Archive for category: Food
Bill Gates’s Foundation Is Leading a Green Counterrevolution in Africa
Mon, 01/11/2021 – 14:33
As the World Food Programme accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, we look at the growing global hunger crisis amid the pandemic, the climate crisis and war. In the United States, as many as 50 million people could experience food insecurity before the end of the year — including one in four children. “It’s important to remember that hunger does not always happen because of natural disasters,” says Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is often the result of things that we do to each other deliberately.”
Get poisoned or get on board.
That’s the choice soybean farmers such as Will Glazik face. The past few summers, farmers near Glazik’s central Illinois farm have sprayed so much of the weed killer dicamba at the same time that it has polluted the air for hours and sometimes days.
As Glazik puts it, there are two types of soybeans: Monsanto’s, which are genetically engineered to withstand dicamba, and everyone else’s.
Glazik’s soybeans have been the damaged ones. His soybean leaves will curl up, then the plants will become smaller and weaker. He’s lost as much as 40 bushels an acre in some fields, a huge loss when organic soybeans are $20 a bushel. He has to hold his breath every year to see if the damage will cause him to lose his organic certification.
His neighbors who spray dicamba are frustrated with him, he said. There’s an easy solution to avoid damage, they tell him: Buy Monsanto’s seeds.
This reality is what Monsanto was counting on when it launched dicamba-tolerant crops, an investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Monsanto’s new system was supposed to be the future of farming, providing farmers with a suite of seeds and chemicals that could combat more and more weeds that were becoming harder to kill.
Instead, the system’s rollout has led to millions of acres of crop damage across the Midwest and South; widespread tree death in many rural communities, state parks and nature preserves; and an unprecedented level of strife
in the farming world.
Executives from Monsanto and BASF, a German chemical company that worked with Monsanto to launch the system, knew their dicamba weed killers would cause large-scale damage to fields across the United States but decided to push them on unsuspecting farmers anyway, in a bid to corner the soybean and cotton markets.
Monsanto and BASF have denied for years that dicamba is responsible for damage, blaming farmers making illegal applications, weather events and disease. The companies insist that when applied according to the label, dicamba stays on target and is an effective tool for farmers.
Over the past year, the Midwest Center reviewed thousands of pages of government and internal company documents released through lawsuits, sat in the courtroom for weeks of deliberation, interviewed farmers affected by dicamba and weed scientists dealing with the issue up close. This story provides the most comprehensive picture of what Monsanto and BASF knew about dicamba’s propensity to harm farmers’ livelihoods and the environment before releasing the weed killer.
The investigation found:
- Monsanto and BASF released their products knowing that dicamba would cause widespread damage to soybean and cotton crops that weren’t resistant to dicamba. They used “protection from your neighbors” as a way to sell more of their products. In doing so, the companies ignored years of warnings from independent academics, specialty crop growers and their own employees.
- Monsanto limited testing that could potentially delay or deny regulatory approval of dicamba. For years, Monsanto struggled to keep dicamba from drifting in its own tests. In regulatory tests submitted to the EPA, the company sprayed the product in locations and under weather conditions that did not mirror how farmers would actually spray it. Midway through the approval process, with the EPA paying close attention, the company decided to stop its researchers from conducting tests.
- Even after submitting data that the EPA used to approve dicamba in 2016, Monsanto scientists knew that many questions remained. The company’s own research showed dicamba mixed with other herbicides was more likely to cause damage. The company also prevented independent scientists from conducting their own tests and declined to pay for studies that would potentially give them more information about dicamba’s real-world impact.
- Although advertised as helping out customers, the companies’ investigations of drift incidents were designed to limit their liability, find other reasons for the damage and never end with payouts to farmers. For example, BASF told pesticide applicators that sometimes it is not safe to spray even if following the label to the letter, placing liability squarely on the applicators.
- The two companies were in lockstep for years. Executives from Monsanto and BASF met at least 19 times from 2010 on to focus on the dicamba-tolerant cropping system, including working together on the development of the technology, achieving regulatory approval for the crops and herbicides and the commercialization of crops.
Monsanto released seeds resistant to dicamba in 2015 and 2016 without an accompanying weed killer, knowing that off-label spraying of dicamba, which is illegal, would be “rampant.” At the same time, BASF ramped up production of older versions of dicamba that were illegal to apply to the crops and made tens of millions of dollars selling the older versions, which were more likely to cause move off of where they were applied.
Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, refused to grant an interview with the Midwest Center. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.
Spokesman Kyel Richard said the company “has seen an outpouring of support from grower organizations and our customers.”
“We continue to stand with the thousands of farmers who rely on this technology as part of their integrated weed management program,” Richard said.
BASF also did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.
BASF spokeswoman Odessa Patricia Hines said that the company’s version of dicamba has “different physical properties and compositions” than Monsanto’s. Hines said the company is continuing to improve its dicamba technology.
Earlier this year, a federal jury sided with a Missouri peach farmer who sued the companies for driving his orchard out of business. The jury awarded Bill Bader $15 million for his losses and $250 million in punitive damages designed to punish Bayer. Bayer and BASF are appealing the verdict. The punitive damages were later reduced to $60 million.
Hines of BASF pointed out that in the Missouri trial: “The jury’s
verdict found that only Monsanto’s conduct warranted punitive damages.”
Following the trial, Bayer announced a $400 million settlement with
farmers harmed by dicamba, including $300 million to soybean farmers.
Bayer said they expect BASF to pay for part of the settlement.
An attorney for Bader called the companies’ conduct “a conspiracy to
create an ecological disaster in order to increase their profits” in
court filings. The case largely revolved around showing the companies
knew dicamba would harm thousands of farmers.
According to court exhibits, in October 2015, Monsanto projected it would receive nearly 2,800 complaints from farmers
during the 2017 growing season, a figure based on one-in-10 farmers having a complaint.
However, even one Monsanto executive knew these projections might be
low, according to court records. In late August 2016, Boyd Carey, a
Ph.D. crop scientist overseeing the claims process for Monsanto,
realized it might be more like one-in-five and asked for a budget increase from $2.4 million to $6.5 million to investigate claims. Carey testified that he was awarded the increase.
The projected number of complaints rose to more than 3,200 for 2018,
before going down. After 2018, Monsanto figured that fewer farmers would
be harmed because more farmers would switch to Monsanto’s crops to
avoid being damaged, Carey testified in the Bader trial.
affects all parts of Glazik’s operation. He grows organic soybeans to
avoid exposure to toxic pesticides. He also likes the higher premiums
and the improved soil quality. But with dicamba in the air, he’s less
likely to be successful.
He now has to plant his soybeans later each year. Soybeans are less
likely to be severely damaged when they’re small, and planting them
later than usual means they’ll be smaller when the inevitable cloud of
weed killer envelops his crops. Later planting typically means a bit of
yield loss. It also means a later harvest, which limits planting of
cover crops Glazik uses to improve his soil.
“All crop damage aside,” he said, the weed killer is everywhere.
