This week the US government, various banks and fertilizer producers are gathering at the African Fertilizer Summit in Nigeria, a hard-sell shindig which promises a profit boosting end to African starvation. All corporate sponsors donating $25,000 get an advert on the Summit’s website, but if they fork our $100,000 they get a whole page in the summit’s literature, together with a “Special Booth” in Summit Exhibit Hall. Bargain! The fact that so many corporations are interested in such an event just goes to show that they are intent in foisting their outmoded, energy intensive, environmentally damaging and yet extremely profitable farming practices; if Africa gets inundated with pesticides and GM crops there’s some real cash to be made.
Ironically, traditional small-scale agricultural cultivation techniques of manuring fields and rotating crops are extremely energy efficient. But despite being used for millennia, traditional cultivation techniques are to go out window. Take the element nitrogen, for example - crops love it. You can introduce it into the soil in the form of chemical fertiliser and it’ll work for a few years even in soil totally unsuitable for your crop, or alternatively you can ensure a good dose for your veggies by rotating them with beans. Crop rotation prevents diseases in plants by breaking the up the natural life cycle of pests, but moving them around is an expensive business; the sort of thing that really eats away at your profits.
The agribusiness solution to this problem is to spray everything with a cocktail of dodgy chemicals, killing off any pests and, unfortunately, their natural predators in the process. Should this spray-fest kill off the plants too, then its time to genetically modify the veggies and make them resistant to the effects of highly profitable and potent chemicals like Monsanto’s nasty herbicide, Roundup. Plants aren’t that keen on these chemicals and reject much of what is sprayed on them which then washes away into groundwater causing nitrate contamination of underground sources of drinking water. Up to half of all UK fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residues when they reach the supermarket shelves.
On smaller scale farms, nutrients are recycled from farm animals to crop as manures, but monopoly control of the meat industry by a handful of companies means that cattle, pigs and chickens are being bred in factory conditions hundreds of miles away from farms, making such recycling an impossibility. Pork, beef and chicken companies have, in part, been responding to the growth of the fast food industry. Back in 1983 when Chicken McNuggets were launched, most chicken was sold whole, but now 90% is sold chopped into pieces, cutlets or nuggets. In an attempt to drive down costs so any old McCrap can be sold for less than a dollar, sheds are built to house 25,000 or more birds, pumping them up with growth hormones and antibiotics, so much so that fat content in chicken is up 50% in less than half a century!
As for agribusiness ending poverty - In the UK 200,000 farms disappeared between 1966 and 1995. 17,000 farm workers left the land in 2003, alone. Despite this, there are plenty of backhanders for big business, as each year, under the Common Agricultural Policy budget, the government gives away £3billion of subsidies, 80% of which goes to agribusiness. These transnational corporations operate in different parts of the food system, which means they can take a loss in one area, providing a profit is made in another, forcing local companies into a price war they can not sustain, killing off the competition and reinforcing their monopoly.
Agribusinesses also control and own more parts of the food chain. Cargill is one of three major traders of grain, the second largest animal feed producer and one of the largest meat producers in the world. Livestock farmers find that they are buying feed from the same companies to which they are selling their meat. “In a subsistence food system the family controls food from seed to plate”, says food researcher, David Hefferman, “in the emerging monopoly food system, a few food companies are gaining control of the world’s food system by controlling it from seed to shelf”.
Together with agribusinesses like Cargill, biotechnology companies are still making a packet. Advanta is one of the world’s leading seed breeding, production and marketing organisations, making it one of the five largest seed organisations in world. Seven years ago Advanta was in debt, as the public reaction to genetically modified seeds lead to a 30% decrease in sales. Despite a limited GM moratorium in Europe and a ban on terminator seed technology (which produces sterile seeds, so farmers have to buy new seeds every year), 21 countries are still growing GM crops on 90 million hectares, an 11% increase on 2004.
In order to give people a step up on the farming ladder, number of ‘County Farms’ were bought by English councils to help people take up farming, and worked a bit like starter homes for people trying to get on to the property ladder. But these are being flogged off at quite a rate. In a recent protest activists squatted Balham Hill Farm in Somerset against proposals to sell the place off to the highest bidder at auction (see SchNEWS 540), but earlier this week (12th June) bailiffs evicted the farm. Even the successful farm shop the squatters set up with its 1,000 customers would have been unable to pay the annual £30,000 interest charges needed to buy the farm that Council bosses and local Liberal Democrats want £425,000 for. In a partial victory to the activists, the farm is now due to go to tender rather than be sold at auction which means that it will be sold whole and could still be used agriculturally. The sell off is part of a wider plan to break land up to build industrial parks and those much needed conference centres. “Really it’s the whole policy that’s the problem, because the South Somerset Council are selling off 45 farms as the tenancies expire”, one activist told SchNEWS, “with the price of land and buildings farming is out of our reach now more than ever.”
But some rural communities are beginning to create their own solutions - there are now nearly 300 farmers markets in the UK, compared to virtually none forty years ago and more and more people are becoming aware that agro-related illnesses like Mad Cows Disease are not the independent problems like the scientists presume, but symptoms of poorly functioning and designed food production system.
Check out www.genewatch.org for the latest on GM crop growing and biotechnology and the Land is Ours for a bit of history and details on recent campaigns - www.tlio.org.uk
Check out http://www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news548.htm for the rest of this weeks SchNEWS including a printable version, more graphics and more articles. Subscribe at http://www.schnews.org.uk/pages_menu/subscribe.htm