by C. Uzondu
When huge corporations start talking about improving the harvests of foods the poor depend on to survive, watch out! Those crops are about to be colonized, made more expensive and genetically altered. Casava is the latest target of global agro-industry.
by C. Uzondu
“Increasing hunger within and between nation-states is inextricably rooted in capitalist imperialism.”
The corporate colonization of cassava is advancing. Just how dangerous this is for all of us and especially for the people whose existence depends on cassava would never be clear if you simply listened to the discussion of the issue on National Public Radio’s program “Talk of the Nation.”
You guessed it. Even if you don’t eat cassava the corporate colonization of cassava matters for you. The same corporate controlled food system that works through structural racism to deny affordable access to quality food to residents in urban communities, also super-exploits migrant workers, and also pollutes our water, land, and air. Colonizing cassava and other foods is about power; it is about increasing corporate power over and against people’s rights to food and life, especially racialized people.
Cassava is eaten by millions of people in the global South. For example, in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 149 million people, more than 70% of the population relies on cassava for much of their food needs. Cassava is also widely consumed in central and South America as well as South East Asia.
Why the growing interest in cassava (and other “marginal” crops like sorghum, millet, pigeon peas etc)? Global hunger is the answer served up. We are told that the reason why corporations are colonizing cassava is to help address growing hunger. That is, agricultural/biotech corporations are laboring to genetically modify cassava because this can help eliminate increasing global hunger. These agricultural corporations promise to engineer cassava that allegedly has more and bigger roots.
“The roots of global hunger have to do with structural adjustment programs imposed on the imperialized countries in the global South.”
But any real solution needs to get at the root causes of the problem. However, as Food Rebellion makes clear the roots of global hunger have to do with structural adjustment programs imposed on the imperialized countries in the global South by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The roots of global hunger have to do with the liberalization of agricultural trade and “free” trade agreements that support unfair trade rules that prioritize profit maximization of agricultural corporations over the basic rights of peasants and small scale-farmers to grow their own food and feed their own communities. The roots of global hunger have every thing to do with the pro-corporate agriculture and anti-farmer policies of the US and the European Union.i Increasing hunger within and between nation-states is inextricably rooted in capitalist imperialism.
Therefore, the corporate solutions being offered cannot solve anything. Solving hunger by technological fixes is no solution. It is a power move; it mystifies the power relations that help organize hunger and further consolidate the power of those entities that make profits by enforcing and producing hunger.
Hunger, as we know, is concentrated in the global South. (Hunger is also concentrated in racialized communities within the global North; the obesity epidemic, or what is now being called “diabesity” is fundamentally an epidemic of hunger). According to the logic of biotechnology companies, the issue of global hunger is an issue of productivity. We need to produce more food if we are going to feed the world’s hungry people. Therefore, it is suggested that if there is more cassava produced then the people who are hungry will have more access to cassava to eat. This argument is compelling in its simplicity. It is also too simple and profoundly flawed.
“The current level of food productivity is sufficient to provide 1.5 times our global need.”
According to the United Nations Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier DeSchutter, there are more than a billion people a day who face debilitating hunger.ii However, at the same time, current levels of food production are more than sufficient to provide every human on the planet with a diet that provides 2,200 calories. Put differently, the current level of food productivity is sufficient to provide 1.5 times our global need. This means that there is currently more than enough food on this planet for everyone. But people are starving.
Yet, no matter how many times this argument – the necessity of more food production – is demonstrated to be fundamentally flawed, it is resurrected. I am not arguing that increased food productivity may not be an issue some day. It is possible. However, what needs to be highlighted is that the focus on productivity fails to address the fundamental problem central to global hunger – property rights relations. People who are hungry are seldom hungry because there is no food. In almost every instance they are hungry because they cannot access the food they need. For example, they may be unemployed or underemployed and therefore unable to purchase the food they need. Or they maybe self-provisioning farmers who have had their land appropriated by large commercial farmers supported by a World Bank “development” project. In effect, capitalist property relations effectively deny the hungry the right to live.
