Fatal harvest

While enough food is being produced to feed the world, a large portion of the population is going hungry. Meanwhile, the incidence of wealth-related disease is increasing in the west due to unhealthy eating habits. Ode launched an investigation and details the devastating myths around modern agriculture.

Marco Visscher | April 2003 issue
Gone are the pictures of wholesome rural bliss. Farming these days is a cutthroat international business. Small-scale farmers in developing countries have been the main victims of this dramatic change. Over the past 10 years, the number of farmers in Brazil has dropped from 23 million to 18 million. In the Philippines half of the grain farmers are now unemployed. The future of millions of farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia, where food production remains the main source of income, does not look good.
It is no coincidence that the disappearance of the small, land-owning farmer has been paralleled by the rise of industrial agriculture with its large-scale farming methods, monoculture and countless technological and chemical additives. Proponents are quick to point out the high-profile achievements of industrial agriculture. However, it also poses a threat to the fight against hunger, to the environment and to food safety (see the six myths on the following pages). The ‘agro-industry’ is largely controlled by a handful of Western companies that dominate the entire food chain: from seedling to supermarket. They set the – continuously declining – prices at which farmers can sell their produce and maintain a battery of lobbyists to keep international agricultural policies inline with their needs.
Perhaps the most powerful of the agro companies is Cargill. You may not have heard that much about this American, family-owned business – established in 1865. It does not seek out media attention. Maybe because its US$50 billion in annual revenues seem to contribute very little to the world other than boosting the affluence of the 80-odd family members who own the company.
Cargill is a broker in wheat, corn, soybeans, sugar, cotton and other crops. And, like any good broker, it makes its money buying cheap – really cheap – and selling dear. Not surprisingly, Cargill was an important driving force behind the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), whose aim is to eradicate trade barriers. After all, the markets for cheap produce and expensive food are seldom located in the same country. The conglomerate has a much more tolerant stance when it comes to financial barriers, and has its trading department safely tucked away in the tax haven of Panama. For the Cargill family, globalisation is a dream come true.
Thanks to industrial agriculture and globalisation, and their proponents, national agricultural industries now tend to concentrate on producing one particular product. At first glance this may seem like a good thing. Prevailing economic theory dictates that countries should focus their productive energies on the areas in which they have a relative competitive advantage. Through international trade, countries can sell their specialities and use the profits to buy – i.e. import – products they cannot make or cultivate themselves. Or so economists at the World Bank and the IMF contend.
Unfortunately, this tidy little theory falls short in a world marked by inequality and there are more than enough examples to prove it. For years now, Brazil, under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, has dedicated itself to producing more and more soybeans. The beans are shipped to Europe and Japan, where they primarily serve as fodder for cattle, pigs and chickens. The benefits of this strategy to the 16 million hungry Brazilians remain unclear. Would the Brazilians not be better off using their own fertile soil to produce food crops themselves?
Brazil’s recently elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has made eradicating hunger his highest priority. Unfortunately, he is locked into the agreements his predecessor made with international institutions. For years to come, millions of Brazilians will continue to go to bed hungry. The same goes for many millions of others in developing countries where cotton, coffee, tobacco or flowers are cultivated: luxury products destined for export to the western world.
Take Malawi, which is in the grip of the worst famine in decades. Drought has been the main problem, but the government was recently forced to sell the grain reserves built up against such emergencies. The World Bank and the IMF considered it more important that the national debt be paid off. So last year, as the country was heading for a humanitarian disaster, Malawi repaid US$70 million of debt. The result: 70% of the farming families fell into the clutches of extreme poverty and hunger. Even now, once again thanks to IMF pressure, over half the country’s farmland are cultivated with export products.
As we have learned over the last decades, the seductive logic of international trade only adds up when countries have equal access to opportunities. This is currently clearly not the case. American and European farmers get billions in government subsidies, which are used to produce crop surpluses they sell cheaply on the international free market. The ‘dump’ prices erode the market value of these goods for farmers elsewhere in the world, which leads to unfair competition. As Anuradha Mittal, co-chairman of Food First, puts it, wealthy countries behave like reverse Robin Hoods: stealing from the world’s poor to strengthen the rich industrial agricultural companies.
