Resisting US-India Agri-Imperialism

Wheat Farmer

A “high-powered US trade delegation” recently visited India to “explore opportunities in the country’s huge agribusiness sector and further promote American products among India’s rising middle class.” So reads the opening line of one of a few recent articles (see others here and here) in the Indian elite press announcing this momentous visit, and in many ways this one line captures the framing of everything from international food trade and politics, conventional developmentalist thinking to ongoing colonial dynamics in the 21st century.

While one of the articles makes a cursory nod to “bilateral relations” and “fostering collaboration”, one is particularly struck by the myopic US-centric focus – again, in putatively Indian publications – on how America/American ‘farmers’ (read: agribusiness) benefit or not from trade policies between the countries, what policies India needs to change to the advantage of American agribusiness access to Indian markets, and how “unfair” India’s agriculture and food policies like rice and wheat subsidies and public food programs are in the eyes of US trade bureaucrats and politicians. Unfair, that is, to US agribusiness’ profiteering  in India. Sadly, even otherwise progressive Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, takes it for granted that the Asian ‘market’ should be completely open for business for American ‘farmers’ and even has the nerve to complain that “India’s wheat subsidies are distorting prices and making it harder for Oregon’s farmers to compete in the Asian market.” This, coming from the world champion nation of agribusiness subsidies, where the 2018 farm bill handed out some $63 billion in subsidies, 70% of which went to just 10% of the largest commercial operations producing commodity crops like soy, corn, and yes, wheat. Add to this some  $250 million of public funds spent by the Foreign Agricultural Service to promote US agri-exports (such as the delegation to India is doing) and “reduce trade barriers that hurt U.S. agricultural exports and open new markets for U.S. agricultural products”, plus billions of dollars more in the 2018 farm bill earmarked for “export credit guarantees for exports to emerging markets” and another $1.2 billion towards a new export promotion program called the Regional Agricultural Promotion Program that targets the Global South including South Asia.

In the cited articles, one looks in vain for a single word about how the changes demanded by the US will affect Indian farmers and local food economies, nevermind changes to US agriculture and trade policy demanded by India. Almost entirely absent is a perspective from India – be it politician, citizen, much less farmer. We say “almost” because, like the publications reporting on this news that are nominally “Indian” but much more representative of the values and needs of global capital, so is there a minuscule stratum of the Indian capitalist and political class involved in global trade who will, like their American counterparts in this negotiation, benefit from greasing the skids for further penetration of the Indian food system by US agribusiness.

The only mention of Indians at all in this reportage is “consumers”, specifically, the “expanding middle class” with their “heightened purchasing power” and their “growing familiarity” and “trusted view” of “American food products”, evidenced by an “11 per cent growth in the US agricultural-related exports to India over the past two years.” While from this statistic it seems we are supposed to assume that the designs of this US trade delegation are self-evidently good, this class and the growing corporatization of their taste buds is is nevertheless praised as “a growth economy for the US agribusinesses seeking to capture an increasing share of the household food purchases in the fifth-largest economy in the world,” according to Alexis Taylor, US Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs. Elsewhere it is stated as the “burgeoning potential of India’s market for US agribusinesses”, or “capitalizing” on India’s substantial household purchases, and generally, the “strategic opportunities” India presents to US agribusiness.  India in this portrayal is nothing more than an empty vessel, an object   to be exploited for the money interests of agri-food companies from the global hegemon.

Does this sound familiar? If so, that’s because it rhymes uncannily with the all the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism – the benighted colony as terra nullius, a pool of resources or new markets, where an elite class is cultivated away from the endogenous and local into Western aspirations, dreams and tastes.

In many ways, this current episode between agribusiness elites in the US and India reflects the logic and purpose of global “free trade” in general, “liberalizing” markets everywhere to remove protections – “barriers” in neoliberal economic parlance – for local producers, consumers and markets, to make the world as frictionless as possible for transnational corporations to earn profits: this, in a word, is what social movements and activists who oppose this naked power grab encapsulate with “globalization”.

