Today, thanks to the Coronavirus crisis, the rotting of our current world structures has come further into evidence. The pandemic, compounded with an already ongoing climate and ecological crisis, as well as ballooning social inequalities, has placed us at a juncture. On the one hand, we have the opportunity to truly foster an ecological approach to food and agriculture, taking into deep account the web of biodiversity, food sovereignty, and local food communities, to help foster and protect Earth and human health. This transformation is possible through agroecological and organic approaches, which use biodiversity in food systems to provide resilience. Or, on the other hand, we can follow the current international trend to continue the concentration of industrial agriculture and convergence of digital and financial technologies to vertically integrate the entire food chain – from seed to table – rendering our food systems more vulnerable overall.
Although most international actors agree that our current food system is broken, not all agree on how this call for ‘food systems transformation’ should go. Now, the COVID public health crisis and its resulting economic devastation have accelerated calls to respond through the ‘Great Reset’ of capitalism through embracing the fourth industrial revolution. For food systems, this would mean a ‘food systems transformation’ where all areas of the food supply chain are further centralized, digitized, and mined for data in the false names of ‘public health’ and ‘economic recovery’. This push is now being supported by international organizations and world leaders who stand hand-in-hand with big corporations’ desires for further agrifood system concentration. For example, in January 2019 several agricultural ministers, in conjunction with the FAO and other proponents for industrial agriculture (Green Revolution Forum, the World Bank, OECD, CTA, and others) drafted a proposal to create the International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture to consolidate all agricultural data to be mined from farmers (ETC Group 2020). A platform that the new FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu, stressing the importance of partnership with the private sector, has invited agri-tech company CropLife to join in a letter of intent to move toward a digital food systems transformation. Such partnerships and strategies will inevitably allow for further control over every aspect of the food supply – through the production, distribution, and consumption chain – as has always been sought out by agribusiness’ monopolistic intents.
Practically, this translated to a more aggressive push toward false solutions of farms managed through artificial intelligence and predictive algorithms, precision farming, fake foods- such as lab-grown meat, synthetically produced oils, and breastmilk- robot pollinators, biofortification, gene drives for more advanced forms of GMOs, and digital sequencing genetic information (DSI) of agro-diversity. These supposed technological advancements to the biodiversity, nutrition, hunger, climate, ecological, and health crises are being touted as the new ‘smart’ and ‘innovative’ solutions for our food systems. But in actuality these ‘solutions’ are no such thing, as they are still, in the end, pushing us toward a further iteration of the industrial agricultural system which created these multiple crises in the first place.
Philanthrocaptialism’s False Solutions
Embodying and actively supporting these false solutions is philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates. Thinly veiled behind a heavily curated PR rhetoric of humanitarian generosity, such as increasing nutrition for the world’s poor or providing solutions to climate change, he is in fact behind the further centralization and commercialization of food and agriculture through the promotion of the above-mentioned technologies. Since chained to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s million-dollar grants are private market interests in commercially marketing these ‘solutions’.
His industrial and Green Revolution agricultural agendas around food and seed have come to slowly invade the international development juggernaut- from international research institutions, international organizations like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) (of which he is the largest private donor), and through his region-wide initiatives which influence state policy. Beginning in 2007 with the African Alliance for the Green Revolution (AGRA), Gates has quickly moved to launch Green Revolution and industrial agriculture initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) who promotes biofortification in the form of GMOs, Ag Tech, and Ag One in Asia, Africa, and Latin America which looks to digitize small-scale farming alongside the use of the commercial industrial agriculture model. Not to mention the thousands of million-dollar grants given to GMO research and commercialization (such as for various types of GM rice, Bt Brinjal, GMO banana, for example), gene drive technology for the extinction of pests, synbio produced food products and to international institutions to lubricate international policy. All done hand in hand with big agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva.
A working strategy with these big businesses effectively accelerates the technology research-to-product pipeline which benefits only the largest private corporations in the form of marketable products. Something only possible through erosion of the legitimacy of international biodiversity agreements such as the Convention of Biological Diversity and its Nagoya protocol, for example. These international frameworks were made to protect our biodiversity and are being completely subverted through digital mapping of the seed genomes, directly leading to biopiracy. The convergence of information technology and biotechnology by taking patents through “mapping” genomes and genome sequences undermines farmers’ rights, as permission from the farmers is not needed once the genome has been digitally mapped. While living seed needs to evolve “in situ”, patents on genomes can be taken through access to seed “ex situ”.
Under the excuse of the COVID-19 emergency, we are seeing a fast-tracking of these technologies and strategies with little regard for their (known and unknown) social, ecological, or health effects. While it has become extremely tempting to look for immediate solutions to these crises frantically, and therefore blindly, in reality, these false solutions embody a solutionist mentality which believes technology is the single mechanism to solving complex problems. In actuality, this relies on a heavy denial and amnesia of how agricultural technology, developed for the Green Revolution, has created and shaped these compounding crises, to begin with. Ignoring these facts risks the further accumulation of negative feedback loops of endlessly trying to solve the problem that technological and industrial solutions created in the first place, leaving these unsolved structural problems that perpetuate further crises.
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