The World Bank economist… delivered a barely modified version of the Bank’s longstanding diagnostic on small-scale agriculture:
Small landholdings make inefficient use of land, he explained, and the food crops smallholders grow can be produced much more efficiently by industrialized farmers in Mexico and the United States. NAFTA gives Mexico tariff-free access to those goods, so Mexico’s two million small-scale corn farmers should enjoy the cheaper tortillas and seek more productive activities, growing high-value crops or moving out of agriculture…
Moving out of agriculture? Into what? ‘Assume we have employment’ can be the only answer. Because just as shipwrecked survivors can’t sail home on an economist’s theoretical boat, Mexico’s small-scale farmers need real jobs, not assumed jobs, if they are to give up their lands and their homes.
Meanwhile, the World Bank’s desired ‘transition’ in agriculture, accelerated by the added pressure of tariff-free imports dumped by the United States, has pushed an estimated 2.3 million farmers and workers out of agriculture. Those who left went where the jobs were – in the United States… Many left behind family members who, despite a 66% drop in real corn prices, increased their corn production.
Irrational? Hardly. Small-scale farmers are at least smarter than World Bank economists. They know that growing corn, with limited technology and low yields, is inefficient only if they have a more productive use for their land or their labor. The land is often the only asset the family has, and most smallholder land is unsuitable for high-value crops. As for their labor, they send family members as seasonal or permanent migrants and use the remittances to keep their farms. Are their low corn yields proof of inefficiency? Or do they show that smallholders are maximizing their available labor and resources?
In east and southern Africa, genetically modified, drought-tolerant seeds, or “new technology” are made available to small holder farmers at the same cost as conventional varieties via philanthropic support and international aid, but many people see programs like these as death traps. Activists and civil society organizations are resisting “climate smart” solutions introduced by Monsanto and the Gates Foundation.
For example, the African Center for Biodiversity in South Africa is engaged in a legal battle because, in their view, these newly-introduced varieties present risks for small farmers, citing the absence of peer reviewed scientific data and evidence supporting the claims of Monsanto and significant economic risks for smallholder farmers.
Yimer explains, “Experience across Africa has shown that once the subsidies and credit [to support the adoption of new varieties] dries up, farmers can’t purchase the more expensive seeds. This also creates dependency on inputs such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and in the meantime their own seed varieties are lost.”
That is why Yimer doesn’t see the fight for food sovereignty in Africa as necessarily subversive. “It’s not like we [food activists] are going against some giant conspiracy. It’s not about our ideology. We work so that each and every person is healthy, doing their jobs, living their daily lives to the fullest. Food production, food systems—that is personal.”
While the terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) were kept secret from the public and policymakers during negotiations, US negotiators relied heavily on input from the corporate insiders who populate the US government-appointed Industry Trade Advisory Committees.
[Seed industry lobby group] BIO spent roughly $8 million on lobbying each year while the TPP was under negotiation, paying firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $80,000 annually to lobby for patent provision in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.
The results of this lobbying blitz were unknown until the final text of the agreement was released in November of last year… Experts have called the TPP a ‘big win’ for the biotech seed industry, and many warn that the trade deal will further enrich seed companies at the expense of farmers’ rights.
[The Trans-Pacific Partnership] effectively outlaws the saving of seeds from one season to the next, a practice the majority of the world’s farmers rely upon. Farmers are prohibited from saving, replanting, and exchanging protected seed, and breeders* are granted exclusive right to germplasm**.
* In this context, “breeders” means large-scale corporations or other institutions that carry out plant breeding to develop new crop varieties. It excludes small-scale farmers, or local seed sellers or coops, who don’t have the money to pay for lawyers to register and apply for patents for their seeds, or the time, money and extra land that would be required to carry out the seed trials that would be required for the patent application to even be considered.
** “Gerplasm” technically means the DNA or genetic material of a particular plant crop; practically it means seeds.
Almost all farming communities know how to save, store and share seeds. Millions of families and farming communities have worked to create hundreds of crops and thousands of varieties of these crops. The regular exchange of seeds among communities and peoples has allowed crops to adapt to different conditions, climates and topographies. This is what has allowed farming to spread and grow and feed the world with a diversified diet.