The colonization of cassava is troubling because valid questions remain about the safety of genetically modified food. Still, what troubles me is more than the possibility of disastrous health implications that may follow from consumption of genetically engineered foods. I am concerned with the raced and gendered capitalist property relations that are being advanced. Patents as a form of property rights increasingly rely on denying the knowledge of racialized peoples, especially women, while stealing and co-modifying that same knowledge for the pursuit of profits.
“The focus on productivity fails to address the fundamental problem central to global hunger – property rights relations.”
Even if corporations were not legally mandated to put profits before and always before human/animal/environmental welfare, there would be good reasons to distrust corporations that claim to be concerned with helping to eliminate hunger. According to GRAIN, the major grain traders, to take one example, were making incredible profits as global hunger expanded. For example, “Cargill, the world’s largest grain trader, reported an increase in profits of nearly 70 per cent over 2007 – a 157 per cent rise in profits since 2006.”iii
The reason that corporations are colonizing cassava has little to do with any primary desire to eliminate hunger. Agricultural corporations cannot eliminate hunger just as feces cannot smell like mangoes. Colonizing cassava is about corporate plunder. Cassava and other crops consumed by the masses of people in the global South are the new targets of imperial theft. These food commodities offer new avenues for capitalist accumulation.
That it is poor people who overwhelmingly consume these foods does not mean there are not profits to be made by owning and controlling the patents on these modified organisms. Those who are hungry struggle mightily to eat. Overcharging the poor for food and housing has always been a strategy of capitalists. The era of biotechnology promises to intensify this form of plunder. The standard 20-year patent on GM organisms means that the company owning the technology has considerable potential to gain profits from its patent. This is part of the reason why cassava is being colonized.
“Overcharging the poor for food and housing has always been a strategy of capitalists.”
In any case, even if genetic engineering can increase food productivity, this does not mean that it democratizes access and control of food. Agricultural corporations do not work to end hunger. Rather, they produce scarcity (read speculation and biofuels) in order to facilitate the maximization of profits. Furthermore, as long as genetic engineering is connected to the aggressive defense of patent protection for corporations it is at fundamental odds with the rights of peoples and communities to produce and consume culturally appropriate food rooted in agroecological practices.
Therefore, there is nothing exaggerated about concern with corporate colonization of cassava. The corporate controlled genetic modification of organisms and the continued emphasis on “food security” via so-called “free” trade are part of the same matrix of industrial agriculture domination. Food imperialism is alive and actively constructing killing fields. So when, for example, Bill Clinton apologizes for US food imperialism in Haiti (e.g. the destruction of Haiti’s indigenous rice production) do not be fooled for an instant. He has not “seen the light.” When Clinton expresses a desire for Haiti to continue and increase the export of mangoes, is this a model fundamentally different from the old colonial model? Why must Haiti focus on exporting “exotic” food to western consumers? When Bill Clinton supports the export of Haitian mangoes, but fails to advocate that the US pay reparations to Haiti, he demonstrates for all to see that he is a sweet talking pusher. He peddles death to the Haitian masses.
“Food imperialism is alive and actively constructing killing fields.”
But it is to the organized peasants that resist food imperialism that we must listen and take our lead if we are concerned with ending global hunger. We should listen carefully, for example, to the Haitian peasant movementsiv who in the wake of the recent earthquake began intensifying their efforts to rebuild Haitian agriculture. To stop the colonization of cassava and other food crops we should also pay attention and take our lead from transnational social movements like La Via Campesina. Their articulation of peasant rights and food sovereignty point us in a more just and people-centered direction. Because the logic of profit accumulation does not drive food sovereignty, it offers a transformative vision and politics. Food sovereignty is about building democratic food systems that strive to end hunger and inequality. It should be our battle cry as we resist those who colonize life for profits while manufacturing death. Food sovereignty should be our battle call as we build democratic food systems that ensure the rights of peoples and communities to live dignified lives, to live self-determination.
C. Uzondu can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
i See Holt;Gimenez and Raj Patel. 2009. Food Rebellions!: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Pambazuka Books, Food First Books, and Grassroots International.
ii This comment is from an interview De Schutter had with AFRONLINE. See (http://www.afronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Interview-with-Olivi...).
iii See GRAIN. 2009. Corporations are still making a killing from hunger at http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=592.
iv See for example Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen. Also visit http://www.pada.org/article.php3?id_article+201.