By Nadia El-Hage Scialabba – Extract from Navdanya International Report The Future of Food – Farming with Nature, Cultivating the Future – November 2019
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„First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.“ (Mahatma Gandhi)
Purpose. This chapter reviews the state of affairs in food and agriculture as of the 90’s, following the 1992 Earth Summit and the 1996 Word Food Security conference where governments of the world committed to sustainable agriculture in order to redress past failures. Ironically, those years left the space open for multinational corporations and private interests to take control over institutions, citizens and the planet. In the meantime, organic agriculture and agroecology came out of the niche with sole grassroots support, while their efforts are continuously undermined to prevent their scaling-up and keep industrial agriculture in the mainstream. Unfortunately, today’s food and agriculture conversations are fraught with misinformation and largely affected by a mind blindness syndrome. This chapter aims to unveil to open-minded readers that more of the same will not lead humanity towards sustainability and food and nutrition security, and that our common future cannot be possibly healthy without agroecology and like-minded food production approaches.
The Green Revolution delusion. In the 60s, researchers, policy-makers, farmers and citizens believed in the ‘miracle seeds’ that converted industrial inputs into food, as this fossil-fuel based development was new in the agriculture sector. By the 70s, traditional farming practices and knowledge were replaced by technological packages of seeds, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Despite the huge increase of harvest yields, the limits of the Green Revolution’s promise became obvious in the mid-80s, as a World Bank study concluded that a ‘rapid increase in food production does not necessarily result in less hunger’. New historic research even argues that the Green Revolution did not even have a role in averting famine. Furthermore, and in line with the concepts of thermodynamics such as entropy, free energy and gradient dissipation, excess agricultural inputs have resulted in extensive chemical pollution and consequently, wide degradation of natural systems and human wellbeing, all of which are largely documented.
Agricultural transformation. Agriculture has radically changed over the last few decades in developed regions of the world. What was once a biological process driven by sunshine, rainfall and human labour has become an industrial process dependent upon ever increasing synthetic inputs and financial capital. What was once a healthy way to raise a family has become an occupation filled with risks and isolation, with the needs of the agrifood industry overriding the need for healthy food and decent livelihoods. While technological ‘breakthroughs’ keep emerging from corporate laboratories, the food and agricultural sector continues its race towards catastrophe, as witnessed by the multiple food and environmental crises of our era and most importantly, the loss of food sovereignty. Just as agricultural salinization during Sumerian times had devastating effects on civilizations as far back as 3500 BC, risks caused by industrial agriculture threaten human existence today. Despite all current efforts to produce more with less, issues like climate change and food-related diseases are threatening to alter our existence on a scale larger than we’ve ever experienced. Luckily, the food and agriculture system have the potential to substantially contribute to the resolving natural and societal aches, should there only be political will to adopt proven approaches, such as agroecology, along with a more democratic (or decentralized) governance.
Sustainability aims of the 90s
Conventional agriculture’ attempts
The SARD promise. On the occasion of the Earth Summit, FAO coined the term “Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development” (SARD), as reflected in Chapter 14 of Agenda 21, with the triple aim to enhance food security, rural livelihoods and natural resources. Productivity was thus paired with social and environmental imperatives and the impetus for sustainable development and intra- and inter-generational equity was genuine. The SARD concept complemented the technocratic agricultural approach with socio-political action areas at international (trade agreements), national (conducive policies and incentives), local (civil society participation) and household levels (equity). SARD’s implementation, however, proved challenging due to institutional boundaries of line ministries and other institutions. Also, the multi-functionality aspect of SARD raised suspicions among many developing countries in terms of potential trade barriers. Within a decade, SARD faded from countries’ agenda, while the sustainability fad survived to serve essentially non-sustainable enterprises. In fact, the lack of an operational definition of sustainability, for SARD and beyond, opened room for green-washing, with increasing sustainability codes, standards and reports and ever less sustainability on the ground.
Call for a New Green Revolution. A 1996 World Food Summit technical document stated that ‘sustainable intensification in more fertile areas … and a greater focus on developing technologies for the less fertile areas, are likely to give new opportunities for increasing food production, alleviating poverty and reducing the risks of environmental degradation’. An eventual perpetuation of the Green Revolution pollution concerns was swept away by stating that it is ‘the limited education level of many smallholders that often prevents a proper understanding of both the environmental and health risks associated with agrochemical use’. Even erosion risks were condoned by stating that ‘although HYVs often replaced older landraces, it is less certain that the world has actually suffered significant genetic erosion’. The document made a renewed call for more of the same (and worse), asserting that ‘improved technology delivery systems are the key to bringing the benefits of science-based technology to small-scale farmers, including the benefits of genetic engineering’. The professed New Green Revolution thought to address equity issues by ‘improving small-scale farmers’ access to mineral fertilizers, as well as further developing biotechnology and IPM-methods in order to achieve higher and environmentally sustainable yields with low inputs, while including those which are adapted to vulnerable and marginal areas of lesser immediate potential.’ While equity kept being trumpeted, the gap between poor and rich was widening and agrifood oligopolies strengthened.