Oaks, hickories and other trees are damaged near his farm, both in the
country and in town, he said. “The fact is that the chemical can
volatilize and move with the wind and in the air. We’re breathing it.”
A ‘potential disaster’
For two decades, Monsanto made billions of dollars with Roundup Ready
crops, which had been genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed
by the weed killer and adopted by nearly every American soybean farmer.
But by the mid-to-late 2000s, Roundup was starting to fail. Farmer’s
fields were overwhelmed with “superweeds” that had developed resistance
to Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate.
In response, Monsanto developed new soybean and cotton seeds that
were genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by both
glyphosate and dicamba, a very effective weed killer used since the
1960s. It was also touted as the company’s largest biotechnology rollout
in company history. In just three years, Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant
system was able to capture up to three-fourths of total soybean acreage,
an area the size of Michigan.
Dicamba was not widely used during
the growing season because of its propensity to move off-target and
harm other plants. Because of its limited use, fewer weeds were
resistant to it, making it an effective replacement for Roundup.
Monsanto even dubbed the crops as its money-maker’s next generation,
calling them Roundup Ready 2 Xtend.
But the company faced a problem with dicamba: The weed killer drifted
onto non-resistant plants, some as far as miles away. In its own
testing over the years, Monsanto had accidentally harmed its own crops
dozens of times.
As far back as 2009, Monsanto and BASF received warnings about dicamba from several sources — one company called it a “potential disaster,”
according to court records — but they decided to plow ahead anyway.
“DON’T DO IT; expect lawsuits,” wrote one Monsanto employee, summarizing academic surveys the company commissioned about dicamba’s use.
In order to commercialize dicamba, both Monsanto and BASF worked to develop new formulations with low volatility.
Off-target movement from dicamba can happen in two main ways: drift
and volatilization. Drift is when the chemical’s particles move off the
field when they are sprayed, generally by wind in the seconds or minutes
after it is applied. Volatilization is when dicamba particles turn from
a liquid to a gas in the hours or days after the herbicide is applied.
Damage from volatilization frequently occurs through a process called “atmospheric loading,” which
is when so much dicamba is sprayed at the same time that it is unable
to dissipate and persists in the air for hours or days poisoning
whatever it comes into contact with.
Volatilization is particularly concerning because dicamba can move
for miles and harm non-target crops, especially soybeans, and even lawns
and gardens. Tomatoes, grapes and other specialty crops are also
at-risk of being damaged.
Despite being touted as less volatile, the new versions — Monsanto’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology and BASF’s Engenia — were unable to stop the movement entirely.
During its 2012-2014 testing of an older version of XtendiMax, Monsanto had at least 73 off-target incidents, according to court documents.
In 2014, Monsanto had significant dicamba damage at a training facility in Portageville, Mo. Even in its own promotional videos, Monsanto couldn’t prevent non-dicamba tolerant soybeans from showing symptoms of damage.
The EPA took note of an incident where, through volatilization, dicamba turned into a gas and apparently floated more than 2 miles away, much farther than it was supposed to. During that incident, no one had measured how badly the crops had been damaged and the EPA was unable to definitively determine the symptoms were caused by dicamba. The EPA decided that was an “uncertainty” and approved the use of the weed killer with a 110-foot buffer zone.
In 2015, knowing the EPA was keeping an eye on off-target movement, Monsanto decided to halt all testing of XtendiMax
with VaporGrip Technology. According to court records, it kept its own employees, who were interested in developing recommendations for farmers, from testing, and it limited trials by independent academics in order to maintain a “clean slate.” It asked BASF to halt its dicamba testing
When a weed science professor at the University of Arkansas asked Monsanto for a little bit
of Xtendimax to test its volatility, the company told him it would have difficulty producing enough dicamba for both him and its independent tests.
A Monsanto employee, who worked at the company for 35 years, didn’t think much of that explanation when he forwarded the email to a colleague.
“Hahaha difficulty in producing enough product for field testing,” he wrote. “Hahaha bullshit.”
Illegal spraying a ‘ticking time bomb’
Weeds cut into farmers’ profits. With low profit margins, farmers will use any tool they can to control weeds.
Monsanto recognized this in 2015 and 2016 when they released dicamba-tolerant crops without their new versions of dicamba. An internal Monsanto slide shows the company knew that many farmers would likely illegally spray older, more volatile versions and harm other farmers’ crops.
But the company decided the benefits of establishing a market share outweighed the risks and launched the cotton crops in 2015. The EPA allowed farmers to spray other weed killers on the crops, and Monsanto decided to launch the seeds with “a robust communication plan that dicamba cannot be used.”
When the seeds were sold, Monsanto put a pink sticker on each bag to indicate it was illegal to spray dicamba on the crops in 2015. The company also sent letters to all growers and retailers, among other tactics, to limit illegal applications of dicamba.
However, in internal communications in April 2015, members of Monsanto’s cotton team joked about this risky strategy.
“One sticker is going to keep us out of jail,” one wrote.
In Oct. 2015, a BASF employee reported hearing that growers sprayed
older versions of dicamba on the cotton that year.
Monsanto doubled down on this risky strategy in 2016, releasing dicamba-tolerant soybean crops without a weed killer, too. Meanwhile, Monsanto also declined to investigate drift incidents in 2015 and 2016.
At a February 2016 meeting in Puerto Rico, a BASF executive expressed concerns to Monsanto that the “widespread” illegal spraying would likely become “rampant” due to the decision.
BASF also benefited from Monsanto’s decision. The company’s sales of older versions of dicamba spiked in 2016. Retailers sold $100 million worth of its older versions of the weed killer, compared to about $60 million annually in 2014 and 2015, according to internal documents. BASF documents indicated the sales increased
because of dicamba-tolerant seeds.
In the summer of 2016, BASF sales representatives in the field were reporting older versions of dicamba causing damage, hinting the problem was predictable.
“The one thing most acres of beans have in common is dicamba damage. There must be a huge cloud of dicamba blanketing the Missouri Bootheel,” a BASF employee wrote in a July 4, 2016, report. “That ticking time bomb finally exploded.”
Drift expected to drive sales
Dicamba drift led to widespread news coverage. Monsanto and BASF expected to turn it all into more money.
In an internal document, Monsanto told its sales teams to target growers that weren’t interested in dicamba and dicamba-resistant crops. The sales pitch? Purchasing Monsanto’s products would protect them from their neighbors.
In April 2017, a market research document prepared by Bank of America found many farmers were doing just that.
“Interesting assessment that much of the Xtend acreage was planted to protect themselves from neighbors who might be using dicamba? Gotta admit I would not have expected this in a market research document,” a Monsanto executive wrote.
In internal slides from a September 2016 meeting, BASF identified “defensive planting” as a
potential market opportunity. BASF also had a market research document
that found defensive planting was driving sales.
However, a “tough questions” memo distributed to BASF employees in November 2017 told employees the opposite: “We have not considered ‘defensive planting’ in our sales projections.”
Even as thousands of farms across millions of acres of cropland were being damaged, Monsanto officials were touting the damage as a sales opportunity.
