from the United States is largely transgenic, and is introduced with the knowledge and consent of companies and officials without the least concern. These same entities and people confront public opinion, as well as those who reject the cultivation of transgenic corn, using a fait accompli strategy.

Mexican legislators approved the Monsanto Law (the Law on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms) in 2004. As its nickname suggests, the law primarily favors transnational interests. This law opened the door for the cultivation of transgenic materials while failing to guarantee biosafety or protect native Mexican plants and their producers.

In the same vein, the Federal Seed Production, Certification, and Trade Law was approved in 2007, while the Federal Law on Plant Varieties has been in existence since 1996.[xiv] The new legal framework was designed for the purpose of plundering, while laws that protect the rights of producers, farm workers, and indigenous people – no matter how precariously – are being abolished or reformed.

In 2009 the federal government, betraying rural society yet again, broke the moratorium de facto that had stood for 11 years. The government subsequently began to grant permits for experimental sowing and transgenic corn pilots, and has brought the country to within one step of the commercial sowing of Monsanto corn.

The use of transgenic seeds has been added to agro-industrial production as a means of augmenting producers’ dependency, but at the same time it has sharpened those contradictions that indicate the deterioration of this model.[xv] The proven damages to the ecosystem and human health, the harmful effects on the climate caused by the use of petroleum in agricultural processes, and the emergence of super-plagues able to resist the poisons associated with transgenic seeds have sparked protests, embargoes, and prohibitions. Monsanto corn MON16 has been expelled from 8 different countries in the European Union, and around the world there has been a resurgence of organic production.

As has been shown by the Maize Defense Network, which is composed of more than one thousand communities and dozens of organizations in 22 Mexican states, “the cultivation of transgenic materials is an instrument of corporate abuse against the right to have access to healthy food and against small-scale, independent food production controlled by rural farm workers in countless corners of the globe (who provide the largest percentage of the world’s food supply). [The use of transgenic seeds] is a frontal attack on food sovereignty.”

The People’s Fight for the Corn

The Network, in line with movements such as “Without Corn there is no Country” and organizations like the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (representative of La Via Campesina in North America), has organized campaigns to throw Monsanto and its Frankenstein seeds out of the country. The Maize Defense Network, however, has distinguished itself by declaring an emphatic moratorium over ten years against the invasion of transgenic corn. Rural farm workers know that the best defense of native corn is to plant it and care for the seeds by selecting them and interchanging them. They know that food sovereignty starts from below and that social and communal production of their own food is the best way to guarantee their right to eat.

They know or sense that the corporations and the governments of the dominant countries have used food as a geostrategic weapon, impeding the agricultural development of the subordinate countries by means of “free” trade agreements and agricultural mechanization controlled by companies like Monsanto. This serves the double purpose of maximizing profits while indefinitely maintaining the subjugation, in this case, of Mexican agriculture to the agricultural interests of the United States.

Before the commercial opening, corn had been protected by national agricultural policies and the corn used for human consumption was supplied in sufficient quantities for local production, particularly in communal or seasonal smallholder farms. Following the signing of NAFTA, the Mexican government removed support little by little for the majority of the field producers until it had finally abandoned them.

In a scenario that is just as complex as it is unfavorable, the Maize Defense Network and various other Mexican civil society organizations convinced the Permanent People’s Tribunal to conduct sessions in Mexico. The prosecution held the Mexican state responsible for the violence committed against the corn, food sovereignty, and the rights of the people.

Supported by the moral standing of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, the rural inhabitants stand against NAFTA and its signatories because:

a) They have surrendered food production to transnational companies, making Mexico a dependent country.

b) The commercial opening to grains led to the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cultivated corn and the rural exodus of 15 million people.[xvi]

c) They have endangered the way of life surrounding corn – the heart of Mesoamerican civilization.

d) They are responsible for a crime against humanity: the destruction of the genetic fortitude of one of the four pillars of the world’s diet.

At the same time, the most conscientious and organized rural farm workers have implemented resistance strategies, such as the establishment of transgenic-free zones, democratic unions and councils in defense of corn, networks of organic tianguis, corn festivals, communal germoplasm banks, communal food reserves, seed exchange fairs, and other measures in defense of the rural lifestyle.