Sustainable intensification. The Green Revolution engendered a petro-dependent agriculture (it takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy) and chiefly, a system in the hands of the agrifood industry. Over thirty years, the annual growth of fertilizer use on Asian rice has been from three to forty times faster than the growth of rice yields. Once on the path of industrial agriculture, farming could only be more profitable if the prices farmers received for their crops stayed ahead of the costs of petrochemicals and machinery, thus creating a cost-price squeeze for all the world’s farmers. By the early 1990s, the costs of agricultural production had risen from about half to over 80 percent of gross farm income, favouring wealthier and bigger farms. With population growth, the ‘feeding the world narrative’ within a sustainability context prompted the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, whereby the technologies and knowledge of the Green Revolution could be adapted to new areas (such as Africa) and other crops. Strictly speaking, sustainable intensification is an oxymoron, as physical laws do not permit ‘sustained’ intensification without huge externalities, among which the not so minor issue of climate change.
Grassroots demand for agri-Culture
Like-minded approaches. As the downsides of the industrial revolution started showing in the food and agriculture sector, several forms of sustainable agriculture emerged during the last century, from the Vedic Rishi Kheti in India, to biodynamic agriculture in central Europe (after Rudolf Steiner, 1924), organic farming in the UK and USA (after Sir Albert Howard, 1943), agroecology in Latin America (after Efraim Hernandez, 1977), natural agriculture in Japan (after Masanobu Fukuoka, 1980), permaculture in Australia (after Bill Mollison, 1988) and holistic management in Africa (after Allan Savory, 1988). The increasing demand of western countries’ consumers and the multitude of confusing organic labels on the markets triggered the promulgation of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 in USA and the EU organic regulation (EEC 1535/92) in 1992. Incentive measures were thereafter put in place to assist farmers’ conversion and to regulate ‘third countries’ access to the European market. The European and North American demand for organic foods and beverages, which has been greater than supply for the last three decades, fuelled developing countries’ interest for organic agriculture exports and subsequently, in developing equivalent organic regulation in order to access lucrative markets. Although the organic market trend was the beginning of the commodification of organic produce, ‘side-effects’ were largely positive for ecological resources. In addition to the sustainably managed organic lands over 11 million hectares in 1999, agrobiodiversity was boosted because traditional varieties were more viable under no external input conditions, and humus achieved higher soil carbon sequestration in nearly climate-neutral organic operations.
Organics enters inter-governmental fora. In 1999, the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission issued the Guidelines for Organic Food, adopted on the trail of the EU organic regulation in order to safeguard a fair playing field in international food trade and protect consumers from fraudulent claims. Also in 1999, the FAO Committee on Agriculture unanimously approved the first ever organic agriculture programme, mainly to harness export opportunities offered to developing countries, as well as a new programme on biotechnology, in order to respond to different countries’ requests. Organic agriculture was finally out of the doldrums by necessity, and its potential was to be explored in its own merit. However, that same Committee on Agriculture session also approved a new programme dedicated to bioengineering, which subsequently over-shadowed the organic programme in terms of allocated financial resources and institutional support.
Awakening the beast. The different forms of regenerative agriculture that emerged in the past century were largely ignored in institutional circles. As organic agriculture started to shape in the 90s through government regulations, those practicing it were often laughed at and marginalized by their neighbours. Despite the total lack of public research and training, organic gardens were flourishing and consumers rewarded producers’ stewardship with price premiums or community-supported schemes. With a view to discourage adoption of organic practices by neighbouring farmers, extension officers – commissioned by agribusinesses – carried a fear crusade in developing nations, arguing that organic fields were at high risk of pest ravages and that organic food was a risky choice, due to higher incidence of microbial and mycotoxin contamination. Towards the end of the decade, especially after the clear rejection of any transgenic technology by the international organic community, the agricultural industry started organizing its systematic offensive against organic proponents and practitioners.
Turn of the millennium struggles
Renewed industrial agriculture promises
New Green Revolution. The deaf policy discourse of modern agricultural development opened the space for private pursuit of profit in the food and agriculture sector. The fuzzy sustainability claim and ‘feeding the world’ mantra, coupled with equating laboratory-based technologies with modern agriculture, propelled bioengineering and its applications in the most remote areas of the world. In fact, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), promoted since 2006 by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to feed Africa by improving access to chemical fertilizers and unleashing the potential of genetically-modified seeds, while aiming to decrease pesticides use and resolving climate change challenges with the long-promised drought-tolerant engineered varieties. A rough comparison of AGRA’s investments in the Millennium Villages Project, as compared with the Export Programme for Organic Products from Africa (EPOPA) after 10 years of donor’ investments suggests that much better results can be obtained when investing in organic agriculture, while cutting investments 60 folds. AGRA investments of US$120/person/year tripled maize yields but increased water scarcity and N-fertilizers prices while market linkages remained challenging. EPOPA, on the other hand, invested less than US$2/person/year and saw organic exports of US$35 million in 2010 while more than doubling AGRA’s outreach, benefitting 1 million people in Uganda between 1997 and 2008.
