Shift towards a resilient food system needed : The Tribune India


Devinder Sharma

Food & Agriculture Specialist

SOME years back, a study by the University of Sussex (UK) showed a dramatic decline in insect population within a nature reserve in Germany. Within a span of 25 years, almost 75 per cent of the flying insects inside the sanctuary had disappeared. The authors of the study had then called it as an ‘Ecological Armageddon’. Shocked at the findings, some scientists had then termed it as an exaggeration and had wanted the report, at best, needed to be taken as a wake-up call by policymakers to mitigate the decline in biodiversity.

Five years later, the latest Living Planet Report 2022 released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has literally dropped a bombshell. Based on a Living Planet Index, which analysed 32,000 species populations, the report finds a 69 per cent decline in wildlife population in roughly half a century, between 1970 and 2018. While Latin America shows the highest decline of 94 per cent, even freshwater species have fallen by 89 per cent.

Not getting into other worrying details that the report carries, it was known for quite some time that the sixth mass extinction of species is already under way, but such staggering species population loss estimates overwhelmingly endorse what the US National Academy of Sciences had earlier called as ‘a biological annihilation’ leading to a ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisations’.

Aimed at providing enough food for thought, the sober tone of the WWF report should actually come as a shock for the society at large. But I doubt, considering that the mindset of most educated people has been swayed to believe that trees are an obstacle to development. To illustrate, diluting environment clearances for highways, mining and industrial projects, clearing vast swathes of forest lands for palm oil plantations, for instance, and also finding ways to divert more forest lands to non-forest users has become a norm rather than an exception.

Every year, the world is losing 10 million hectares of forests; and, in none of the Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations has there been a resolution seeking a cap on deforestation.

While the WWF report treats climate emergency and biodiversity destruction, both being inextricably linked, as the two challenges the world is confronted with, it does point to a major role played by the global food systems in exacerbating the crisis. Despite the warning, and contrary to what is expected, the transformation in agriculture is on the lines being suggested by World Economic Forum which wants the Big Ag to play a dominant role.

This has been laid bare in another report wherein the acclaimed international organisation — the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) — has on the basis of a three-year study, ‘Food Barons 2022: Crisis Profiteering, Digitalization and Shifting Power’, detailed out how the concentration of power in a handful of players comprising the Big Food, the Big Tech and the Big Finance is strengthening control over the industrial food chain, thereby threatening to undermine the rights of farmers, fishermen, poison soil, acerbate water mining, contaminate environment and diminish biodiversity and, in the process, multiply its profits.

Already, 62 new ‘food billionaires’ were added to the super-rich class during the pandemic years. In the same period, Cargill, the world’s biggest global trading company, increased its profit share by 64 per cent. So did numerous other food companies that passed on higher profits garnered as food inflation to consumers.

However, reading both these reports in tandem — and I suggest both should be a part of the agriculture university curriculum — what comes as a surprise is that probably the left hand does not know what the right is up to. The strong warning that the WWF report sounds is actually negated by the global developments on the farm front. As the ETC report illustrates, citing a lot of examples, but in essence saying that the digital food system channelises the humongous data collections into ‘the cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) servers of Microsoft and Amazon to generate new business strategies.’

A careful perusal of the report brings out how it is happening. Invoking climate change and biodiversity depletion, these players will then use sophisticated technological solutions — make high-tech seeds, including genetically modified, gene-edited seeds; promote digital farming in the guise of precision technologies; and bring in synthetic foods in the name of protecting biodiversity resources.

And if you are wondering whether the digital transformation will infuse efficiency in agriculture, the report tells you how exactly “major food corporations are ripping apart and remaking how the industrial food chain works under the banner of digital transformation.”

Calling it false solutions, the report very clearly shows how, through the application of new digital technologies, drones, sensors, satellite imageries and AI, coupled with acquisitions and mergers in areas like livestock, fisheries, commodity trading and food retail, it fast-tracks automation on the farm, thereby gradually pushing farmers and farm workers out.

From a ‘dream tractor’, fully automated, to move towards a fully robotic farm dubbed as ‘Robot highways’, the Big Tech backed by the Big Finance is taking the world to a future where farmers would hardly be required. Food security of the future is quietly getting into the hands of a few people sitting in the food company’s board rooms. Surely, if 40 per cent of the commercial seed sale is in the hands of just two companies, they control the food chain, deciding as to what to plant, when to plant and, in collaboration with other food barons, decide how to harvest and, eventually, what should people be made to eat.

It is, therefore, obvious that the higher the degree of concentration, more frequent has been the volatility, leading to a higher vulnerability in the industrial food systems.

This calls for an immediate change, a radical shift towards a resilient food system. The next food system transformation has to be based on diversity and building on food sovereignty. The future global food system has to be back in the hands of 3.6 billion peasants, small farmers, pastoralists and fishermen where biodiversity protection, income security and climate justice go hand in hand. 


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