Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To survive, Ireland's farmers must reject corporate takeover

Diversity and niche markets are the future for independent producers: Vincenzo La Manna tending his flock of milking sheep near Toonsbridge Co Cork. His pecerino cheeses are popular among foodies and fans of local produce.

First published in That's Farming 09.04.2017

Last week the EU's competition authority approved a $130bn merger between Dow and DuPont, the world's fifth- and second-largest seed suppliers respectively. Approval came with conditions under which DuPont must sell off much of its global pesticides industry and almost all its research and development. Nevertheless, this merger between two of the world's top five agri-businesses creates a company with enormous resources and power over worldwide food production.

In the next fortnight, the EU is also expected to approve the $43bn purchase of Swiss giant Syngenta by ChemChina. US legislators have already granted approval for both deals, while a third take-over, the largest one of all, between Monsanto and Bayer, is believed to have Donald Trump's backing and is expected to receive US approval.

The Bayer-Monsanto proposal will come before the EU competition authority later this year. This “marriage made in hell”, as Greenpeace called it, will book-end a major rationalisation of the global seeds and pesticides industry. The creation of three mega-corporations with almost universal reach, presents the world with grave questions about future food production, pest controls and seed supplies.

The corporations say they are best placed to ensure that the world is fed into the future. Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto has no doubts: “By the time 2050 rolls around, the world will have 10 billion people, and the demand for food will double," he said. “The whole point here is that the business combination between Monsanto and Bayer will allow the companies to invest in and create more innovation, and it's going to take a huge amount of innovation in order to double the world's food supply.”

Not everybody is convinced however. As you might expect, environmental groups are up in arms about the deals. They say we are already using too many harmful chemicals and that the companies responsible are not trustworthy. Friends of the Earth spokesman Adrian Bebb said: “This merger will mean a lack of choice for farmers and a lack of diversity in our fields. We rapidly need to diversify our farming to adapt to a changing climate, and having less seeds controlled by fewer corporation raises serious questions about our ability to feed future generations.”

Can we trust corporations to deliver on their promise to secure the world's food supply? We don't know, but when it comes to food safety, apparently not. Only last week Monsanto executives were left red-faced when a US judge opened access to emails showing them undermining the neutrality of academic studies into glyphosate safety. The attitude of Monsanto towards evidence linking glyphosate, the world's largest-selling herbicide, with cancer, does not inspire trust. They seem to value sales above public health.

By entrusting chemical companies with our future food production we risk our own welfare, both as farmers and as citizens. Opposing the mergers, over 200 environment groups wrote to the European Commission in March. Their letter stated that these mergers would “further restrict the diversity of seeds, harm farmers’ freedom of choice and their rights to save their seeds, and increase their reliance on chemical inputs.”

In addition, the groups wrote: “These companies are moving to promote technology packages and management systems that increase farmer dependence. The three resulting giants would be able to strengthen their intellectual property control, squeeze out the remaining small seed companies, and raise prices for farmers – hurting rural economies and food businesses.”

With margins already so tight and costs so high, how can farmers hope that the seeds and inputs manufacturers, with less competition, will help lower input costs? The answer is they will not. In fact, the sliding value of tillage crops is already impacting small farmers around the world, driving them out of business. This suits multi-nationals who are buying the land thousands of acres at a time, replacing hundreds of small farmers with giant corporate farming structures. It is popularly known as land grabbing and it's a global phenomenon.

It is worth noting that the EU has, until recently at least, protected farmers here from this trend. Most of the rest of the world has experienced some form of land grabbing by corporations. The arrival of forestry investors, lured by our over-generous grant aid for harmful conifer plantations has opened many people's eyes to these kind of practices for the first time. We can expect to see a lot more of these companies knocking on Irish doors.

New Zealand and Australia have already seen their farming communities dwindle, as international investors take over huge tracts of land. This has had dire social consequences in both countries, particularly New Zealand where rural communities were once strong but are now disappearing. 466,000ha of New Zealand land was purchased by overseas companies in 2016 alone. As a result, New Zealand's Overseas Investment Office has been under increasing public pressure about large foreign land purchases. Since 2007 it has forced 10 investors to surrender land after breaching ostensibly strict conditions of overseas sales. But within New Zealand there is fierce debate about the actual extent of these breaches and the OIO has been accused of being too lenient on large companies buying land.

