Soybean Imports to China Photo Source: Morning Whistle

In a recent article published in the Journal of Peasant Studies, a perceptive analysis by the Sociologist Michael Levien looks at the effect on rural farmers in Rajasthan whose land was taken for an SEZ (Special Economic Zone). What is clearly shown is that the vast number of villagers who were either small or medium size farmers or landless laborers, ended up with poorer diets than they had when they were farming in their villages. Only the large farmers, or those medium sized ones with contacts with the business community, were able to in any way improve their lives in terms of their household’s food intake. It is in this connection that we are studying what has been happening in China, and what India can learn to protect itself and its people, especially the poorer people.

A recent report from GRAIN describes an alarming change of policy in China that has enormous consequences for the livelihood of China’s small to medium size farmers and agricultural labors and for the health and wellbeing of rural and urban populations.

The change comes with the rising consumption of meat in China and the subsequent devotion of resources to supply the growing meat industries. China began importing soybeans in 1990 for animal feed and biofuels, and has since then bought 30 million hectares of land in Latin America to feed China’s growing demand for soybeans. The imported soybeans are sold to Chinese consumers at far cheaper prices that domestic soybeans, and, as a result, the area planted with soybeans in China decreased by 20 percent, and Chinese small farmers were hurt.

Agribusiness corporations have grown from the profits generated through overseas production; it is largely agribusiness corporations that own the land bought in Latin America. Agribusiness ventures such as these are immensely profitable, especially during periods of crisis such as this one when more of the world’s poor are hungry than ever before. The profits of agribusiness corporation Cargill for the months of June, July, and August are 4 times greater this year than last year; at the same time, global food prices are up 6 percent, threatening the food security of nations in the Global South (Grain). Corporate farmers reap the profits of global suffering.

The report also demonstrates that changes in China’s diet resulting from destroyed farming communities, rural-to-urban migration, and restriction of agricultural crops to those that are profitable to agribusiness has had negative consequences on the health and well-being of Chinese people, rural and urban. China’s urban middle classes are spending more of their income on meat, and rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancers are skyrocketing. Factory produced meat and milk recently led to corruption scandals and recalls of chemically loaded meat.

Just as importantly, these changes lead to the destruction of rural communities, livelihoods, and food systems in China and Latin America. Small farmers, wholesalers, hawkers, and retailers do not have access to the supply chains of large corporate agribusiness corporations; they are purposefully excluded and forced to migrate off of their land. Since the Green Revolution spread across Asia after WWII, agribusinesses began developing products that restrict others from the food system. Hybrid and Genetically Modified seeds require investments in fertilizers, transportation, irrigation, pesticides and other chemicals (all produced by the same corporations). Supermarket retailers, the preferred distribution point for global agribusiness, require spot-free, colorful produce that looks good on the supermarket shelf. As countries in the global south liberalize their food production and retail markets (Wal-mart in South Asia), corporate agribusiness tightens its stranglehold over every level of food supply chains; food systems are integrated vertically when social justice, democracy requires, and food security require that they be horizontally organized.

“The main story in agriculture over the past twenty years has been the rise of agribusiness. If humanity is going to survive with any dignity on this planet, the next twenty years need to see its decline” –GRAIN

What can small farmers, retailers, and activists in India and the US do to put this knowledge into action and to prevent the mistakes made in China from being repeated elsewhere? Post a comment