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  • Demonstrators hold up posters during a protest against U.S.-based Monsanto Co. and genetically modified organisms in New York May 25, 2013.

    Demonstrators hold up posters during a protest against U.S.-based Monsanto Co. and genetically modified organisms in New York May 25, 2013. | Photo: AFP

Published 21 June 2016
Peasant movements and allied experts are pushing sustainable agriculture back onto the global stage.

Across the United States, spanning from Sonoma to an earlier attempt in Hawaii, counties are considering banning GMOs—genetically modified organisms. Brazil has banned imports of modified U.S. corn, while late last year the Supreme Court of the Philippines simply banned applications for the use of GMO crops.

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An employee of Greenpeace Philippines noted that “GE crops promote an ineffective farming model based on industrial agriculture, a system that cannot withstand the impacts of a rapidly changing climate and which is failing to deliver what Filipinos currently need: food and nutritional security in times of erratic weather patterns.” However, commercial lobbying partially reversed the decision.

But the point stands: GMOs are part of a capitalist food-production system which is turning agriculture into an industry, deskilling laborers, concentrating power, and dumping costs on people and the environment.

The costs of industrial farming are also the object of a new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, “From Uniformity to Diversity.”

The report’s central finding is that industrial agriculture is not an appropriate model of feeding the world—not good for most of the world’s people, not good for ensuring that the planet remains basically in its present state.

In this, the report echoes in the scientific realm what social movements like Via Campesina and its constituents like the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movements have been advocating for decades.

As the report states, what is “required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species.”

This is needed as “as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems.’”

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This model more frequently goes under the name of agroecology—embedding food systems, making them more local, cutting continent-length or oceanic supply lines, replacing them with much shorter ones, and ensuring the nutrient recycling takes place locally.

This would begin to address, in the words of environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, the “more and more extreme metabolic rift between city and country—between what is now a mechanized humanity and a mechanized nature.”

This rift is not merely a coincidental breakdown of nutrient cycling between city and country. It is linked to large differences in social power, and the system which ensures and reproduces them—capitalism. In this sense, agroecology is not merely about “greening” capitalism. It is not a technical fix in the ways of production of capitalist agriculture. It is not a question of adopting piecemeal parts and chunks, techniques and ideas, from agricultural technologies which rely less on non-renewable inputs, like chemical fertilizers.

As the report notes, “Tweaking industrial systems will only improve single outcomes, while leaving untouched the dynamics and power relations that reproduce the same problems over time.”

Instead, agroecology means and requires a redistribution of social power. One reason is simple and perhaps not immediately obvious: those with power have no interest in such techniques.

Indeed, up and down the production and supply chain, multinationals like Cargill and Monsanto extract profit and push others into poverty.

Activists protest Monsanto

Argentine activists protest Monsanto. | Photo: AFP

For that reason, “A wholesale transition to diversified agroecological food and farming systems does not hold obvious economic interest for the actors to whom power and influence have previously accrued.”

The industrial model makes farming into a system much like agriculture. Rather than a mild intrusion into natural cycles, using human techniques to extract food and other materials from a balanced ecosystem, the industrial model relies on physical inputs from outside an ecology, and relies on selling them to farmers.

Meanwhile, “The alternative model requires fewer external inputs, most of which are locally and/or self-produced.” In contrast to the placeless agriculture of the industrial system—and remember, since industry uses biologically "dead" material, it does not matter where it is produced—agroecology is very much local. It is adapted to local ecosystems, all of which are unique, and all of which suit specific crops best.

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For this reason, as the report continues, “a wide variety of highly locally-adapted seeds is needed, alongside the ability to reproduce, share and access that base of genetic resources over time. This suggests a much-reduced role for input-responsive varieties of major cereal crops, and therefore few incentives for commercial providers of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.”

Similarly, agroecology is also a technology—but a local one. It is generally opposed to GMOs, which have understandably aroused a truly massive global opposition to this intrusion of incomprehensible techniques of genetic modification into a very basic human need: filling our stomachs.

Indeed, the opposition is so intense that the June 21 is a day of global anti-GMO mobilization.

This is because of people’s worries about the specter of Frankenfoods, or bizarre genetic chimeras. As the biologist Michael Friedman notes, GMOs might offer short-term productivity gains, “Yet, as we have seen, they entail a far greater degree of uncertainty in terms of consequences. Of course, the costs of those consequences can then be externalized.”

As is typical.

The “From Uniformity to Diversity” report also takes issue with “feed the world” narratives, which so often construct or refer to a sudden emergency—famine, starvation—to push a narrative that we need to produce more, faster, and yesterday. Such thinking sidesteps that famines in the modern era are social, not ecological, problems. They are the result of people not having enough money to buy food, not of there not being enough food to buy. And such narratives, pushed unquestioningly, justify industrial approaches to feeding the world, predisposing “us to approach the question in terms of net production volumes of mainly energy-rich, nutrition-poor crop commodities.”

As the report concludes, “political priorities must be clearly established,” and should “support the emergence of alternative systems … based around fundamentally different logics, and generate different and more equitable power relations over time.” Established blocs of capitalist power will not like this agenda. And increasingly, many who paint themselves in the colors of the left, obsesses with what the writer Anthony Galluzzo calls “Jetsonism,” an “often defiantly anti-humanist accelerationism,” won’t like it either.

And so?

As this report makes clear, those fighting for livelihoods and land, and their struggles, should be the reference point for anyone wanting to understand contemporary agricultural problems, and how to solve them. Those who ignore them in favor of one or another hyper-modern fantasy of industrial agriculture are not and cannot be part of the solution. They are part of the problem.

Max Ajl is an editor at Jadaliyya.

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