In the summer of 1975, I was in Colombia searching for clues to the global food crisis of the 1970s. I sensed a pervasive fear in rural Colombia, the peasants growing little food in tiny strips of land, watching with anxiety their affluent neighbours producing cash crops for export.
I also learned that not a few Colombian peasants were losing their land to the cash croppers. These “growers” enjoyed the support of the government and outside “aid” institutions like the Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the US Agency for International Development. The managers of these organisations were like missionaries, urging the Colombians to ditch their agrarian culture in favour of one-crop agriculture, which they advertised as the “green revolution”.
I came back to Harvard University where I was doing my postdoctoral studies and wrote, in 1976, Fear in the Countryside, a book about the politics of hunger, how landlords were emptying the world’s countryside of peasants.
Yes, the food crisis was real because many people were hungry. But the food crisis was also political because the local landlords manufactured it in their zealous imitation of America’s agribusiness missionaries.
Lusting after the peasants’ land, the Colombian rural oligarchy has been fighting a war against peasants to this day.
By now, in 2008, the agribusiness vision of farming without peasants has institutionalised the “food crisis” into a permanent fixture of global politics. The United Nations has its own Food and Agriculture Organization, a think tank and practical enterprise for passing the industrialised farm paradigm to the tropics, and the World Food Programme for distributing food to famished Latin Americans, Africans and Asians.
For more than 30 years, the UN and the World Bank have been reminding us that about “800 million people” go to bed hungry. Assisted by agricultural experts at both America’s land grant universities and international agricultural research institutes funded by the World Bank, agribusiness has also been misleading the world that its heavily subsidised cash cropping is the answer to hunger.
In reality, agribusiness is bad for the world: In the United States, it is causing much suffering. The triumph of a few agribusiness corporations over millions of family farmers injured democracy and brought back to rural America inequities resembling medieval feudalism. Black farmers are almost gone, 98 per cent of them being forced out of farming in the 20th century. The white farmers declined by 60 per cent in the same period.
The quality of food has also fallen as 98 per cent of the crops are treated with deleterious sprays that diminish the nutrition of crops while leaving toxic and, often, carcinogenic residues in both food and drinking water. The result of this grand toxic experiment is a cancer epidemic. One in two men and one in three women are likely to get cancer.
Industrialised farming, being toxic to the natural world, is the engine of silent spring. Its sprays cause the multiplication of insects and make crops appetising to pests; they convert fertile lands into biological deserts; they also disrupt ecosystems and kill birds and other beneficial wildlife by the millions every year. For example, neurotoxic pesticides are wiping out honeybees. Agribusiness is also responsible for about 20 per cent of global warming.
Second, agribusiness is causing political unrest and hunger in the tropics. China and India use cash to import rice even from countries like Cambodia which are going hungry. In addition some 70 per cent of tropical countries import food. Bangladesh no longer can afford to import rice. Mexico, mother of corn, is having tortilla riots. That is incidental of a system designed to feed only those who have cash.
The World Bank and the US AID forced food-sufficient countries like Mexico and the Philippines to open their markets to cheap food imports from America and Europe while converting their lands to cash cropping for export. Now those countries are hungry.
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