“I think we can significantly grow business and have a positive effect on the outcome of 2017 if we reach out to all the driftee people,” another Monsanto sales employee wrote in an email that year.
One of those customers was Bill Bader, the peach farmer who sued Monsanto for destroying his orchard. Bader testified that while he could not protect his peach trees, in 2019 he planted dicamba-tolerant soybeans to help protect his soybean crops from getting damaged.
“This is the first product in American history that literally destroys the competition,” Bader’s attorney, Billy Randles, said. “You buy it or else.”
Research designed to downplay harm
For years, the EPA told Monsanto it needed to address volatility in its dicamba studies when applying for regulatory approval. But the tests Monsanto conducted did not reflect real-world conditions.
Dicamba would primarily be sprayed on soybeans, but 2015 studies submitted to the EPA were conducted at a cotton field in Texas and a dirt field in Georgia. Neither state has a large amount of soybeans. This guidance followed directives from Monsanto lobbyists that incorporated earlier Monsanto research
showing that higher volatility was detected on fields with soybeans.
In addition, Monsanto did not follow the rules that would eventually be codified on the label.
During the testing in Texas, wind speeds were 1.9 to 4.9 miles per hour. In Georgia, wind speeds were 1.5 to 3 miles per hour. According to the label the EPA approved, dicamba can only be sprayed with wind speeds between 3 and 10 miles per hour. Spraying at low wind speeds is more likely to lead to volatilization because there is increased risk of a temperature inversion, which is when cooler air is caught beneath a layer of warmer air making gases more likely to persist near the ground.
After Monsanto submitted the tests to the EPA, the company still had a lot of unknowns about its product’s volatility, according to internal emails.
A Monsanto researcher wrote an email in February 2016 to his coworkers that underscored how little the company knew about the propensity of dicamba to damage crops.
“We don’t know how long a sensitive plant needs in a natural setting to show volatility damage. We don’t know what concentration in the air causes a response, either,” he wrote. “There is a big difference for plants exposed to dicamba vapor for 24 vs. 48 hours. Be careful using this externally.”
Despite the design of the studies, and the EPA’s own studies that showed dicamba posed a risk to 322 protected species of animals and plants, the agency conditionally approved the herbicide in 2016. The agency determined that mitigation measures — such as not spraying near specialty crops and endangered species habitats, wind speed restrictions, and a ban on aerial applications — would keep spray droplets on target.
It was only approved for two years, when the agency would review its approval again.
After the conditional approval, BASF knew dicamba still posed risks. While BASF told farmers dicamba drift wouldn’t hurt their bottom lines, the company privately told pesticide applicators
that any drift they caused could decrease farmers’ harvests, according to internal BASF documents. A BASF executive said “from a practical standpoint” Engenia was not different
from older dicamba versions.
Even Monsanto’s sales teams were having problems with dicamba’s reputation after the EPA approved the weed killer.
In an internal email, a Monsanto salesman took issue with BASF changing how it publicly discussed its dicamba product: It used to say volatility was not a problem, but now it said it was. Another chemical company saying volatility was bad could hurt Monsanto’s sales.
“We need to get on this right now!” the salesman emailed his colleagues. “Deny! Deny! DENY!”
‘Never admit guilt’
In 2017, the first season that the new versions of dicamba were approved, damage reached unprecedented levels. Around 3.6 million acres of soybeans were damaged, according to an estimate from the University of Missouri.
In July of that year, Monsanto executives scheduled a meeting to discuss how to combat coverage of complaints.
“We need REAL scientific support for our product to counteract the supposition happening in the market today,” a Monsanto executive wrote in an email. “To be frank, dealers and growers are losing confidence in Xtendimax.”
In late summer 2017, Monsanto had started to blame damage on a BASF weed killer, which is used on the main competitor to Monsanto’s own soybeans. In December 2017, Monsanto agreed to drop that argument
as part of a defense strategy with BASF against farmers.
Both Monsanto and BASF took steps to shield themselves from lawsuits.
The form Monsanto told its investigators to use when examining farmer complaints was “developed to gather data that could defend Monsanto,” according to an internal company presentation. Later, Monsanto said that 91% of applicators using the form self-reported errors in spraying dicamba.
A BASF executive also edited his company’s drift investigation Q&A.
“I was always told to never admit guilt,” he said.
On top of the investigations, the label left pesticide applicators liable for damage because it was nearly impossible to follow. A 2017 survey of applicators
found that most trained sprayers had issues with dicamba even when spraying in good conditions and while following the label.
With damage being reported in 2017, Monsanto also declined to pursue a study that would have given the company more information about how dicamba caused damage on real farms. A Monsanto off-target movement researcher sent a request for a project proposal to Exponent, which helped analyze the data Monsanto submitted to the EPA. The study could be done in less than two weeks and cost $6,000.
The researcher forwarded the proposal to two Monsanto executives.
The company never acted on it, one testified in the trial.
‘The problems have not gone away’
In order to combat the damage, the EPA developed new restrictions on dicamba. In doing so, the EPA dropped an idea that Monsanto opposed, and Monsanto dictated the new restrictions that were adopted.
States also increasingly took measures into their own hands, implementing spraying cut-off dates and temperature restrictions.
Aaron Hager, an associate professor of weed science at the University of Illinois, said it is clear the changes haven’t worked.
“We have revised the label and revised it again,” Hager said. “The problems have not gone away.”
The EPA’s decision was eventually voided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for failing to properly consider the impacts on farmers and the environment. The court ruled the agency gave too much deference to Bayer and also was lacking necessary data to show too much harm wouldn’t be done.
Dicamba was recently reapproved, and Bayer continues to invest in it. The company will release new soybean seeds designed to be resistant to dicamba and glufosinate, another BASF herbicide, to fill 20 million acres in 2021. The company also continues to work toward approval of other seeds that are resistant to dicamba and other herbicides.
Glazik, the organic Illinois soybean farmer, works as a crops consultant advising other farmers on what to plant. As the damage has continued, he said, more and more of his clients are “feeling bullied into” buying the dicamba-tolerant crops. Others tell him, they have to spray dicamba or else they can’t control the weeds.
But as an organic farmer, Glazik said, no single herbicide is necessary. Instead, farmers have a choice. Well-managed fields can be weed-free without using toxic chemicals, he said.
“You don’t have to have the dicamba spray to control weeds in a field,” he said.
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On November 26, the biggest one-day general strike in the world happened in India where over 200 million workers paralyzed the country and refused to work. Supported by 10 central trade unions and over 250 farmers organizations, the strike led to a near total shutdown in multiple Indian states.
The strike was bolstered by mass actions taken by farmers across the country, 300,000 of whom marched on New Delhi and shut down the streets, fighting for the repeal of three pro-corporate farming bills that passed Parliament earlier this fall.
