In the 1970s many corporations in the USA and Western Europe found themselves with a serious problem of overproduction.
The growth in consumption in the post-war period, although large, had proved insufficient to absorb everything the corporations could produce. If they were to continue growing, they needed to expand far more aggressively into the rest of the world.
Free trade and forced evictions
This corporate expansion has not only led to the eviction of millions of families from their land, but is also transforming the very way in which countries farm.
Many national systems have been converted to export-oriented agriculture, at the same time as the countries have been forced to open their own markets to food imports, including imports dumped on them by US and EU companies at less than the cost of production. As a result, millions of small farmers have seen their livelihoods destroyed.
Profit before people
What lies behind the model of free trade and export-oriented agriculture is the naked self-interest of multinational corporations driven by their obsession with maximising profit.
This becomes glaringly obvious when one examines the brutal way in which these policies are implemented in the world’s weakest countries.
The ‘Green Revolution’
The expansion of corporate capitalism into the global South has not only led to the eviction of millions of families from their land, but is also transforming the very way in which countries farm.
Multinational corporations are seeking to wrest control of food production away from local communities and national governments and turn it into a mechanism for yielding profits to them and their shareholders. The main vehicle for achieving this takeover was the much vaunted Green Revolution, which brought huge profits to the multinational corporations involved. Yet levels of hunger actually rose during the Green Revolution, despite increased production.
Changes in the global diet
Corporations realised that, in order to keep demand for their products growing, it was not enough to change the way farmers farmed; it was also necessary to change what people eat.
A revolution in eating habits in many parts of the world, with a global shift towards a more standardised diet, has resulted in the world today a reliance on just three crops – maize, wheat and rice – for half of its food. This has frightening implications, because it has left the world vulnerable to diseases that could devastate a great swathe of global food production.
Genetically modified crops
The huge profits made by the agrochemical companies during the Green Revolution allowed them to fund the next big step in their bid to control world farming: the development of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Over 20 years ago, as corporations began to test GM crops in laboratories and in field sites, they realised that genetic modification would turn the humble seed into the linchpin of world farming. If corporations could monopolise the seed market, they would leave farmers with no option but to buy their GM seeds and all the other products associated with their cultivation. Overnight they would create a captive market.
Pulling in the profits
Even though there has been considerable resistance from farmers in many parts of the world to genetically modified crops, the agrochemical corporations continue to increase their sales not just of GM crops but of agrochemical products in general. The global South has become an increasingly important market to these companies.
In the dog-eat-dog world of corporate competition, companies either buy up their rivals or are bought up themselves. The agrochemicals sector intensely concentrated. These companies are so powerful they can push new and potentially harmful farming techniques on to farmers, who in poorer countries are often illiterate and ill-prepared to assess the risks of the technology they are offered.
The great land grab
Land grabbing has occurred throughout history. It is a violent process very much alive today. In Cambodia more than half of the country’s arable land was recently granted to private companies so that they can develop agro-industrial plantations and mining projects.
Over the last five years, dozens of rural and indigenous communities have been evicted. Many more have lost access to land that they have long used for subsistence farming or for grazing their animals. Others have found that forests where they used to collect food and firewood have been felled.
A planet under siege
As well as causing misery for millions of people around the world, the industrial food system is also jeopardising the future of the planet. Soils contain enormous numbers of living organisms, ranging from a vast variety of invisible microbes, bacteria and fungi to the more familiar earthworms, beetles and termites.
These soil organisms, which form complex and varied ecosystems, carry out many useful functions, including the absorption of some of the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet. The large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers used in industrial farming are killing these living organisms in the soil.