These are the people who have recreated biodiversity over many generations, and continue to be responsible for its preservation today. They are the direct heirs of the cultures that domesticated and developed corn. They are the people of the corn of the 21st century, and they are convinced that the voracity of transnational companies must not be allowed to usurp this thousand-year-old legacy.

Alfredo Acedo is Director of Social Communication and adviser to the National Union of Regional Organizations of Autonomous Small Farmers of Mexico and a contributor to the Americas Program http://www.cipamericas.org.

Translation: Mac Layne


[i] Florescano, Enrique. Precios del maíz y crisis agrícolas en México, 1708-1810. El Colegio de México, 1969.

[ii] San Vicente Tello, Adelita; Carreón, Areli. El robo de las semillas de maíz en su centro de origen y de diversidad genética. December 16, 2008 http://vecam.org/article1080.html

[iii] In August, the United States Department of Agriculture showed an 18 percent decrease in its projections of corn production for this year, or some 56 million tons. http://www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/psdreport.aspx?hidReportRetrievalName=BVS&hidReportRetrievalID=884&hidReportRetrievalTemplateID=1

[iv] Corn prices shot up to a historic maximum of 8.49 dollars per bushel on August 10th (in the United States, a bushel is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms).

http://www.cnnexpansion.com/economia/2012/08/16/precio-de-maiz-en-eu-por-los-cielos

[v] UN agencies “stressed the vulnerability to a food problem, given that even in a good year, global cereal production is barely sufficient to satisfy the increasing demand for food and fuel.” http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/09/05/economia/037n2eco

[vi] The purchase exceeded corn imports of the first six months of 2007 by 159 percent, totaling 744,857,000 dollars. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/08/27/economia/027n1eco

[vii] Mexico is now the primary importer of corn in the world. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/04/14/sociedad/035n1soc

[viii] Between 2008 and 2010, the number of people without access to food rose by 4.2 million, bringing the total to around 28 million Mexican citizens. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/02/09/politica/016n2pol

[ix] La Tarahumara: hambruna al estilo Somalia. http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=294045

[x] The food alert in the Tarahumara remains in effect due to low harvests. Furthermore, the government defaulted on its delivery of 100 thousand tons of corn and beans promised as humanitarian aid. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/08/27/sociedad/045n1soc

[xi] Failure to Yield. 2009. Report in the Union of Concerned Scientists that shows zero increase in the yields of transgenic corn in the United States, after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercial sowing. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf

[xiii] San Vicente Tello, Adelita ¿Los niños al cuidado de Herodes? Convenio CNC Monsanto. La Jornada del Campo. 9 de octubre de 2007 http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/10/10/amenaza.htm

[xiv] Una raya más al tigre de la Ley Monsanto. http://www.cipamericas.org/es/archives/66

[xv] Stedile, João Pedro. Las tendencias del capital sobre la agricultura. América Latina en movimiento 459. ALAI, October 2010 http://www.alainet.org/images/alai459.pdf

[xvi] Permanent People’s Tribunal. Mexico. Work document, February 20, 2012

Hearing 5: Violence against corn, food sovereignty and the rights of the people.

Book: “The great food robbery”

The global food system is in profound crisis. Over a billion people suffer from hunger each day, and this number is rising faster than the global population, even though there is more than enough food in the world feed everybody. Climate change, fuelled by a wasteful and polluting industrial food system, threatens to make things much worse. At the same time, corporations are grabbing millions of hectares of farmland and water systems in poor countries, and displacing rural communities.

The great food robbery” looks at the forces driving the world into this crisis. It focuses on corporations and the ways they organise and control food production and distribution and how this destroys local food systems. It provides information and analysis that will enable and inspire people to take the food system back from corporations and put it in the hands of local communities.

This book brings together much of GRAIN’s most recent research and writing and is divided into three sections: agribusiness, the climate crisis and land grabbing.

