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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.

NFU commemorates April 17th: International Day of Peasants' Struggle

By staff - La Via Campesina, April 18, 2017

(Saskatoon, April 17, 2017) -  On April 17th, 1996, 19 peasants were killed when military police in Pará, Brazil attacked members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) who were blockading a highway in order to demand agrarian reform. Two more people died from their injuries several days later, and hundreds were so seriously injured that they could not go on working in agriculture. La Via Campesina, which was then in the midst of holding its second international conference in Tlaxcala, Mexico, declared April 17th to be the International Day of Farmers' and Peasants' Struggle

La Via Campesina is the international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) International Programming Committee (IPC) joins in commemorating the International Day of Peasants' Struggle by continuing to work to broaden the NFU's understanding and analysis of the global food system, by better understanding the impact of Canadian agricultural policy on farming families both domestically and globally, and by sharing information and experiences among farmers and their allies in other countries. 

We stand in solidarity with peasants around the world who face threats and discrimination, persecution and violence and we support the advance toward the UN Declaration of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.  

In July 2017, in the Basque Country, La Via Campesina will hold its 7th International Conference.  Several members of the NFU will attend this important conference to deepen our understanding and analysis of the struggles faced by peasants and farmers, and work to strengthen our movement.

Unite against the FFA for the future of agriculture!

By various - La Via Campesina, April 3, 2017

A call from civil society 

The 10th edition of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) was held in Brussels on the 28th of March. Its organisers, Syngenta (a multinational chemicals and agrifood firm) and ELO (an organisation that lobbies for large European landowners) presented their brand of agriculture, which they claim will meet food and environmental challenges. A coalition of farmers’ organisations (members of La Via Campesina), civil society organisations and citizens have denounced these false agribusiness solutions and are issuing this appeal to send a firm message to the organisers and attendees of this forum: this agriculture has no future! 

False solutions to the wrong problems 

With its winning tagline, “where agriculture and environment meet”, the forum brings together a prestigious panel of speakers (EU, OECD, UN, etc.) alongside nature conservation NGOs and intellectuals. But this façade of open debate conceals a costly exercise in political lobbying. At a time when the reform of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the regulation of certain pesticides are under discussion, agribusiness players need to act now to protect their interests. So they present themselves as champions in the fight against global hunger and as leaders in environmental conservation ; yet the solutions that they advocate are false solutions. Their answer to current and future food challenges is an unchanging litany : increase the productivity of farmland through technology and further reduce barriers to free trade. 

By asking the question, “how to feed 9 billion people by 2050”, the FFA organisers are perpetuating the myth that we do not produce enough today to feed the human race. But according to the FAO we already produce enough food for 12 billion people ! The causes of hunger and malnutrition are rather to be found in extreme poverty (especially in rural areas, where about 70% of hungry people live), food waste (30% of global production is wasted, according to the FAO) and the conversion of agricultural land to biofuel production and livestock rearing (feed and pasture). 

Lobbies and multinationals sell what they call “smart agriculture”, which uses robotics, chemicals, biotechnology and specialisation. Yet it does nothing to feed those who are starving ; instead it makes producers even more dependent on agribusiness multinationals. As well as their negative impact on health and the environment, these technologies are driving small farmers into debt and putting them out of business. 

And there’s more. The way that we class food as a simple commodity for trading on the free market is one of the main causes of rural impoverishment and loss of biodiversity. Both in the North and the South, competition between farmers favours large farms at the expense of small farmers, who bear the brunt of the disastrous consequences of this model : falling incomes, unemployment, the disappearance of farms, massive debt, speculation on agricultural land and foodstuffs, etc. Over the last 30 years, Belgium has lost 63% of its farms – 43 every week. It is mostly small farms that are affected. 

Greenwashing dealers in death 

The agriculture of machines, chemicals and international shipping cannot continue to exist without fossil fuels. Yet Syngenta claims to champion environmental causes. At FFA 2016, cuddly bees were distributed amongst attendees to promote initiatives that were far from transparent. The company probably wanted to deflect their attention away from its aggressive lobbying to overturn the ban on neonicotinoids – singled out by the scientific community for their disastrous consequences for natural pollinators such as bees and bumblebees.

On its website, the company claims that opposing the use of GMOs, chemical fertilisers and pesticides means using more water and land. This is proof of its bad faith as it pretends to ignore solutions that have already been proven to be effective. 

Solutions do exist : agroecology and food sovereignty 

The agriculture that agribusiness offers us is nothing new. It merely follows the same path that has brought about the destruction of our soils, the deterioration of biodiversity, the pollution of our waters and the disappearance of our farms. Truly smart agriculture, the agriculture of the future, should be modelled on natural ecosystems. A publication of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food states that agroecology could double food production in 10 years, mitigating climate change, protecting water resources and creating new jobs in the rural sector. 

