From the Experimental GMO Fields of Kauai to the TPP: Connecting the Dots
Much attention has been turned in recent months to the fact that the agro-chemical/GMO industry -- corporate giants Dow, Pioneer DuPont, Syngenta, Monsanto, BASF -- have been using Hawaii since the 1990s as one of their main testing grounds for experiments engineering new pesticide-crop combos. On the "Garden Island" of Kauai, the industry controls over 15,000 acres of prime agricultural land, which they drench with over 17 tons of restricted-use pesticides each year, and likely at least five times that amount in non-restricted pesticides that may be equally as harmful (such as glyphosate).
Because genetically engineered seeds are most typically designed to be used in conjunction with specific pesticides, the development of new GE crops (or at least the types the industry is choosing to develop) requires repeated applications of these chemicals and their mixing into new toxic cocktails with unknown consequences. From a lawsuit, we know that Pioneer DuPont alone has used 90 pesticide formulations with 63 active ingredients in the past 6 years. They apply these pesticides around 250 (sometimes 300) days each year, with 10-16 applications per day on average. The amount of pesticides used on the island by these operations makes the corn fields in Kansas look organic.
Pesticides are sprayed next to schools, hospitals, neighborhoods and major waterways, with zero buffer zone and zero public knowledge of what is being sprayed and when it will happen. Preliminary evidence suggests that living in the shadow of these companies may be causing alarming rates of rare birth defects and cancers. Residents' complaints of asthma, skin rashes, nose bleeds and migraines are common. There have been several incidents of groups of students at a neighboring school collapsing and falling ill, and a reported eleven teachers have had to leave the small school in the past few years due to health concerns. While they are spending millions marketing themselves as "good neighbors," the chemical companies are doing everything they can to fight even the most basic pesticide disclosure and small buffer zones around schools.
At the international level, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) these same chemical corporations are seeking to lock us in to arrangements that guarantee their profit interests will not be impeded by pesky democratic governments protecting people's health or other common interests. The TPP is a highly secretive international agreement being negotiated under the pretext of "trade" between twelve Asian and Pacific Rim countries, including the United States. If passed, it will amount to perhaps the biggest corporate power-grab in history, putting the rights of corporations above those of elected governments and sovereign nations.
Under the cryptic title of "Investor State Dispute Settlement" (ISDS), foreign corporations could challenge national and local laws and regulations that undermine their expected profits, holding tax-payers liable for these losses. Challenges could be brought for everything from attempts to regulate pesticide use to health warnings on cigarettes. Governments would be tried in private offshore tribunals that lack transparency and due process.
Where they already exist, these private tribunals routinely put the economic interests of corporations ahead of the rights of people and governments. Under NAFTA's ISDS provisions the Mexican government was sued by three separate corporations for their tax on High Fructose Corn Syrup, and forced to pay nearly $170 million USD. The highest monetary award in the history of ISDS was ruled on last year when Ecuador was ordered to pay $1.77 billion to Occidental Petroleum Corp for terminating their oil contract.
Like preceding "free-trade" agreements, the TPP will lower environmental and labor protections, weaken biosecurity and food safety efforts, encourage a "race-to-the bottom" in agricultural production, cripple local food economies, lead to further corporate consolidation in all parts of the food chain, and threaten indigenous rights to land and resources. Most fundamentally, the TPP will radically undermine people's ability to participate in defining what kind of future they want. While we can't know the exact details of the TPP because it is being negotiated in secret, what is certain is that it is advancing a food future designed by Monstanto, DuPont, Syngenta and the rest of the agribusiness giants.
Connecting the dots.
What is the logic that is driving a corporate food system forward? How has it become acceptable to allow the world's largest chemical manufacturers to experiment with pesticide cocktails next to schools, while at the same time giving these corporations more power to sue democratic governments attempting to protect people's most basic rights? When we already have all the technology and agricultural knowledge that we need to be feeding every person on the planet sustainably, why do we seem to be choosing paths that are remarkably undemocratic, ecologically and socially destructive?
It is true that money in politics, the "revolving door" in government, corporate media and lack of general public awareness all play a role in promoting a food system that serves the interests of the few over the many. But more fundamentally, we need to pay attention to the driving logics behind a food system in which meeting human needs is obviously not the priority.
Centuries in the making and decades in the congealing (thank you Reaganomics), our corporate food system is the result of subjecting food and agriculture to the logics of privatization, commodification, and the competitive accumulation of wealth at all expense. In other words, food and agriculture have increasingly been turned into a domain for money to make more money. While the complexity and detail of this are a bit much for an already-too-long blog post, some basic points are worth mentioning:
Free monopoly markets.