Tomorrow, Tuesday December 8, Indian farmers plan to strike again. Since November 26, thousands of farmers have occupied several critical borders of Delhi, refusing to leave until the government repeals the three new laws. After the failure of the fifth round of talks, farmers unions have put out a call to shut down the country and escalate the pressure on Delhi. This upcoming strike has been supported by a coalition of opposition parties, ranging from the Congress to Aam Aadmi Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, all who see BJP as a threat to their own power. The Left Front, which controls some of the biggest trade unions, has also announced their support for the strike and will be holding demonstrations tomorrow. While the strike will be large, it is limited to farmers unions and a few other sectors and participation is not expected to be as high as it was on November 26th.
The strike has also been endorsed by the ten largest trade unions in the country. Workers in commercial transportation and banking have announced work stoppages and solidarity actions. Public transportation in Delhi, where much of the fire is currently being concentrated, is also likely to take a hit as a sector of transit workers have announced that they’re going on strike.
In order for farmers and workers to win their demands and deal an effective blow to the Modi government, it is essential that the working class enter the scene more actively and force an indefinite strike. Organized workers in strategic sectors, such as transportation, mining, banking, etc., need to once again go on a coordinated strike, bringing the whole country to a standstill. Worker demands including halting the privatization of public services, a more coherent Covid-19 response, and stimulus money and free meals for needy families across the country need to be met. As Modi ramps up nationalist rhetoric and turns a blind eye to violence against minorities — in effect condoning it — while continuing to openly support the interest of capitalists, Indian workers must fight, knowing that the state is not on their side and the only way to affect change is to shut the economy down.
Over the last two weeks, farmers have continued their pressure on the Modi government, refusing to concede their demands as they occupy key borders and roads leading up to the country’s capital. They have refused to accept the empty words offered by Modi and his cronies, and have pledged to continue this pressure until the government rolls back the new agricultural laws. To escalate this pressure, to win the demands not only of the farmers, but much needed relief for all the working and toiling masses, it is imperative that the working masses actively enter the scene with their tools of strikes and pickets and push for an indefinite general strike. Workers need to go beyond the Stalinist trade union leaderships, who continue to act as a conservative force and call for single-day strikes so workers can let off steam, but are unable to force the hand of the state and score real victories.
The current protests by farmers against the Modi regime have been one of the most powerful movements against the Modi regime. The strike on December 8 is the second general strike in India in two weeks, indicating a movement among the worker and peasant masses of a break with the Modi regime. To not only deal it a definitive blow, but also realise their own power, it is imperative that workers and peasants fight together, using the advantages of their strategic position.
Researchers warn land inequality is rising with farmland increasingly dominated by a few major companies
One per cent of the world’s farms operate 70% of crop fields, ranches and orchards, according to a report that highlights the impact of land inequality on the climate and nature crises.
Since the 1980s, researchers found control over the land has become far more concentrated both directly through ownership and indirectly through contract farming, which results in more destructive monocultures and fewer carefully tended smallholdings.
In response to the industrial, capitalist model of food production that has decimated rural lifeways and our mother earth, social movements around the world have identified agroecology as their alternative proposal for rural development. Grounded in peasant and indigenous knowledges, struggles for food sovereignty and agrarian reform, agroecology is understood by social movements as “a tool for the social, economic, cultural, political and ecological transformation of communities and territories.”
This interview that Black Rose conducted in the Summer of 2020 with a militant from The Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro’s (FARJ) Peasant Struggle Front, explores their work with some of Brazil’s social movements struggling for agroecology and food sovereignty. Coming from a context with highly developed peasant social movements, FARJ shares important insights for anarchist militants to learn from.
BRRN: Can you first give an overview of the kind of social work that the militants of FARJ’s Peasant Struggle Front are involved in? What are the movements and organizations the FARJ’s militants participate in/collaborate with? Who are the protagonists of these movements & organizations?
FARJ: Initially the Front was called “Anarchism and Nature”. Some of the members were students from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Starting from a university agroecology group, the GAE (Ecological Agriculture Group), they sought to do social work in Agrarian Reform settlements in the state of Rio de Janeiro and with families of small farmers. And the space that articulated these activities was the Rio de Janeiro Agroecology Articulation.
Starting from this process and frequent contact in the settlements, the MST (The Landless Rural Workers Movement) got to know the working style of our militants, until one of them was invited to join the movement, contributing mainly to the processes of organizing cooperative work in the Baixada Fluminense region. One of the results of this work was the contribution to the organization of a sales and distribution cooperative for an MST settlement in the metropolitan region of the state of Rio, around 2008. As time went on, more militants joined the Front; some from rural areas, from the MST, or students in the field of agronomy.
Around 2012 the MPA (Small Farmers Movement) arrived in Rio, and we have militants from our front contributing also to the movement and its development in the state. We also have a comrade who works in the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).
Our work in rural movements and spaces is related to themes such as rural education, political training [formação1], communication, production, sales and distribution, and human rights. We always seek to maintain a link with the bases of the movements, even those militants who live in the state capital or in the city. We seek to contribute to the accumulated knowledge of FARJ and the historical experiences of organized anarchism in peasant struggles, with our concept of social work and militant style, pursuing the development of popular power. We stimulate the political participation and the protagonism of the grassroots in the processes of movements’ daily struggle. We also seek to encourage alliances and joint actions between rural and urban movements where we also operate or which we support, such as solidarity actions, actions for exchanging experiences between the movements’ bases, visits, and campaigns, among others that enable contacts between the bases.
Today we have militants in the MST, MPA and CPT. The protagonists are landless workers, small farmers, and quilombola [maroon descendant] communities. Many in the settlements, for example, come from the sugar cane industry, from work analogous to slavery, from slums, or were precarious workers. A good part of the movements’ bases are black folks, youth, and women.
BRRN: Can you talk about how you personally came to be involved in peasant movements and movements for food sovereignty & agroecology? Why do you think it is important for anarchists to be engaged in these struggles? What is the importance of these struggles in this moment of the global Covid-19 pandemic in particular?
FARJ: My militancy was in the Community Front, in the Base Organization Movement (MOB), which currently works in the Center of Social Culture and in the Morro dos Macacos community. Since 2013 I supported the MST with graphic design for the Cícero Guedes Agrarian Reform State Fair, a 3-day annual fair in the center of the city of Rio de Janeiro with the produce from the state, the southeastern region, and partners in the city and other movements. Around 2014, MPA and MST started a biweekly farmers market on the Praia Vermelha campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which I also support with communication and other activities. So from these relationships and contacts presented the possibilities of contributing from the capital, either with the tasks of communication and propaganda, or contributing to the organization of spaces for the sales and distribution of products of the movements in the city and always trying to maintain the connection with their bases.
MST members sell their products at a farmers market.
Historically, anarchism has been, and still is, present in peasant struggles: China, Ukraine, Spain, Perú and other examples. Anarchism must be a part of struggles from below, and wherever we have space to contribute with our proposals and build popular power. The agrarian, land (access to land and land concentration), peasant, indigenous, black, and quilombola questions are central in Latin america, in spite of the demographic concentration in big cities. In large part we are agricultural export countries, where natural resources are tremendously exploited by capital, who have a very strong base of people of indigenous, black, and peasant origin, with an extreme concentration of land in the hands of capitalists, latifundiários [large landowners], and foreigners. There are many conflicts in the rural areas, with assassinations of community leaders and militants, land grabs and evictions. Not to mention the issue of food sovereignty, of the production of food for the people in opposition to the agribusiness model that produces commodities for export. So the issue of land is very important in Brazil and throughout the continent, and from there we see the importance of us being inserted in those struggles as well. Understanding that while we have our own goals, the rural and urban struggles should be connected.
