Dr Angelina Sanderson Bellamy
The insidious control over farming practices exercised by seed companies is an example of how powerful actors in the agri-food system promote profit over environment and health. More important, is the question of how we can shape a more desirable farming system that works for farmers, the public and the environment.
In their recently published article in Rural Society, Stuart and Houser1bring to our attention the more insidious and indirect ways in which seed manufacturers exert control over the use, and overuse, of fertilizer by corn farmers. A qualitative analysis of 154 interviews with corn farmers in 3 American states showed that farmers believe the decisions they make regarding fertiliser management practices are independent of any control practised by seed companies, or elsewhere. The irony behind the mechanisms through which seed companies exercise control is that farmers’ belief in their independence in deciding how to manage their crops is what enables seed companies to ‘discipline’ farmers into following their recommended practices. But is it that seed companies want to create more environmental contamination through leaching of excess nitrogen into the air, ground and surface waters? No, contend the authors; seed companies recommend increased nitrogen application to ensure maximum productivity of their seeds, and environmental pollution is the unfortunate but inevitable side effect of the hegemonic productivist approach to food production that dominates commercial agriculture around the world1.
The authors use a quotation from Middendorf et al.: “the current development in biotechnology reflects a decision-making process in which commercial interests override societal and environmental concerns”2. There is very little that is remarkable about this excerpt, except that it was taken from an article that is 20 years old, and yet it is just as apt to describe dynamics today as it was 20 years ago. The more profound question we should be asking ourselves is why has this continued to persist, and how we can make changes to the current agri-food system so that it is responsive to societal and environmental concerns.
The authors argue that the key to this is in a deeper analysis of the hegemonic domination of the system and how this functions1. They refer to Gramsci and Hoares’3 theoretical development of the term ‘hegemony’ to “denote a state of normalized domination; that is, unequal power relations that appear to the population within them to be naturalized, beneficial, or inevitable”1. As a result, “the perceived independence (that) disciplinary power allows is a key factor leading corn farmers to be complicit in creating and recreating the relationship of hegemonic domination between seed companies and themselves”1.
The authors’ example of corn farmers in the United States is just one instance of hegemonic control by industries within the agri-food system1. Research of coffee farmers’ herbicide use4 and banana farmers’ pesticide use5 in Costa Rica further illustrate how agri-food industries, such as pesticide, fertilizer and seed companies, as well as buyers and retailers, exert control through both direct and indirect mechanisms, while still enabling the farmer the illusion of control over production decisions. As Stuart and Houser1 correctly point out, the impact of these dynamics result in greater profit for industry and increased environmental harm at a cost to society, which is often subsidized with public funds.
While the authors conclude that “studies that expose overlooked relationships of power represent a critical step toward addressing the complex factors driving social and environmental problems”1, more must be done. Recent court rulings in California6, and a newly published article7, add to the substantial body of evidence and further illustrate the environmental and human health consequences of widespread use of pesticides, and, in these cases, glyphosate (better known as the active herbicide ingredient in Roundup). Yet, industry continues to tell us that these chemicals are safe for our use8. What is more, farmers themselves insist that they must have access to these products to achieve greater productivity.
However, the question as to how we transform the agri-food system towards sustainability, given the challenges noted by Stuart and Howser1, and those highlighted above, remains. In part, we must turn to the productivist mentality behind commercial food production and the ever constant objective of achieving higher yields. Part of the hegemonic dialogue is that we must produce more out of each unit of land in order to continue to feed a growing population. However, this ignores the fact that about one-third of all food produced is wasted, and that prices have slumped due to overproduction of some food crops. More is not necessarily better.
Stuart and Howser argue that in order to create a protest movement, farmers must identify that there is a problem as well as who is to blame1. Although farmers may perceive themselves as independent actors, they are also likely to recognize that there is a problem with the current agri-food system in which they are squeezed tighter and tighter to earn a living out of increasing input costs and decreasing crop prices, and at the same time shoulder the risk of poor crop harvests. The growing agroecology movement in both developing and developed countries is one strong indicator that farmers worldwide recognize the problem. Agroecology as a political movement is a reaction to the concentration of power and resources into the hands of a few in the dominant agri-food system. International groups such as La Via Campesina (https://www.viacampesina.org/en/) and the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture have adopted a political platform based on land reform, democratic ownership of food production and the strong regulation of markets, such as guaranteed pricing and farmer control over seeds. Agroecology is the antithesis of commercial farming practised by corn farmers in the United States (and other commercial crop producers), in that it emphasizes ownership over resources (including seeds), a closed-loop system of resource-use and place-based approaches that require intimate knowledge of the land and its natural ecology, and the ability to tap into that to produce a diversity of outputs.
For examples of incremental ‘successes’ in transforming conventional farming systems towards more sustainable agroecological production (the use of the term ‘success’ in some of the below examples is arguable, but may be seen as such with regards to shifting paradigms), we can look at the French agroecology action plan, the Scottish organic agriculture action plan or Switzerland’s ‘multifunctional farmland’. In the United Kingdom, agricultural policy is at a pivotal moment, as government officials decide how best to shape new agricultural policies in light of exiting the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy scheme. Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has promised that any new agricultural payment scheme will be based on the delivery of public goods9; however, it remains to be seen how such policies would be implemented, and if they would shift the dynamics of the current agri-food sector. The Welsh government plans to go one step further by requiring that any new agricultural policy aligns with its potentially transformative and far-reaching legislation, the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2016), which stipulates that all public bodies must ensure that any new actions meet the seven well-being goals, including a resilient Wales, which emphasizes the importance of ecosystem resilience and biodiversity. These examples can serve as a beacon of what is possible. Given the substantial amount of evidence of the negative impacts on environment and health of current production systems, the time to act is now.