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Can we survive the epidemics that Big Agriculture produces? An interview with biologist Rob Wallace

By Bud Schulte and John Schraufnagel - Socialist Action, April 21, 2017

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science” (Monthly Review Press). Through a dialectical process he shows us how Big Agriculture and its organization and methodology conflict with the epidemiological controls needed to stop flu epidemics from emerging and killing millions of people. We sat down with Rob Wallace in late November 2016 at May Day Books in Minneapolis.

Bud Schulte: I’m curious about how you came to your Marxist approach to science.

Rob Wallace: My parents were radical scientists. My father is trained as a physicist, my mother as a marine biologist. They met on a picket protesting my father’s professors in the Physics Department [at Columbia University] who were working with the JASON group at the time. The JASON group were physicists helping the DOD come up with various weapons systems, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

My parents helped found “Scientists and Engineers Against the War.” That same year, “Science for the People” was founded in Boston. This is a time when there were so many radical scientists that those two groups were rivals. If only we were in that stage again! So I grew up cultivating a certain sensibility around the dinner table: that against bourgeois scientific practice, truth and justice are deeply intertwined.

When I first started grad school, I put these notions into practice. As a grad student at the City University of New York, I participated in a lot of student activism. So I had activism and I had science, and some of it spilled over and some of it didn’t. But it was working on influenza as a postdoc at the University of California that the pieces really came together. I began to think through what bourgeois science is and what it destroys, and later, the way I got squeezed out [of establishment science] for saying what was right in front of me.

It is a process. Once you come through your training, it seems like an obvious path, but really there are twists and turns along the way—misdirections, convergences, realizations. The most obvious realizations often take years to crystalize.

A message is sent when you are bounced out of establishment science for what you think is good work. For a long time it seems like even if you object to the premises of the typical science, at least you’re able to pay bills. But then when you are told that doing good work is not what is wanted, when you have always believed that science is about figuring out complicated problems in natural phenomena and you are told not to figure them out anymore, then there is a profound break between the system that helped produce you as a scientist and the desire to help that system any more.

You can see what the larger system does to people around you and the broader world. That happens to a lot of scientists: The accumulation of understanding of how [scientists] are used and abused—not to advance science but for a system that only cares about advancing its particular brand of science.

Why Progressives Should Care About US Agricultural Policy

By Mark Willsey - Truthout, March 16, 2017

Nearly all of Trump's electoral wins were in rural districts, many of which are made up of farming communities. This is where Trump thrived. I have seen it firsthand: I have lived in the city, worked in manufacturing and I'm now a farmer in a small farming town in Central Illinois.

For the progressive movement to make inroads in communities like mine, it needs to put forward a serious plan for how the US government can stop subsidizing corporate farms and instead return the land to small family farmers who work the land. Farmers should not have to farm 20,000 acres of rented land just to make a living.

To move toward a future in which progressives are able to put forward such a plan, it's crucial for everyone in this country -- including city dwellers -- to gain a basic literacy about the agricultural shifts that have taken place in the US and what it would take to move away from corporate agriculture on a mass scale.

Behind a corporate monster: How Monsanto pushes agricultural domination

By Alan Broughton - Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2017

Monsanto, one of the world’s biggest pesticide and seed corporations and leading developer of genetically modified crop varieties, had a stock market value of US$66 billion in 2014. It has gained this position by a combination of deceit, threat, litigation, destruction of evidence, falsified data, bribery, takeovers and cultivation of regulatory bodies.

Its rise and torrid controversies cover a long period starting with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, chemicals used as insulators for electrical transformers) in the 1940s and moving on to dioxin (a contaminant of Agent Orange used to defoliate Vietnam), glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide), recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, a hormone injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production), and genetic modified organisms (GMOs).

Its key aim in dealing with health and environmental issues is to protect sales and profits and the company image. The latter has been a monumental failure, making Monsanto potentially the most hated corporation in the world.

To better sell its GMO technology, Monsanto began acquiring seed companies in 1996 and within 10 years became the largest seed supplier in the world. If the planned merger with German multinational Bayer takes place, the combined corporate giant will control a third of the world’s seed market and a quarter of the pesticide market.

Stop Protecting the Criminality of the Global Pesticides Industry

By Colin Todhunter - CounterPunch, March 17, 2017

The agrichemicals industry wallows like an overblown hog in a cesspool of corruption. With its snout firmly embedded in the trough of corporate profit to the detriment of all else, it is most likely responsible for more death and disease than the combined efforts of the tobacco companies ever were. It indulges in criminality that hides behind corporate public relationsmedia misrepresentations and the subversion of respectable-sounding agencies which masquerade as public institutions.