We also learn a lot in these mass movements, contributing to our political training as militants, particularly in base-building work. Be it in courses, materials and spaces for political training in movements, or in the day-to-day of grassroots work.
Currently, in the context of COVID-19, rural movements have a great importance for producing healthy foods for the population, and for leading on issues of environment, energy, and food sovereignty. There are analyses that point out a “pandemic” of a lack of food for the population. Many favelas already have people who are experiencing hunger. In response, there are many campaigns of solidarity and of distributing food boxes to residents of favelas and packed lunches for people living in the street. Unions and people are making donations for the purchase of these foods from rural movements and urban agriculture movements in the city of Rio. That is, the acts of solidarity have multiplied and are organized by the population and by social movements.
BRRN: What has been your experience as an anarchist participating in/collaborating with these movements? How do you push within these movements for more anti-authoritarian/anarchistic practices?
FARJ: We believe that the experience, here in Rio de Janeiro, provides an opportunity for us to have an influence. One aspect of the practical political training too, through participating in mass movements like these, is contributing to the organization of collective processes. There is contact with the people, with concrete realities and problems, and the need to think of ways to solve problems through organizing and base-building. There are also formal political training processes, such as national and local courses, visits to experiences in other states, and state and national encounters. Specific political trainings on certain issues or just in daily life, in contact with other militants and comrades.
A FARJ flag tied together with the flag of MST.
For example, because of the tasks and trainings of the social movements, I was able to learn about communication, and agroecological management and cooperatives, in addition to the debates around agrarian and food issues. We also bring these accumulated skills and knowledge to the political organization, in the sense that they characterize and contribute to the accumulation of political training that we have for our entire militancy. In other words, it is a two-way street, a dialectical process, adapting to the formation and interest of our organization. So it is important that it is not just an individual accumulation, but that it helps in some way in the formation of the entire militancy of the specific [anarchist] organization.
Here in the state of Rio, I believe that most of the common challenges to social movements, both in the rural areas and in the city, are due to the difficulty of base-building, often the need for more militants, the difficulty in obtaining resources and structure–organizational difficulties. There are also difficulties in achieving a more consolidated articulation between the various social movements, which end up being more sporadic or a part of campaigns. In the face of a reality of advancing ultraliberalism and the systematic extinction of social rights and policies, it is a permanent challenge to build processes that are able to self-manage and mobilize the people in communities and base-building locations. But in general, we seek to help organize what is disorganized, acting as yeast in mass struggles.
Members of FARJ and MOB in a mass demonstration.
BRRN: In the interview that FARJ did with Zabalaza, the Association of Autonomous Producers of the Countryside and the City (APAC) was mentioned. I’m very curious to know more about that organization, what they do, and how that association builds urban and rural solidarity around questions for food sovereignty and land?
FARJ: APAC played an important role in producing agricultural implements for small producers. Its origin came from CADTS, the Center for Learning and Technical and Social Development, a group linked to Social Pastorals who worked with the education of urban workers, politically training electricians, seamstresses, machinists, printers and other professions. This work strengthened their performance in the union and community fields. In order to strengthen solidarity between rural and urban workers, CADTS initiated a project to develop agricultural implements with technology built together with “tillers of the land”, an expression used at the time. In their visits to rural workers to gather information and design the implements, the CADTS students decided to structure this work to meet this demand that they had already met for several groups of farmers all over Brazil. Thus, APAC was born on the 1st of May, bringing together not only “metallurgists”, but also farmers, homemakers, unemployed people, popular educators, etc. with the organicity, inspired by self-management, of an association composed of several autonomous work groups that articulate themselves collectively in a general assembly. Over more than 30 years since its foundation, APAC has welcomed many groups of workers. We will mention just a few to illustrate its diversity:
- Multimetal: The manufacture of metal parts and equipment, from which various tools for the field were made. After a few years it was replaced by OPMAC, which refers to the word “field” [“campo”], these metal design services continued and over they time began to develop projects for urban workers such as wagons adapted for waste pickers for recycling, the manufacture of recycled brooms, etc.
- Arte Fuxico: Gathering artisans who reused leftover fabrics from the clothing industry and made customized pieces such as bags, rugs and tools in general.
- Community Pré-Vestibular prep courses: Popular education initiative that sought space at APAC to assemble a preparatory course for admission to universities. The nucleus of the APAC course lasted a few years and was part of a network of community courses from different regions.
- Auto Mechanics: Auto repair shop that brought together a master mechanic and their assistants. The group provided internal and external services to APAC and had a very important role in teaching the trade of mechanics and attendance at the association’s assemblies.
- Printer: A print shop that brought together workers mostly from CADTS backgrounds who developed graphic design projects and editions of numerous publications for social movements and various external services.
Our arrival at APAC was parallel to the founding of FARJ, and we have some militants who’ve had and have closer relations with them, either through collaborating on projects or some being part of the management of APAC. We’ve come to do a screen printing workshop there, political meetings, community work groups, political training lectures and popular language courses. We will highlight one of the most structured initiatives of our militancy, which was to organize the Floreal Cooperative of Workers in Agroecology, where we had great interaction with the internal groups of APAC, bringing agendas discussed with our work with the Forum of Popular Cooperativism, the Articulation of Agroecology of Rio de Janeiro and the Technical Assistance and Extension sectors. It was a period that encouraged APAC to contribute to issues of agrarian conjuncture, agroecology, urban agriculture, school gardens, popular herbalism groups, social ecology, rural/urban solidarity and food sovereignty and agrarian reform. This factor strengthened the relationship of our militants with the social movements in the countryside, such as the MST, CPT, and MPA, as well as for the use of space as a warehouse or for the manufacture of agricultural implements. But our experience with popular cooperatives opened doors for us to contribute to the construction of cooperatives and associations in the movements.
BRRN: Are you involved with the Territorial Solidarity Committees, organized by the MPA as a response to the current social crisis? Can you share a bit about this project?
FARJ: In this context of COVID-19, rural movements, such as MPA and MST, the CPT and urban agriculture groups such as the Carioca Urban Agriculture Network, and the Agroecology Articulation, have developed solidarity actions in the countryside and in the city.
MPA is with the Territorial Solidarity Committees. With the distribution of agroecological foods, creating spaces for dialogue and political debates, strengthening the organizational processes between the social and territorial movements of the countryside and the city. The actions can happen in different ways depending on the local reality and demands. The movement has continued providing material support in the city with weekly deliveries of peasant food boxes, and the donation of meals for homeless people.
The logo of MPA.
