In the 1980s, I met a retired general at a Borders bookstore in northern Virginia. He used to buy tons of military history books. I used to buy environmental and classics books. We started talking about books. But, slowly, in our discussion of Latin America, I criticized American policies, especially the immoral support of landlords against landless peasants.
“If I knew you a few years ago, I would take you outside the town and shoot you,” he said to me.
I dismissed this vicious threat as a sign the old man was crazy. But the threat, nevertheless, mirrors the invisible war around farming, food, and the environment. I felt the tension of that ceaseless war for decades.
In January 28 – February 1, 1992, I was attending an international climate and development conference in Brazil. I was one of the speakers addressing agrarian reform.
I argued that it was necessary for governments and international institutions to protect peasant farmers from the violence of large industrialized farmers. Moreover, Brazil and many other countries, including the United States, should give land to peasants and very small family farmers because the farming they practice has had negligible impact on climate change. In contrast, agribusiness and, especially animal farms, are having significant effects on global warming.
Taking this position in 1992, apparently, was controversial. Once at the conference in the gorgeous city of Fortaleza, Ceara, Northeast Brazil, I learned I would not be delivering my paper. Instead, I joined a few professors in a small room wasting our time: debating agrarian reform and drawing recommendations destined to oblivion.
Fear in the countryside
This is just one example of what happens to unwelcomed ideas. Governments ignore or suppress them. Powerful media refuse to publish them. Advocates of those ideas often abandon them. Sometimes, they risk death.
I entered this fight in 1976 in my first book, Fear in the Countryside: The Control of Agricultural Resources in the Poor Countries by Non-Peasant Elites.
That study opened my eyes to the injustices and violence of modern industrialized agriculture. This is agriculture in name only. It is rather a factory exploiting land, crops, animals and people. It is armed by weaponized science, large machinery, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and, since the mid-1990s, genetic engineering.
Farmers immersed in this mechanical and chemical farming are pretty much divorced from democratic or ecological concerns and politics. They convince themselves they own the world. They have no trouble in poisoning and even destroying the land, which they own by the thousands of acres.
I wrote Fear in the Countryside as a historian. I knew that large-scale farming in antiquity and the dark ages institutionalized slavery and brought the collapse of nations and civilizations.
Giant agriculture has been having similar effects on us and our civilization.
I caught a glimpse of that scary reality during my tenure at the US Environmental Protection Agency. I studied American agriculture in depth.
I was astonished by the insistence of the leaders of American agriculture their model was the best: the world’s farmers should become like those of Iowa; I could not explain their obsession with gigantic monopolies and farms; I was outraged agricultural schools have been serving agribusiness; and I found it unfathomable that farmers are destroying the soil and poisoning the water with deleterious pesticides and fertilizers. And, ironically, I found myself serving a toothless regulatory bureaucracy doing the bidding of agribusiness.
These bad practices have been spreading the world over.
The peasant model
Timothy Wise, a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute and Tufts University, explains why. His timely and important book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press, February 2019) summarizes the invisible war of agribusiness against peasants and family farmers. He gathered his data in Iowa, Mexico, India, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia.
He found Iowa “blanketed in genetically modified corn and soybeans, dotted with industrial hog factories and ethanol refineries.”
In Mexico, India and Africa, Wise talked to peasants who raise about 70 percent of the food in their countries. They do that without any support from their governments and international farm assistance organizations. In addition, these peasants raise food in traditional ways enriching the soil and diminishing the harsh realities of climate change. And yet, despite these achievements, both governments and foreign food assistance experts are ridiculing them and, often, grab their land. That’s why, Wise says, peasants describe foreign-funded agriculture as land grabbing.
Wise also observed the foreign philanthropic, agribusiness and government coalitions pressuring the peasants to abandon their native seeds, crop diversity, and “patient soil-building practices” for growing one crop wholly dependent on petrochemicals and GMOS.
Most peasants turn them down.
The agribusiness coalition, however, has plenty of land for transplanting the Iowa model of farming – despite global warming and the repeated failures of the “green revolution” to gain a foothold in Africa. The green revolution is the slogan of agribusiness.
For example, the Gates Foundation, the largest international aid farm donor, has been pushing the agenda of agribusiness in Africa.
The agribusiness danger
The agribusiness forces causing food and environmental chaos in 2019 are not that much different than those I detected and denounced in 1976. Large farmers (American and non-American), agribusiness producing pesticides, fertilizers, machinery and seeds. GMOs entered the fray in the mid-1990s.
This phalanx of agribusiness power also includes tainted philanthropic foundations, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and governments.
Wise sheds light on the social and ecological harm of the global domination of agribusiness: massive world hunger, especially in Africa and India; loss of 25 million acres of crop land every year; too much synthetic fertilizers in the fields of farmers, year in and year out, are causing the contamination of groundwater and the acidification of the natural world, including the decline of the organic matter and microbial diversity of the land.
The fertilizer not used by the crop escapes the land as nitrous oxide, an extremely damaging greenhouse gas.
Animal farms also contaminate the atmosphere with huge amounts of global warming gases. Wise says that the top 20 animal farms (global livestock conglomerates) together emit into the atmosphere more global warming gases than countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom or France.
Obviously, time is running out for agribusiness. A former senior UN official, Olivier De Schutter, agrees. He urges the world to make “a decisive shift away from the agribusiness model.” Millions of peasants and small family farmers could not agree more.
Read Eating Tomorrow. No civilized human being is a cannibal. Tomorrow belongs to the future.
This book promises to outrage and inform you to say no to agribusiness. It’s well-written, inspiring, and incisive.