Corporations’ ongoing struggle to control all food production
Seeds have also… given rural people the resolute ability to maintain some degree of autonomy and to refuse to be completely controlled by big business and big money. From the point of view of corporate interests that are striving to take control of land, farming, food and the huge market that these factors represent, this independence is an obstacle.
Corporations have deployed a range of strategies to get this control, but farmers and indigenous peoples have resisted and continue to resist this takeover in different ways. Today, the corporate sector is trying to stamp out this rebellion through a global legal offensive. The result is that seed laws are constantly evolving and becoming more aggressive. Through new waves of political and economic pressure – especially through so-called free trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and regional integration initiatives – all the ‘soft’ forms of ownership rights over seeds were hardened and continue to be made more restrictive at a faster pace. Seed laws and plant variety rights are being revised again and again to adapt to the new demands of the seed and biotechnology industry.
How seed laws make farmers’ seeds illegal
Marketing laws: are often justified as a means of protecting farmers, as consumers of seeds, in order to ensure that they are only offered good seeds – both in terms of physical quality (germination rate, purity, etc.) and of the variety in question (genetic potential). But whose criteria are used? In the countries that have adopted the system of “compulsory catalogue”, seeds are allowed on the market only if they are “distinct”, “uniform” and “stable” (DUS criteria). This means that all plants grown from a batch of seed will be the same, and that their characteristics will last over time. Peasant varieties do not fit these criteria, because they are diverse and evolving.
Intellectual property laws: applied to seeds are regulations that recognise a person or an entity, most often a seed company, as the exclusive owner of seeds having specific characteristics. The owner then has the legal right to prevent others from using, producing, exchanging or selling them.
Plant health and biosafety laws: Such laws are intended to prevent health or environmental hazards that can arise from seeds… The problem lies in the fact that these laws actually serve to protect the interests of industry. For example, sometimes small-scale exchanges of seeds among farmers are prohibited, or their seeds are confiscated and destroyed, because farmers are held to the same standards as multinational corporations, which sell seeds in far greater amounts and to more distant locations – with a corresponding increase in the chance of spreading disease. Under such laws, farmers’ seeds may be viewed as a potential risk or hazard while industry seeds are hailed as the only safe ones, even though they play a huge role in spreading disease and contamination.
Over time, peasants have been able to win some legal protections that provided some basic safeguards to maintain their access to lands.
But the legacy of these struggles is under attack. Today, small farmers in Asia are being squeezed onto ever smaller parcels of land. Across the continent, farmland is being gobbled up for dams, mines, tourism projects and large-scale agriculture, with scant regard for the people living off those lands. Farms that peasant families have cared for for generations are being paved over for new highways or real estate development as cities expand. Long-standing government promises to redistribute land more fairly have been broken – in many places, governments are taking land away from peasant farmers.
Land concentration in Asia is higher now than it has ever been. Just 6% of Asia’s farm owners hold around two-thirds of its farmland. Many of these landowners are politically connected elites, as is the case in the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
As this concentration increases, one consequence is the eruption of conflicts over land throughout the continent. Peasant protests against land grabs have become a regular sight on the streets of major cities like Phnom Penh and Manila. The court systems in China and Vietnam are backlogged with thousands of rural land conflict cases. And militarised repression is a harsh daily reality in many places where communities are resisting land grabbing, from West Papua to West Bengal.
… Free trade… agreements play an important role in bringing about laws and policies that facilitate the transfer of lands from small farmers to big agribusiness. They do so both indirectly, by encouraging specialised, vertically integrated production of export commodities, and directly by obliging governments to remove barriers to foreign investment, including in agriculture.
The 1994 WTO (World Trade Organisation) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was the first global treaty to establish common norms of private property rights over seeds. The goal is to ensure that companies like Monsanto or Syngenta, which spend money on plant breeding and genetic modification to bring new seeds to market, can make a profit on those seeds by preventing farmers from re-using them – a bit like the way Hollywood or Microsoft try to stop people from copying and sharing films or software. The very notion of “patenting life” is hotly contested and so the WTO agreement is a kind of compromise between governments. It says that countries may exclude both plants and animals (other than micro-organisms) from their patent laws but they must provide some form of intellectual property protection over plant varieties, without specifying how to do that.