Despite its benign intentions, food aid only helps keep the established structure intact and does little to relieve the pressure to export. During the 1984 famine, with almost the entire Western world sending food relief, Ethiopia continued to export more than it received. In addition, food aid – like many other types of development assistance – reaches very few of those that need it most. Even emergency aid often ends up strengthening the position of the foreign companies that control the national grain market.
Meanwhile, American agro businesses are cashing in on hunger. In countries where food shortages are prevalent, they have discovered new markets for their genetically manipulated food products. The US government recently offered Zambia US$50 million to buy genetically manipulated American corn. The cash on offer could not be used for other purposes, such as buying India’s much cheaper surplus rice. Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Malawi were issued similar proposals. Beggars cannot be choosers, as a USAid spokesman once said when commenting on a similar offer to India.
The South African organisation Biowatch considers the American offer a travesty: ‘Africa is being treated like the world’s garbage dump. Offering non-tested food and seeds is not an act of charity, but an effort to lure Africa into a situation of increased dependence on foreign aid.’ Which is why Zambia turned down the offer, following the example of Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Bosnia, where in some cases the government was only persuaded after massive protest demonstrations. India and Burundi only found out after the fact that American food aid contained genetically manipulated products.
Biotechnology is another attempt by the agro-industry to extend its control over the food chain. The emergence of genetically manipulated coffee, invented and developed in the United States, threatens the jobs of 60 million coffee pickers in over 50 countries already plagued by unemployment. Genetically manipulated cotton will drive millions of farmers from their land to make way for expansive, automated cotton plantations. Where are these people to go? To the over-crowded cities?
National borders may have disappeared, but the distance between producers and consumers has widened. A Swedish research institute once tracked the production process involved in a bottle of tomato ketchup. The tomatoes came from Italy. Packaged in sterile bags from the Netherlands, they were exported to Sweden. The bottles were produced in the UK using materials from Japan, Italy, Belgium and the US. The bottle cap came from Denmark. In the interest of simplicity, the labels, glue and cardboard were excluded from the analysis, as were the production and transport of chemical fertiliser, pesticides and the necessary machinery.
The distance between people and nature has also increased. Industrial agriculture has inflicted significant damage on the environment. It began with the promising introduction of chemical fertiliser after World War Two, which surprised farmers with its ability to produce higher crop yields. But the jubilant mood has long since disappeared. We now know that chemical fertiliser damages soil fertility, changes the soil system and pollutes the water and air.
Chemical fertiliser consists of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. In the soil this combination has a nourishing effect on everything that lives off these three minerals, but harms the organisms that need other food sources. The soil’s balance becomes disrupted, making it more difficult to hold onto water and air. More irrigation is needed. The water leaks through the porous earth, and nutrients have nothing to cling to and float away. Because the soil contains less oxygen, the growth of micro-organisms decreases and the complex ecosystem of biological exchange declines. The soil becomes more acid, causing more organic material to decompose. Little by little, water sweeps away the fertile top layer of soil.
The solution offered by industrial agriculture for the continuing decline in the level of nutrients in the soil is more chemical fertiliser. And thus we have a downward spiral. Worse yet, the contrary effects of chemical fertiliser do not stop at the edge of the farm. Nitrogen not only seeps into the water, but also escapes in the form of volatile oxidisation into the atmosphere.
Take chemical fertiliser and combine it with pesticides meant to stimulate growth or to protect crops from blights, plagues, weeds and insects. Farmers greeted these chemical additives with enthusiasm when they first came on the market in the 1950s. Sensing a golden opportunity, they began to focus their efforts on single crops, only to discover that this encouraged the increase of pathogens in the soil. Industrial agriculture responded by using more pesticides. But the genetic code of the soil’s micro-life changed and pathogens became resistant to the chemicals. The solution? Indeed, more and stronger pesticides. Another downward spiral.
The pesticides bring us back to the disappearance of the farmers, this time very literally. These chemicals are convincingly cited as the cause of brain damage, cancer, infertility, miscarriages, damage to the eyes, skin and airways, nausea, lung problems, kidney problems, asthma, migraine headaches, loss of concentration, damage to the immune system and a host of other problems that destroy human life.