Not by accident, "free market" policies have facilitated a "foodopoly" system, where a handful of agro-food corporations stand between growers and consumers. Today, 20 food corporations produce most of the food eaten by Americans, including organic brands, and four retail chains control over half of all grocery sales. Their power has been facilitated by the TPP's predecessors, and because of their power they sit in the negotiating room for the TPP.
Monopolies always need more money to win the game. Everyone else pays.
Corporations have a single structural mandate -- to make profit for their shareholders. To make profit, agro-food corporations must relentlessly grow, seek new markets, and drive down costs by exploiting people and nature. In the frontiers of wild-west agro-food capitalism, it is a game of who can take the most and get away with it. Syngenta and DuPont have no choice but to endanger bees and biodiversity while lobbying for anti-democratic trade agreements and saturating the planet in glyphosate, atrazine and neonicotinoids. It is more financially prudent for them to spend millions suing the little County of Kauai than to agree to disclose their pesticide use. If Syngenta decided tomorrow to pay just for the health care costs of all the people worldwide harmed by their chemicals, not to mention for environmental remediation or the costs of damaged ecosystem services, there would be nothing left of their bottom-line. We are paying their true costs.
New fences necessary.
For money to make more money, new markets are needed. Over the past centuries, food and the resources to grow it have continuously been transformed into new money-making opportunities by imposing private property in spaces that were perviously considered "common." Today we are witnessing this in the privatization of our common genetic wealth, and in the massive global "land grab" that is expropriating millions of acres of farmland and accompanying water rights from peasant growers in the name of "productivity" and "development" (i.e. folding resources and people into the global capitalist market). Once something becomes "private," society has a difficult time recalling that is was ever considered something that belongs to us all.
Plenty of wealth, but none for the people doing the work.
As money searches to make new money in the agro-food system, farmers and farm-workers fare the worst. Worldwide, farmers are squeezed in every direction by the agro-food corporations that control agricultural inputs, distribution, processing, marketing and retail sales. The market is anything but "free" for growers, for whom what is produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced is increasingly decided by shareholder's profitability margins. It is smallholder farmers who, following decades of policy that displaces local agricultural economies in favor of commodity cash-crops, have become the world's main victims of poverty and hunger.
Keep paying the bank, even when it's well past bloated.
The deregulation of the agricultural commodities futures market 13 years ago signaled a new extreme in turning food and agriculture entirely over to the interests of the capitalist market.
In the past years there has been an influx of purely financial players who seek solely to profit from changes in food prices. Hedge funds, pension funds and investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital now dominate the food commodities markets, with speculative investment in 2011 amounting to 20 times the amount spent by all countries on agricultural aid. A very small number of people are getting rich gambling on hunger.
The logics advancing a corporate food system are not new. What has perhaps become more visible today are the consequences of believing that the best way to organize our economy is around the competitive accumulation of wealth and turning virtually everything into private property so that the almighty market (or more accurately, the players who have the most market power) can dictate what is and isn't good for us. What ends up being good for us is the poisoning of Hawaii and the creation of corporate courts with the power to block democracy. Somebody is making money, and according to the logic of capitalism, that's what matters.
The possibility of something better.
There is no shortage of ways to move in the more sane direction of a food system that actually feeds everybody, provides decent livelihoods, and preserves ecological integrity. For starters: enforce anti-trust laws to break up monopolies in the food system; change policies to support farmers and farmworkers rather than corporate agribusiness; support organizational structures like workers' cooperatives where benefits are distributed more equitably; get banks out of the business of speculating on hunger (and out of policy-making more generally); tax the incredible profits of corporate food giants to fund public distribution systems that affirm food as a basic human right; terminate patents on our genetic commons; redirect resources towards public (versus privatized and non-transparent) agricultural science that mimics nature instead of industry; support the capacity of all nations to feed themselves by strategies based on the right to food; pay more attention to the very intelligent voices of peasants demanding food sovereignty. And on Kauai, pass a strong Bill 2491!
There is much more that could go on this list, and beyond these, we need to think big, to question the logics and structures that have created the need for such proposals in the first place. We cannot be fearful of articulating more "radical," or "at the root" visions and solutions. The values that most of us would claim to share -- democracy, fairness, cooperation, ecological sustainability, taking care of one another -- need to become the logics that structure our food system. When we are poisoning the possibility of an inhabitable planet into the future, allowing a billion to go hungry though there is more than enough to feed everybody, and loosing our last shreds of true democracy -- all in the name of "the market" -- it is well past time to reclaim our common humanity.