Dominated by a handful of powerful parasitical corporations with a global reach, the message from this sector is that its synthetic biocides are necessary to feed billions who would otherwise go hungry. Often accompanying this public relations-inspired tale is the notion that organic agriculture is not productive enough, or is a kitchen-table niche, and that agroecology is impractical.

Of course, as any genuinely informed person would know that, as numerous high-level reports have suggested, organic farming and agroecology could form the mainstay of agriculture if they were accorded sufficient attention and investment. Unfortunately, big agribusiness players, armed with their chemicals or GMOs seek to marginalise effective solutions which threaten their markets and interests.

Armed with a compulsion to dominate and to regard themselves as conqueror and owner of nature, they require more of the same: allegiance to neoliberal fundamentalism and an unsustainable model of farming that is so damaging to soil that we could have at most just 60 years of farming left if we don’t abandon it.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have had to endure our fields and food being poisoned in the manner Rachel Carson highlighted decades ago. These companies sell health-and environment-damaging products, co-opt scientistscontrol public institutions and ensure farmers are kept on a chemical treadmill. From CEOs and scientists to public officials and media/PR spin doctors, specific individuals can be identified and at some stage should be hauled into court for what amounts to ‘crimes against humanity’.

In his 2014 book, ‘Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the US EPA’, E G Vallianatos, who worked for the EPA for 25 years, says:

“It is simply not possible to understand why the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] behaves the way it does without appreciating the enormous power of American’s industrial farmers and their allies in the chemical pesticide industries, which currently do about $40 billion per in year business. For decades, industry lobbyists have preached the gospel of unregulated capitalism and Americans have bought it. Today, it seems the entire government is at the service of the private interests of America’s corporate class.”

Sweat Shops, GMOs and Neoliberal Fundamentalism: The Agroecological Alternative to Global Capitalism

By Colin Todhunter - CounterPunch, March 7, 2017

Much of the argument in favour of GM agriculture involves little more than misrepresentations and unscrupulous attacks on those who express concerns about the technology and its impacts. These attacks are in part designed to whip up populist sentiment and denigrate critics so that corporate interests can secure further control over agriculture. They also serve to divert attention from the underlying issues pertaining to hunger and poverty and genuine solutions, as well as the self-interest of the pro-GMO lobby itself.

The very foundation of the GMO agritech sector is based on a fraud. The sector and the wider transnational agribusiness cartel to which it belongs have also successfully captured for their own interests many international and national bodies and policies, including the WTO, various trade deals, governments institutions and regulators. From fraud to duplicity, little wonder then the sector is ridden with fear and paranoia.

“They are scared to death,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of several books on food policy. She adds: “They have an industry to defend and are attacking in the hope that they’ll neutralize critics … It’s a paranoid industry and has been from the beginning.”

Double Whammy On Farmers

By Colin Todhunter - CounterPunch, December 12, 2016

Washington’s long-term plan has been to restructure indigenous agriculture across the world and tie it to an international system of trade based on export-oriented mono-cropping, commodity production for the international market and indebtedness to international financial institutions (IMF/World Bank).

This result has been the creation of food surplus and food deficit areas, of which the latter have become dependent on agricultural imports and strings-attached aid. Food deficits in the Global South mirror food surpluses in the North. Whether through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes, as occurred in Africa, trade agreements like NAFTA and its impact on Mexico or, more generally, deregulated global trade rules, the outcome has been similar: the devastation of traditional, indigenous agriculture for the benefit of transnational agribusiness and the undermining of both regional and global food security.

In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank wanted India to shift hundreds of millions out of agriculture. India was advised to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies and run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops. As the largest recipient of loans from the World Bank in the history of that institution, India has been quite obliging and has been opening up its agriculture to foreign corporations.

Together We Can Cool the Planet

By Eugenia Izquierdo and IvanZigarán - La Via Campesina and GRAIN - December 2016

Based on the video Together we can cool the planet! co-produced by La Vía Campesina and GRAIN in 2015, we have created a comic book to support training activities of social movements and civil society organisations around climate change. This comic book looks at how the industrial food system impacts our climate and also explains what we can do to change course and start cooling the planet.

La Via Campesina and GRAIN have pointed out that the industrial food system is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa, we have been denouncing the false solutions to climate change such as GMOs, the “green economy” and "climate-smart agriculture".

We say loud and clear: it is peasants and small farmers, along with consumers who choose agroecological products from local markets, who hold the solution to the climate crisis.

We must all rise to the challenge!

Read the report (PDF).

Watch the video, too:

Return to the Source: Guardians of Seeds Fight Monsanto and Win!

By Quincy Saul - Ecosocialist Horizons, October 12, 2016

October 29: Day of the Campesino Seed

“Nature will always prevail,” says Angel Moreno, a campesino and leader in the National Network of Popular Agroecological Schools, as he points to the grass sprouting through the sidewalk in the mountain village of Monte Carmelo in Venezuela. “But if we’re going to fight imperialism, we need seeds.”

