With recent talks about the impact of corporate concentration in the agro chemicals and seed industry sparked by the move of Monsanto to Buyer, I have been thinking about what the potential impacts of ‘development’ concentration could be for smallholders.
In case you did not hear, the seed company Monsanto was recently taken over by Bayer, a large pharmaceutical company. Monsanto is commonly associated with GMOs, but also environmental degradation and lack of business ethics in the way their products and services impact family farmers. One way Monsanto’s products, research and services plans to break the poor brand and reputation is to morph into a larger corporation with the hope to change the image of GMOs. This is discussed in a CBC The Current podcast here.
But, what do seeds and chemicals have to do with each other?
A lot of the seeds developed by Monsanto require pesticides. Monsanto has been trying to partner (as mentioned in this article at The Guardian here) firstly, and unsuccessfully with Sygenta. Dow and Dupont is another example of a company, which controls 40% of the corn and soybean market in the US. Related, ChemChina has also purchased Syngenta giving it the largest handle on the agricultural chemical market. The reality is that mega-mergers like this are happening because of low interest rates and cheap borrowing since the financial crisis.
What is the big deal about these corporate mergers? – It will negatively affect smallholders
Corporate consolidation of input agribusinesses also concentrate power, where they can lobby governments to shape the political economy. Government favouring large scale, industrial agriculture will disenfranchise the smallholder who prefers to save their seed, diversify farms and practice agro ecology.
Smallholders in northern Ghana where I am doing research have explained a reality that they haven’t told their government policy makers or civil society groups because of the lack of trust and perceived poor representation: They don’t want to use chemicals or hybrid seed (especially not GMO) that these corporations are providing or funding, whether foreign or locally bred. Smallholders claim that the chemicals make their physical health and soil sick and reduces the quality of their food.
These smallholders felt pressured to adopt chemical inputs and are now addicted to using them because of the lack of fertility in the soil and lack of alternative agro ecological practices and technology resulting from land and labour pressure. Shifting their open pollinated variety of seed to hybrid seed, where they can no longer save their seed each year makes them further dependent on corporations that their government is supporting. This is all something smallholders have been resisting for decades, but articulate to me that they have been left with little choice for alternatives.
The Second African Green Revolution
There has been renewed interest in what has been perceived as the failure of the first Green Revolution in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, where farmers refused to adopt ‘modern’ technologies, such as improved seed and chemical inputs to intensify their farms. However, in northern Ghana the 1980s was the height of the agriculture sector where the country was producing enough food for self-sufficiency and export. I have been told that even smallholders owned assets, were producing on much larger tracts of land and used many best planting practices, such as dibbling and spacing. But with the onset of Structural Adjustment Progammes and the liberalization of agri-food markets (including cheap food importation), allowing for foreign investment and privatization of inputs that have been increasing prices and consolidating good quality land, the Second Green Revolution in Africa is perceived as even more problematic by smallholders then the first.
So, what are ‘development actors’ doing exactly? – Private sector growth
Something that became apparent to me on my last visit to Ghana and has sparked my reflection by the recent corporate mergers is the uniformity of agriculture development efforts. Governments, non-profits (like USAID’s Feed the Future programmes), and agribusinesses like Wienco (Masara N’Arziki) seemed to be doing the same thing in similar ways. They are striving to intensify smallholders through Green Revolution technology provision and market integration. As explained in this webinar here by IFPRI and Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of intensification of smallholders for food security. The Government of Ghana has recently established the national fertilizer subsidy program and set up a number of public seed research units (CSIR / SARI) supported by USAID to improve varieties. USAID focuses their efforts on the agriculture value chain connecting all types of agribusinesses to provide inputs to farmers. Wienco imports new kinds of technologies and provides them to farmers and does so in a viable business model.
I have been told the only difference between what is being done now to support farmers in comparison to the 1980s or the first Green Revolution is that there is a strong focus on market integration and that all efforts are led by the private sector, even if government is involved. This is communicated as an improvement, as development, but the costs of inputs are perceived to be too high and the loans impossible. Undoubtedly, there have been improvements, hunger rates have been decreasing as people have access to cheaply, imported food and storage has greatly developed with a lot less food wastage.
Although in theory sustainable intensification practices that account for a triple bottom line in agribusiness: environment, social justice and growth are proposed, this is not what is happening in practice in northern Ghana. Especially since, from what I have seen, none of these actors directly support agroecology. For example, by developing manure markets or subsidization as opposed to just chemical intensive ones. To be fair, the intercropping of soya is proposed as a nitrogen rich alternative that is more nutritious, but this does not actually address the inequitable power relations within an agri-food political economy by depending on an unregulated input market, cheap grain imports, labour migration and land consolidation. It kind of ignores the problem.
I have also been told by different staff at all three of these organizations that they find it difficult to work with smallholders. Smallholders often do not fulfill contracts or promises and ‘abuse’ their partnership by diverting inputs to other plots, lying to them about their yields and practices and sometimes go as far as burn their fields. I am told they are unreliable and reliability is the most important thing in a business model and value chain.
We need to ask why are smallholders resisting the Second Green Revolution (as with the first)?
Perhaps it is because the smallholders feel what is on offer (Green Revolution technology) is not useful and might actually create more harm than good to their environments –it’s not really that green (unless you count drought resistance?). This might also not meet their farming mental model, which differs than the business one. Perhaps it is because they do not like the terms of the agreements set by the unregulated private sector. Perhaps it is because they see the corruption of both the public and private sector through the catering to the business men and not the family farmer. At least this is what they are explaining to me.