Big Ag: New Threats to Farming and Food Security

by Jomo Kwame Sundaram , published on Consortium News, May 14, 2021

Producers and consumers seem helpless as food all over the world comes under fast growing corporate control. Such changes have also been worsening environmental collapse, social dislocation and the human condition.

The recent joint report – by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and the ETC Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – is ominous, to say the least.

A Long Food Movement,” principally authored by Pat Mooney with a team including IPES-Food Director Nick Jacobs, analyses how food systems are likely to evolve over the next quarter century with technological and other changes.

The report notes that hi-tech data processing and asset management corporations have joined established agribusinesses in reshaping world food supply chains.

If current trends continue, the food system will be increasingly controlled by large transnational corporations (TNCs) at the expense of billions of farmers and consumers.

Davos’ IR4.0 Not Benign

The Davos World Economic Forum’s (WEF) much touted “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (IR4.0), promoting digitization, is transforming food systems, accelerating concentration in corporate hands.

“Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution” session at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 25, 2018. (World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

New apps enable better tracking across supply chains, while “precision farming” now includes using drones to spray pesticides on targeted crops, reducing inputs and, potentially, farming costs. Agriculture is now second only to the military in drone use.

Digital giants are working with other TNCs to extend enabling “cloud computing” infrastructure. Spreading as quickly as the infrastructure allows, new ‘digital ag’ technologies have been displacing farm labour.

Meanwhile, food data have become more commercially valuable, e.g., to meet consumer demand. Big Ag profits have also grown by creating “new needs.” Big data are already being used to manipulate consumer preferences.

With the pandemic, e-retail and food delivery services have grown even faster. Thus, e-commerce platforms have quickly become the world’s top retailers. New “digital ag” technologies are also undermining diverse, ecologically more appropriate food agriculture in favor of unsustainable mono-cropping. The threat is great as family farms still feed more than two-thirds of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, hi-tech and asset management firms have acquired significant shareholdings in food giants. Powerful conglomerates are integrating different business lines, increasing concentration while invoking competition and “creative disruption.”

The IPES-ETC study highlights new threats to farming and food security as IR4.0 proponents exert increasing influence. The report warns that giving Big Ag the ‘keys of the food system’ worsens food insecurity and other existential threats. Powerful corporations will increase control of most world food supplies. Big Ag controlled supply chains will also be more vulnerable as great power rivalry and competition continue to displace multilateral cooperation.

But the report also presents a more optimistic vision for the next quarter century. In this alternative scenario, collaborative efforts, from the grassroots to the global level, empower social movements and civil society to resist.

Belgium farm provides example of regenerative farming. (Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons), LUC VIATOUR GFDL l.viatour@mm.be

New technologies are part of this vision, from small-scale drones for field monitoring to consumer apps for food safety and nutrient verification. But they would be cooperatively owned, open access and well regulated.

The report includes pragmatic strategies to cut three quarters of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and shift $4 trillion from Big Ag to agro-ecology and food sovereignty. These include “$720 billion in subsidies” and “$1.6 trillion in healthcare savings” due to malnutrition.

IPES-ETC also recommends taxing junk food, toxins, carbon emissions and TNC profits. It also urges criminal prosecution of those responsible for famine, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Food security protocols are needed to supersede trade and intellectual property law, and not only for emergencies.

But with food systems under growing stress, Big Ag solutions have proved attractive to worried policymakers who see no other way out. Historically, natural resources were commonly or publicly shared. Water and land have long been sustainably used by farmers, fisherfolk and pastoralists. But market value has grown with “property rights,” especially with corporate acquisition.

Touted as the best means to achieve food security, corporate investments in recent decades have instead undermined remaining “traditional” agrarian ecosystems.

Big Ag claims that the food, ecological and climate crises has to be addressed with its superior new technologies harnessing the finance, entrepreneurship and innovation only they can offer.

But in fact, they have failed, instead triggering more problems in their pursuit of profit. As the new food system and corporate trends consolidate, it will become increasingly difficult to change course.

Very timely, “A Long Food Movement is an urgent call to action for the long haul.

Food Systems Summit

According to Marchmont Communications, “writing on behalf of the UN Food Systems Summit secretariat,” the meeting was originally announced on Oct. 16, 2019, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and was conceived following conversations with the joint leadership of the three Rome-based United Nations agencies at the high-level political forum in July 2019.

On June 12, 2019, “Inspiration Speaker” David Nabarro announced to the annual EAT Stockholm conference that a World Food Systems Summit would be held in 2021. The following day, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the World Economic Forum and the Office of the UN Secretary-General.

It stirred up so much controversy that the MOU was later removed from the website of the World Economic Forum, hardly reputed for its modesty. Unsurprisingly, many believe that the WEF  “pressed the summit onto a reluctant UN Secretary-General” and can be traced to its Food Systems Initiative.

Apparently, initial arrangements had bypassed the Rome-based UN food agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme. Their heads were then consulted and brought on board in July 2019.

With so much at stake, representatives of food producers and consumers need to act urgently to prevent governments from allowing a UN sanctioned corporate takeover of global governance of food systems.

*Featured Image: (DJI-Agras from Pixabay)

*Originally published on IPS.


Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

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