Labels prescribe the use of protective clothing, waterproof boots, gloves and gas masks when using the pesticides, but in developing countries this work is done by barefoot, unschooled, light-clad labourers. Inspection services are either non-existent or corrupt. Yet governments can approve these products because scientists have only studied the short-term effects using laboratory animals, while most of the damage results from continuous exposure. When products are banned in Europe and the United States, they still have a nasty tendency to turn up in other countries where they apparently do not pose a threat.
In the American state Washington, children of farmers who use pesticides on their land have 3 to 20 times the ‘safe’ levels of these chemicals in their urine. Cancer is more prevalent among children living on farms than in the city. Simply living within 2.5 kilometres of the cranberry fields on the Cape Cod peninsula in the US increases children’s risk of developing brain tumours. Although such a link does not necessarily imply a causal connection, the fact that cancer cells in laboratories multiply faster in the presence of certain pesticides is cause for concern.
In the United States statistics are kept up to date – although not in great abundance when it comes to this topic. In developing countries, it is mainly the everyday encounters and anecdotes that tell the dramatic story about pesticides. Moyra Bremner, author of ‘GE: Genetic Engineering and You’, sketched the story of the villagers in Kasargod, India, where the emergence of large-scale, industrial agriculture was accompanied by helicopters spraying endosulphan over the cashew nut plantations. Children ran out of their houses to catch the unexpected rain falling on trees, in the streets and on houses. Endosulphan wreaks havoc on your hormones. Twenty years later, the village is a horrifying example of what pesticides can do. In 183 houses there were 279 cases of serious illness. Since the helicopters started flying overhead, infertility, cancer and suicidal depression have increased dramatically. Children with hydrocephalus, stunted growth or mental handicaps have become commonplace.
The most striking cases in the village were the physical handicaps. One story involves a girl whose head got bigger and bigger until it was on the verge of bursting. Then it suddenly shrank and she died a painful death. A local doctor that examined her blood discovered that she had 637 times the tolerable level of endosulphan in her body. It took four years before the poison was banned.
Bremmer wonders whether we still have the right to call ourselves civilised. How long can we continue to keep up this system? Organic food from small, local farmers is no longer a choice of luxury, but a question of life and death. For now, it is up to consumers to speak their minds. Where do you stand?
 

Solution News Source

Fatal harvest

While enough food is being produced to feed the world, a large portion of the population is going hungry. Meanwhile, the incidence of wealth-related disease is increasing in the west due to unhealthy eating habits. Ode launched an investigation and details the devastating myths around modern agriculture.

Marco Visscher | April 2003 issue
Gone are the pictures of wholesome rural bliss. Farming these days is a cutthroat international business. Small-scale farmers in developing countries have been the main victims of this dramatic change. Over the past 10 years, the number of farmers in Brazil has dropped from 23 million to 18 million. In the Philippines half of the grain farmers are now unemployed. The future of millions of farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia, where food production remains the main source of income, does not look good.
It is no coincidence that the disappearance of the small, land-owning farmer has been paralleled by the rise of industrial agriculture with its large-scale farming methods, monoculture and countless technological and chemical additives. Proponents are quick to point out the high-profile achievements of industrial agriculture. However, it also poses a threat to the fight against hunger, to the environment and to food safety (see the six myths on the following pages). The ‘agro-industry’ is largely controlled by a handful of Western companies that dominate the entire food chain: from seedling to supermarket. They set the – continuously declining – prices at which farmers can sell their produce and maintain a battery of lobbyists to keep international agricultural policies inline with their needs.
Perhaps the most powerful of the agro companies is Cargill. You may not have heard that much about this American, family-owned business – established in 1865. It does not seek out media attention. Maybe because its US$50 billion in annual revenues seem to contribute very little to the world other than boosting the affluence of the 80-odd family members who own the company.
Cargill is a broker in wheat, corn, soybeans, sugar, cotton and other crops. And, like any good broker, it makes its money buying cheap – really cheap – and selling dear. Not surprisingly, Cargill was an important driving force behind the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), whose aim is to eradicate trade barriers. After all, the markets for cheap produce and expensive food are seldom located in the same country. The conglomerate has a much more tolerant stance when it comes to financial barriers, and has its trading department safely tucked away in the tax haven of Panama. For the Cargill family, globalisation is a dream come true.
