Today, in the mainstream narrative, there is much talk of a ‘food transition’. Big agribusiness and ‘philanthropic’ foundations position themselves as the saviours of humanity due to their much- promoted plans to ‘feed the world’ with ‘precision’ farming’, ‘data-driven’ agriculture and ‘sustainable’ production.
These are the very institutions responsible for the social, ecological and environmental degradation associated with the current food system. The same bodies responsible for spiralling rates of illness due to the toxic food they produce or promote.
In this narrative, there is no space for any mention of the type of power relations that have shaped the prevailing food system and many of the current problems.
Tony Weis from the University of Western Ontario provides useful insight:
World agriculture is marked by extreme imbalances that are among the most durable economic legacies of European imperialism. Many of the world’s poorest countries in the tropics are net food importers despite having large shares of their labor force engaged in agriculture and large amounts of their best arable land devoted to agro-export commodities.”
He adds that this commodity dependence has deep roots in waves of dispossession, the establishment of plantations and the subjugation of peasantries to increasing competitive pressures at the same time as they were progressively marginalised.
In the 2018 book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel describes the processes involved in Europe’s wealth accumulation over a 150-year period of colonialism that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.
By using other countries’ land, Britain effectively doubled the size of arable land in its control. This made it more practical to then reassign the rural population at home (by stripping people of their productive means) to industrial labour. This too was underpinned by massive violence (burning villages, destroying houses, razing crops).
In more recent times, neoliberalism has further reinforced the power relations that underpin the system, cementing the control of agricultural production by global corporations and facilitated by the policies of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
CORPORATE FOOD TRANSITION
The food transition is couched in the language of climate emergency and sustainability. It envisages a particular future for farming. It is not organic and relatively few farmers have a place in it.
Post-1945, corporate agribusiness, largely backed by the US state, the Rockefeller Foundation and financial institutions, has been promoting and instituting a chemical-dependent system of industrial agriculture. Rural communities, ecological systems, the environment, human health and indigenous systems of food cultivation have been devastated in the process.
Now, the likes of Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta are working with Microsoft, Google and the big-tech giants to facilitate farmerless farms driven by cloud and AI technology. A cartel of data owners and proprietary input suppliers are reinforcing their grip on the global food system while expanding their industrial model of crop cultivation.
One way they are doing this is by driving the ‘climate emergency’ narrative, a contested commentary that has been carefully promoted (see the work of investigative journalist Cory Morningstar), and net-zero ideology and tying this to carbon offsetting and carbon credits.
Many companies from various sectors are securing large areas of land in the Global South to establish tree plantations and claim carbon credits that they can sell on international carbon markets. In the meantime, by supposedly ‘offsetting’ their emissions, they can carry on polluting.
In countries where industrial agriculture dominates, ‘carbon farming’ involves modifying existing practices to claim that carbon is being sequestered in the soil and to then sell carbon credits.
This is explained in a recent presentation by Devlin Kuyek of the non-profit GRAIN who sets out the corporate agenda behind carbon farming.
One of the first major digital agriculture platforms is called Climate FieldView, an app owned by Bayer. It collects data from satellites and sensors in fields and on tractors and then uses algorithms to advise farmers on their farming practices: when and what to plant, how much pesticide to spray, how much fertiliser to apply, etc. FieldView is already being used on farms in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Europe.
To be part of Bayer’s Carbon Program, farmers have to be enrolled in Bayer’s FieldView digital agriculture platform. Bayer then uses the FieldView app to instruct farmers on the implementation of just two practices that are said to sequester carbon in the soils: reduced tillage or no-till farming and the planting of cover crops.
Through the app, the company monitors these two practices and estimates the amount of carbon that the participating farmers have sequestered. Farmers are then supposed to be paid according to Bayer’s calculations, and Bayer uses that information to claim carbon credits and sell these in carbon markets.
In August 2022, Bayer launched a new programme in the US called ForGround. Upstream companies can use the platform to advertise and offer discounts for tilling equipment, forage seeds and other inputs. But Bayer’s big target is the downstream food companies which can use the platform to claim emissions reductions in their supply chains.
Places like India are also laying the groundwork for these types of platforms. In April 2021, the Indian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft, allowing its local partner CropData to leverage a master database of farmers.
Microsoft will ‘help’ farmers with post-harvest management solutions by building a collaborative platform and capturing agriculture datasets such as crop yields, weather data, market demand and prices. In turn, this would create a farmer interface for ‘smart’ agriculture, including post-harvest management and distribution.
CropData will be granted access to a government database of 50 million farmers and their land records. As the database is developed, it will include farmers’ personal details –
Profile of land held – cadastral maps, farm size, land titles, local climatic and geographical conditions.
Production details – crops grown, production history, input history, quality of output, machinery in possession.
Financial details – input costs, average return, credit history.