The World’s Food Systems Are in Crisis, and Big Agribusiness Is at Its Heart

Yves here. The issues of food insecurity and the high cost of resource-depleting Big Ag practices are much more acute in developing countries than the US. This post discusses an important and oft-neglected piece of this puzzle: the role of captured “public finance” entities in promoting pro-corporate agendas.

By Lorena Cotza, the communications lead at the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, a global coalition that works to ensure development finance respects human rights and is community-led, and Ouafa Haddioui, a programe coordinator at Arab Watch Coalition, a regional coalition of civil society organizations from the Middle East and North Africa, working together to ensure just development in the region. Originally published at openDemocracy

In 2017, the people of Zagora, Morocco, took to the streets in what became known as the ‘thirst revolution’. They were demanding safe drinking water and an end to the excessive use of water by big agricultural companies. In an already arid area, experiencing frequent droughts and heatwaves due to climate change, much of the available water supply was being used to grow watermelons for export to Europe. Residents had been left with an insufficient, unreliable and undrinkable supply. Twenty-three of the demonstrators were arrested.

In Morocco, irrigation for agriculture consumes almost 90% of the annual available fresh water. This intense extraction dates back to the colonial period, when the French authorities replaced the khettara – a traditional irrigation system developed and managed by local communities – with water-intensive structures that allow production to fulfil the demand of European markets.

Agriculture now constitutes almost 15% of Morocco’s GDP. The industry receives substantial support from public development banks such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank. Both banks supported the 2008 Green Morocco Plan, which aimed to “fully exploit the agricultural potential of the country”. The plan favoured export-oriented crops with high water requirements, such as watermelons, tomatoes and citrus fruits.

Morocco’s water crisis is not an isolated case. All around the world, water scarcity and food crises are being caused by the man-made disasters of climate change, colonialism, and an extractive economic model – pushed by governments, private companies and development finance institutions – that boosts productivity at any cost and disregards the rights of local communities.

Escalated by the pandemic and the subsequent global economic crisis, water and food shortages have reached unprecedented levels in dozens of countries, with small-scale producers – especially women – disproportionately affected. The situation is particularly concerning in conflict-affected countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria.

In November 2021, the World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, warned that “conflict, climate change and COVID-19 [are] driving up the numbers of the acutely hungry, and the latest data show there are now more than 45 million people marching towards the brink of starvation”.

Urgent action is needed. Yet governments and public development banks (PDBs) continue to let big multinationals set the same failing agenda.

Public Development Banks

PDBs are key players when it comes to food systems. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, they invest about $1.4tn per year in the agriculture and food sector.

The Inter-American Development Bank, for example, is currently considering a $43m loan to Marfrig Global Foods, the world’s second-largest beef company. Marfrig and its suppliers have been linked to illegal deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon region, corruption and human rights abuses.

If the project is approved, public funds will be used to further expand industrial livestock production – a sector that dramatically increases methane emissions, deforestation, and other forms of air and water pollution. According to the Divest Factory Farming campaign, animal industrial agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Propping up the industrial meat industry undermines the Paris Climate Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals on climate action and responsible production.

Many public development banks also provide advice and shape state laws. In 2020, India approved three controversial farm bills following the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In a surprise move in November 2021, the Indian parliament voted to scrap these laws, after more than a year of mass protests, in which hundreds of thousands of small farmers held tractor rallies, blocked highways and camped in the capital, Delhi. According to local farmers’ organisations, these policies would have ended protective regulated markets and forced local farmers to negotiate prices with big agribusiness corporations such as the Adani Group.

International summits addressing world hunger are also dictated by PDBs and corporate interests.

In October 2021, representatives from 500 PDBs gathered at the second Finance in Common (FIC) Summit, to “strengthen [the banks’] commitment to post-pandemic recovery, sustainable development and agriculture”. Despite the banks touting their focus on inclusivity and sustainability, indigenous peoples, farmers, fisherfolk, herders, women and others from local communities – who are the real experts on these issues – were largely excluded from the summit.

Following another high-level international forum last year, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), hundreds of civil society organisations, grassroots groups, academics and UN experts criticised the meeting for allowing big agribusiness and corporations to set the agenda. Michael Fakhri, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, tweeted that the UNFSS had “turned its back on those most impacted by failed food systems”. The summit, which included the private sector – represented by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, whose members include Nestlé, Bayer and Tyson Foods – failed to address urgent problems like the overuse of pesticides, land concentration, or environmental and labour abuses by companies.

We Need Food Sovereignty

Sustainable solutions to the food crisis already exist, but they need more support. According to a report by the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), ‘Who Will Feed Us?’, small-scale producers provide food to 70% of the world, while using only 25% of the resources.

