Will 2023 be all about agriculture?
As we start the new year, the topic has certainly sparked interest in the corridors of power: reports, talks, high-level events. Business leaders, lobbyists, politicians and lawmakers meeting this week in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) dedicated whole sessions to discuss the future of farming and food security. And as the WEF ends, the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture will start in Berlin, gathering thousands of participants from politics, business, academia and civil society to discuss agri-food policy issues.
One thing is sure, none of those discussions can ignore the multiple crises the world is going through: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the pandemic, the Russian war on Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis with soaring food and energy prices.
And, lucky us, all these top-down discourses and events claim to have found solutions to help fix the situation. The truth? The current discussions and policy development on food security are disconnected from the reality of the ground and heavily influenced by those who actually are profiteering from the crisis.
The real profiteers
According to the new report by Oxfam, the current cost-of-living crisis is
“creating dramatic gains for many at the top. Food and energy corporations are seeing record profits and making record payouts to their rich shareholders and billionaire owners. Corporate price profiteering is driving at least 50% of inflation in Australia, the US and Europe, in what is as much a ‘cost-of-profit’ crisis as a cost-of-living one”.
The report shows that 95 food and energy corporations have more than doubled their profits in 2022.
Let’s take a more concrete food example: fertilizers. According to company filings compiled in a report from Grain, the combined profits of nine of the world’s biggest fertiliser companies were just under US$ 13 billion in 2020. If their reported profit levels in the first half of 2022 were maintained, they will have earned more than US$ 57 billion in profits over the whole year, 440% of their 2020 profits.
This trend is amplified by the increased corporate concentration in the agrifood sector. ETC Group’s latest report on the world’s Food Barons offers a worrying update on the Big Food and Agri players. Their findings show that
“many agrifood sectors are now so ‘top heavy’ they are controlled by just four to six dominant firms, enabling these companies to wield enormous influence over markets, agricultural research and policy-development, which undermines food sovereignty”.
So far, this lobbying power seems to serve one main goal: to uphold the status quo and keep on profiteering from it. Despite the references to the need for long term, holistic and sustainable approaches in our food and farming systems, the “solutions” promoted by the industry and decision-makers might only make small adjustments to the current industrialised system.
Techno-fixes and greenwashing
When the WEF chooses to only discuss why agricultural policy reform should support artificial intelligence, mainstream use of algorithms and drones, data collection and use; or when the European Commission’s report on food security praises the potential of precision farming and new GMOs; this amounts to recommending sticking plasters rather than looking at long-term solutions to transition towards sustainable and resilient food systems.
For instance, despite what the biotech corporations are falsely promising, the new generation of GMOs is less precise than claimed; more risky in the wild; impossible to reverse; threaten the organic sector; and will inevitably intensify industrial agriculture that is a major cause of collapsing biodiversity. In short, new GMOs are a risky distraction to climate and food security.
Agribusiness’ capture of policies is preventing decision-makers from addressing the true causes of food insecurity by spreading lies, greenwashing and avoiding any responsibility in our current dysfunctional system. Just like Big Oil with the climate and energy crisis. In its special address to the WEF delegates, UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned Big Oil for
“peddl[ing] the big lie. And like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account. Today, fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.”
Big corporations, whether oil or food, must be held accountable for the harm they cause to people and planet.
Food sovereignty now
So, as we enter into a new year, here’s a resolution for decision-makers: in 2023 let’s finally change the food system and start building food sovereignty. The good news is we know what is needed:
- Stop the disappearing of farms: Instead of agricultural factories, we need many small and medium-sized farms. Young people looking for a future in agriculture need land and political support. Policies need to ensure fair prices for producers and limit the power of corporations!
- Good food for all: In the face of food inflation, we need immediate and effective support for those in poverty. All people must be able to afford and have access to environmentally produced, healthy food. Politicians must guarantee this human right.
- Stop the climate crisis: Agriculture must become part of the solution. Policies need to support more diversified and agroecological farming and put an end to the dependency on artificial inputs like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which are fossil fuels reliant .
- Save insects, support pesticide phase-out: Policies need to support more ambitious and legally binding pesticide reduction targets and more effective support for farmers in their transition towards agroecology. More data and better indicators are needed to measure pesticide reduction.
- Stop factory farming, we need farms and not animal factories. It means: only as many animals as the soil and water allow and they must be kept in a species-appropriate way. Policies must ensure halving animal numbers, factory farms moratorium now and stop of the antibiotic abuse!
- Fight hunger, ban food speculation: the food price crisis is not caused by a lack of food but by a lack of regulation and a need for another agricultural system. Speculation must be banned and fair trade enabled. Agricultural exports from the EU must not destroy the livelihoods of farmers in the Global South and imported food needs fair prices.
- Keep new GM food strictly regulated and labelled: decision makers should stop the industry takeover of seeds and the threat posed to farmers’ seed autonomy and agricultural biodiversity as a whole. Policies need to ensure transparency and choice for farmers and consumers for all generations of GMOs.
It’s time to reform the food and farming system. It’s time for policy-makers to take bold and responsible action, guided by those fundamental demands. It’s time to put people and planet back at the centre. That is why we will be joining people in the streets of Berlin on Saturday (21 January) demanding leaders good food for everyone instead of profits for a few!