In commercial farming, thestakes are high. Each season, farmers gamble on which crop will fetch the highest price or whichseed variety will reach the greatest yields. Sometimes the payoffs are big. But losses resulting from crop failure, a sudden drop in prices or scams by middlemen are just as frequent. Debt weighs heavily on the world’s farmers.
Needless to say, corporations are also trying to secure their profits in this high-stake business. But unlike farmers, global food and agriculture companies have multiple resources at their disposal, which act as a safety net in the face of agriculture’s many inherent risks.One such resource is the World Economic Forum (WEF), whichplays a critical role in helpingcorporations maintain and increase their profit margins.
Several decisions coming out of the WEF’s meeting in Davos in January 2017 confirm this. Apress release from theWorld Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), for instance,announced that a group of 25 global companies had joined together to launch Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) under the leadership of the WBCSD and the EAT Foundation (EAT), with an opening for more companies to participate. FReSH would serve as a platform for private sectorFReSHfollows the same rationale as other WEF projects, which also benefit big-name food companies like Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. In 2009, theWorld Economic Forum launched the “Grow” programme under its New Vision for Agriculture, led by 31 “partner companies” involved in the food sector, from agriculture to food processing to retail.Ninety per cent of these companies are based in the US and Europe, yet the programme is focused entirely on Latin America, Africa and Asia—the main growth markets for the global food industry.
Under a logic of public-private partnership, the companies participating in Growfoster close ties with governments in order to increase their control over markets and supply chains. Grow claims to promote food security and benefit small farmers. But the programme’s focus on a select few high-value commodities—like potatoes, maize, coffee, tea and palm oil—exposes its real objective: to expand the production of a handful of commodities to profit a handful of corporations. The impact on communities, biodiversity, nutrition and the climate are potentially disastrous.
Both FReSH or Growidentify agriculture as a main cause of climate change and assert the need to transform the way food is produced and distributed. But evidence collected from the ground shows that, so far, Grow projects have done little to reduce the largest global source of greenhouse gas emissions from crop production—the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Farmers involved in the potato and maize projects in Vietnam and Indonesia, for example, have increased their use of fertilisers because the varieties they are contracted to cultivate require greater fertiliser applications than local crops and varieties. In many Grow projects, farmers are even supplied with nitrogen fertilisers by the Norwegian company Yara, one of the key corporations behind the WEF’s New Vision for Agriculture and a leading company in the Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture and FReSH. Indeed, there is a seamless interplay between these various corporate-dominated initiatives.
Meanwhile, the corporations involved in these programmes focus on “connecting more countries to global value chains” and increasing the production of commodities for export—an objective fundamentally at odds with real solutions to climate change. These global value chains destroy low-emission, local food systems in favour of high-emitting systems that require extensive transportation, processing, storage, packaging, refrigeration and marketing.
At a time when agriculture is almost exclusively judged in terms of its capacity to produce commodities, one tends to forget that the main role of farming is feeding people. And small farmers still produce most of the food that people consume around the world. The UN Environment Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the FAO and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food all estimate that small farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food in the non-industrialised countries. What will be the consequence of transforming producers of diverse foods for local markets into suppliers of a few commodities for global value chains?
For WEF-supported companies, as a recent study shows, such a shift would be a “win-win”. But there is no future for small farmers or small-scale food traders and processors in this vision—except where they can be made subservient to the main goal of large food corporations: securing supplies of cheap produce and raw material for processed food while selling more and more industrial farming inputs. Biodiversity and food security are sure to suffer. And so are farmer livelihoods as they become increasingly indebted and dependent on the world’s largest corporations.
It is important to see the WEF’s programmes for what they really are: mechanisms for increasing corporate control.
Kartini Samon, a researcher and Asia program staff at GRAIN.
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