A radical and collective rethink is required to re-engineer many of humanities core living systems, if we are to sustain our existence on the planet. With the global population having grown from 6.1 billion to 7.7 billion in 20 years, demand on the world’s resources is at breaking point. Two powerful forces are magnifying each other’s effects, creating a hurricane, which will leave devastation in its path. These forces are not military or subversive in nature, they are basic human instincts; to feed ourselves and our families with healthy nutritious food, and the human desire for easy access to more food, more clothes, more products and more money.
The voracious demand of the worlds growing consumer base is fuelling and incentivising commercial greed, which in turn is feeding the demand within the world’s population. A tornado that is spinning faster and faster and getting bigger, as our population gets larger and older.
Less scrupulous organisations and individuals knowingly cut corners and standards to deliver more to more, at less and less. Often camouflaged in the respectable delivery of corporate profit and shareholder value. This is a race to the bottom, a race in which humanity will lose.
Industrial agriculture is one such villain responsible for degradation of the land, water, and ecosystems, high green house gas emissions, biodiversity loss, hunger and nutrition deficiencies, as well as obesity and diet-related diseases.
The world’s population is set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, with huge concern on the need to ensure universal access to healthy food, but at the same time making sure food is produced in a sustainable way. Hunger and malnutrition is a result of the oligopoly control of the agrifood business supply chain. A high percentage of food is often lost along this supply chain before it even reaches the consumer.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, an estimated 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2019, putting them at greater risk of various forms of malnutrition and poor health. This forecast grew worse early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the World Food Programme (2020) warning on 21 April 2020 that the planet was facing a famine of “biblical proportions”.
More than 30 countries in the developing world, the UN agency cautioned, could experience widespread hunger, and 10 of those countries each already have more than 1 million people on the brink of starvation.
“We are facing acute, interconnected crises – hunger, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, the climate crisis, growing inequality and poverty. What we need are real solutions, not more greenwashing from agribusiness. Real solutions – public regulation for agroecology and Food Sovereignty – require dismantling corporate power, redistributing resources, re-localising food systems and ensuring small scale producers have control. Food is a human right not a commodity”, said Kirtana Chandrasekaran, from Friends of the Earth International.
Countries need to realise the urgent need to support small-scale food producers, such as family farming and agroecology, adopt measures to address food price volatility, better market linkages and shorter supply chain, improving coordination between producers and consumers. Agroecology contributes to reduction of greenhouse emissions and builds farming that is more resilient to climate change.
Family farming represents 90 per cent of all farms globally, and produce 80 per cent of the world’s food in value terms, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO. Family farmers combined with the practice of agroecology could be key to addressing global food security, as well as the conservation of ecosystems, considering they have full government support through adequate policy, resources, services, programs and regulations and their production methods comply with environmental standards. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has produced a document, “The 10 Elements of Agroecology”, a guide to transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems, offering a unique approach to meeting significant increases in our food needs of the future.
It is evident the dominance exercised by mega-corporations over food systems. A few corporate food empires control the majority of the food we consume and their practices have caused a serious impact on our health, environment, and farming communities. Their production is carried out on mass scales, based on intensive use of agrochemicals, hormones and antibiotics. They prioritise profit above all else.
These global agribusiness giants not only control the market price farmers get, but also what we eat, not to mention their contribution to poor health, food waste, soil erosion and soil acidification due to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, wildlife destruction, ground water pollution, disease outbreaks, death, hunger and food insecurity, deforestation and climate change. According to the Climate Land Use Alliance, commercial agriculture drives 71% of tropical deforestation, posing serious risks to our global forests and climate.
On a report of Mighty Earth, more than one million square kilometers of the planet have been cleared of their natural vegetation to grow soy, one of the primary ingredients of animal feed used to raise meat. More than three quarters of the world’s soy is used to feed livestock.
Cargill, Bunge, JBS, ADM – Archer Daniels Midland and Tyson are the World’s largest agribusiness companies. Cargill is a US privately held company, found in 1865 by William Wallace Cargill. It was named the “worse company in the world”, according to an astonishing Mighty Earth Report. The company has been involved in scandals that go from fatal food poisonings, agricultural pollution, deforestation, contamination, to allegations of child enslaved labour. This large corporation still manages to keep a very low profile.
