Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To survive, Ireland's farmers must reject corporate takeover

Diversity and niche markets are the future for independent producers: Vincenzo La Manna tending his flock of milking sheep near Toonsbridge Co Cork. His pecerino cheeses are popular among foodies and fans of local produce.

First published in That's Farming 09.04.2017

Last week the EU's competition authority approved a $130bn merger between Dow and DuPont, the world's fifth- and second-largest seed suppliers respectively. Approval came with conditions under which DuPont must sell off much of its global pesticides industry and almost all its research and development. Nevertheless, this merger between two of the world's top five agri-businesses creates a company with enormous resources and power over worldwide food production.

In the next fortnight, the EU is also expected to approve the $43bn purchase of Swiss giant Syngenta by ChemChina. US legislators have already granted approval for both deals, while a third take-over, the largest one of all, between Monsanto and Bayer, is believed to have Donald Trump's backing and is expected to receive US approval.

The Bayer-Monsanto proposal will come before the EU competition authority later this year. This “marriage made in hell”, as Greenpeace called it, will book-end a major rationalisation of the global seeds and pesticides industry. The creation of three mega-corporations with almost universal reach, presents the world with grave questions about future food production, pest controls and seed supplies.

The corporations say they are best placed to ensure that the world is fed into the future. Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto has no doubts: “By the time 2050 rolls around, the world will have 10 billion people, and the demand for food will double," he said. “The whole point here is that the business combination between Monsanto and Bayer will allow the companies to invest in and create more innovation, and it's going to take a huge amount of innovation in order to double the world's food supply.”

Not everybody is convinced however. As you might expect, environmental groups are up in arms about the deals. They say we are already using too many harmful chemicals and that the companies responsible are not trustworthy. Friends of the Earth spokesman Adrian Bebb said: “This merger will mean a lack of choice for farmers and a lack of diversity in our fields. We rapidly need to diversify our farming to adapt to a changing climate, and having less seeds controlled by fewer corporation raises serious questions about our ability to feed future generations.”

Can we trust corporations to deliver on their promise to secure the world's food supply? We don't know, but when it comes to food safety, apparently not. Only last week Monsanto executives were left red-faced when a US judge opened access to emails showing them undermining the neutrality of academic studies into glyphosate safety. The attitude of Monsanto towards evidence linking glyphosate, the world's largest-selling herbicide, with cancer, does not inspire trust. They seem to value sales above public health.

By entrusting chemical companies with our future food production we risk our own welfare, both as farmers and as citizens. Opposing the mergers, over 200 environment groups wrote to the European Commission in March. Their letter stated that these mergers would “further restrict the diversity of seeds, harm farmers’ freedom of choice and their rights to save their seeds, and increase their reliance on chemical inputs.”

In addition, the groups wrote: “These companies are moving to promote technology packages and management systems that increase farmer dependence. The three resulting giants would be able to strengthen their intellectual property control, squeeze out the remaining small seed companies, and raise prices for farmers – hurting rural economies and food businesses.”

With margins already so tight and costs so high, how can farmers hope that the seeds and inputs manufacturers, with less competition, will help lower input costs? The answer is they will not. In fact, the sliding value of tillage crops is already impacting small farmers around the world, driving them out of business. This suits multi-nationals who are buying the land thousands of acres at a time, replacing hundreds of small farmers with giant corporate farming structures. It is popularly known as land grabbing and it's a global phenomenon.

It is worth noting that the EU has, until recently at least, protected farmers here from this trend. Most of the rest of the world has experienced some form of land grabbing by corporations. The arrival of forestry investors, lured by our over-generous grant aid for harmful conifer plantations has opened many people's eyes to these kind of practices for the first time. We can expect to see a lot more of these companies knocking on Irish doors.

New Zealand and Australia have already seen their farming communities dwindle, as international investors take over huge tracts of land. This has had dire social consequences in both countries, particularly New Zealand where rural communities were once strong but are now disappearing. 466,000ha of New Zealand land was purchased by overseas companies in 2016 alone. As a result, New Zealand's Overseas Investment Office has been under increasing public pressure about large foreign land purchases. Since 2007 it has forced 10 investors to surrender land after breaching ostensibly strict conditions of overseas sales. But within New Zealand there is fierce debate about the actual extent of these breaches and the OIO has been accused of being too lenient on large companies buying land.

In Africa and Asia the problem is particularly galling, as corrupt officials have often cheated farmers and villagers off their land. For example, Papua New Guinea has experienced huge displacement as 12% of its land, 5.5m ha, has been leased out to corporations already. In a country with traditional land rights, but no formal ownership structure, people have little or no say as logging companies cut down the forests that cover most of the country. In place of the woods that once sustained traditional communities the foreign companies are planting thousands of acres of palm trees.

The companies say they are making the land “productive”, but displaced people lose their homes and their livelihoods. They are left with no choice but to work for the palm oil plantations, if they can get a job in that highly mechanised enterprise. Villages on the island of West New Britain, where the earliest palm oil plantations were developed, are poor and lacking in basic services such as sanitation and running water. The arrival of corporations has increased the country's overall productivity, but not its people's welfare.

There are countless other examples, notably an attempt by the South Korean company Daewoo to take over 1.3m ha of land in Madagascar, an area containing over half the country's productive farmland and most of its surviving old-growth rain forest. Again, Daewoo used food security as an argument of justification, as if displacing thousands of small intensive mixed-farming enterprises with huge monoculture palm and corn plantations was going to do that. Incidentally, these ingredients are not the saviours they are made out to be, but they do turn over a tidy profit. This is because they form the basis of much of the processed food that is leading to an epidemic of obesity around the world.

Land grabs are often the result of corporations being given too much leverage over governments. There are too many other examples of corporate abuses of power to go on listing them and you can rest assured they would not cheer you up. It is only incumbent to say that as a small plucky independent nation, a member of the EU with a unique farming history, Ireland must lead by example in resisting the corporatisation of agriculture. One of the only ways in which we can remain independent and carve out a niche for ourselves is to take the radical decision of going against the grain of corporate interests.

Only by shunning the pesticides and seeds giants, by developing our own indigenous, independent low-input farming systems, can we rid ourselves of the stench of servitude and ill-health that accompanies products pushed on us by these agri-giants.

Do we really need their seeds? We have our own heirloom varieties, evolved to grow here. There are viable alternative farming structures with growing markets crying out to be supplied. We are quickly reaching a crunch time when Irish farmers will have to make a decision about which direction in which to go.

How much longer will Irish farmers submit to the enslavement of corporate power? Will we carry on being the simpering underdogs or will be carve our own destiny? If you think that corporations are going to go easy on us you are wrong, They want our land and they won't stop squeezing til they get it so it is up to us to act together as a body. Ireland can be a producer of truly green, sustainable food, but this will never be suggested by Teagasc or DAFM. Only we can make this happen.