Industry concentration. Although the so-called ‘life industry’ consolidated with seeds, agrochemicals and pharmaceutical companies in the 80s in order to develop and commercialize agricultural input packages, biotechnologies and ‘conservation agriculture’ practices required further industry consolidation. Conservation agriculture is an approach that applies a few organic practices (such as mulching and cover cropping) to no tillage systems, whereby genetically-engineered cultivations require drilling, chopping, glyphosate spreading and precise water management – all requiring appropriate machinery. The world’s four leading farm machinery companies (i.e. John Deere, CNH, AGCO and Kubota), which together accounted for one third of the total market in 2000, controlled more than half of the market in 2009. Since 2001, John Deere started investing in the new Big Data platform technologies, with tractors logging GPS data, as well as started to make deals with each of the seed and pesticide majors, first with Syngenta in 2007.
Feeding people? Technologies pushed by Monsanto/Bayer, DuPont/Dow, Syngenta/ChemChina, and other chemical-cum-biotechnology companies to ‘feed the hungry’ have well-documented ecological and social impacts, and the second Green Revolution they promised did not end hunger any more than the first. Between 2000 and 2004, the prevalence of undernourishment stagnated at 14.7% of the world population. Thanks to safety nets and other measures put in place by governments for the MDGs, global hunger reached its lowest levels in 2015 at 10.6 percent – before rising to 10.8 in 2016 and 10.9 percent in 2017, mainly due to political instability and conflicts. Most importantly, the mid-decade food price crises increased the global number of people under-nourished from 900 million to 945 million, as food price spikes paralleled fossil-fuel prices on which the food system depends, in terms of synthetic fertilizers prices and grains prices for bioenergy production. In fact, the agroindustry focus on increasing grain yields, mainly genetically-engineered corn, shifted its focus from feeding people to feeding large confinement animal farms and biofuel production factories.
Organic agriculture growing branches
Gaining traction. Many new-generation organic growers are attracted to non-chemical farming because it re-establishes agriculture as a human skill and a healthy lifestyle. The global organic food supply of around 1% of global food market is constrained by the fact that organic management requires more efforts and good ecological knowledge, in a context of fierce competition with industrial farmers who disproportionally benefit from government assistance, private research and consolidated supply infrastructure. Still, world organic sales tripled in a decade, from USD 18 billion in year 2000 to USD 59 billion in 2010. Despite exponential sales’ growth, supply is not keeping pace with demand, as organic farmland increased in the same period from 14.9 to only 35.7 million ha.
Inspiring good agronomy. Conventional farms regularly ‘borrow’ organic techniques, just because they are good agronomy and the narrative of ecological management is often used to raise the industrial agriculture profile. For example, conservation agriculture applies organic soil fertility practices (including permanent soil cover and diverse crop rotation) to no-till systems, then claims its superiority over organics in terms of soil carbon sequestration, thus attracting carbon credits. Conservation tillage is however challenging in terms of weed control, a problem that industrial agriculture resolves with glyphosates, often coupled with genetically-engineered cultivations. Long-term research on conservation tillage impacts on Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) sequestration indicates that SOC concentration increases in the surface layer and less in the subsoil, as it is residue management that is the key factor in SOC sequestration and dynamics. The ecological knowledge that guides organic management has also become handy to bioengineers who capitalized, for instance, on the use of the naturally occurring soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for pest control with Monsanto’s inclusion of Bt in genetically modified corn and cotton. Naturally occurring Bt has a short half-life when exposed to sunlight and the elements, while its genetic counterpoint persists within corn, with insects developing immunity against best agricultural practice. Individual organic practices keep inspiring good practices, demonstrating that the sector leads creativity and could become the hub of agricultural innovations. However, using bits and pieces of organic practices does not allow its full potential to unfold and the systemic organic approach that secures the long-term resilience to agriculture remains alien to quick (short-term) fix industrial agriculture.
Co-opting organics. The explosive growth of organic market has encouraged the participation of agribusiness interests, putting at risk the viability of the small-scale farming and the integrity of the organic claim. In 1995, the US organic community counted 81 major independent organic brands on the market and by 2007, all but 15 of these brands had been acquired by top food corporations. As a result of these acquisitions, many brands began using cheaper, less sustainable ingredients in their products. In 2004, the world leading food and beverage industries had made partnerships with organic companies, or developed their own organic lines, squeezing-out pioneer organic producers, displacing regional coop food warehouses, and most importantly, putting downward pressure on payments to farmers and forcing down prices for organic produce (i.e. Walmart). Underpaid migrant farm workers out-numbered self-employed organic farmers, and retailers implemented their own in-house certification (i.e. Whole Foods), with imports of cheap organic grains from Argentina and Brazil (i.e. Cargill) for livestock operations. Through research funding and government lobbying, agribusiness has also a predominating effect on agriculture-related science and policy, besides organic market rules. For instance, representatives of Tyson, Horizon, Heinz and Birdseye participating to the National Organic Standards Board in USA made recommendations that were listened to by regulators, such as allowing for the manufacture of organic high fructose corn syrup.