Thanks to industrial agriculture and globalisation, and their proponents, national agricultural industries now tend to concentrate on producing one particular product. At first glance this may seem like a good thing. Prevailing economic theory dictates that countries should focus their productive energies on the areas in which they have a relative competitive advantage. Through international trade, countries can sell their specialities and use the profits to buy – i.e. import – products they cannot make or cultivate themselves. Or so economists at the World Bank and the IMF contend.
Unfortunately, this tidy little theory falls short in a world marked by inequality and there are more than enough examples to prove it. For years now, Brazil, under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, has dedicated itself to producing more and more soybeans. The beans are shipped to Europe and Japan, where they primarily serve as fodder for cattle, pigs and chickens. The benefits of this strategy to the 16 million hungry Brazilians remain unclear. Would the Brazilians not be better off using their own fertile soil to produce food crops themselves?
Brazil’s recently elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has made eradicating hunger his highest priority. Unfortunately, he is locked into the agreements his predecessor made with international institutions. For years to come, millions of Brazilians will continue to go to bed hungry. The same goes for many millions of others in developing countries where cotton, coffee, tobacco or flowers are cultivated: luxury products destined for export to the western world.
Take Malawi, which is in the grip of the worst famine in decades. Drought has been the main problem, but the government was recently forced to sell the grain reserves built up against such emergencies. The World Bank and the IMF considered it more important that the national debt be paid off. So last year, as the country was heading for a humanitarian disaster, Malawi repaid US$70 million of debt. The result: 70% of the farming families fell into the clutches of extreme poverty and hunger. Even now, once again thanks to IMF pressure, over half the country’s farmland are cultivated with export products.
As we have learned over the last decades, the seductive logic of international trade only adds up when countries have equal access to opportunities. This is currently clearly not the case. American and European farmers get billions in government subsidies, which are used to produce crop surpluses they sell cheaply on the international free market. The ‘dump’ prices erode the market value of these goods for farmers elsewhere in the world, which leads to unfair competition. As Anuradha Mittal, co-chairman of Food First, puts it, wealthy countries behave like reverse Robin Hoods: stealing from the world’s poor to strengthen the rich industrial agricultural companies.
Despite its benign intentions, food aid only helps keep the established structure intact and does little to relieve the pressure to export. During the 1984 famine, with almost the entire Western world sending food relief, Ethiopia continued to export more than it received. In addition, food aid – like many other types of development assistance – reaches very few of those that need it most. Even emergency aid often ends up strengthening the position of the foreign companies that control the national grain market.
Meanwhile, American agro businesses are cashing in on hunger. In countries where food shortages are prevalent, they have discovered new markets for their genetically manipulated food products. The US government recently offered Zambia US$50 million to buy genetically manipulated American corn. The cash on offer could not be used for other purposes, such as buying India’s much cheaper surplus rice. Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Malawi were issued similar proposals. Beggars cannot be choosers, as a USAid spokesman once said when commenting on a similar offer to India.
The South African organisation Biowatch considers the American offer a travesty: ‘Africa is being treated like the world’s garbage dump. Offering non-tested food and seeds is not an act of charity, but an effort to lure Africa into a situation of increased dependence on foreign aid.’ Which is why Zambia turned down the offer, following the example of Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Bosnia, where in some cases the government was only persuaded after massive protest demonstrations. India and Burundi only found out after the fact that American food aid contained genetically manipulated products.
Biotechnology is another attempt by the agro-industry to extend its control over the food chain. The emergence of genetically manipulated coffee, invented and developed in the United States, threatens the jobs of 60 million coffee pickers in over 50 countries already plagued by unemployment. Genetically manipulated cotton will drive millions of farmers from their land to make way for expansive, automated cotton plantations. Where are these people to go? To the over-crowded cities?
National borders may have disappeared, but the distance between producers and consumers has widened. A Swedish research institute once tracked the production process involved in a bottle of tomato ketchup. The tomatoes came from Italy. Packaged in sterile bags from the Netherlands, they were exported to Sweden. The bottles were produced in the UK using materials from Japan, Italy, Belgium and the US. The bottle cap came from Denmark. In the interest of simplicity, the labels, glue and cardboard were excluded from the analysis, as were the production and transport of chemical fertiliser, pesticides and the necessary machinery.