The MST has Marmita Solidária, which receives donations from unions and supporters to buy food to prepare meals for the homeless. And the Nós por Nós (“Us for Us”) Campaign, which is part of the Periferia Viva (“Alive Periphery”) Campaign, and which MPA and other movements also participate in. The campaign raises funds to buy agroecological produce from settlements and small farmers to donate to favelas, and together do support work, such as legal aid for those who do not have identity documents, or other actions in addition to just donating food.
For CAB (Brazilian Anarchist Coordination) we are organizing the Vida Digna (“Dignified Life”) national campaign, against the increase in the cost of living. There are state and local committees, and we managed to arrange a food donation from the MST for two occupations of the Internationalist Front of the Homeless. CPT also articulated a possibility of resourcing landless settlements and quilombola communities, among others, in the northern region of the state of Rio, together with MPA.
But across the country, several similar actions are taking place with our CAB militants involved, seeking to articulate solidarity actions between the countryside and the city, between small farmers and indigenous communities. Actions that bring supporters of the city that want to help. We hope that all this helps to bring the movements of the countryside and the city closer, in a more organic way, between the bases of these movements as well. Actions that make movements think together forms of everyday solidarity, without needing projects, politicians or public policies.
This pandemic meant that movements and collectives had to create other forms of distribution, other forms of logistics to continue with production and distribution of their products. And all of this may be important in the future, if the movements manage to define the right strategic policies, as we will have less and less public policies for the countryside by the State. On the contrary, attacks on indigenous people, peasants and land grabbing are only increasing.
BRRN: The MST is probably the most well-known of Brazil’s social movements globally; the organization and its impressive accomplishments in terms of seizing and redistributing land to thousands of families, promoting agroecology and food sovereignty, and its contribution to global peasant movements, has been a source of inspiration for revolutionaries around the world, including many anarchists. From afar, it seems like there are many aspects of the organization’s practices and tactics that align with anarchist principles. At the same time, there are characteristics of the MST, such as their Marxism-Leninism, and relationship to the PT, which might present challenges for anarchists who wish to support/participate/collaborate with the MST. I’d love to know what FARJ’s assessment is of the MST, the positive aspects of the movement, any critiques you have, and how you navigate working with the MST.
FARJ: In Brazil, the land issue, the concentration of land, is central. Today, we are a country that is still a peripheral agrarian-exporter of commodities, despite being seen by other world powers as a contender, a world player, due to the size and natural assets it has, such as water, oil, mineral resources, etc. Which is why we have attacks and coups, which are present throughout the history of Latin American countries. So Brazil has always had strong agrarian and land conflicts, several historical revolts, not to mention the quilombos, the rural workers, the indigenous people.
MST members on demonstration.
The MST, like other movements in the countryside, comes from this accumulation of struggles, conflicts and revolts. Before, one of the main movements was the Peasant Leagues (1954-1964). Over time, unions in the countryside that worked on these labor issues and for wage workers, employed on farms, etc., also appeared. With the coup and the business-military dictatorship (1964) the militants of the countryside also suffered a lot of repression, with more than a thousand dead and disappeared, and persecuting and repressing the Peasant Leagues.
Then there was the opening and conciliatory transition from dictatorship to democracy. Unlike countries like Argentina, the military in Brazil was not punished for the crimes of the dictatorship. At that time, several armed leftist resistance groups sought to resist the dictatorship. So the process that followed, in the 70-80s, also has the development and involvement of labor organizations, culminating in CUT (Unified Workers Central) (1983), progressive sectors of the church (CEBs (Eclesiastical Base Communities), Pastoral Land Commission and Liberation Theology), rural movements and the PT (Worker’s Party).
In the CUT there was the Rural Department, which brought together rural workers, with an agenda more related to labor rights. And the MST (and later MPA) also appeared to deal with agendas of rural demands from the countryside that were not only about labor conditions, but access to land, credit and public policies to produce and to continue reproducing their rural livelihoods. In other words, the CUT and the unions in the countryside did not cover all the peasant agendas.
The clergy and Liberation Theology had an important role together with the movements of the countryside, doing groundwork in the communities, mobilizing the people and contributing to the social movements that came to occupy the land.
This was the big political “broth” with a social base, which we address here in a very general way. And all this broth and struggles were being accumulated in the so-called Popular Democratic Project, with the PT as its political party expression. In other words, some of these major mass movements in Brazil have a very strong historical relationship with the PT. With the arrival of the PT in the government, the movements were also incorporating a political culture of being part of the state, of bureaucratizing themselves as well. This had as a consequence a great weakening of the movements, mainly today, with difficulties to mobilize the masses and to face the attacks of the fascist-oriented Bolsonaro government.
In addition, the main organizational reference of these movements is Marxism-Leninism and democratic centralism, even though sometimes the movements themselves recognize the need to seek other elements that better deal with the reality of the peasantry and the subjects of the countryside. So if the mechanisms of political participation are worked on, there are risks of falling into distant relations between the bases and the leadership of these movements. That is, the need for spaces that enable qualitative political participation from the grassroots, reflecting on the work in which they are inserted, forming themselves, leading the processes and contributing, from their reality, with the direction of the movement. It also avoids the risks of falling into pragmatism, or the so-called “putting out fires” daily, which accumulates little politically and socially, even if a lot is being done.
In our anarchist conception, we believe that the subject of social transformation is not given, but is formed in everyday work and struggle, and popular power is built with the subjects’ political participation, assuming responsibilities and protagonism in the struggles. Therefore, the organizational form needs to be aligned with a transformative ideological concept, so that it allows the advance of non-alienating organizational forms.
Therefore, we also seek to bring and project other historical experiences of struggle and organization of the working class, of the peasantry, of the originary communities. We have examples like the Mexican Revolution (1910), and the later Zapatista movement in Mexico. The struggle of the Makhnovist army in Ukraine, in the process of the Russian Revolution, processes with indigenous and peasant protagonism in the expropriation of land and social organization. The collectivization and organization of production and social processes in the Spanish Civil War, in the countryside and in the city, with the example of the CNT. Like Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, with the organization, self-defense, territorial and labor and production management in a collective and direct way. Current community experiences in Colombia with the concept of land as a common good, and demanding the permanence and reproduction of forms of community life in the territories. In short, there are various experiences, some known to the movements, in addition to other references that they also seek, and that we examine to study and identify elements that can contribute to our processes here.
Therefore, anarchism also needs to develop concrete tools for intervention in reality, for mobilizing and managing life in its different aspects, social, cultural, productive, economic. In other words, we also need to develop proposals to organize the countryside and to address these issues.
BRRN: Struggles for food sovereignty, agroecology, and agrarian reform raise some really critical questions for anarchists, particularly because many of the movements and academics that dominate the discourse don’t share our critiques of the state, electoralism, etc., and often see nation-state as the vehicle for achieving food sovereignty, agrarian reform, etc. I haven’t come across many contemporary anarchist perspectives on food sovereignty, agroecology, and agrarian reform, and I’m very curious to know about your reflections as an anarchist participating in these movements in Brazil, and how yourself and other FARJ militants in the Frente de Luta Camponesa think about food sovereignty and agrarian reform from an anarchist perspective—can we articulate a particular anarchist perspective on how to achieve and sustain food sovereignty and agrarian reform that is distinct from the perspectives of Marxist-Leninist, social democratic and liberal currents within social movements?
