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New geopolitics of world agriculture

Monday 24 November 2008, by Joao Pedro Stedile

The price of crops is rising with the rise in the cost of oil and is thus driving up food prices.

In the 1960s about 80 million people suffered from hunger worldwide. In this period global capitalism was peaking and transnational companies were expanding throughout the planet, dominating markets and exploiting cheap labour and the natural resources of peripheral countries.

This was the world into which the Green Revolution was born, with its promise to end hunger. Its mentor, Normal Borlaug, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The real objective was to introduce a new system of agricultural production based on the intensive use of industrial inputs. Productivity per hectare increased and world production quadrupled. Yet the number of people suffering from hunger grew, from 80 to 800 million.

Today 70 countries depend on imports to feed their people. This demonstrates that the new model of agriculture served to concentrate global agricultural production and trade in foodstuffs in about 30 transnational firms: Bunge, Cargill, ADM, Dreyfuss, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Basf, Nestle, among others.

According to recent estimates, the world’s petroleum reserves, the primary source of energy in the contemporary age, will only last about another 30 years.

In this context, a diabolic alliance has been formed between oil, automotive, and agro-industrial companies to produce agrofuels: the term biofuels is misleading- like ethanol in countries with an abundance of land, sunshine, water, and cheap labour.

In the last five years, millions of hectares that had been previously dedicated to food production and controlled by farmers were taken over by large corporations to plant monocultures of sugar cane, soy, corn, African palm, or sunflower to make ethanol or vegetable oils.

The dynamics of the Green Revolution is being repeated. In this case, because the price of ethanol is linked to the price of oil; the price of crops is rising with the latter and in turn driving up food prices.

However, agrofuels are not the solution to the problem of energy supply and global warming. Scientists warn that devoting all of the planet’s arable land to agrofuel production would only replace 20 per cent of current oil consumption. But food production and costs were already in irrational territory when the financial capital crisis hit.

Many holders of massive sums of capital, whether in currency or fictitious capital (treasury bonds, mortgages, commercial paper), fearing losses, rushed to invest in futures markets and to buy natural goods — earth, energy, water — in peripheral countries. As a consequence of these movements of capital, prices of agricultural products around the world are no longer tied to production costs or even to the balance of supply and demand. Instead, today they swing rapidly in response to market speculation and transnational corporations’ oligopolistic control of the international food markets. In other words, humanity is at the mercy of a handful of transnationals and giant speculators.

The result: according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the number of people suffering from hunger rose in the last two years from 800 to 925 million. And millions of farmers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa are losing their land, and emigrating.

Given this new situation, Via Campesina, which comprises dozens of farmers organisations across the world, proposes a radical transformation in the production and trade of foodstuffs. We defend the principle of food sovereignty: that in every country, governments should implement policies that stimulate and guarantee the production of and access to the food necessary to their respective populations.

We hold that humanity should consider food a natural right of all human beings. This implies that agricultural products should not be treated as a market whose ultimate purpose is the generation of business profits, and that small farmers should be encouraged and strengthened because this is the only policy that can sustain the populations in rural areas. And with the goal of producing food that is both healthy and safe, we oppose the use of agro-toxins. Until now, governments have not listened to our demands. However, unless they make radical changes, social problems and contradictions will intensify and sooner or later they will explode.

Joao Pedro Stedile is a leader of the MST in Brazil and Via Campesina, a worldwide coalition of peasant movements.