In Africa and Asia the problem is particularly galling, as corrupt officials have often cheated farmers and villagers off their land. For example, Papua New Guinea has experienced huge displacement as 12% of its land, 5.5m ha, has been leased out to corporations already. In a country with traditional land rights, but no formal ownership structure, people have little or no say as logging companies cut down the forests that cover most of the country. In place of the woods that once sustained traditional communities the foreign companies are planting thousands of acres of palm trees.

The companies say they are making the land “productive”, but displaced people lose their homes and their livelihoods. They are left with no choice but to work for the palm oil plantations, if they can get a job in that highly mechanised enterprise. Villages on the island of West New Britain, where the earliest palm oil plantations were developed, are poor and lacking in basic services such as sanitation and running water. The arrival of corporations has increased the country's overall productivity, but not its people's welfare.

There are countless other examples, notably an attempt by the South Korean company Daewoo to take over 1.3m ha of land in Madagascar, an area containing over half the country's productive farmland and most of its surviving old-growth rain forest. Again, Daewoo used food security as an argument of justification, as if displacing thousands of small intensive mixed-farming enterprises with huge monoculture palm and corn plantations was going to do that. Incidentally, these ingredients are not the saviours they are made out to be, but they do turn over a tidy profit. This is because they form the basis of much of the processed food that is leading to an epidemic of obesity around the world.

Land grabs are often the result of corporations being given too much leverage over governments. There are too many other examples of corporate abuses of power to go on listing them and you can rest assured they would not cheer you up. It is only incumbent to say that as a small plucky independent nation, a member of the EU with a unique farming history, Ireland must lead by example in resisting the corporatisation of agriculture. One of the only ways in which we can remain independent and carve out a niche for ourselves is to take the radical decision of going against the grain of corporate interests.

Only by shunning the pesticides and seeds giants, by developing our own indigenous, independent low-input farming systems, can we rid ourselves of the stench of servitude and ill-health that accompanies products pushed on us by these agri-giants.

Do we really need their seeds? We have our own heirloom varieties, evolved to grow here. There are viable alternative farming structures with growing markets crying out to be supplied. We are quickly reaching a crunch time when Irish farmers will have to make a decision about which direction in which to go.

How much longer will Irish farmers submit to the enslavement of corporate power? Will we carry on being the simpering underdogs or will be carve our own destiny? If you think that corporations are going to go easy on us you are wrong, They want our land and they won't stop squeezing til they get it so it is up to us to act together as a body. Ireland can be a producer of truly green, sustainable food, but this will never be suggested by Teagasc or DAFM. Only we can make this happen.

Friday, February 26, 2016

It's better to die trying

In defence of socialism... or those whose concern for others outweighs any selfish consideration...
Those who lean to the left can seem whiny and sensitive, quick to complain in shrill tones when most people just want to get on with their lives. There is a natural tendency to over-compensate, as in the hard-core feminists of the seventies who seemed to eschew their own femininity. But there is justification for those who have been wronged to feel anger. Women have a legitimate reason to feel excluded and victimised by society, especially in the non-western world and the education of women is the key element in rehabilitating any dysfunctional society, as has been shown by many developing world NGO projects. But that is perhaps an argument for another day.

We are in a process of gloabalisation and we must learn tolerance and acceptance. We have no choice. As you say, the reality overpowers any personal aspirations we might have, be they for an impossibly egalitarian idyl, or for an old-fashioned white-picket-fence homogeneity. The world is a soup and all its people are necessary ingredients. We used to live far apart from one another. Now we are together. You cannot change this reality, but be consoled, no species is better equipped to adapt than humans.
I firmly believe that if mankind submits itself to the base instincts of greed and willful ignorance we are double fucked. It is not easy to question the morality of one's day-to-day actions and their likely implications and it gives some of those who do it a big head. This can be off-putting, but it is becoming more and more necessary to find a way forward which includes all of humanity and not just the usual elites who have misled so many times for their own gain. DDT was once considered safe to use at home, now fracking is the Godsend. But there are easier and safer solutions to all of our problems. We need to empower communities and stop looking to the elites for ideas.

If educated people with access to knowledge and resources, which are the result of many generations of enlightened thought and hard-won freedoms, do nothing to resist the calamitous trajectory of the human race, then where we will find ourselves in fifty years time doesn't bear thinking about.
You might like Trump's willingness to rock the boat, but don't be fooled by his rhetoric. He's just a very ambitious establishment man with megalomaniac tendencies who will buy you with promises and sell you to the highest bidder when he no longer needs your support. This does not make him much different from a lot of other politicians. It is his unapologetically racist, paranoid rhetoric that sets him apart. The only one who cast a similar shadow in recent history and whose populist appeal was as broad and inexplicable, was AH...sorry Godwin...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

One little dragonfly,
does not a summer make,
but if she lights before your eye,
you might make that mistake.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The question of how we save our planet, the natural world and secure a future for generations to come on planet earth troubles me daily.  We have of course many seemingly insurmountable problems, but how to contend with them?