“This is the final wake-up call to take up the fight for our food future. If the control over food and nutrition security are a concern to you, this is the book.”
– Dr. Hans R. Herren, president, Millennium Institute

“For 20 years, GRAIN has fuelled anti-corporate campaigns with its groundbreaking research and biting analysis. Today, GRAIN is on the leading edge of the fight against land grabs, powered by its signature political clarity and deep roots in the social movements on the front lines. A must read.”
– Naomi Klein, author of “The shock doctrine”

“Everyone should read ‘The great food robbery’ – every citizen, every political leader – to understand how agribusiness, which has created hunger and disease, is now contributing to the biggest resource grab since Columbus.”
– Vandana Shiva, Navdanya and Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology

http://www.grain.org

Debate: ¿Es riesgoso el maíz transgénico?

Seeds of Freedom.

 

http://seedsoffreedom.info/

Mexican Seeds, the New Spoils for Food Corporations.

Biodiversity and small and medium farms are threatened in Mexico by the looming approval of a reform of the law on plant varieties that will extend patent rights over seeds, activists and experts warn.

The amendment, of the federal law on plant varieties in effect since 1996, was approved by the Senate in November and is now making its way through the lower house of Congress.

“They are trying to expand privatisation in this important sector, as part of an offensive backed by transnational corporations to give more rights to breeders (of plant varieties), which are mainly these big companies,” Adela San Vicente, the head of Semillas de Vida (Seeds of Life), a local NGO, told IPS. 

The reform, defended by the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón, would cover all plant material, including harvest products, and would introduce the definition of “essentially derived varieties”, used to protect genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In addition, it extends the period of protection for breeders of plant varieties from 15 to 25 years.

One of the risks posed by the reform is that small farmers who receive and grow hybrid seeds without authorisation could face legal action. 

”They are paving the way for the industry to charge patent rights if, for example, native maize is contaminated by transgenic crops, because the native maize would contain the genes of the GMO,” Alejandro Espinosa, a researcher in the maize programme at Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research (INIFAP), told IPS. 

”It would be the last nail in the coffin for the Mexican countryside,” complained the scientist, who has developed more than 30 hybrid species at INIFAP and at least a dozen at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, for production by small companies and distribution at the local level.

The amendment would bring Mexico’s legislation into line with the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, as revised in 1991. 

The Convention, which is monitored by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), was adopted in 1961 and revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991.

Mexico, which joined UPOV in 1978, currently follows the standards outlined by the Convention in that year’s revision. 

The UPOV system of plant variety protection provides international recognition of the rights of breeders of new varieties that are distinct, sufficiently homogeneous and stable, according to the criteria outlined by the intergovernmental accord. 

It also provides double protection, for both patents and plant variety rights.

The Geneva-based UPOV’s mission is “to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection, with the aim of encouraging the development of new varieties of plants, for the benefit of society,” according to its web site.

The 1991 revision of the Convention, which entered into force in 1998, protects Canadian, U.S. and EU property rights, and introduced the novel feature of recognising rights over new genetic traits – an open concession to GMOs. 

More than 250,000 tonnes of seeds are produced annually in Mexico, according to the National Service of Seed Inspection and Certification (SNICS), the government agency that oversees some 55,000 hectares of land where seeds for about two dozen crops are produced.

A collective of researchers and NGOs has urged legislators to halt the reform, and to subject it to an open debate with all concerned sectors, including small and medium farmers, who it will affect the most. 

”Native seeds are the only input used by peasant farmers, who are left without any rights,” San Vicente said. “And with the problems posed by climate change, they lose seeds or reuse them.

Seeds have been a common good of humanity. And (with this amendment, companies) can even go after researchers who use those seeds.” 

In this country of 112 million people, Latin America’s second-largest economy, there are approximately five million peasant farmer families, according to official figures.

With the projected reform, SNICS would have the authority to impose fines or even block land use for infractions of patents and plant breeders’ rights. SNICS has already registered more than 150 breeders from over 20 countries, involving at least 100 plant species.

Of that total, 26 percent are ornamental plants, and the rest are agricultural or forestry species. 

The countries of Latin America have filed fewer than 1,000 applications for plant breeders’ rights with UPOV.

Meanwhile, the No Patents on Seeds global coalition of NGOs reports that since 1996, farm-saved or “informal seeds” have been on the decline, while industrial seeds are expanding. 

”Hundreds and hundreds of varieties are needed to ensure the sustainability of improved and native seeds,” INIFAP’s Espinosa said. “Advances in their yields are environmentally-friendly, because they are genes from the species themselves. 