FARJ: We are starting to have this debate currently at CAB, in the Agrarian Working Group, among militants who work with rural movements, with indigenous, non-urban communities. With other movements like the MAM (Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining) and it has a little to do with the previous question. In other words, what are the concrete proposals of anarchism for reality? What is our anarchist program of struggle?
So we are beginning to discuss which concepts are important and central to us. Such as Food Sovereignty, agrarian reform or revolution, natural and energy resources. Bem viver (“living well”), as opposed to the logic of development, among others.
For us, these issues need to be related to popular demands, to popular reality. For us, agroecology must be a tool and principle to strengthen the struggle and organization of rural peoples and communities. In other words, we will also seek to apply these concepts and questions as references, within our anarchist conception, based on popular reality, to strengthen our work of base-building and building popular power.
Some of these concepts are also worked on by the rural social movements such as food sovereignty, agroecology, feminism. But it is clear that we need to develop our conceptions about them as well. But we can say, in general, that the left often has a reading of reality that is very urban, valuing questions around trade unions and urban issues more, reproducing this centrality in the urban. And anarchism is not free from reproducing some of that, too.
BRRN: Needless to say, the historical processes of colonialism and capitalist development around the world have left a mess of contradictions for different oppressed classes and communities to navigate when it comes to the questions of land. Here in the US, because social movements are so weak, the discourse and struggles around land and land reform don’t seem to be as advanced when compared to the Brazilian context. One critical question here in the US & Canada—two european settler colonial projects situated on stolen indigenous territories—is how different oppressed populations in struggle around questions of land—indigenous peoples, people of African descent, small farmers, migrant farm workers, etc. can be in solidarity with one another as opposed to being pitted against one another by the contradictions created by the systems of settler colonialism and capitalism. I’m very curious to know where the discourse around these complicated questions are among the social movements you work with, and what your perspectives are on them, as anarchists? In Rio de Janeiro, are there promising signs of solidarity between indigenous people, quilombola communities, peasant farmers and farm workers? Can you recommend some good sources for folks who would like to learn more about these questions and struggles?
FARJ: Similar territorial issues also occur here, I believe also to be the consequences of the historical processes of colonialism, structural slavery and patriarchy and the other oppressions enhanced by capitalism.
Brazil, being a country of continental dimensions, poses several challenges. For example, there is a reality, a relationship with the land and culture of settlers in the south of the country, and there is another one of the indigenous communities and other subjects in the north of the country. This already poses several questions for the fight and the movements as well. For example, the issue of working with the idea of the peasant subject, in the face of these diversities. It also involves knowing and knowing how to understand other organizational forms, which may be different from the organizational forms that the traditional left reproduces.
On the other hand, Brazil has this great potential for struggle and for people and subjects in the countryside. Almost 40% of the land in the country is land reform settlements, indigenous lands (recognized or not), quilombos, peasant communities. The powerful know of this potential and are afraid. That is why they invest in repression and the dismantling of social rights, land grabbing, paramilitary violence, etc.
It is a social diversity that is a reality in Latin America. The strength of the indigenous people in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia. The Mapuche in Argentina and Chile. Colombia is also a very rich and interesting country, with Afro-Colombian communities, various indigenous ethnicities, peasants. There is the CNA (National Agrarian Coordinator), a significant peasant movement in the country, there is a very interesting debate on “agri-food territory”, for example.
In Rio the MPA has been making contacts and working with some quilombola communities, and now indigenous communities. In the capital there is the struggle of Aldeia Maracanã, which mobilized enough supporters against the speculation and gentrification that the Olympics mega-event blew open. There are many possibilities for dialogue between quilombos, indigenous villages, favelas, rural and city movements and we can go further. Actions such as community gardens, urban agriculture, are also interesting possibilities for the food sovereignty of favela dwellers, and possibilities for dialogue with rural movements. The organization of consumer collectives in cities, organizing themselves for access to and distribution of healthy food in the countryside. Collective investment groups of supporters, enabling rural production. Supportive relationships between different sectors of the working class, deliverers, education workers, students. The possibilities of organizing from below are many.
A few websites for reference and more information:
Virtual Library of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) – www.reformaagrariaemdados.org.br/biblioteca
Movement of Small Farmers (MPA) – www.mpabrasil.org.br
Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (MAM) – http://mamnacional.org.br/
National Agrarian Coordinator (Colombia) – www.cna-colombia.org
Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) – cptnacional.org.br
Rio Grande do Sul Quilombola Front – www.facebook.com/FrenteQuilombolaRs
Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon – www.facebook.com/coiabamazoniaoficial
Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) – www.facebook.com/apiboficial
Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of the Southern Region – www.facebook.com/ARPINSULBRASIL
Mídia India – www.facebook.com/VozDosPovos
Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) – www.facebook.com/conselhoindigena.cir
Articulation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo (APOINME) – www.facebook.com/apoinme.brasil
People’s Web (Teia dos Povos) – www.facebook.com/TeiadosPovosoficial
BRRN: Anything else you’d like to share?
FARJ: We would like to thank the space and the opportunity to share the experiences and work here. There are other comrades organized at CAB who can also contribute with their experiences from their states and our work also has contributions from them. We hope to have contributed to Black Rose, and to help more people know a little more about the struggles in Brazil and on our continent. We also hope to have more opportunities for exchanges like this one with our comrades from BR, who also inspire us. Spaces like this are essential. Arriba lxs que luchan!!!
1. There is no direct translation of the term formação, as it is used by the social movements, in English. In this interview I’ve translated it as “political training”, though it can be more accurately understood as the collective processes within social movements that include “consciousness-raising work, political education, and leadership development.” For more discussion of the concept and practice of formação, see “Leadership development and Formação in Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST)” by Dawn Plummer
This interview was conducted by a member of Black Rose Anarchist Federation’s New York City Local.
At a campaign rally at an airport in Wisconsin on September 17, President Trump announced a second round of COVID-related relief payments for farmers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2). For the first time, producers of commodities, including wine grapes, goats and hemp, have become eligible for payments, which are expected to total $13 billion.
But many farmers say stopgap payments like this are a far cry from what they need to navigate intersecting crises, including the corporate consolidation of farms and the climate crisis, which have shaken the foundations of the brittle farm economy. Only farmers who derive 75 percent of their total income from farming are eligible for CFAP 2 assistance. Yet most farmers rely on off-farm jobs to supplement on-farm income, according to the family farm advocacy network Farm Aid. In 2018, median on-farm net income was actually negative: -$1,735.
Though it has not become a major election issue, U.S. farmers say a crisis of farm profitability and increase in food scarcity may be looming, short of major changes in the industrial agriculture system.
In 2009, when milk prices fell to a six-year low, then-dairy farmer Rob Bass made the difficult decision to sell all 1,000 of his cows. Bass and his family had run out of credit, and he was losing money producing milk. Their farm, in northeast Connecticut, had been in the Bass family since 1710.