Tainting public opinion on organic agriculture
Gagging FAO. The entry of organic agriculture into inter-governmental arena such as FAO was not deprived from pressure from the private sector. In 2000, Danone asked the French FAO Assistant Director-General to undermine the organic programme, as it was ‘against French interest’. In 2006, a large FAO/IFAD project in India on Organic Production of Underutilized Medical, Aromatic and Natural Dye Plants saw the exceptional gathering of agriculture, livestock, forestry, health and environment authorities around the project objectives to improve poor household livelihoods, mainly by empowering rural poor communities through inter alia, solid fair trade platforms and networking, in a context of increasing farmers suicides due to agricultural input debts. Following the inception mission that unveiled the potential of this project, high-level instructions were received in the FAO Representation in New Delhi and FAO Headquarters in order to discontinue this project. Staff efforts to continue the project and an internal evaluation of field activities in India, which admitted ‘administrative’ errors regarding this project, were vain in the face of unidentified opponents to this project. In 2007, Croplife International contested the outcome of the first ever FAO International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, held back-to-back with the CFS, with the latter recommending that ‘organic agriculture be considered within food security programmes. Consequently, the FAO Director-General issued a press release, six months after the organic conference, stating that the FAO report promoting organic agriculture was ‘inconclusive’.
Seeding consumer doubts. The grip of the micro-organisms’ fear that threatens in the absence of chemical input use, coupled with public concern to problems with Salmonella and Campylobacter in Europe, prompted the FAO Regional Conference for Europe to request a review of organic food safety in 2000. The study reported on potential sources of contamination of organic foods to be in the same range as conventional foods and that, ‘as far as chemical contaminants were concerned, organic foods offered definite advantages due to the non-use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilisers. However, the use of organic fertiliser could be a source of microbiological contamination of primary produce and needed, therefore, to be controlled’. In USA, the Hudson Institute accused the practice of spreading animal manure on organic farm fields to increase the incidence of food-borne diseases. Even though spreading manure on the field concerns 90% of conventional farms, and that organic farmers took the lead in developing strict limitations governing the use of raw manure, it was organic practices that were under scrutiny – rather than industrial food supplies that are loaded with pesticide residue cocktails and other contaminants. Even though the manure attack was subject of an independent study by the University of Minnesota that found no statistically different risk in the pathogenic contamination of certified organic food verses its conventionally produced counterparts, the Hudson Institute disputed the study results. A substantial number of attacks on every aspect of organic agriculture could be given, from being unhealthy, unsafe and constituting a nutritional hoax, to transmitting animal diseases, being ecologically damaging, elitist, fraudulent, unreliable, economically uncompetitive without subsidies, alienating to workers and not able to feed the world. In particular, the fact that organic food fetches higher market prices create a sector particularly vulnerable to food fraud by non-organic parties, thus enabling the agrifood industry to foment spurious health and safety fears. Aware of the fraud risks, the organic community pioneered guarantee systems and traceability protocols in order to safeguard its claims, while the industry keeps denying the harmful impacts of agrochemicals to the extent that current efforts are made by the German Academy of Sciences to redefine different risk assessment protocols.
Public vs private goods. Organic agriculture’s avoidance of synthetic inputs is by definition a lack of compliance with the industrial agriculture tenets and thus, an issue of producers’ independence from agri-chemicals and genetically-engineered seeds. Consequently, agrochemical companies heavily invest in campaigns in order to discredit any form of practice that substitutes their private goods with public goods, intended as farmers’ cleaver harnessing of natural resources and ecosystem services. Promulgated by well-funded surrogates, such as the right-wing Hudson Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Chemical Society, multinational corporations see their market threatened when consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, turning the organic food market from a small niche into the fastest growing segment of the food industry for several consecutive years. Publishing tainted reports, coupled with a robust round of press coverage, is a usual practice of the agroindustry, such as the ‘independent’ reviewers report findings about consumers who unduly ‘purchase price premium organic products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes’. In this particular case, it later appeared that executives from Monsanto and allies engaged in fund raising for the review and collaborated on strategy and plans to hide industry funding. With a view to build its own scientific evidence, and this prevent policy action to restrict harmful practices, the agrichemical industry has entered the research space, displacing publicly-funded independent research in agriculture. In 2013, the combined research and development budgets of the big six agrochemical and seed companies, valued at nearly USD 7 billion, was six times larger than the total US Department of Agriculture’s Research and Information budget. Thus, the agroindustry financial capital dedicated for influencing farmers, academics and policy-makers, along with research and development, is disproportionate to the means of public and civil society actors promoting non-synthetic farming.
Cain and Abel economies of this decade
The ever-bigger promise of industrial agriculture
Digitalization. The latest panacea for ending hunger and protecting the environment is Big Data in agricultural equipment, with on-farm devices transferring data wirelessly to corporate servers – often with limited farmer knowledge. Smart farming (and the latest climate-smart stunt) includes drones, driverless tractors and the use of climate and weather information, promising increased efficiency and sustainability. Applying these tools to nanoparticles, chemical reactions or genetic sequences is highly specialized. Those controlling the industrial food chain apply market information, climate projections, and soil and crop disease data in order to tweak fertilizer compositions, seed coatings and crop traits for the next growing season. Especially in the input sector – namely pesticides and seeds – the dominant companies seek to prescribe how, when and where farmers buy and use farm inputs, and who can access the resulting data, to their market advantage. Every part of the food chain uses remote and built-in sensors to gather data, clouds to store data, artificial intelligence to analyse information, algorithms to manipulate it, and blockchains to distribute it. Agribusiness companies such as Bayer and Deere, but also Internet enterprises such as Amazon and Google are already in the process of establishing their dominance over the digitalisation of agriculture. Through mergers, they consolidate their power not only in one sector, but across multiple hubs along the industrial food chain. Political decision-makers support their efforts, by emphasizing the benefits of digitalisation and by removing investment barriers.
