Against the grain

Against the grain is a series of short opinion pieces on recent trends and developments in the issues that GRAIN works on. Each one focuses on a specific and timely topic. 

Two dinosaurs of world trade – the United States and the European Union – have begun talks on a bilateral free trade agreement in order to boost jobs and economic growth in their largely depressed economies. There is nothing in the proposals that will serve consumers or the public interest. It is all about reducing the hoops for agribusiness.

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The world’s agribusiness corporations are pursuing their attempts to privatize and monopolize our seeds. Their goal is clear: they want to convert the millennial practice of plant breeding into a crime, for their own profit and nothing else. Latin America is one scene of such attacks on public property.

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On 19 August, Colombian farmers' organisations initiated a massive nationwide strike. They blocked roads, dumped milk on cars and basically stopped producing food for the cities. The problem? They are being driven out of existence by the government's policies, which serve the interests of a wealthy elite minority.

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“The United Republic of Soybeans.” That’s the patronizing moniker given to the entire Southern Cone − comprising the countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia − by the Syngenta Corporation in a 2003 advertisement in the rural supplements of the Argentine papers Clarín and La Nación. It’s an open statement of the neocolonialist fervour with which these companies are attempting to dominate this region of the world.

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The G8 countries are implementing a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in six African countries that will facilitate the transfer of control over African agriculture from peasants to foreign agribusiness.

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Governments in a number of countries are trying to address concerns about land grabbing by closing their borders to foreign investors. Are these restrictions effective?

Not really, says GRAIN. They give the impression that something is being done at the highest level and appeal to nationalist or pro-sovereignty sentiments. But they are very narrow approaches to a complex problem and often full of back doors and loopholes.

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Biofuels production has pushed farming and forest communities off their land from Colombia to Sierra Leone to Indonesia, threatening livelihoods and food security. Meanwhile, biofuels are failing to achieve promised reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with some found to have a worse carbon footprint than conventional fossil fuel.

Diverting precious farmland to the production of fuel for cars is plainly irresponsible. All the more so since these lands are often home to the very rural communities whose food systems provide the world with the models needed to reverse the environmental crisis that fossil fuels have provoked.

EU biofuels mandates have already prompted companies to grab 17 million hectares of land around the world, a figure that could rise to over 40 million hectares by 2020.

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It is a long-standing tradition in many African countries to forbid the selling of land. When land is snapped up by large agribusiness interests in these countries, it is experienced as a brutal violation of this tradition, one that compromises the lives and livelihoods of entire generations to come. At a February 2012 workshop held by Synergie Paysanne, GRAIN, and the African Network for the Right to Food (RAPDA) in Ouidah, Benin, with the support of Bread for all, thirty or more participants representing small-farm organisations and NGOs active on the land grabbing issue in West and Central Africa came together to share their experiences and analysis. This article summarises the issues that were covered and the discussions that took place.

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From the World Bank to pension funds, efforts are under way to regulate land grabs through the creation of codes and standards. The idea is to distinguish those land deals that do meet certain criteria and should be approvingly called "investments" from those that don't and can continue to be stigmatised as land "grabs". Up to now, it was mostly international agencies that were trying to do this. Now, the private sector is engaging in a serious way to set its own rules of the game. Either way, the net result is voluntary self-regulation -- which is ineffective, unreliable and no remedy for the fundamental wrongness of these deals. Rather than help financial and corporate elites to "responsibly invest" in farmland, we need them to stop and divest. Only then can the quite different matter of strengthening and supporting small-scale rural producers in their own territories and communities succeed, for the two agendas clash. In this article, GRAIN gives a quick update on what is going on.

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China is now the world’s largest global food market. What Chinese people eat has repercussions on everyone, because of the increasingly global reach of how and where that food is produced. When China began importing soybeans as animal feed in the late 1990s to support the growth of its factory farms, it ushered in a dramatic agricultural transformation in both China and Latin America. Now Beijing is moving down the same path with maize, its other major feed crop, and global corporations and Chinese companies are scrambling to develop and control centers of supply for this potentially huge market. The fallout is already being felt around the globe: from rural exodus in China, to farmland grabs in Africa, to food inflation in Shanghai triggered by drought in the US. China can and should reverse course by shifting away from industrial meat production to small scale livestock farming based on local sources of feed.

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