Free trade agreements negotiated outside the WTO, especially those initiated by powerful economies in the global North, tend to go much further. They often require countries to (a) patent plants or animals, (b) follow the rules of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) to provide a patent-like system for seeds and/or (c) join the Budapest Treaty on the recognition of deposits of micro-organisms for the purpose of patent protection. These measures give strong monopoly powers to agribusiness companies at the expense of small and indigenous farming communities. For example, UPOV and patenting generally make it illegal for farmers to save, exchange or modify seeds from so-called protected varieties.
Peru’s violent land conflicts also bring into focus another issue of equal importance to climate change that can no longer be ignored: the concentration of farmland in the hands of a few. Small farms of less than 5 hectares represent 78% of all farms in Peru, but occupy a mere 6% of the country’s agricultural lands. This disturbing figure mirrors the global situation. Worldwide, small farms account for 90% of all farms yet occupy less than a quarter of the agricultural land. This is bad news for the climate. Just as the dispossession of indigenous peoples of their territories has opened the door to destructive, unsustainable resource extraction, the dispossession of peasants of their lands has laid the basis for an industrial food system that, amongst its many negative effects, is responsible for 44-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Giving lands back to small farmers and indigenous communities is also the most effective way to deal with the challenges of feeding a growing global population in an era of climate chaos. Small farmers are more efficient at producing food than big plantations. On the fraction of lands that they have held on to, small farmers and indigenous communities continue to produce most of the world’s food.
The twin needs of feeding the world and cooling the planet can be met. But not if the governments meeting in Lima continue to ignore and violently repress the struggles of their peasants and indigenous peoples for land.
In 2006-2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agriculture, with the launch of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and a series of large grants to the international agricultural research system (CGIAR). In 2007, it spent over half a billion dollars on agricultural projects and has maintained funding at around this level. The vast majority of the foundation’s agricultural grants focus on Africa.
GRAIN looked through the foundation’s publicly available financial records… Here are some of the conclusions we were able to draw from the data.
The Gates Foundation fights hunger in the South by giving money to the North.
Roughly half of the foundation’s grants for agriculture went to four big groupings: the CGIAR’s global agriculture research network, international organisations (World Bank, UN agencies, etc.), AGRA (set up by Gates itself) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The other half ended up with hundreds of different research, development and policy organisations across the world. Of this last group, over 80% of the grants were given to organisations in the US and Europe, 10% went to groups in Africa, and the remainder elsewhere.
The Gates Foundation gives to an international consortium, not farmers
the single biggest recipient of grants from the Gates Foundation is the CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres. In the 1960s and 70s, these centres were responsible for the development and spread of a controversial Green Revolution model of agriculture in parts of Asia and Latin America which focused on the mass distribution of a few varieties of seeds that could produce high yields – with the generous application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Efforts to implement the same model in Africa failed and, globally, the CGIAR lost relevance as corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto took control over seed markets. Money from the Gates Foundation is providing CGIAR and its Green Revolution model a new lease on life, this time in direct partnership with seed and pesticide companies.
AGRA trains farmers on how to use the technologies, and even organises them into groups to better access the technologies, but it does not support farmers in building up their own seed systems or in doing their own research.
We could find no evidence of any support from the Gates Foundation for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent. (African farmers, after all, do continue to supply an estimated 90% of the seed used on the continent!)
The Gates Foundation buys political influence
The Gates Foundation set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa in 2006 and has supported it with $414 million since then. It holds two seats on the Alliance’s board and describes it as the “African face and voice for our work”.
AGRA, like the Gates Foundation, provides grants to research programmes. It also funds initiatives and agribusiness companies operating in Africa to develop private markets for seeds and fertilisers through support to “agro-dealers”. An important component of its work, however, is shaping policy.
AGRA intervenes directly in the formulation and revision of agricultural policies and regulations in Africa on such issues as land and seeds. It does so through national “policy action nodes” of experts, selected by AGRA, that work to advance particular policy changes. For example, in Ghana, AGRA’s Seed Policy Action Node drafted revisions to the country’s national seed policy and submitted it to the government. The Ghana Food Sovereignty Network has been fiercely battling such policies since the government put them forward. In Mozambique, AGRA’s Seed Policy Action Node drafted plant variety protection regulations in 2013, and in Tanzania it reviewed national seed policies and presented a study on the demand for certified seeds. Also in Tanzania, its Land Policy Action Node is involved in revising the Village Land Act as well as “reviewing laws governing land titling at the district level and working closely with district officials to develop guidelines for formulation of by-laws.”