Needless to say, just like in all other countries where this same phenomenon is playing out, further “free trade” and liberalization of India’s agricultural economy for greater access to US agribusiness will be disastrous for local farmers and food systems. As Indian food system analyst Devinder Sharma writes, “importing food is like importing unemployment”, and in the case of India where agriculture remains the largest source of employment, this can result in economic desperation leading even to suicide for masses of globalization-distressed farmers.

Further, even though this current American agribusiness advocacy focuses on potentially “healthy” products (itself questionable if they come with pesticide residues on their intercontinental journeys) like blueberries, cranberries, and turkey and duck meat, the fact is that India possesses some of the richest agrobiodiversity – including fruits and poultry – in the world, which is however in decline and in need of resuscitation. Instead of reversing this decline, opening the market to American or any other foreign agri-products will merely hasten the plunge of India’s remaining beleaguered food diversity off the cliff of oblivion. Worse, free trade in food with the West is rarely only about innocent blueberries, but processed junk food/beverages like notorious Coca Cola which pounced on the country as soon as early 1990s liberalization allowed its entry. To the extent that it serves the junk food industry’s global spread, free trade in food is a menace to public health as well as farmer livelihoods. Courtesy a titanic marketing and advertising propaganda machine, American and other junk food products may be increasingly desired by Indian consumers, but that goes along with an erosion of Indian health that follows in the wake of any society entering into the Faustian bargain of free trade with the US, the birthplace and nursery of industrial agriculture and the scourge of ultraprocessed junk foods that now burden the entire world with diabetes and other “diseases of corporate globalization.” India is no exception, where the explosion of largely Western-based junk food corporations’ products has precipitated a countrywide epidemic “in the form of rising diabetes and hypertension and poorly nourished children, which reaches even into the countryside” as well as alarming rates of childhood and adult obesity.

Further economic liberalization, further global trade in food, further expansion of export-oriented production, further import-dependency, further corporate consolidation and Western hegemony. This is the exact opposite of the direction we should be heading. As the food sovereignty movement has long argued, the policies we desperately need to be enacting are precisely the opposite: strengthening of localized regional food systems based on biodiverse agroecological production and support for small-scale farmers, in India, the US, and everywhere in between. This in turn requires policies to protect local producers and communities from being overwhelmed by unrestricted, heavily subsidized foreign corporate agribusiness products. ‘Protectionism’ – policies like import tariffs and duties – is verboten in the orthodoxy of free trade fundamentalists like the US delegation now in India, but it is crucial to defending local food systems, local health and local environments against the destructive wave of multinational capital’s ceaseless global hunt for profits. 

Rather than scouring the world for export opportunities for US agribusiness, and rather than attacking other countries’ policies that favor their own farmers and food sovereignty, the US should (in this as in so many matters) put its own house, and farm, in order. In a country where factory farming dominates, where there is extensive food insecurity and poor nutrition on one side and mountains of food waste on the other, where small farmers are going under and farmer suicides are alarmingly common, the US should focus on fixing its own broken food and agriculture system, feeding its own people sustainably, healthily and locally.

Coincidentally, another politician from Oregon, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, has long been advocating just such a transformation in his proposed ‘Food and Farm Act’, which would redirect public funding from the largest producers to small-scale ecological farmers, end all payments to factory farms, boost local food systems in both urban and rural locales, and support new and beginning farmers. Enacting such a transformative food and agriculture policy in the US – indeed, in every country and region – would not only support its own farmers and public environmental health, but could also relieve other countries, like India, from the pressures of agri-imperialism.

Alex Jensen is a researcher for Local Futures who has worked with cultural affirmation and agro-biodiversity projects in campesino communities in a number of countries. He is active in numerous networks, including the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, the Vikalp Sangam/Alternatives India initiative, degrowth, and environmental health/anti-toxics groups.

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