“The people who have been sickened or died from eating contaminated Cargill meat, the child laborers who grow the cocoa Cargill sells for the world’s chocolate, the Midwesterners who drink water polluted by Cargill, the Indigenous People displaced by vast deforestation to make way for Cargill’s animal feed, and the ordinary consumers who’ve paid more to put food on the dinner table because of Cargill’s financial malfeasance — all have felt the impact of this agribusiness giant.” These are the words of former Member of Congress and Chairman of Mighty Earth, Henry A. Waxman.
Cargill, the UK’s largest soybean importer, has been linked to the deforestation of 61,260 hectares of forests in the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado since March 2019. Cargill provides chicken to the UK market via Avara, the company’s joint enterprise with Faccenda foods. They supply chicken to Tesco, Nando’s and McDonald’s.
“British consumers have been talking loud and clear – they don’t want to be complicit in destroying Brazil’s precious forests. However, supermarkets are failing to protect them from eating meat fed with forest-destroying soy, ”says Robin Willoughby, director of Mighty Earth UK. “We are urging the CEOs of Tesco PLC, J.Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Morrisons and Aldi UK to take immediate steps to stop the destruction of Brazil and abandon Cargill.”
Brazil’s Cerrado and the Amazon rainforest are not the only regions that have been affected by the exploitation of Cargill. The Gran Chaco region, 110 million hectare ecosystem, spanning Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, faced burning of their fields to make way to genetically modified soy. Home to communities of Indigenous Peoples, including the Ayoreo, Chamacoco, Enxet, Guarayo, Maka’a, Manjuy, Mocoví, Nandeva, Nivakle, Toba Qom, and Wichi.
Cargill also helped drive destruction of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire’s forests to grow cheap cocoa, buying cocoa grown through the illegal clearing of protected forests and national parks as a standard practice. Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are the world’s two largest cocoa-producing countries. Many other countries across the world have also been affected by the greedy practices of Cargill.
“The agricultural sectors and livestock farming in particular must shift towards sustainability to enhance their contribution to food security, nutrition and healthy diets and build back better to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges”, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said on September 28, 2020, in his opening remarks to the 27th session of the Committee on Agriculture (COAG).
Many other factors affect the way our food is grown, such as the use of pesticides, which cause a huge impact on our health, soil, water and animal life. Chemicals considered harmful to our health, and also to the environment, have been sold by the world’s largest agrochemical companies: Bayer, BASF, Syngenta, and Corteva – members of Croplife International lobby group. These chemicals have been linked to increased cancer, liver disease, DNA damage, reproductive failure, endocrine disruption and also groundwater contamination, microbiome disruption, poisoning of birds, mammals, fish and bees. Although in European markets some of these dangerous products have already been banned, European companies can still produce and sell them to regions with lesser regulations.
Recently, the UK government has allowed farmers to use a poisonous bee-killing pesticide neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on beet crops, a chemical that has already been banned in the EU. Pesticides should be replaced with safer, agro-ecological and other appropriate non-chemical alternatives.
Another great concern is the fact that the largest technology companies, such as Amazon and Microsoft, are now entering the food sector, where we have seen a strong relationship being formed between companies that supply farmers with pesticides, expensive machinery, drones, etc., and those who are in control of food distribution and collecting and storing data. Farmers are being pushed to use their mobile phone apps, which feeds them with data as well as monitors their every movement. It is worth pointing out that small farmers can’t afford this high tech data gathering technology.
The largest agribusiness companies all have apps that cover millions of hectares of farmland, supplying farmers with information in exchange for a discount on their products. One example is Bayer, the world’s largest pesticide and seed company, where its app is being used in the US, Europe, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. This digital infrastructure is run by platforms developed by tech companies that run cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS).
The aim is to integrate millions of small farmers into a wide centrally controlled network, making it easier for corporations investing in agribusiness to control and profit by encouraging and forcing them to buy their products. Profit is definitely the main and only purpose of these global technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, as well as agrochemical corporations, such as Sygenta/Chem China, Basf, Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva, including the involvement of international institutions supporting digital agriculture such as AGRA, CGIAR, FAO and the World Bank.
There is no question that something needs to be done in order to ensure the protection of biodiversity by developing sustainable agricultural practices. By dismantling the power of large agribusiness corporations and reconstructing sustainable agri-food systems, a more reliable, secure and healthy world will be the place where we will be able to live in harmony with the environment, and where it will provide us with our very basic human right: food. We are facing an urgent call from Nature!