It is October 29, 2015, the 10th anniversary of the Day of the Campesino seed, and over a thousand people from around the country and around the world have gathered in this humble village, described by the Agujero Negro media collective as “the ecosocialist capital of Venezuela.”

The people of Monte Carmelo began these gatherings in 2005, and in 2012, they hosted an international gathering from eight countries throughout Latin America. There, over multiple days of discussions and debates, they wrote the Monte Carmelo Declaration, and launched the international network of the Guardians of Seeds.

Monte Carmelo has become a center of gravity in Venezuela for the politics and practice of a movement that calls itself ecosocialist, leading a return to the land and the transcendence of the oil economy. Most big decisions in Venezuela are decided in the capital city of Caracas, but the people of Monte Carmelo and the neighboring towns are leading the way in a movement which is all at once local, national, and global – to return to the source of ancestral practices of seed saving.

This year the small farmers of Monte Carmelo once again took the lead in a struggle to fight back against the ongoing economic crisis through a program of grassroots action. “We’re in a profound food crisis globally,” said Ximena Gonzalez, an activist academic from the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigations who like many others come to Monte Carmelo to participate and accompany this movement of seed savers. “We should take advantage of this conjuncture to put forward an integral plan of mobilization, legislation, and production.” And over the next several days, that is what happened.

Monsanto Facing Public Trial for Ecocide and Violation of Farmers’ Rights

By Staff - Global Justice Ecology Project, October 6, 2016

THE HAGUE – Navdanya,  the organization founded and led by Vandana Shiva, is co organizing, along with multiple civil society organizations, the Monsanto Tribunal and People’s Assembly to take place at the Hague from 14 to 16 October 2016. The Monsanto Tribunal will hold Monsanto accountable for their crimes against humanity, human rights violations and ecocide, in tandem with the People’s Assembly, a gathering of leading movements and activists working to defend our ecosystem and food sovereignty, to lay out the effects of industrial agrochemicals on our lives, our soils, our atmosphere and climate. Over 800 organizations from around the world are supporting and participating in this process while over 100 people’s assemblies and tribunals are being held across the world.

In the last century, giant agribusiness interests which came out of the war industry, have poisoned life and our ecosystem, are destroying our biodiversity and the lives of small farmers, appropriating their land, in an attempt to control and profit from these essentials for life on earth.  The risks keep increasing as these multinationals diminish in number as a result of aggressive takeovers and mega-mergers – such is the case with the recent 66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger.  A merger which serves to further extend the control of these multinationals over agricultural and food production systems.  There is only one way to translate this process:  maximum focus on potential profit, and a minimal concern towards the environment, to the quality of our food, to consumers and to workers in the sector.

Large multinationals are lobbying democratically elected governments to take on neoliberal policies and international ‘free’ trade agreements such a TTIP and TTP:  the race towards deregulation is an unprecedented attack on biodiversity and to life itself on Earth.  Multinationals like Monsanto have already expanded their control over our seeds, our food and our freedom, depriving us of our basic human rights and our right to democracy.  With  patents and international property rights (IPRs) as their tools,  they have established monopolies and threatened the rights of farmers and consumers.

Participating at the People’s Assembly will be leading representatives of movements and associations, seed custodians, farmers and journalists from all over the world.  The aim of the Assembly is to shine the light on crimes against nature and humanity of  mega chemical and biotechnological industrial corporations which through patents on seed have opened the doors to the invasion of GMOs.  Based on the ecocide and genocide of the past century, the Assembly will lay out the necessary actions for a future based on the rights of small farmers to save and exchange seed, on self determination of food, on agroecology, the rights of consumers and workers in the sector,  on the commons and a sharing economy, as well as  on the rights of nature and a true Earth Democracy.

Bayer and Monsanto: a marriage made in hell

By James Plested - Red Flag, October 2, 2016

US agriculture giant Monsanto has agreed to a US$66 billion takeover by German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer. If the deal is approved by international regulators, Bayer-Monsanto will become the world’s biggest agribusiness, controlling 29 percent of the global seed market and 24 percent of pesticides.

The companies have dismissed widespread concern about the deal among farmers and environmentalists as fearmongering. Separately, they claim, their products have contributed to a significant boost in crop yields over the past few decades. Together, they’ll be able to increase investment in research and development, driving the agricultural innovation necessary to meet the demands of a growing world population.

We can only imagine what kind of new health and environmental threats may lurk in the “step change” a company like Bayer-Monsanto will make in an effort to restore profits.

In assessing the claims and counterclaims, we would do well to heed the words of radical US historian Howard Zinn: “If you don’t know history, it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can you tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it”.

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