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Thursday, 18 June 2015 06:05

Industrial Agriculture Is a Threat to World Food Supply

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aaaacorny24Don't let the smiley face of Big Agriculture fool you. (Photo: David Clow)

Bigger is not always better. As Wall Street banks and big box stores such as Walmart have shown, bigger is often worse. The list of industries that have consolidated into national and global cartels is long and growing, and so is their collateral damage.

In general, this trend - accelerated by trade agreements such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership - means an increase in the exploitation of labor. It also means an expansion of unregulated practices that lead to global warming, and an elimination of small businesses. (For example, think about the elimination of local pharmacies, office supply stores, banks and bakeries.)

In the case of the financial industry, the consolidation of the money supply in the hands of a few institutions has reverberating global impacts. These institutions engage in predatory lending policies toward individuals and underdeveloped nations. They thrive in these efforts through minimal regulation (in the US and most other G-20 nations), and are abetted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

This pattern is repeated in other industries, such as agriculture. A column this spring in Dollars & Sense details how Big Agriculture - which includes ancillary industries, such as pesticides and seeds - sells itself as a route to creating more and safer food for a growing population. In reality, however, as Professor John Ikerd points out in Dollars & Sense, "everywhere we look, we can see the failure of the grand experiment of industrial agriculture":

Agricultural industrialization has had a devastating effect on the quality of rural life. Industrial agriculture has replaced independent family farmers with a far smaller number of farm workers, most of whom are paid poorly. In 1960, farmers were still more than 8% of the U.S. workforce. They are less than 1% today. Rural communities have suffered both economically and socially from this loss of traditional farm families. More than 50 years of research demonstrates that communities supported by small to mid-size family farms are better places to live, both economically and socially, than are communities dependent on large farming enterprises.

Perhaps most important, industrial agriculture has failed in its most fundamental purpose: providing food security. The percentage of "food insecure" people in the United States is greater today than during the 1960s—early in the current phase of agricultural industrialization.... Furthermore, the industrial food system is linked to a new kind of food insecurity: unhealthy foods.

Ikerd's first point about the decimation of the small farmer is particularly devastating in poorer nations that are force-fed wealthier countries' agricultural products as part of so-called "debt relief" (or structural adjustment) agreements.  

A 2014 Inter Press Service article pointedly states that "small farmers’ loss of land increases world hunger":

The world is increasingly hungry because small farmers are losing access to farmland. Small farmers produce most of the world’s food but are now squeezed onto less than 25 percent of the world’s farmland, a new report reveals. Corporate and commercial farms, big biofuel operations and land speculators are pushing millions off their land.

"Small farmers are losing land at a tremendous rate. It’s a land reform movement in reverse," said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN, an international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers, which released the report Thursday.

"The overwhelming majority of farming families today have less than two hectares to cultivate and that share is shrinking," Hobbelink told IPS.

In short, in contrast to what Big Agriculture's PR messages might lead you to believe, the world is becoming more vulnerable in terms of its food supply, not more secure. In addition, even wealthier nations are increasingly becoming a captive market for Big Ag food production. Regardless of some gains being made in certain areas, such as some food manufacturers removing GMOs from their products, the trend of the consolidation of the food production chain into a few hands continues unabated.

As a result, Big Ag obtains more power over the food supply - and the use of toxic pesticides and patented seeds. It's an international crisis. In India, for instance, there has been a large number of farmer suicides over the past few years due to - in essence - the impact of Big Ag (including the patenting of seeds and lower prices offered by industrial agriculture, both domestic and imported).

In May of this year, The Guardian reported on a bill in India that would make it easier for corporations to buy farmland:

"We’re devaluing our primary producers without a thought to food security, natural self-reliance, or their own person," says [Usha] Ramanathan, a legal researcher who has raised several criticisms of the bill. Ramanathan is particularly concerned about the potential elimination of the need of the consent of communities affected by the loss of land and the removal of a provision to return land that remains unused or uncompensated after five years. "We’re losing not just farming land, but a whole generation of farmers," she says.

There’s no question that Indian farming is in crisis, and that most of India’s 248 million farm workers struggle to sustain themselves and their families. A 2013 nationwide survey of agricultural households found that farming provided barely 60% of their average monthly income.

Small sustainable farmers are being forced to quit farming. Meanwhile, Big Ag - once it reaches a certain threshold of market control - can begin to raise prices and utilize its monetary power to defy efforts to control pesticides. Simultaneously, companies such as Monsanto and Synergy are busy privatizing the very source of food: They are patenting seeds. 

Professor John Ikerd finds hope in the slow but steady growth of organic and sustainable farming in the US, although it is still in its relative infancy. It is not clear that Big Ag's stranglehold on the majority of the US food supply will be reversible in the near future. Ikerd, however, is optimistic:

Globally, industrial agriculture is not needed to "feed the world." Small, diversified farms already provide food for least 70% of the world’s population and could double or triple yields without resorting to industrial production methods.

To achieve this goal, the juggernaut of global Big Ag needs to be stopped in its tracks.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.