Mergers and acquisitions. Conservation agriculture, precision agriculture, sustainable intensification and genetically-engineered systems require intelligent machinery to top up synthetic input use. The merger of Bayer and Monsanto in June 2018 (now Bayer), the previous mergers of Dow and DuPont (now Corteva Agriscience) and ChemChina and Syngenta (soon part of Sinochem) in 2017, together with BASF, control 63% of the global industrial seed market and more than 70% of the global pesticide business. In 2014, only four corporations controlled 21% of the fertilizer market and almost 54% of the agricultural machinery market. Likewise, four firms controlled 70% of agricultural trade and 54% of food processing. Above 40% market share, concentration makes it hard for new and smaller companies to enter the market. Markets are further controlled by strategic alliances, contracting arrangements and joint ventures among firms, for sourcing materials or sharing research and development costs. For example, John Deere has joint ventures with all six of the dominant seed/pesticide companies to expand its precision farming platform. Control over a wide range of agricultural inputs allows a major role in determining seed varieties, chemical inputs, irrigation techniques and even the type of crop insurance available to farmers. Through cartels, groups of firms engage in price-fixing, market-dividing or other reciprocal arrangements; for example, a small number of fertilizer companies have quietly cooperated on industry prices throughout the past century, and so did international grain trading companies since the 1950s. While recent acquisitions mature and vertical integration continues with further takeovers in the future. Traders, processors and retailers are currently acquiring companies on a weekly basis. Every sector in the industrial food chain is today structured under oligopolistic conditions and we are heading towards a duopoly, headed by machinery companies. Behind the scene, lie a handful of more powerful asset managers and investment brokers, whose transnational power financially exceeds any enterprise, any high street bank and almost any country. These financial investors are using new trading mechanisms, like blockchains and Dark Pools, to shift shares in companies over each of the links in the industrial food chain, which affords them insider knowledge of all the competing corporations. For example, the American investor BlackRock is the major shareholder of 282 of the 300 largest Western corporations (e.g. BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, McDonald, Nestlé, Apple, Daimler, Lufthansa, Exxon, Shell), administering assets over USD 6.3 trillion and exercising enormous influence in the stock market. Market share is not the only measure of corporate power, as assets are constantly being shifted among the major players; they regularly sell off regional assets when prices are low, invest in rival companies, launch joint ventures and buy start-ups. On-going transformative forces include both technological disruptions and market place disruptions, and anti-trust regulators don’t always have the tools to stop vertical and horizontal mergers.
Freedom of choice? Economic elites and political elites act as mutual stepping stones for one another to elevate each other’s status through government regulation, subsidy, and taxes. With the promise of economic growth, profits tend to accumulate in the top tiers of society instead of being distributed equitably. The carrot of poverty and hunger alleviation effectively lures agricultural workers into continued labour and resource exploitation, while providing little in return. This model expands to the environment as well, and most commonly, harms associated with pollution are borne by the marginalized groups in society without receiving any of the benefits that are gained by producing pollution. While farmers have been collecting information for 10,000 years for their own use and to share with their communities and with researchers, current industry practices raise questions about the ethical use of data ownership, and whose interests Big Data is ultimately serving. The high concentration of power (for seeds, agrochemicals, fertilizers, livestock genetics, animal pharmaceuticals for livestock, aquaculture and seafood and farm machinery), soon extending to crop insurance companies, leaves no freedom to choose what to grow, how to manage the farm fields, where to buy inputs from, whom to sell to, at what price and ultimately, to choose what to eat.
Positioning of organic agriculture, agroecology and social justice
Organic 3.0. In 2015, 50.9 million hectares of agricultural lands were under organic certification. In addition, wild collection, beekeeping and areas used for aquaculture in forests, grazing and non-agricultural land totalled 39.7 million hectares. Thus, all organic areas sum-up to 90.6 million hectares, providing income to at least 2.9 million organic producers and global market sales of USD 75 billion. Organic agriculture expands worldwide and in 2018, organic data existed for 181 countries, with 93 countries having developed an organic legislation. Some estimates put the organic market at USD 320 billion by 2025, with the highest growth in Asia, but with the growth in organic farmland slowing in parts of Europe and North America, there are concerns about supply shortfalls. In USA, data shows that rural counties with many organic farms and businesses have higher household incomes and reduced poverty rates by as much as 1.35 percent, even more than major anti-poverty programmes. Despite its proven farm profitability worldwide, the organic community is increasingly concerned with the commodification of the organic supply chain and social justice among agricultural workers. Following the unanimous inter-governmental recognition of agroecology in 2013, IFOAM initiated opening-up to like-minded movements and launched the so-called Organics 3.0. With Organic 1.0 referring to organic pioneers and Organic 2.0 referring to the current era of standards and regulatory systems, the goal of Organic 3.0 is ‘to enable a widespread uptake of truly sustainable farming systems and markets based on organic principles and imbued with a culture of innovation, of progressive improvement towards best practice, of transparent integrity, of inclusive collaboration, of holistic systems, and of true value pricing’. Advances are underway on many fronts and breakthroughs in non-GM biotechnology, such as marker-assisted selection, which is expected to further narrow the yield gap, and even outperform, industrial farming. In the current context of climate extremes, organic soils have proven their superior resilience and hence, fertility.
