The locavore may be an endangered species. The effort to eat food grown within 100 miles of one’s dinner table may someday be impossible, if the new breed of agricultural investor gets their way.
In an article published late last week in the online version of Germany’s Der Spiegel, the practice of buying up land in third world countries and exposing it to first world growing techniques is examined. The authors, Horand Knaup and Juliane von Mittelstaedt, start by setting a desolate scene reminding the reader of the 2008 food crisis which was so easily forgotten in the wake of the subprime debacle:
Food is becoming the new oil. Worldwide grain reserves dropped to a historic low at the beginning of 2008, and the ensuing price explosion marked a turning point, just as the oil crisis did in the 1970s. There were bread riots around the world, and 25 countries, including some of the biggest grain exporters, imposed restrictions on food exports.
But these savvy investors know that everyone has to eat; mortgages, on the other hand, are not necessary for survival.
The article goes on to note that third world countries are eager for the agricultural investment of foreign companies and countries, hoping that the influx of cash will not only revolutionize their agriculture sector, but alleviate hunger. In Knaup and von Mittelstaedt’s words, countries hope these investments “achieve what development agencies have been unable to do in the past few decades” in a way that might very well be a “win-win” situation.
But as is often the case in situations that are touted as “win-win,” it’s more like “heads I win, tails you lose.” And I’m not merely being pessimistic about the future. The Der Spiegel article notes that the king of Saudi Arabia recently collected the first rice harvest farmed exclusively for his country in Ethiopia, a country infamous for its perpetually starving citizens.
The article goes on to note that the investment contracts signed abroad often don’t include environmental protections, and instead are filled with commonly-broken promises to build roads and schools:
Even when investors live up to their promises, the benefits to the host governments and local farmers are often short-lived. In the long term, however, they must suffer the consequences of over-fertilizing, deforestation, over-consumption of water, reduction of ecological diversity and the loss of local species. To boost harvests and achieve annual returns of 20 percent or more, the foreign large landowners must operate their farms on an industrial scale. And when the soil becomes depleted after a few years, many investors simply move on. Land is so cheap that they are not forced to value sustainable farming practices.
In other words, just because they are global conglomerates doesn’t mean they feel any stewardship toward the globe itself.
In his contribution to the companion book for the new movie Food, Inc. called “The Financial Crisis and World Hunger,” economics professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus advocates governments themselves step in and start spending on a new “Green Revolution” that might mimic the scientific advances in agriculture that saved millions from starvation in the 1960s.
Yunus expresses wariness in foreign investments in third world agriculture, concerned that “these investments are ultimately bound to serve corporate interests rather than the real needs of the poorest people.” He recommends the extension of microcredit and the creation of “social businesses,” or nonprofit entrepreneurship that reinvests all profits.
Not all countries have the money or will to make such investments, however. Yunus argues that the first world countries — the ones that are churning out the agricultural investors — should contribute to such projects instead of investing in land grabs.
“The food price rise has helped some governments earn more money, or save money. In the United States alone, high food prices have been a boon to farmers and have saved the government billions of dollars in crop support payments. Rich nations that have benefited from high food prices in this way can afford to help their less fortunate sisters and brothers,” Yunus writes. “So far, governments have kept themselves busy in coming up with supersized bailout packages for the institutions that were responsible for creating this combined crisis, but no bailout package of any size has even been discussed for the victims of the crisis.”
The intersection of the financial and food crises makes shopping at the local farmer’s market somewhat less satisfying to the soul. The bottom line is, even if you’re a locavore on a strictly organic diet, it may be that your investment portfolio contains shares of Dominion Farms, a “family-owned” LLC committed to providing an all-natural “healthy/nutritional alternative to the commercial meats on the market today.” Yet the company stands accused in the Der Spiegel article of buying up farmland in Kenya and sabotaging at least one small farmer to get him to sell his successful 3-hectare farm.
As might be expected, small farmers have it the hardest. As happened with U.S. companies in Latin America in the last century, small producers are easily forced out because they often do not have a piece of paper giving them formally-recognized ownership of their land. Furthermore, land acquired under fallow use laws is often not unused land, but unowned land. Poor people often use such land for subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering.
The most ironic thing about the fallow land laws is the fact that large corporations, such as United Fruit in Guatemala, literally start wars when they are forced to give up land they are not using. Poor farmers are more likely to give up and move to shantytowns than fight. Yunus points out how such migration exacerbates the farmland scarcity:
As economically strapped farmers in the developing nations abandon the countryside and move to the cities in search of work, urban sprawl converts more and more land from farmland to residential or factory use.
Many of these global agricultural investors will arrive with the magical snake oil solution of genetically-modified crops. The favorite argument for modified seeds comes from the stresses felt by third world farmers: Rising oil prices make fertilizer and other inputs more expensive. Global warming forces traditional crops to deal with increased drought, storms and salination. Monsanto and others say they have the solution for these problems.
But their criss-crossed plants that are supposed to be more nutritious may contain deadly toxins and allergens, often undiscovered until it is too late. Sometimes the supposedly more nutritious food has significantly less beneficial compounds than traditional foods.
Their herbicide- and pesticide-resistant crops enable farmers to dump as much poison as they want on their fields, which they often do in order to combat the “super” pests and weeds which have evolved to compete with chemicals. Further, such harmful inputs damage beneficial pests and soil compounds.
There are other scientific, social and ethical problems associated with genetically modified crops. But for our purposes here, the most worrisome consequence is something Ronnie Cummins, the Organic Consumers Association’s national director, calls “bioserfdom” in which “hundreds of millions of farmers and agricultural workers worldwide will lose their livelihoods.”
Cummins warns that, due to the fact that these designed seeds are engineered to only have one growth cycle and the resulting crops will not produce usable seeds, “farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomerates such as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds and offspring. Family and indigenous farmers will be driven off the land, and consumers’ food choices will be dictated by a cartel of transnational corporations.”
So much for thinking globally and acting locally.
This whole argument, beyond sounding fatalistic, may also smack of anti-science and anti-globalization rhetoric. The thing is, free trade and genetic modification might be able to be done correctly, but they simply aren’t right now. Free trade needs to be truly free, and not give special subsidies and incentives to transnational corporations. Genetically-modified plants belong in a publicly-funded lab where they can be rigorously tested and observed for long periods of time, not in the hands of a few secretive companies content with using third world countries as their guinea pigs.
If the “new colonialism” Knaup and von Mittelstaedt warn about succeeds, local food in third world will be a thing of the past. But if we don’t iron out these global problems, we may very well see the locavore go extinct worldwide.
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