Internationally, there's not much we can do except embarrass companies like Pepsicola (re sumofus doritos campaign) into changing their ways.  How often this works is a moot question.

Cities are faced with the effects of pollution much more immediately and are so inclined to react quicker by implementing measures, like no car zones, cycle hire schemes, greenways etc.

As for local rural environmental issues, with my own specific locality Ireland in mind, I think farmers are key.  They hold so much of the land in their care.  But they only respond to grant aid, or government bribes if you will.

People here are generally indifferent regarding environmental issues and campaigners have a name among farmers for being urban-centric hippies with middle-class accents, long hair and unwarranted grudges against society.  A complete re-education will be needed to change this view.
How to go about this?  Your guess is as good as mine.

European attempts at environmental protection have been typically ham-fisted and often locally inappropriate.  Farmers are generally inclined to believe that these measures were designed to torture them.
Greening schemes are criticised with a mixture of glee and bitterness.

Meanwhile the continued decline of species such as barn owls, yellow hammers and numerous songbirds, various bats, fresh water pearl mussels and even ostensibly common species, such as starlings, is duly noted, but blamed on the actions of others or, more often, economic necessity.

This last with a depressed sigh, for who knows the rhythm of nature better than a farmer?   When the natural world skips a beat, as we have seen it do of late through increasingly devastating extreme weather events among other things, the first people to notice are those who spend their lives outdoors.

Farmers and fishermen might just be ready to embrace a new deal, but it will have to come from government, which seems unlikely as centre-right, business-friendly agencies are as yet unwilling to upset large companies who themselves make too much money from the status quo.  Who will be brave enough to take the plunge? Time will tell.

Monday, December 29, 2014


It is without doubt crucial to the survival of the human species that we upskill in the area of diy food production and problem solving.  In the western world, our social system seems efficient and inclusive, out freedoms have been hard-fought, but it's easy to forget that consumerism is wasting staggering amounts of finite natural resources.  The packaging we routinely throw away, the crap we buy in cheap shops, the unnecessary journeys..

Composting is the best way to dispose of biodrgradeable products and plastic wrappers found on vegetables can be left in the supermarket. They really annoy me.  In fact I had a near combustion moment one time in a giant shopping centre in Romania, carfour or something, because it was forbidden or impossible to purchase vegetables without individually bagging them.  I almost tussled with the checkout lady over it, but in the end I had to submit and use their stupid bags. 

But you've probably read preachy rants on this topic before and if not I doubt you got this far before you clicked your way onward.  Hmm.  How about a nice video, for this is the entertainment age..

So that's how it goes.  We're all a bit twisted I suppose.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

corporate sponsorhsip of the arts...and everything else

The majority of great artists were poor in their own lifetimes, relying upon some kind of sponsorship/patronage from wealthy clients, the source of whose income I am sure they did not have the luxury of questioning. In this age of branding and mass disinformation, every business with a public profile is keen to enhance its own reputation.  Cultural affiliation has long been accepted by society's grandees as a way of concealing or distracting from bad behaviour in other arenas.

Indeed from JD Rockefeller through JP Morgan and onwards, we all could name a rogue's gallery of famous philanthropists. Out of the massive profits accumulated by corporations and individuals through unnecessary exploitation of resources, human and natural, shady dealings, outright crimes and through what passes for 'good business acumen', it costs a fraction to erase unpleasant memories and divert critical attention elsewhere.

So I can see simultaneous pointlessness and merit in exposing the degrading behaviour of organisations like the Tate gallery in London (currently fighting efforts to reveal the extent of their sponsorship deal with BP) who really ought to know better and value their public mandate more, but at least it is highlighted and ridiculed in Britain. Here in Ireland such intimate relations between public and private bodies usually go unquestioned and any whiff of corruption is dispelled by media groups who may be observed to hold themselves faithfully and obediently in thrall to corporate interests.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Barkers for Parker's

If there is something beautiful in the offing let us applaud but how fit is it, to the purpose of replacing this?
Former premises of Parkers, Cork Timber, Cement & Co, Kyrle St Cork, ©Tom Jordan September 2013
More usually we know the order of events.. Dereliction, neglect, demolition and then a car park for ten years until the economic climate improves... Surely there is a better way to manage old buildings?