Political economy of food

Agroecology: How to feed the world while confronting the climate crisis

Part 2 of a feature conversation with author and activist Raj Patel
Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Could a transition to different farming methods help save the world from climate catastrophe and feed more than seven billion people? Writer and activist Raj Patel says yes, as long as there’s political will and organization to push through the necessary changes. Patel gave the 2016 Hari Sharma Memorial Lecture in Vancouver last week. Widely known for his critical analysis of corporate globalization and the political economy of food, he is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Democracy and Redefine Democracy. You can read Part 1 of Ricochet’s conversation with Patel here.

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Last week, we learned we might see the end of Monsanto sooner than later. They have announced a merger with Bayer, and there’s talk of dropping the Monsanto brand altogether. How concerned should people be about this development?

Obviously, any monopoly capitalism is cause for concern, even to people who like capitalism. If you like capitalism, then you like markets and you like competition. Even if you’re a right-wing libertarian, this should be of deep concern. And this deal seems to only offer returns to Monsanto shareholders.

Bayer’s stock is down, so Bayer’s shareholders are very unimpressed by this. The consequences for Bayer are higher debt, their credit rating going down, and their reputation tarnished. There’s a lot of concern in Germany, where Bayer is based, because Monsanto is basically a byword for toxicity and poisoning and death.

There’s nothing magical about a farming technique that fixes capitalism.

There’s talk that Monsanto will disappear and just be folded into Bayer. But there’s some interesting analysis that basically the shareholders of Bayer, the big shareholders in particular, want Bayer to remain a pharmaceutical company. So purely from a financial point of view, I’m not convinced there’s the stamina on Bayer’s part to push this through. But in any case, the people who are guaranteed to win are the financial advisers who stitched this together, the banks who provided the financing, and various lawyers who’ve worked out the paperwork. I don’t see consumers winning from this. I don’t see farmers winning from this. There seems to be nothing in the public interest at all that emerges from this merger.

Let’s talk about why Monsanto has this bad reputation. There are large rallies against the company throughout the West. Much of the concern is about the food people might be eating here, with a lot of it focusing on the fear of genetically modified organisms on supermarket shelves. But the bigger picture with Monsanto seems to be the harm done in the Global South, to the people growing food there. You’ve written a lot about the global political economy of food. What’s the story worldwide with Monsanto and GMOs?

There are layers to this argument. The first layer is people saying, look, I don’t want to eat GMOs or be exposed to glyphosate, which is the broad-spectrum herbicide associated with a lot of this.

The second, and slightly deeper, argument is that farmers have very little choice when they’re caught in the pesticide treadmill. In India, for example, farmers are using a certain kind of cotton, called Bt cotton, that exudes pesticides from the leaves and the stems of the crop as a way of avoiding or stopping certain kinds of stem borers from destroying the crop.

The argument there is that this form of genetic engineering prevents the need for extensive pesticide spraying of the crops, and that this is in fact a better alternative?

That’s their argument. And in fact India’s one of the places Monsanto points to and says, “Look, farmers are benefiting from this. They’re choosing it by themselves. Farmers are smart people, so who are you to be taking away their genetically modified crop?” But you do need to look at the backstory here. The reason farmers needed to use these crops is that the last round of crops were being absolutely destroyed by new, pesticide-tolerant pests. And so you needed the next level in the war against nature, which is a permanent one. And now you’re starting to see the rise of resistance to this Bt cotton. So to say that Monsanto saved the day is to ignore the fact that Monsanto’s system caused the problem.

That’s where we get to the third and perhaps the deepest argument. Government support to farmers that would allow them to farm in agroecological ways has been shrunk, in part by the constant lobbying of corporations who want to see a withering on the vine of social services and publicly funded services. They don’t necessarily want to see a withering on the vine of the state. They still like the police, and they still like the enforcement of property rights, their property right in particular. But they do want to see less support for farmers in general to be able to make their own choices.

In every way, the narrative we have of the Green Revolution needs to be looked at again.

So instead what you have are trade agreements that are very much in favour of intellectual property rights of corporations, and the shrinking of public support for agriculture. And then the companies are able to come up the narrative that “of course these farmers choose us freely, because we’re the best.” Farmers would, I imagine, much rather not be caught on this pesticide treadmill, but they are indebted. They need some way to pay off the debt. The only way to do that is to borrow money to buy these seeds, and then if everything works out they’ll be able to make some money and pay down the debt and start the cycle all over again.

The sad part of this is that there are alternatives. The world where Monsanto gives you the credit to buy their seeds, and basically runs a modern-day plantation politics and economy — the thing is it’s possible for farms to work agroecologically, to work without external inputs, and to be able to withstand climate change much better than industrial agriculture.

I’ve heard you make the argument that as the scarcity and price of water goes up with climate change, agroecology is going to become increasingly necessary. Will we really be able to produce enough food using small-scale farming methods? The whole argument is that the Green Revolution has allowed the world to be able to feed so many billions.

If you look at the epicentre of the Green Revolution, which is India, this is still the country where you have the highest number of people that are malnourished. It’s a country where the Green Revolution has had horrific consequences, in terms of the salination of the soil, the depletion of aquifers, the exclusion of the very poorest from the land, and increasing inequality to make the Green Revolution happen.

Small farmers cool the planet.

All of these are matters of fact and record. You don’t get to say the Green Revolution was fine except for that. The Green Revolution was supposed to be this thing that began in the 1960s and has at least fed a billion people, but in fact the data suggests that indeed it hasn’t.

For the rural poor, you’re actually seeing lower calorie consumption. For the urban poor, even though incomes have gone up, the amount of food they’re eating is also lower because you’ve got more money but you’ve got to pay for your food now, as opposed to when you were living in rural areas. In every way, the narrative we have of the Green Revolution needs to be looked at again.

So how can agroecology feed more people and do it better?

Agroecology is a technique of growing more food on land by building soil quality, by intercropping, by basically working with nature rather than against it. Agroecology, by itself, is not going to make sure that people who are poor get food. There’s nothing magical about a farming technique that fixes capitalism. I mean if you look at who’s going hungry today it is poor people. The rich don’t go hungry, because we distribute food through the market.

It’s possible to have enough food to feed everyone well, and to have fibre, and to have fuel — a range of things coming from the land. But that’s still no guarantee that everyone gets it. You need political change as well as a different farming method.

Some have argued that the climate movement has been too exclusively focused on the fossil fuel industry and given agribusiness a pass. Does industrial agriculture have to be completely phased out to deal with the climate emergency?

Absolutely. The international peasant movement La Via Campesina points out that small farmers cool the planet. This type of agroecological farming is capable of carbon sequestration in a way that industrial agriculture absolutely isn’t. Because you’re building soil fertility, you’re locking carbon in the soil. Your soil is much thicker, the topsoil is darker, richer, better. You’re not having to apply fertilizer, which is basically processed natural gas. You don’t have to do that with agroecology, and so you’re reducing the need for fossil fuel and you’re locking away the fossil fuel that’s been released from the bowels of the Earth and putting it back into the soil. Both of these are tremendously important if we’re serious about tackling climate change.

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