Bass decided to transition the farm to growing corn and hay, which he calculated might deliver a more stable income. He did well the first few years as corn prices climbed, reaching an all-time high of $8.02 a bushel in August of 2012. But prices have been on the decline since the fall of 2012, due to corn stockpiling. A deadly disease impacting young pigs and drought in the Great Plains affecting beef cattle led to lower demand for corn feed. Bass has struggled to make ends meet. As his sister, Jenni Bass tells Truthout, while the family farm used to have a lengthy payroll, they no longer employ anyone, nor are they able to pay themselves. All income goes toward the family farm mortgage and paying property taxes. “Our margins are so small, so narrow,” Bass said.
According to a 2012 article in Nature, climate change is a major driver of corn price variability. Summer 2020 was the hottest on record in Connecticut, where the Bass family farm is located. Worldwide, the last six years have been the hottest ever recorded.
Farmers like Bass recognize that agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, on account of widespread practices that deplete the soil of nutrients, causing it to leak greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and produce runoff that spurs algal blooms. Agriculture comprises 10 percent of U.S. emissions, according to government reports.
U.S. farmers say a crisis of farm profitability and increase in food scarcity may be looming, short of major changes in the industrial agriculture system.
But Bass says he’s stuck in the current system, planting genetically modified seeds, and spraying the matching herbicide. It’s expensive and makes for a less biodiverse farm, but it also requires less labor to keep weeds at bay.
“We’d love to go organic, but it would take three years to get certified,” he says, and it’s unclear what would pay the bills in the meantime.
Trapped in a Cycle of Personal and Ecological Risks
Farmer Mary Agnes Rawlings and her husband have been trying to break out of the industrial agriculture “trap” since returning to her husband’s family farm around two decades ago. One hundred ten acres of the 154-acre central Illinois farm are now organic row crops, with the help, in part, of USDA grants. On August 10, 2020, the Trump administration announced it would be reducing the amount the government reimburses farmers as part of the program to 50 percent, or $500 per project, due to “limited funding.”
“It hurts,” Rawlings said, “when farmers are already struggling with $3 dollars a bushel corn,” she says, noting that at those prices, farmers are losing fifty cents per bushel of corn they produce.
The alternative to organic, Rawlings points out, is using GMO seeds, but foods grown with them have been linked to a decline in kidney and liver function in animal studies. Putting themselves at risk takes a psychological toll, she says. Rawlings suspects her father, who worked on the family farm until he died of colon cancer, may have gotten sick because of chemicals the USDA continues to allow, like glyphosate, the synthetic herbicide under trademark by Monsanto. In spite of studies providing evidence that associates glyphosate with increased cancer risk, in January 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency announced there were “no risks of concern to human health” related to the chemical.
“There’s so many issues I don’t even know where to turn,” Rawlings told Truthout. But amid all her concerns, climate tops her list of agricultural issues, she says.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to take donations from powerful corporations that form the backbone of the industrial agriculture system, like Bayer and Monsanto, thereby incentivizing their support of the broken agriculture system. Meanwhile farmers are trapped in a cycle of responding to the effects of climate change with solutions that further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, rather than transitioning to diversified farming operations that could produce more high quality food and mitigate emissions fueling the climate crisis.
Losing the Ability to Feed Ourselves
In the United States, as with many parts of the world, food deserts are increasingly common. But at the global level, The New York Times has reported, 100 million more people will be at acute risk of experiencing hunger above 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, due to crop loss caused by extreme weather and a shortage of pollinators, for instance.
“You’re sort of reaching a breaking point with land itself and its ability to grow food and sustain us,” senior policy adviser on climate change at Oxfam America, Aditi Sen, told The New York Times.
While the United States has historically positioned itself to provide aid to other countries, policy experts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest the U.S. must urgently look inward to address its own climate-related food security issues.
Twelve percent of the U.S. experiences food insecurity, in comparison with 6.9 percent of the population across Asia and 9.8 percent across Latin America. A 2019 brief points out that while regenerative agricultural practices like cover cropping are on the upswing, that’s only the case on a small percentage of land. The brief notes that universities might devote more resources toward climate solutions in agriculture. But academics aiming to do just that have struggled to circulate their work amid the Trump administration.
A 2019 investigation by Politico revealed that the USDA refused to publicize at least 45 government-sponsored studies detailing how U.S. agricultural operations have been and will continue to be impacted by climate change. One explains how cattle farmers in the Southern Plains might be impacted by waning water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer. Another study outlines practices that could help farmers in the Southern Mississippi Delta become more climate resilient.
As small agricultural operations throughout the U.S. attempt to adapt to more variable weather patterns, farmers like Michigan organic orchardist Tom Rosenfeld regularly consider calling it quits. Rosenfeld has lost full crops of apples to pests that are new to the area on account of the changing climate. Like many farmers, Rosenfeld supplements his farm income with other jobs. “I would have expected that by now I would have unlocked the key to a sustainable income,” he says, reflecting on when he purchased his orchard fifteen years ago.
Between 2011 and 2018, the number of farms in the U.S. has declined by almost 5 percent as farmers face similar challenges, while the average farm size has increased. With conditions for farmers as they are, Rosenfeld worries there might soon be a shortage of farmers who produce “specialty crops,” — the term the USDA has developed to refer to fruits, vegetables and other crops intended for human consumption rather than animal feed or biofuel. Amid the current agricultural system, only 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow food, while 59 percent of land is used to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans.
The “Trump bump” in farm income … is set to drop precipitously by 17 percent in 2021.
Jenni Bass, the Connecticut farmer, never thought she and her brother would still have a mortgage on their family farm 300 years after its founding. But expenses keep mounting. A few years ago, the Bass family decided to transition 20 of its 1,100 acres to non-GMO wheat. But a deal fell through with a local baker. Now they have to figure out how to clean it themselves. She estimates the machine they need would cost $35,000.
“People don’t really understand a farmer’s reality, the kind of bills that it takes to run a farm,” Bass says, noting that she is hopeful about the Farm System Reform Act of 2020. The proposed legislation, which is currently before both houses of Congress, would incentivize climate-minded agricultural practices and prevent the further consolidation of agribusiness.
At 63, a pre-existing health condition puts Rob Bass at severe risk if he contracts COVID-19. But given his farm income, which doesn’t stretch much further than covering property taxes and the ongoing family farm mortgage, Bass has decided to return to his side job of driving a school van in the mornings and afternoons, because he’ll get health insurance.
With only weeks to go until the election, Jenni Bass says she hopes voters see through what she describes as Trump’s empty attempts to appeal to farmers by invoking the U.S. farm imaginary, while simultaneously proposing billions of dollars in cuts to rural housing and utility programs.
As Successful Farming reports, the “Trump bump” in farm income from programs like CFAP is set to drop precipitously, by 17 percent in 2021. “I just wish politicians actually thought about farm policy in a real way,” Bass says. “In a loving way, not just a bureaucratic way.”