”The improvements are made with the best plants, according to the environment. It’s what farmers have done for decades,” he said.

But Mexico is increasingly lax in protecting that system. The government-run national seed production company, PRONASE, has been in the process of liquidation since the early 2000s, which has left the sector in the hands of private Mexican and foreign companies. 

In addition, the 2005 Genetically Modified Organisms Biosafety Law and the 2007 Law on the Production, Certification and Trade of Seeds have given industry more and more maneuvering room.

The National Catalogue of Plant Varieties, updated by SNICS in December, contains 1,827 species, most of which are different kinds of maize, beans, sorghum, wheat and potatoes. 

Public research institutes and food corporations like the U.S.-based Monsanto and Pioneer have registered their varieties in the catalogue. 

Inclusion in that list is the first requisite for registration in a seed production programme. 

There are at least 180 commonly used plant varieties in Mexico, such as the nopal cactus fruit, güisquil or pear squash, avocado, and tomato.

SNICS defends patents on seeds, arguing that they protect the genetic patrimony and facilitate access to plant material, which depends on the fair distribution of economic benefits, while respecting special rules for endemic species, preventing the plunder of resources and biopiracy, and strengthening institutional capacity.

http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs-archives-68/3583

Food as a Commodity.

Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.

For many millennia following the origin of our species, humans were hunters and gatherers—an existence that one might think of as tenuous. However, judging from archeological evidence as well as recent examples, hunters and gatherers generally ate a diverse diet that supplied adequate nutrition. For example, studies in the 1960s and ‘70s of the !Kung of southern Africa, foragers for literally thousands of years, indicate that although they ate meat that they hunted, about two-thirds of their food was plant-based—nuts (supplying more than one-third of caloric intake), fruits, roots, and berries—and their diet provided approximately 2,400 calories a day. The groups of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, with everyone participating in the provisioning of food.

Agriculture, which developed some seven to ten thousand years ago, provided surplus food that allowed the development of cities and the hierarchies and civilizations that went along with them—farmers, artisans, priests, kings, warriors, scribes, and other functionaries. But just because there was a surplus did not mean that people were better nourished than hunter-gatherers. In fact, the narrowing of available foods used from the wide variety in the hunter-gatherers’ diets, along with the reliance primarily on grains to provide calories, is thought to have caused a decrease in the health of early agriculturalists—as indicated by their decreased height compared that of hunter-gatherers. In these agricultural societies surplus food production was mainly appropriated for the use of the non-food producing classes. Most pre-capitalist agricultural societies had many producers relative to non-productive classes.

In some ancient empires imperial tribute took the form of food shipped long distances from the place of production. North Africa, for example, was the granary for Rome. Much of Chinese history involved constructing infrastructure to store and provide food far from its place of production. Nevertheless, in much of the world (including feudal Europe) food was produced either by peasant farmers and consumed by their families or else appropriated by landed aristocracies on a fairly local basis. What markets existed were often on a barter basis and trade in food was in kind, without becoming a commodity.

This changed with capitalism or generalized commodity production. The endless accumulation of profits, the motive force of the capitalist system, occurs through the production of commodities or services to sell at a price in excess of the production costs. Production for the purpose of sale and profit, instead of production for use, is a defining characteristic of capitalism and essentially all commodity exchanges take place in markets. During the early stages of capitalism, when most people still lived and worked on the land, a large portion of food was produced to be consumed locally in the rural areas and did not exist as a commodity. However, farmers near growing cities and/or near water transport shipped food to the industrializing urban centers.

The commodity nature of food became much more pronounced as capitalism grew and conquered most of the world’s societies. Imperial powers brought the peasants of their colonies into the money economy by extracting monetary rather than in-kind taxes. The need to obtain money to pay taxes began a process that converted a portion of the food produced into commodities.

The industrial phase of capitalism caused rural populations to decline in Europe, North America, and Japan. People were forced off the land and looked for work in the cities, moving to the growing industrial centers. (Many also migrated from Europe to North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere.) The development of canals, railroads, and road systems allowed for long-distance transport of food within large landmasses. Advances in shipping by sea also greatly decreased the cost of global trade in food.