Instead of fuelling the food crisis by serving the interests of agribusiness corporations, governments and public development banks should support projects based on the agroecology model. According to a network of grassroots groups that mobilised around the UNFSS, agroecology “encourages diversity – of crops, people, farming methods, and knowledges – to allow for locally-adapted food systems that are responsive to environmental conditions and community needs”. This includes practices such as permaculture, agroforestry, organic farming and biodynamic farming.

Farmers across Asia, many of whom are suffering some of the worst impacts of climate change, offer a model for agroecology methods that minimise greenhouse gas emissions and are more resistant to climate disasters. These methods include using traditional and more resistant seeds, and less pollutant biofertilisers and biopesticides, more efficient irrigation systems, cleaner energy sources, and avoiding monoculture plantations.

We can no longer afford to pour billions in public money into projects that exacerbate debt, inequalities, poverty and climate change. Those who have the power and resources to shape food systems and address food crises should listen and learn from local communities and small-scale food producers who have the solutions to sustainably feed the world.

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  1. BeliTsari

    Platitudes, euphemism, narrative control blaming us victims of international conglomerates, their servile kleptocrats; Catastrophe Capitalism’s sneering media is by, for, about & solely from smug perspectives of autocracy, telling our boss, landlords, creditors what they believe? COVID, drought, firestorm, crop failure, climate refugees, forever wars, famine and pollution of air, water, food, AGW… are all ONE story, we’re never going to hear, as they distract us, turn us against those we’re comfortable victimizing?

  2. TomDority

    When these banks lend – what compound interest rate is charged in total? As is known – a compound interest rate will always beat the increase in production – which has always led to debt peonage and bond servitude in the agricultural field since at least 5,000 years ago.
    I guess it is just part of the financial sectors plan to control this spaceship/planet…. seems they are horrible captains and incompetent to handle money.

  3. Susan the other

    the UN’s Agroecology organization is very good news. Local, small-scale food producers. And don’t forget coops and food-share growers. The idea that public finance is captured for pro-corporate agricultural agendas is a little disconnected – because public finance is a euphemism. It’s corporate finance masquerading as public finance. Public Development Banks are agencies far removed from the public. The only way to shut down that financial operation is to start a revolution in eating. Don’t buy corporate food. Buy local. One foreseeable result might be that corporations will turn their attention away from mass production and pollution and toward locally organized agricultural enterprises. The danger lies in a corporation’s necessity for profit. So that’s definitely another advantage for local production – as well as a danger. It will not take long for some corporate business model to collapse without the necessary profits. And we all know how disappointing it is to eat long-distance fresh tomatoes these days. Produce has lost its flavor. The rule of thumb for something tasting good is that your body needs those nutrients. So that’s telling. The lack of nutrition alone is probably equal to the profits extracted. And vitamin supplements are very expensive.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      ” long distance tomatoes” . . .

      Ah yes. Those crispy California tomatoes with the fresh cucumber taste.

  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    In the Sixties, the hippies and others used to talk about a Counterculture in existential rejection of the Culture. Maybe they could even call it a Counter FoodCulture or a Food Counterculture.

    Maybe the foodie-hippies and the aggie-hippies of today should talk about a Countersystem in existential rejection of the System. Maybe there should be self-conscious coalitions, even if only of pragmatic convenience, between foodies and aggies, to create and support Food Countersystems as island fortresses and lifeboats and retreats against the Food System. And maybe in our impure world of today, nobody should demand purity or purism of themselves or anybody else. Every little something is a little better than nothing at all, and enough little somethings might add together to create a threshhold of support which keeps viable Food Countersystems alive in the teeth of the Food System Matrix.

    There might be many little ways for many millions of politically little people to do some of that. Paying more for artisanal shinola food denies just that much money from going to the industrial sh*tfood sector. ( And maybe “artisanal” can be scaled up to “artisandustrial”). Enough people paying enough more for enough artisanal shinola food enough times will keep an artisanal shinola food sector ( Countersystem) alive and maybe even growing. And if enough people with any access to gardenable land at all whatsoever grew some personal shinola food on their own gardenable patches, they might free up just enough of their scarce money to be able to spend some of it on the kind of shinola food they can’t grow their own personal selves, but would like to have. And enough of that would also grow the Shinola Food Countersystem while shrinking the Sh*t Food System.

    And enough millions of people doing that for enough years will start to learn enough about the wider nature of the problems and the prospects to where they might be able to launch lightning strikes or multi-years-long seiges against “schwerpunkts of opportunity” within the Sh*t Food System and the Official Political System which supports it which could weaken both of those Systems . . . . the Sh*t Food System and the Sh*t Political System and the Sh*t Governmental System . . . which would weaken those Systems’s ability to keep persecuting and containing the upward and outward growth of Shinola Food Countersystems.

    Foodies and Aggies . . . man the barricades? Well . . . the kitchens and dining rooms and Shinola Restaurants and Shinola Gardens and Shinola Farms are the barricades to man in this particular facet of CounterMainstream activity.

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