Global Food Crisis and Corporate Titans

This Guardian news report gives a brief run-through of recent happenings around the world that are related to recent sharp food price hikes:

“Food riots have broken out in at least a dozen countries, most notably in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Yemen and Mexico. Pakistan has reintroduced rationing, while Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil. Indonesia has increased public food subsidies, while India has banned the export of rice, except the high-quality basmati variety.

Earlier this month, Haiti's parliament dismissed the prime minister, and cut the price of rice, in an attempt to defuse widespread anger at food price hikes that led to days of protests and looting in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Thousands of garment workers in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, also went on strike this month over spiralling prices. The price of rice, the staple Bangladeshi food, has increased by a third since a devastating cyclone last year. Experts say 30 million of the country's 150 million people could go without daily meals.”

According to The World Bank’s estimates, food prices have risen by an average of 83% in the past three years.

“In the 30 years to 2005, world food prices fell by around three-quarters in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Economist food prices index. Since then they have risen by 75%, with much of the increase in the past year. Wheat prices have doubled, while maize, soya and oilseeds are at record highs.”

According to this article on by Alex Roslin, the most proximate reason for the skewed rice supply is that a nasty epidemic of disease and pests has struck Vietnam, which is called the “rice bowl” of Southeast Asia as it is the world’s third largest rice exporter. The general global jump in food prices, though, is mainly attributed to the skyrocketing oil prices.

But is there a more deeply-embedded reason for the yield shortfall of rice, a food staple for half the world’s population, or of any other food crops for that matter? For Devlin Kuyek, author of the new book titled “Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada”, there certainly is.

Kuyek told Roslin that the rice crisis is just an example of the food-related calamities that we can expect in growing numbers due to a combination of “crop monocultures” and global warming.

Kuyek went on to explain that Vietnam was one of the major recipient nations of the 1960s monoculture craze under the guise of the U.S.-sponsored “Green Revolution”.

“The Green Revolution provoked a sea change in centuries-old farming practices worldwide. It meant dropping millenniums-old farming practices of planting diverse fields of frequently rotated, native-adapted crops that evolved as local soil and environmental conditions changed. Those methods based on diversified seed varieties and varied crops were developed during the earliest days of human farming in order to prevent plant diseases, pest infestations, and soil degradation. Now governments would subsidize farmers to grow vast tracts of single crops from uniformly produced seeds.”

As the lab-produced new monocrops are poorly adapted to local conditions, they need vast amounts of water, fertilizers and pesticides for their sustenance. It leads one to wonder whether it is pure coincidence that the world’s largest seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont are also chemical manufacturers. Today, half a dozen large seed companies control the bulk of the $30 billion U.S. annual seed business world-wide and their aim is to maximize yield, rather than nutrient values.

But contrary to what the Green Revolution set out to achieve, i.e. maximizing yield, crop yields have been declining at an alarming rate, with tremendous loss of biodiversity being a by-product. Apart from a big jump in crop diseases brought on by crop monoculture, monocrops also deplete soil of key nutrients, thus reducing soil productivity 18 times faster than the normal farming method can rebuild it on average in the U.S., according to John Jeavons, a California-based author and farming researcher.

Jeavons predicted that there will be a lot more Vietnams as a result of the calamitous confluence of adverse factors (which ironically are mostly brought on by human action): global decline of farmland (due to soil depletion, urban development and diversion of land to biofuel production), rising energy costs, depletion of aquifers and global warming.

To top it all, there is growing suspicion of the seed giants’ motive in backing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which was officially opened on February 26, 2008. The Seed Vault is located on a Norwegian island in the Barents Sea near the Arctic Ocean and is designed to store duplicates of seeds from every corner of the world, so that seed collections may be re-established by using the seed stored in the the event of loss through natural disaster or war.

William Engdahl pointed out in his Global Research article “Doomsday Seed Vault in the Artic” that the sponsors of the Seed Vault project include, aside from the Norwegian government, US-based Dupont, Monsanto, Swiss-based Syngenta, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The Green Revolution was spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Who uses such a seed bank in the first place? Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of gene banks. Today’s largest plant breeders are Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow Chemical, the global plant-patenting GMO (genetically modified organisms) giants. Since early in 2007 Monsanto holds world patent rights together with the United States Government for so-called plant ‘terminator’ or Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT). Terminator is an ominous technology by which a patented commercial seed commits ‘suicide’ after one harvest. Control by private seed companies is total. Such control and power over the food chain has never before in the history of mankind existed,” Engdahl said in his article.

The ‘terminator’ trait forces farmers to return to the seed giants every year to get new seeds. If this patented technology is applied globally, the world’s majority of food producers will become feudal serfs in a decade or so, in bondage to three or four gigantic seed companies like Monsanto, Dupont or Dow Chemical, according to Engdahl.

Kuyek seems to share Engdahl’s concern. He said the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international agency that runs and controls the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, accepts private donations from biotech seed giants Dupont and Syngenta. “There is a really aggressive effort by seed companies to patent the seed supply and lock it up,” he said.

Perhaps seed activists have valid reason to worry that the Seed Vault could give the prodigious agribusiness (seed giants) access to seed varieties from the developing world that it has sought after for years, while giving farmers few rights to their own seeds stored in the vault. As Kuyek said, “If we are in this monoculture model and we throw in patents, it increases our vulnerability further.”

Now that is a scary scenario!