Rather than surrendering agricultural production to the free market and the dictates of agribusiness, it is the people themselves who should determine agricultural and food systems. Only this way will they be able to have a healthy diet, tailored to their needs, locally produced and sustainable. That is why we believe it is essential to commit to food sovereignty.
We do not want arms dealers calling the shots in times of peace ; nor do we want dealers in poison to decide what we eat. They are only interested in making money. Their brand of agriculture is sounding the death knell for small farmers, consumers, and the environment. It represents the past. 

We want to send a clear message to European and international policymakers. They must curtail the influence of agribusiness and private interests and commit to the agroecological transition. 

We call on as many organisations and movements as possible to sign this appeal   

Unite for our future ! 

Opposition rises to planned agricultural mega-mergers

By Friends of the Earth Europe, European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, European Coordination of Via Campesina - La Via Campesina, April 3, 2017

More than 200 organisations have called on the European Commission and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to block the planned mergers of six giant agriculture corporations. 

The farmer, farmworker, beekeeper, religious, international development, and environmental groups claim that the three resulting companies will concentrate market power and “exacerbate the problems caused by industrial farming – with negative consequences for the public, farmers and farm workers, consumers, the environment, and food security” in an open letter

The European and national organisations – together representing millions of members – state that the proposed mergers of Dow Chemical with DuPont, Monsanto with Bayer AG, and Syngenta with ChemChina will lead to an unacceptable monopoly, with three companies controlling around 70% of the world’s agro-chemicals and more than 60% of commercial seeds

Ramona Duminicioiu, peasant seed producer of the farmer organization European Coordination Via Campesina said: “Approving these mergers works completely against the rights of peasants, with far reaching effects in our society. When the Commission says that small family farms are the back bone of European agriculture does it honestly believe that or is it just lip service? The already fragile rights of peasants regarding seeds, land and markets risks being obliterated by these mega-corporations and our Food Sovereignty abducted. The Commission should say no to these mergers!” 

Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe said: “Europe’s food and farming system is broken and if giant firms, like Monsanto and Bayer, are allowed to merge they will have an even tighter toxic grip on our food. The mergers are a marriage made in hell and should be blocked by regulators. We need to build a fairer and greener food system out of corporate control.” 

Arnd Spahn from the European trade unions of agricultural workers EFFAT said: “Workers, as well as the environment and all society, are victims of the use of pesticides. We are fighting for health and safety on work places and we need partners for our ideas. Today the producers of pesticides are big, but after such a merger they will be too big for anybody to bring them on a path to worker and environmental protection. How shall we stop Glyphosate if we have such strong opponents?” 

Isabelle Brachet of CONCORD Europe said: “Ending hunger implies addressing power imbalances in our food systems. A small number of multinational corporations dominate internationally traded food systems and get most of the knowledge, benefits and access to decision makers. Corporate power in our food must be restrained – not further extended by mega-mergers. The main investors in agriculture in developing countries are farmers themselves and it is they who must be at the centre of agriculture development policies.”[3] 

The organisations have called on the European Commission to reject the mergers, prevent the damage caused by these corporations, and urgently take steps to support just and sustainable food systems less dependent on agri-business. 

The agricultural policy must serve the people

By Geneviève Savigny - La Via Campesina, March 30, 2017

Where have the consistency between the objectives and tools that prevailed in 1957 gone, when we signed the Treaty of Rome A radical shift in policy is necessary in the European Union.

Agriculture, a source of food and of numerous useful products for human life, concerns the whole of society. There was surely a sort of consensus between the agricultural world, policy makers and society on the role played by farmers and the objectives of an agricultural policy, when the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, laid the foundations for the first Common Agricultural Policy. It was first necessary to guarantee food security for people, and thereby produce more, modernize farms but also equip the houses of peasant families where several generations often lived together with the comfort already found in cities. The initial objectives and tools were consistent; increase agricultural productivity, ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural population, stabilise markets, guarantee security of supply, and ensure reasonable prices for consumers. Cheap food would enable keeping low wages and foster Europe’s industrial development. 

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.”

Moving towards a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas

By Elizabeth Mpofu - La Via Campesina, March 9, 2017

The need for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas is all the more urgent and evident in the 21st century. Despite years of campaigning for a better recognition and protection of the rights of peasants, displacements and criminalization continue affecting hundreds of thousands of peasants globally.