Good food for all. A modelling of the potential of a 100% conversion to organic agriculture in order to provide food to the 2050 population and simultaneously reduce environmental impacts from agriculture showed that organic management could indeed produce enough food for people without degrading the environment nor using more land, provided that the food system be designed to reduce by 50% food-competing feed use and food loss and waste. Consequently, reduced animal numbers (mainly, monogastrics) and reduced animal product consumption (globally, 11 to 38%) are necessary. To this end, a comprehensive food systems perspective (of production and consumption) is crucial, rather than simply addressing a maximum yield goal for single crops as a stand-alone performance criterion. Should agroecology and organic farming become the norm, changing agricultural practices entails abandoning synthetic inputs, redeploying natural grasslands and extending agroecological infrastructures (hedges, trees, ponds and stony habitats) in more localized and healthier food systems. Besides its capacity to provide enough energy food for the world population, organic food is now recognized for its nutritional quality, with more polyphenolics in fruits and vegetables, less Cadmium in cereals and higher fatty acids and Omega-3 in dairy. On the other hand, the increases in industrial yields have been paralleled with a loss, in the last half century, of 5 to over 40 percent in crop nutritional value (due to the introduction of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilization and irradiation), and the abundance of ultra-processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods have drastically impoverished diets. Chiefly, the decreased content of chemical residues in organic food confers them superiority over industrial foods, as toxic residues in food are largely responsible for the modern non-communicable disease epidemics. Although industry proponents have profusely campaigned on the safety levels of pesticide residues in food, the fact is that many of the synthetic agricultural chemicals used in the past century have been banned and more are continuously listed for prohibition – usually once the agrochemical company has migrated to the next level of poisons, including both synthetic chemicals of synthetic biology.
People and self-determined transformation. The organic agriculture pioneers of the last century envisioned a system where care for nature went hand in hand with fair treatment of workers and decent prices. Once the initial family farms and independent small-scale processors faced overwhelming competition from the organic industry, and large-scale farms converted to organic purely on a marketing ground, social justice in organic systems became an issue similar to that of industrial agriculture. Although IFOAM principles and standards include social justice, current organic regulatory frameworks do not consider pricing and labour issues, claiming that the social component is not in their purview. Ethical organic foundations are currently trying to position fair contracts, fair pricing and fair access to productive inputs (i.e. land, credit, organic seeds) in mainstream government instruments; for instance, the US National Organic Action Plan underlines the urgency of reuniting the principles of fairness and organics. Through fair employment and decent living conditions, the sector can potentially contribute to halting the trend of disenfranchising farming communities, while providing better jobs to the 1.6 billion smallholder farmers around the world. Thanks to conducive rural revitalization policies, reverse urbanization is a new trend in many countries, with educated young couples choosing to establish organic farms and eco-agritourism in rural Europe, as well as over 7 million people in China who returned to rural areas to start businesses to raise livestock and agritourism to attract visitors to farms. Recently, civil society networks have jointly called for a fair and sustainable European consumption and production agenda ahead of the European Parliament elections; their fictious issue of a 2024 newspaper includes examples of what could be achieved if transformative policies were adopted and implemented by the EU, from organic farming to ethical financing, community-led initiatives to sustainable public procurement, as well as the need to tackle imbalances of power in supply chains. Basic human rights also encompass the rights of all people to follow their own cultural and traditional knowledge systems and the rights of farmers and farm workers to have an empowered voice in the continued improvement of an ethical food system. With a view to counter agriculture industrialization, food market concentration and the commodification of Earth resources such as soil, as well of human labour, a group of biodynamic enterprises (e.g. Purpose AG, Alnatura) is currently rethinking the concept of property in order to combine entrepreneurial freedom with fraternity and protect them from profit-oriented interests. This new legal structure called ‘enterprises in responsible ownership’, was discussed in October 2018 by hundreds scientific, political and business background associations and managers. The ultimate aim of the biodynamic community is to establish an associative approach to finance, capital and property.
