There is a battle raging over the future of farming on this planet, and the front line, this week, is at the Spring Meetings of the World Bank in Washington, DC.
There are two visions. They are often portrayed as being about differences in technical approaches but are, in truth, far more fundamental. This is a battle over nothing less than the structure of global power and the sustainability of life on this planet.
In one corner are the World Bank and its financial backers, primarily rich country governments, multinational agriculture corporations and large private foundations. Their vision is one in which farming is seen, first and foremost, as a mega-industry, primarily concerned with efficiency, output and profitability. The way they go about this is to promote “business friendly” policy environments and aggressive structural reform programs focused on liberalizing economies to make them more amenable to large multinational businesses and foreign investment. Their case rests on the claim that the only way to feed a growing world population is to focus on increasing overall food production through more widespread use of genetically modified seeds and the synthetic fertilizer and pesticides that they need, economies-of-scale, and vast, centrally planned industrial farming operations.
In the other corner are a group of 260 NGOs, think tanks, smallholder farmer’s groups, environmental organizations and trade unions, of which /The Rules, the organization I work for, is one. Our collective vision is one in which power is not centralized in corporate boardrooms and the offices of global institutions but held by farmers themselves. Our case is built on the fact that the real problem isn’t that we are, or will be, short of food in any aggregate sense, but that it is poorly distributed because of deep imbalances of power. Throwing vast amounts of money at large corporate models, and telling governments to put in place rules that focus solely on bolstering the ability of large institutions to grab huge tracts of land for industrial, often mono-culture farms, only deepens those power imbalances. It also does incredible harm to the health of the soil and the wider environment. Far better to invest that money in smallholder farmers and regenerative farming methods that are perfectly capable of feeding a growing population; can do so in ways that can help reverse the pattern of pollution by the agricultural industry (the world’s largest single source of greenhouse gasses); and help foster a more equitable distribution of power in an increasingly unequal world.
To help make our case, the Our Land Our Business campaign has publically posed three questions to the Bank at their Spring Meetings.
1. Why have you not spoken to farmers before promoting massive agriculture-reform programs?
Your flagship agricultural reform initiative – “Enabling the Business of Agriculture” (EBA), formerly known as “Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture” (BBA) – is due to be rolled out across 40 countries this year. At no point in your decision to create the EBA have you consulted farmers or farmer groups. Your consultation has been limited to rich governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who fund you. The only open consultation that could have given affected communities an opportunity to be heard was at a meeting that you staged in London in November 2014, to which you gave seven days notice for attendance. This sort of sham-consultation would seem to be in direct opposition to your own stated goals to consult affected communities, and makes a mockery of President Kim’s recent mea culpa on how the Bank has failed to take into account communities’ needs in the past.
2. Why are you rewarding countries that cede their power and wealth to foreign corporations, while punishing those who spend on the health and wellbeing of their populations?
The EBA is a sister-initiative to the Doing Business Rankings. These rankings, judged annually by technocrats in Washington DC, influence massive amounts of revenue, from the Bank itself, donor governments and corporations. Over the past seven years, in response to the Doing Business ranking, twenty-one Sub Saharan African countries decreased corporate income tax rates at least once. In some countries, they have been reduced as many as three times. At the same time, you rewarded countries like Chad, DRC, and Mali with higher rankings for reducing property transfer taxes and regulations on land acquisition, and downgraded eleven African countries for establishing or increasing social contribution taxes that can be used to improve social services.
3. Why are you prioritizing farming models that destroy the environment and impoverish people, over those that work in harmony with the environment and are already feeding the world?
Using the discredited claim that only by using commercial, patented seeds and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can we hope to feed the world in the future, you have centralized the role of large multi-national corporations and their financial backers (e.g. the Gates Foundation, which holds $23 million shares in Monsanto, and $1.4 billion of shares in fossil fuel companies) in your model for global agriculture. Rather than speak to and support the family farmers who are already producing 70% of the world’s food, or look to the library of evidence that shows the benefits and potential of regenerative farming methods, you seem to be taking direction from the mega-rich and corporate monopolies. Agroecology not only increases crop yield over time, it does so in ways that sustain the health of the soil and sequester large amounts of carbon. Synthetic methods, on the other hand, plateau and then decrease yield, actively degrade soil and produce greenhouse gasses in enormous quantities.
The World Bank has a lamentable record when it comes to caring for the people affected by their large-scale interventions. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Huffington Post released the results of the join investigation into this record just yesterday. The evidence, they concluded, showed how “The World Bank broke its promise to protect the world’s poor,” by providing the financing for projects that have physically or economically displaced around 3.4 million people since 2004.
It should be acknowledged that World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, in his opening remarks to the Spring Meetings, promised to do better in future. But it is hard to put much faith in his words, for two reasons. Firstly, practically every World Bank President has promised the same and yet the problems continue or worsen year on year. Secondly, and more importantly, the World Bank’s entire development model puts so much power into the hands of people whose primary purpose is to increase private profit that it is naïve, at best, to expect that altruistic appeals to “do better” can counteract the structural incentives to maximize profit above all else. At worst, it is merely cynical propaganda to hide an agenda designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Only a wholesale commitment to reverse the further corporatization of global agriculture, by doing away with the Doing Business Rankings and Enabling the Business of Agriculture project, and instead orienting the Bank’s strategy to supporting smallholder farmers and regenerative farming methods is likely to have any meaningful impact.