The distance between people and nature has also increased. Industrial agriculture has inflicted significant damage on the environment. It began with the promising introduction of chemical fertiliser after World War Two, which surprised farmers with its ability to produce higher crop yields. But the jubilant mood has long since disappeared. We now know that chemical fertiliser damages soil fertility, changes the soil system and pollutes the water and air.
Chemical fertiliser consists of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. In the soil this combination has a nourishing effect on everything that lives off these three minerals, but harms the organisms that need other food sources. The soil’s balance becomes disrupted, making it more difficult to hold onto water and air. More irrigation is needed. The water leaks through the porous earth, and nutrients have nothing to cling to and float away. Because the soil contains less oxygen, the growth of micro-organisms decreases and the complex ecosystem of biological exchange declines. The soil becomes more acid, causing more organic material to decompose. Little by little, water sweeps away the fertile top layer of soil.
The solution offered by industrial agriculture for the continuing decline in the level of nutrients in the soil is more chemical fertiliser. And thus we have a downward spiral. Worse yet, the contrary effects of chemical fertiliser do not stop at the edge of the farm. Nitrogen not only seeps into the water, but also escapes in the form of volatile oxidisation into the atmosphere.
Take chemical fertiliser and combine it with pesticides meant to stimulate growth or to protect crops from blights, plagues, weeds and insects. Farmers greeted these chemical additives with enthusiasm when they first came on the market in the 1950s. Sensing a golden opportunity, they began to focus their efforts on single crops, only to discover that this encouraged the increase of pathogens in the soil. Industrial agriculture responded by using more pesticides. But the genetic code of the soil’s micro-life changed and pathogens became resistant to the chemicals. The solution? Indeed, more and stronger pesticides. Another downward spiral.
The pesticides bring us back to the disappearance of the farmers, this time very literally. These chemicals are convincingly cited as the cause of brain damage, cancer, infertility, miscarriages, damage to the eyes, skin and airways, nausea, lung problems, kidney problems, asthma, migraine headaches, loss of concentration, damage to the immune system and a host of other problems that destroy human life.
Labels prescribe the use of protective clothing, waterproof boots, gloves and gas masks when using the pesticides, but in developing countries this work is done by barefoot, unschooled, light-clad labourers. Inspection services are either non-existent or corrupt. Yet governments can approve these products because scientists have only studied the short-term effects using laboratory animals, while most of the damage results from continuous exposure. When products are banned in Europe and the United States, they still have a nasty tendency to turn up in other countries where they apparently do not pose a threat.
In the American state Washington, children of farmers who use pesticides on their land have 3 to 20 times the ‘safe’ levels of these chemicals in their urine. Cancer is more prevalent among children living on farms than in the city. Simply living within 2.5 kilometres of the cranberry fields on the Cape Cod peninsula in the US increases children’s risk of developing brain tumours. Although such a link does not necessarily imply a causal connection, the fact that cancer cells in laboratories multiply faster in the presence of certain pesticides is cause for concern.
In the United States statistics are kept up to date – although not in great abundance when it comes to this topic. In developing countries, it is mainly the everyday encounters and anecdotes that tell the dramatic story about pesticides. Moyra Bremner, author of ‘GE: Genetic Engineering and You’, sketched the story of the villagers in Kasargod, India, where the emergence of large-scale, industrial agriculture was accompanied by helicopters spraying endosulphan over the cashew nut plantations. Children ran out of their houses to catch the unexpected rain falling on trees, in the streets and on houses. Endosulphan wreaks havoc on your hormones. Twenty years later, the village is a horrifying example of what pesticides can do. In 183 houses there were 279 cases of serious illness. Since the helicopters started flying overhead, infertility, cancer and suicidal depression have increased dramatically. Children with hydrocephalus, stunted growth or mental handicaps have become commonplace.
The most striking cases in the village were the physical handicaps. One story involves a girl whose head got bigger and bigger until it was on the verge of bursting. Then it suddenly shrank and she died a painful death. A local doctor that examined her blood discovered that she had 637 times the tolerable level of endosulphan in her body. It took four years before the poison was banned.
Bremmer wonders whether we still have the right to call ourselves civilised. How long can we continue to keep up this system? Organic food from small, local farmers is no longer a choice of luxury, but a question of life and death. For now, it is up to consumers to speak their minds. Where do you stand?
 

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