Corporate offensive on organic agriculture policies
Undermining organic policies. Having somewhat failed to influence consumer choices, the agroindustry is multiplying its efforts to influence policy-makers. Corporate interests and big farm groups that claim to speak for all farmers are driving agricultural policies in many countries, making it harder to promulgate fair policies, or to file a complaint against unsustainable practices. In 2018, US Republican Senator Pat Roberts, leader of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, heavily supported by agrichemical industries, wrote the Senate version of the Farm Bill that attempted to open-up the organic standards to allow toxic pesticides and GMOs. By proposing a shift of authority, from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to the Secretary of Agriculture through the loophole of “emergency exemptions” over the USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, the aim was to take away from the NOSB the gatekeeping authority it has over what types of fertilizers, pest control agents and other inputs could be used in organic agriculture. Under the ‘emergency exemptions’ status, the Secretary of Agriculture could greenlight a new “crop protection substance” (i.e. pesticides). For 20 years, organic farmers have succeeded without emergency exemptions, while the emergency loophole has allowed conventional agriculture to apply restricted or banned toxic pesticides. Although the assault on the NOSB was curtailed by a House version of the Farm Bill, funding was cancelled for programmes helping small and mid-size farmers transition to organic and afford certification, with organic research receiving less than 1% of federal agricultural research funds. Concurrently, politicians are enticed to prevent laws banning toxic substances, such as Dow/DuPont chlorpyrifos insecticide used on a variety of crops and deemed a danger to kids’ brain development; according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, among the 330 House members who chose not to sponsor the bill to ban the insecticide, 118 had received money from Dow in a total of USD 379 651 from Dow since 2017 and by July 2018, President Trump had appointed three former Dow executives to top posts within the US Department of Agriculture. The EU Common Agricultural Policy is similarly influenced by corporate interests, determining prioritization of funding research and the future of agriculture. In 2011, the European Transparency Register reported 151 organisations representing agribusinesses who declared a total of €49,2 million euro in lobbying expenditure, with Syngenta listed as spending €650,000 and Bayer €2,525,000. The ‘emergency’ excuse that allows public authorities to act in derogation of environmental and health protection principles, at times purposely targeting successful organic businesses, is an agroindustry strategy world over. From vibrant organic cotton enterprises, victims of DDT sprays to counteract malaria mosquitos in Uganda in 2009 (compromising the whole organic cotton sector), to the 2018 Italian ‘Emergency Decree’ (no. 152/2006), massive pesticide use is transforming the exception into common practice. June 2019 marked a new step of offensive strategy, with farmers in India (Akot, Maharashtra) pushed by Monsanto to declare ‘civil disobedience agitation’ in order to remove the ban introduced in 2010 on Bt Brinjal; this agroindustry-led action was justified for the sake of ‘freedom from government control for accessing modern technology’, while instrumentalizing Gandhi’s Satyagraha to stop brute law based on violence. More than ever, the economic interest of a few is threatening the right of all people to a healthy environment and free choice.
Innovation before precaution? In 2013, the chemical, veterinary pharma, tobacco, plastic and fossil fuel corporations, joined under the European Risk Forum (ERF) to launch the ‘innovation principle’ (IP), endorsed by the European Council in 2016 and successively supported by EU presidencies, thus achieving significant prominence within the EU institutions. The IP seeks to ensure that “whenever legislation is under consideration, its impact on innovation should be assessed and addressed”. Without defining innovation, the principle allows risky products to be kept on the market with the least possible restrictions and regulation. The ERF has invoked this principle to make REACH, the EU chemicals legislation, more business-friendly. The IP is being used to undermine EU laws on chemicals, novel foods, pesticides, nano-products and pharmaceuticals, amongst others, as well as legal principles of environmental and human health protection which are enshrined in the EU Treaty. By claiming harm to innovation and economic efficiency, the innovation concept opens-up new opportunities for corporations, while threatening the Precautionary Principle, or Polluter-Pay-Principle. The IP concept has been included for the first time in a draft legal text to be voted on by the European Parliament: the draft Horizon Europe that lays-out the rules for the EU’s research and innovation programme of 100 billion euros from 2021 to 2027, favouring even more EU funds being spent on industry research and development. In 2017, DG Research set-up an internal, dedicated ‘Innovation Principle Task Force’ in order to implement the IP and the DG Research 2018 Work Programme lists the screening of future policy and legislative initiatives “to identify those where the innovation principle could be implemented.” Recent pesticide industry meetings with DG Research focused on the “incompatibility” of policies or regulations: those that promote the “innovation principle” on the one hand, and those that are “black-listing substances considered innovative or indispensable/useful” on the other. Evidently, good old glyphosate-based herbicides are considered as “indispensable”, so the IP comes to the rescue also of old and much-criticised products. In reality, the agricultural innovations that have best served agriculture have been the prerogative of ecological agriculture practioners in order to find solutions to their conscious avoidance of synthetic inputs; through a mix of genetic, mechanic and ecological means, practices were put in place to enhance soil fertility (biodynamic preparations), control weeds (mechanical thermal control), protect crops (beneficial arthropods) and care for animals (essential oils).
Subverting science and obscurantism. For decades, the tobacco industry called ‘junk science’ any independent science which showed the harm caused by its products, referring to its own sponsored studies as ‘sound science’; this kind of language is now used by the agroindustry. In particular, the pesticides industry uses the ‘science-based’ argument to both hide its politics and lobby politicians. The fact that GM systems are not proving their better yields, less chemical inputs, safety, impact on the environment, nutritional value, or improved farmers’ income, leads to the preferred industry tactic to denigrate alternative solutions by manipulating information. Most worryingly, corrupt corporations have penetrated the scientific integrity of editors, publishers, regulators and governments. Scientific studies funded by industry tend to deliver results benefiting their sponsors, or not to be published when unsuitable to their interest, twisting the available scientific literature and literature reviews informing public decisions. The Monsanto Papers show that ghost-writing by company employees on behalf of supposedly independent experts is a common practice, as disclosed for several important studies on glyphosate in the scientific literature, as well as destruction of the credibility and reputation of individual scientists, such as the 2012 retraction of the Séralini et al. study that critically evaluated Roundup ready corn (Monsanto’s NK603) as probably carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting. In Italy, recent attacks on organic agriculture took the twist of pure obscurantism. From mid-2018 to early 2019, Italian Senator for life Elena Cattaneo has been using all means, including open letters, media articles, communiqué, TV talk shows, documents publicly supported by hundreds of scientists, and asking academia not to host biodynamic meetings (that threatens the credibility of scientific and public institutions, in the very ‘country of Galileo that gave birth to the scientific method’), in order to prevent the approval of Law 988 that promotes organic agriculture for the nation’s health and environment. Her attacks use rather medieval arguments, based on the science/anti-science polarity, whereby she referred to biodynamic agriculture as a ‘witch craft practice’, organic agriculture a ‘beautiful but impossible tale’, and agroecology proponents as ‘phonies’ promoting a ‘vision of backward development, based on ideology when not on magic’ – while strongly asserting that sustainable agriculture cannot be but intensive, with genetic engineering as a solution to decreased pesticide usage. Alas, misappropriation, misconduct, and retraction of scientific evidence apply also to food science, with soda companies sponsoring nutrition research (such Coca-Cola on obesity in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks) and contributing to the nutrition and health chaos of our time, with diet as the leading cause of mortality.