Almost all of the crops and animals raised using the scale and approach of industrial farming are sold as undifferentiated commodities. Farmers sell their crops to buyers who resell the raw commodities to be processed—or themselves process the raw commodity—with the semi-processed commodities then sold to final processors/packagers who sell to wholesalers who then sell to retailers who finally sell food to the public. Thus, the farmers producing the bulk of food in the wealthy countries have become greatly separated from the public that finally purchases their products—not just physically, but also by the long chain of intermediaries between farms and people’s tables. Farm mechanization has increased labor productivity, leading to fewer farmers and larger farms. As industrial methods were applied to raising crops and animals, the agriculture-input sector grew dramatically and became highly concentrated—with relatively few companies now producing and selling farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Industrialized food systems also saw concentration and centralization of production and growing monopoly power. For example, large integrated “protein” (meat) firms now contract with farmers to produce poultry and hogs in large facilities under crowded and inhumane conditions. Because corporations mandate that their contractors be located near where they decide to build slaughtering facilities, this frequently means long distance transport of feed. Beef cows are increasingly raised in large feedlots.

Indeed farming, the actual raising of crops and animals, is only one part of the whole food system. The commodity nature of all parts of the agricultural/food system—farm inputs, actual farming, purchasing and processing raw agricultural goods, and wholesaling and retailing—means that many different types of commodities are produced and sold. Farming itself has been reduced to a component in a larger system of agribusiness, with many of the remaining small farmers in the United States increasingly becoming subcontractors to large corporations. The input side of agriculture was one of the last sectors of the economy to go through concentration of ownership, leading to fewer machinery companies, fewer “agrichemical” (fertilizer and pesticide) companies, and fewer seed companies. A few input and purchasing/processing corporations are able to exert near monopoly power. One of the most recent developments in the inputs sector has been the creation of transgenic (genetically modified, or GM) varieties of crops. Industry consolidation was stimulated by the greater control exerted on prices (and farmers), and today about 40 percent of the entire global seed market is controlled by three firms—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.

Globally there is still a significant portion of food produced on small landholdings for personal consumption or very local markets—in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia (and now in Brazil, and even more recently, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia) crops are increasingly produced on large, highly mechanized farms for either national or international sale. Most of these countries actively promote large-scale production for export, to either obtain foreign exchange or to help their international balance of payments situation.

Implications

There are a number of important implications of the commodity nature of food production, processing, and consumption. In capitalist economies, as noted, nearly all enterprise is for the sake of producing commodities for sale—whether the “product” is an absolute necessity such as food and health care, or a luxury such as a private jet plane or a huge house. More and more of the natural world, including water supplies and the very genes of life, are being brought under private control with the aim of making profits, rather than to supply the needs of people.

However, there is a critical contradiction when any basic human need is produced and sold as a commodity, whether we are considering food, health care, drinking water, or shelter. Capitalism naturally produces a stratification of wealth that includes the unemployed, the working poor, a better-off working class, a middle class, and a relatively small group of very rich individuals. The bottom strata of society—encompassing the members of what Marx called the reserve army of labor—are absolutely essential to the smooth working of the system. It allows easy access to labor when the economy expands and helps keep wages down, as workers are aware that they can easily be replaced.1 Even in a wealthy country such as the United States the numerous unemployed and those in low-paying jobs cannot afford all of their basic living costs—rent, electricity, transportation (irrational patterns of development plus inadequate public transportation means that cars are frequently needed to get to work), clothes, medical care, food, etc.

Given that poverty in the United States is not absolute destitution, the poor sometimes have options: they may purchase more or less food of higher or lower nutritional value, skip meals, get food stamps (now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program), or receive food assistance from charities. The poor commonly have little money left for food after rent and utilities are paid. In the summer of 2011, approximately 46 million people were receiving food assistance through Federal programs, inadequate as it is. Still, despite the abundance of food, a high average per capita income, and various forms of assistance available, some 50 million people in the United States are considered to be “food insecure.” Of these, over 12 million adults and 5 million children have “very low” food security, with one or more members of their households lowering their food intake.

In some parts of the global South, of course, conditions are far worse. The commodity nature of food results in food price levels far above many people’s meager means, producing a lack of adequate nutrition. The United Nations estimates that there are close to one billion people worldwide who suffer from malnutrition. This leads to severe health problems and death for millions. Food deprivation, though falling short of severe malnutrition, is still a very serious condition. Hence, a sense of injustice associated with rising food prices and unequal access to food was a major factor spurring revolts in the Arab world over the last year.

