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Grain: April News Brief

Here is some more info I received from Food Secure Canada this morning – the summary of the latest publication by Grain.  Below is an overview of this month’s issue, which can be downloaded in its entirety if you go to the website (or follow the link at the bottom of this article).  Among other things, this issue discusses the latest efforts by Monstanto and other multinationals to put the squeeze on small farming operations and promote genetically modified sugar beets, which is also happening here in Ontario.  This push for genetically modified sugar, if successful (which it likely will be because too many of us just ignore these issues) means that we will have yet another one of our core staples become a GM product (along with corn and soy).  Please do take a moment to read the following:



Despite growing evidence that industrial farming is destroying our planet, the giant agricultural corporations are continuing to tighten their grip over world farming. Paradoxically, it is the European Union’s half-hearted and misguided move to combat climate change by insisting that motor vehicles use more agrofuels that is encouraging one of the most dramatic manifestations of this trend — the rapid expansion of sugar cane cultivation in Brazil. The country’s ethanol boom, vociferously encouraged by President Lula, is not only pushing the agricultural frontier ever deeper into the Amazon basin but is also — and this has gone largely unnoticed — greatly strengthening the penetration of multinational corporations. As we show in some detail in our first article, the latest arrival is Monsanto, which, by unexpectedly snapping up two local companies at the end of last year, has overnight turned itself into the world’s largest sugar cane breeding company. The big attraction for Monsanto is the prospect of introducing genetically modified sugar cane into the world’s largest market.

Given the increasing dominance of these companies, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that, while the interlinked food, financial and economic crises are wreaking havoc on the lives of millions of ordinary people throughout the world, the agribusiness giants are just getting richer and richer. A year ago we published an article which revealed that, while people in many parts of the world had been protesting against record food prices, the agribusiness giants had raked in shamelessly high profits. Now, in a brief update, we show that the situation has got even worse. To mention just two of the companies: Cargill’s profit rose by a further 69 per cent in 2008 and Monsanto’s by an extraordinary 120 per cent.

Another frightening — and also under-reported — phenomenon has been the way dominant powers, particularly the United States, have taken advantage of programmes of agricultural reconstruction after wars and natural disasters. Our analysis makes it clear that “military” aid and “agricultural” aid have become so deeply intermeshed that it has become all but impossible to distinguish one from the other. What we may be seeing is the construction of a new template for US aid abroad.

Corporations are often found to be promoting their own interests in the most unlikely and opportunistic fashion. A case in point concerns the endeavours to develop a vaccine for bird flu. Edward Hammond, an expert on infectious diseases, provides a detailed account of how the world’s largest vaccine companies have been using the World Health Organisation to obtain samples of bird flu viruses for free from developing countries, but have then been refusing to make available to those very countries the vaccines that they develop. This story is still unfolding: Indonesia, outraged by what has been happening, is trying to get the WHO to change its rules.

While agribusiness is on the offensive, the voices of opposition have also grown louder. One of the people who has been putting forward a powerful alternative vision for many years is Dr Melaku Worede, the Ethiopian plant geneticist. For many decades he has been saying that the best way to enhance farmers’ incomes and to protect the planet’s biodiversity is by encouraging diversity on the farm and by making sure farmers control the seed breeding and selection process. Several decades ago Dr Worede developed a breeding programme with farmers that increased the yields of their own land race varieties to such an extent that they became competitive with commercial varieties. In 1989 Dr Worede was awarded the Right Livelihood Award — the alternative Nobel Prize — for his work with Ethiopia’s plant genetic diversity and food security. 

In his interview with us, Dr Worede admits that the outlook for Africa is scary, largely because of the speed with which the climate is changing. But he sees a way forward through the urgent creation of extensive interlinked seed exchange networks that permit a flow of seeds between farmers in different regions and in different countries. These community seed banks, he says, allow farmers to cross-fertilise in terms of seeds and knowledge and thus to adapt to climate change. “We also need to look to wild varieties, as they are hardier than those that are cultivated”, he says. Diversity, he stresses, is the key to the future. And, acting in tandem with this, farmers’ knowledge. “Without that, you can forget it”, he warns.

The editor


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