Hunger will persist in 2030. In 2017, 821 million people were chronically hungry. Malnutrition is compounded by increasing micronutrient deficiencies and obesity affects over 2 billion people. In addition, moderate food security includes those who struggle or worry about the ability to access or globally, nearly 1.8 billion were moderately food insecure in 2015. Whilst the greatest number are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, moderate food insecurity is (and will remain) a major issue across all regions, even high-income countries . Despite the ‘zero hunger’ target of Sustainable Development Goal 2 for 2030, it is estimated that 625 million people will be still chronically hungry by then. Multiple challenges include inequalities, conflicts, climate change, demand for resource-intensive animal feed and non-food uses (e.g. biofuels) – and resource depleting farming systems such as industrial intensification.
Projections for a healthy 2050. The results of the FAO global scenario analysis for 2050 clearly show that ‘business-as-usual’, where outstanding food and agricultural challenges are left unaddressed, ‘leads to significant undernourishment by 2050, even if gross agricultural output expands by 50 percent from 2012 to 2050, which would in turn contribute to increasing GHG emissions. These negative trends are further exacerbated in the “stratified societies” scenario of increased inequality. The only feasible future can be achieved through a “towards sustainability” scenario (with agroecology assumptions) that requires proactive changes for more sustainable food and agriculture systems: in such a scenario, the ‘SDG target could be met with a much lower expansion of agricultural output, as long as production systems are more sustainable, on the one hand, and income and food are more equitably distributed between and within countries, on the other. In the “towards sustainability” scenario, under-nourishment shrinks drastically even if agricultural production increases only in the vicinity of 40 percent, while GHG emissions are significantly cut. Undernourishment is drastically reduced because income and food are more fairly distributed between and within countries. More balanced diets in high-income countries, likely to bring beneficial impacts on overweight, obesity and related non-communicable diseases, also contribute to curbing the expansion of livestock activities, which is in turn a key factor to achieve the more limited expansion of agricultural output and arable land, and the significant reduction in GHG emissions. However, action in the food and agriculture sector alone will not suffice and a more equitable distribution of income within and across countries is indispensable. Thus, a structural transformation away from global capitalism is necessary to improve the equity of economic systems.
Agroecology and democratic governance for sustainable food and nutrition security. Having seen food production advance while hunger widens and planetary boundaries dangerously over-shoot, the only alternative is to create a viable small and medium-size agriculture using the principles of agroecology. Clearly, much needs to be done to advance agroecological science and practices, but even today’s agroecological wisdom has the potential to feed the citizens of the world, protect biodiversity and the environment, and the productivity of the land for future generations – should there only be political will to scale it up. As a new global society, agricultural system and environment converge, and when we export entropy or mid-line wastes, we do it in our own backyards. Agri-Culture must be revitalized as the most dignifying human activity harnessing natural resources, through fair prices, responsible consumption and investments in rural areas – our inalienable gardens. However, addressing the global corporate governance is a pre-condition to sustainable and equitable food and nutrition security. The UN in its quality of global governance institution, should bring the rule of law to the power relations governing the global agricultural economy that currently determines who gets what, when and how. More specifically, the FAO High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, through an inclusive public debate of the Committee on Food Security, should examine the potential dangers of emerging agriculture technologies (e.g. synthetic biology, gene editing, driveless tractors) and supervise corporations developing them. Although countries in both the North and South have dismantled UN mechanisms to track technologies and corporations in the 90s, today’s reality is that corporations are getting what they want and developing countries are losing out. Hence, time has come to consider a UN treaty on mergers and acquisitions, as well as technologies with implications for more than single nations. This process could be informed by existing UN tools, committees and initiatives, such as the UNCTAD Model Law on Competition Policy, the UNCTAD Commission on Science and Technology for Development and the UN Secretary General’s Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation and its Technical Facilitation Mechanism. Recognizing that this will be a long journey, global corporate governance must be somehow substituted by democratic governance for sustainable food and nutrition security.
 Agroecology, defined by FAO as a science, a practice and a social movement for sustainable agriculture could be considered similar to uncertified organic agriculture; agroecology principles are very similar to organic agriculture but agroecology has no precise standard with dos and dont, which makes it subject to interpretation.
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