Because food products are commodities, and the whole point of the food/agriculture system is to sell more and make more profits, there is massive advertising surrounding food, especially the most profitable sector—processed foods. High caloric but low nutritional-value foods, such as sugary breakfast cereals, are pushed on children. And because these processed foods are relatively inexpensive and available at local convenience stores that often do not carry higher quality food like fruits and vegetables, the commodity nature of food is part of the explanation for the surge in obesity, especially among the poor.

Food crops have many different uses other than direct human consumption. They can be processed into a variety of forms—breads (pitas, tortillas), potato chips, frozen dinners, pasta, ice cream, etc. Corn is commonly processed to obtain industrial starch and sugars (high in fructose). A relatively high percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are used to feed poultry and hogs as well as beef and dairy cows (that, from an environmental point of view, should be eating grass and legume forages that the bacteria in their rumens convert into usable energy and protein for the animals). And with the push to lessen dependence on imported oil and to have a supposedly more “green” source of liquid fuels—corn, soy, rape, sugar cane, palm oil, and jatropha (a non-food crop raised only to make biofuel) are being grown to produce either ethanol or biodiesel.

In the United States and Europe, there are governmental mandates and subsidies encouraging production of both food and non-food crops, which are then used for biofuel feedstocks. This is an important part of the explanation for the tight markets and high prices for corn and oil crops. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report says: “By generating a new demand for food commodities that can outbid poor countries and food-insecure populations, industrial biofuels highlight the tension between a potentially unlimited demand (in this case for energy) and the constraints of a world with finite resources.”2 It was the search for another market for corn that induced Dwayne Andreas, CEO of the grain purchaser/processor and feed grain conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), to gain influence over politicians and spend lavishly on both Democrats and Republicans. ADM was the main backer for the corn-to-ethanol industry and might be considered the grandfather of the current mandate to mix a certain percent of ethanol with gasoline (in the process of increasing from 10 to 15 percent).

The commodity nature of food by itself limits access by the poor. Market pressures and incentives contribute to the interchangeability of key food crops that can also be used for animals or fuel production; the possibility to grow crops for strictly industrial use instead of food, if the price is right; and huge amounts of hoarding and speculation on agricultural commodities (see below). Land can be used to grow crops for a number of purposes: food for people, food crops that are also potentially feeds for animals, and industrial feedstocks (cotton, jatrohpa, corn to make sugar or other products, and crops like hay which are strictly for animals). Market prices guide farmers’ production. When ethanol prices increase, more land goes into corn for ethanol. If cotton prices increase, a portion of the land that would have gone to grow corn and soybeans will be planted with cotton. Market prices also guide the ultimate utilization of crops that have multiple uses. For example, should soybeans be used to make vegetable oil for human use, be feed to animals, or be converted into biodiesel fuel? The need to feed hungry people does not enter the calculation.

When a poor (so-called “developing”) country attempts to solve its food problem primarily by encouraging farmers to produce more, bumper crops tend to depress prices, thus helping the poor gain greater food access. However, depressed prices may be problematic for farmers, many of whom themselves are poor. This has happened recently in Zambia, where “massive production can send prices tumbling. The smallest farmers, who are the least productive, suffer doubly by producing little and getting paid a pittance for the crop.”3 Thus, bumper crops in capitalist agricultural tend to favor the larger farmers, especially those using inputs such as irrigation and fertilizers that help produce high yields. However, the resulting low prices may force large numbers of small farmers, many unable to protect their crops from the vagaries of nature and lacking the financial resources to weather hard times, into deeper poverty.

