Resurgence of neo-colonialism: feeding the global market

1 September 2015 - 12:00am
News

This article was first published by New African.

A battle for control over land and seed is raging, and Africa is on the front line.

In the last decade, under the pretence of improving agriculture and food security in Africa, a series of public-private partnerships have thrived: the Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA) set up by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations in 2006; the New Vision for Agriculture launched by the World Economic Forum in 2009; followed in 2011 by Grow Africa, an initiative involving the latter and the African Union.

In reality, these so-called aid initiatives have been geared towards helping giant corporations access prime resources and bring about policy change to facilitate corporate expansion in Africa’s agriculture markets - with little or no rewards for the millions making a living from agriculture on the continent.

Exporting primary resources  

In some cases the initiatives involve multi-billion dollar investments aimed at forming ‘African Agricultural Growth Corridors’, served by a large new infrastructure. They connect prime agricultural land and major natural resources (coal, gas, precious metals, rare earth metals and timber) to global markets for agricultural commodities (animal feed, food, fibre and fuel) via costal ports. Although the land is often described as empty or underused – apparently waiting for exploitation – in reality, the initiatives favour the most fertile and water-fed areas in the concerned countries.

Within this framework, family farmers are forced into switching from low-cost, sustainable traditional agriculture to intensive, industrial farming with heavy use of water resources, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and corporate-owned seeds. These costly inputs need to be bought every season. Over time they deplete soil fertility, deepening the farmers’ reliance on the inputs in order to maintain production. As the corporate promise of increased yields does not materialise, farmers are locked into a never ending dependency on toxic chemicals to drive production, while getting further into debt.

Mega corporations on the other hand reap substantial benefits from these “aid” projects by accessing new markets, taking advantage of the vast infrastructure being built, and controlling which crops are produced and how.

Seeding corporate control 

The latest initiative, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched in London in June 2012, goes further by directly impacting on the policy environment within each country to favour corporate interests. It brings together the eight wealthiest global economies, the African Union, ten African governments, multilateral financial institutions and the private sector. The UK Government, as one of the major supporters of the programme, is investing more than £600 million of taxpayers’ money through the World Bank under the guise of development spending

Under the cooperation agreement, African partner countries are requested to change their land ownership and seed laws to facilitate companies’ land tenure and control over the national seed market. This is resulting in massive corporate land grabbing throughout the continent and the enactment of seed laws which criminalise the ability of farmers to freely preserve their own native seeds year on year and exchange them against other varieties to mitigate risks.

Agrochemical corporations have long had their gaze fixed on the seed market. Control over seeds is control over the first link in the food chain, and, beyond, the whole food system. By dictating the patented, corporate-owned seeds farmers can buy, corporations not only reap profits every year, but also assert control over what is being produced.

Deals are negotiated behind closed doors. Last April, the Gates Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) convened a meeting at a secret location in London to discuss the findings of a recent report detailing how corporations could achieve maximum gain through the privatisation of potentially lucrative seed markets across Africa. Neither farmers nor civil society organisations were invited to the meeting, which was held solely for private seed companies, private and government donors, and trade representatives.

Mariam Mayet, Director of the African Centre for Biosafety, based in South Africa, said: “The exclusive meeting in London and the focus of the report on how private interests can profit from essential life processes in African agriculture exposes the agendas of the [Gates] Foundation and USAID. It is disappointing that the African Union is willing to endorse such blatantly neo-colonialist plans.”

Agriculture as a way of life 

This dominant framework is in staggering contrast to the model defended by more than 200 million family farmers worldwide who are calling for food sovereignty.

We are confronted on the one hand by a vision held by powerful corporations and their allies, rich country governments such as the UK, international financial institutions and large private foundations, and on the other, by that of the majority of food producers, small-scale farmers and fisherfolk, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. The former considers agriculture as a profit-driven industry, heavily-mechanised, primarily focused on productivity and efficiency, reliant on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and promoting of so-called bio-engineering. For the latter, farming is considered as a way of life, providing healthy, nutritious food produced by people and for people, according to ecological principles.

The world is now at a crossroads. The number of people suffering from obesity has overtaken the number of people living in hunger. The industrial food system has led to severe and chronic health problems from bad diets heavily reliant on sugar, fat and artificial foods; severe environmental damage; low wages and hazardous working conditions for food workers and producers; and impact on the mental health of farmers and communities resulting from heavy pesticide use and intensive factory farming. An increasing number of countries around the world are banning GM crops, including China, India, Russia, France, Germany, Mexico and Australia. The World Health Organisation has recently rung the alarm bell on one of Monsanto’s products, RoundUp, the world’s most widely used weed killer, as probably carcinogenic to humans.

The myth of a corporate profit-driven approach to feeding the world has been exploded. Over the past decade, a wealth of scientific research has shown that true sustainable agriculture as practice by small-scale farmers for millennia, also known as agroecology, can feed the world while respecting the planet. Resistance from large grassroots movements such as La Via Campesina is growing stronger. In the face of this corporate-led neo-colonial agenda, it is time to reclaim people’s control over the food system and realise food sovereignty. 

 

 

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