Hunger and malnutrition, unemployment and poverty all have something in common; they are more prevalent in rural areas and the countryside. Because of this, most people coming from the countryside, have been exploited (policies forced upon them with limited consultation and participation), dispossessed, displaced, criminalized, brutally treated by those in power and the rich, sometimes taken to court and/or killed for defending their rights related to natural resources, values and culture. Such injustices in most cases have gone unpunished or reported. Laws or political concepts have been made to sanitize and sanctify social injustices. The future UN declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas will contribute to solve these problems by recognizing rights to land, water, seeds and other natural resources and stressing the importance of improving access to productive resources and investment in appropriate rural development. This will be a milestone for peasants and rural people all over the world.

Agro-fuels, GMOs, climate smart agriculture are put on the table as a solution to the current climate, food and economic crisis. It opens further the doors for the expansion of industrial agriculture and the exclusion of peasants. The primary role of agriculture is to produce food, not agro-fuels and commodities. Our struggle is for the recognition and acknowledgement of Peasants’ Rights, to achieve both equity and equality, socially, economically and ecologically.

Globally, millions of peasants have been illegally evicted from their lands to make way for “modern agriculture”, agro-fuels, forests (REDD+ for carbon trading) and other natural resources (water), and many other fictitious commodities created for profits by transnational corporations and elites. This has not only affected peasants but also many indigenous peoples. In Africa we see an increase in the erosion of peasants’ rights to seeds and land and access to water in general. These were initiated following the global food crisis by various actors, such as the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa (NAFSN), the harmonization of seed regulatory systems by Common Markets for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). There has been visible widespread land grabbing by foreign interests in many African countries which led to dispossession and displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural peasants. The less visible is the on-going reforms of Seeds Acts and policies to align them to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) 1991 to promote big seed industries and to move towards criminalizing peasant saved systems, undermining the rights of peasants.

The rising influence of TNCs in global politics is affecting many of the rights held by peasants: rights to participation and information, safety and health, work, decent incomes and livelihoods, access to justice, life, liberty, physical and personal security and free movement. States must respect, protect and fulfil the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. In this particular aspect, we need States to be present both in their territories and also extra-territorial. We need our government to protect peasants and other people working in rural areas- so that individuals, organizations, TNCs and other businesses do not negate our rights.

We see the capture of public policies and the promotion of Free Trade Agreements (TTIP, CETA, TTP, EPAs, RECPs) as the attempt to dominate and monopolize new markets for profits. Neither nature nor humanity are respected but rather are destroyed and exploited for profit maximization. Last year criminalization in the form of continued threats, abductions, torture, persecution, illegal evictions and killings in a number of countries such as Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil, among others, were prevalent. Thus, millions of affected people leave their territories and migrate to developed industrial countries.

We promote a model based on Food Sovereignty and support for agroecological peasant agriculture as a solution to food, climate and social crisis. Why is big capital investing billions of dollars in technologies (toxic agro-chemicals and fertilizers) which we all know cause harm to humanity and the planet? Why are land and natural resources from peasants taken away to produce for export? Such violations are mainly led by capitalist interests. Transnational companies keep violating basic rights with impunity while people struggling to defend the rights of their communities continue to be criminalized, at times killed. We as La Vía Campesina, together with allies, continue to engage and lobby our respective governments and the UN to ensure that such violations receive urgent attention.

The stage we have reached is a critical milestone in the long road towards the creation of an international legal instrument protecting peasants’ rights. After discussing it internally for several years, La Vía Campesina submitted a first proposal in 2008 to the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) so that the rights of peasants- men and women- are formally recognized. This includes the right to life and adequate standards of living, the right to land and territory, to seeds, to information, justice and equality between men and women. Using the UN human right mechanisms is seen by the international peasant movement as a strategy to legitimize the peasant’s struggle and to support local struggles everywhere in the world. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas will provide a new tool for peasants to defend their lives and their land. We also need to mobilize support for the UN Declaration on peasant rights process to achieve some of these desired goals. The Declaration will ensure and reinforce the interpretation of the implementation of human rights in relation to peasants whose specific rights are insufficient and inadequate in existing legal instruments. Today, March 8th, peasant women are also mobilizing all over the world to stop violence on our bodies and on our territories and for the recognition of our rights. Peasant women are the main producers in the world and therefore this declaration is especially important for us.

The plight for further protection of the rights of peasants has been a movement-driven process, with La Via Campesina and peasants, fisher folk, indigenous, pastoralists, rural workers, women, and youth organizations at the forefront. This is a demand from people all over the world. In achieving this, we hope to solve current realities, from hunger, malnutrition to rural development. In championing the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, humanity also wins.

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