A new dimension has been added to the phenomena of food as a commodity—a new land grab, with private capital and sovereign wealth funds purchasing or leasing land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to produce food and biofuels for markets for the home countries of the investors.4 As with food, the most basic input for its production, soil, becomes a commodity ripe for either speculation or to go to the highest bidder. In many countries of the global South, traditional land tenure systems are thrown aside as land is purchased or rented under long-term agreement by private capital or national sovereign wealth funds. The purpose is either to make money, or to produce food or fuel (jatropha or other fuel crops) for the “home” markets. This creates even more rapid “depeasantization” as more farmers are pushed off the land and into city slums that have no jobs for them. It is estimated that some 20 million hectares (50 million acres) have either been sold or are under long-term lease to foreign countries or foreign capital. “In Africa they are calling it the land grab, or the new colonialism. Countries hungry to secure their food supplies—including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, South Korea (the world’s third largest importer of corn), China, India, Libya, and Egypt—are at the forefront of a frantic rush to gobble up farmland all around the world, but mainly in cash-starved Africa.”5

The “highest and best use” of any commodity is where it can get the best price, regardless of the social, ecological, or humanitarian consequences. One small example of the contradictions that arise from this is a result of the growing market in the North for quinoa, a grain grown in the Andes that is especially nutritious because of its balance of amino acids. This benefits farmers by increasing crop prices, but at the same time it means that this traditional and nutritious food is becoming too expensive for local people.6

Another implication of the commodity nature of food is that it is increasingly subject to speculative price movements. Raw commodities such as metals and food crops have become a prime target of speculators who want to bet on the price changes of tangible products, rather than completely relying on the complex bets embodied in many “financial instruments.” The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT, owned by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), opening in 1848, is the oldest organized foodstuffs futures and options trading exchange. Throughout most of its history the CBOT and the other commodity exchanges were used primarily by those interested in hedging prices because they bought, sold, or used the physical products—farmers, buyers, and food processors. It was a sound way to protect your business against the vagaries of weather and competition. But with the financialization of the economy everything has become fair game for speculation, so food and other agricultural products (as well as other raw commodities) have become just more bets that can be made. With the so-called “Commodity Futures Modernization Act,” commodity markets were deregulated in 2000 and “structured” financial products were developed to allow various types of speculation. In addition to straight bets on individual commodities, commodity index funds (pioneered by Goldman Sachs) begun to track prices of commodities. The amount of money in these funds increased from $13 billion in 2003 to $317 billion in 2008. As U.S. hedge fund manager Mike Masters explained: “Speculators today have about 70 percent of the open interest in commodity markets. Ten years ago, they controlled roughly 30 percent of the market.”7 With so much money flowing into the food commodity markets, prices are driven up in a speculative upswing. This, of course, does not mean that commodity prices will only keep going up—they fluctuate based on economic conditions, world food stock levels, crop yields, rumors, and fads. But speculation drives prices up and down further and faster, and as a result contributes to hunger for many—sometimes millions—when prices peak, and to the ruin of small producers when prices crash.

When food—a basic necessity for human health and survival that is currently produced in sufficient quantity to feed everyone in the world a basic nutritious diet—is a commodity, the results are routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, and famines when tight supplies result in exceptionally high prices. There are examples of farmers and the public organizing alternative ways to grow food for people instead of the market—such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in which people purchase (frequently on a sliding scale according to ability to pay) a share of the produce during grown during the season. These types of arrangements between farmers and the public are encouraging because they demonstrate an alternate approach to food. However, the only way to guarantee that food reaches all people in sufficient quantity and quality is to develop a new system that considers food a human right and no longer considers it a commodity. Only then will we be able to fulfill the slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit.”

NOTES

↩ For a discussion of the reserve army see Fred Magdoff and Harry Magdoff, “Disposable Workers: Today’s Reserve Army of Labor,” Monthly Review 55, no. 11 (2004): 18–35.
↩ High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, “Price volatility and food security,” Committee on World Food Security, Rome, July 2011, http://fao.org.
↩ Samuel Fromartz, “The Production Conundrum,” The Nation, October 3, 2011, 20–22.
↩ GRAIN, “The New Farm Owners: Corporate Investors and the Control of Overseas Farmland,” in Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar, eds., Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
↩ Margareta Pagano, “Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmland,” The Independent, May 3, 2009, http://independent.co.uk.
↩ Simon Romero and Sarah Shahriari, “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates a Quandary at Home,” The New York Times, March 19, 2011, http://nytimes.com.
↩ Deborah Doane, “As food speculators make money, the world’s poorest suffer,” CNN Opinion, June 22, 2011, http://cnn.com.

http://monthlyreview.org/2012/01/01/food-as-a-commodity


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