Synthesis/Regeneration 12   (Winter 1997)

Toxic Challenge

Food Security Is Threatened, North and South

Anna Gyorgy interviews Maria Mies

Globalization. World-wide, national governments are playing less of a role in defining the economic realities of their citizens. Already transnational corporations (TNCs) control more than 70% of world trade and dominate the production, distribution and sale of many goods from developing countries. Corporate control of our lives comes right down to the family's kitchen table. With domestic markets forced open, governments cannot prevent food imports, even if imported products are inferior.

In Europe a big issue is the import of foods that have been genetically altered such as the import of American soybeans into the European Union (EU). Some of these beans are from seed genetically altered to produce plants resistant to the herbicide "Roundup," produced by Monsanto (as are seed soybeans). No one really knows what the results will be for consumers of this new soybean. But many people know they do not want to eat food from the gene lab. In Germany, 80% of consumers refuse to eat gene-engineered food, and Greenpeace has started a boycott campaign against soy products from the US because the genetically altered crop is not labeled.

This issue is one of many addressed in the following interview with leading European feminist scholar Maria Mies. Dr. Mies grew up on a farm in rural western Germany, became a teacher and went on to study anthropology and sociology. She lived and worked for many years in India and did research on problems faced by rural and urban women there. She has written six books and many articles and papers on issues concerning women, ecology and development and is an active critic of genetic and reproductive technologies. Now retired, she was a professor of sociology at Fachhochschule, Germany, and initiated the "Women and Development" program at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands. Her most recent book, Ecofeminism (Zed Press, 1993) was written with Indian physicist and ecological activist Vandana Shiva. In this interview at her home in Cologne in August 1996, Dr. Mies talks about the problems that both producers (farmers) and consumers in the South and the North face as the world's food production becomes increasingly controlled and directed by major international corporations.

    --Anna Gyorgy, Seoul, October 1996

Anna: There was a meeting in Leipzig, Germany in June 1996 to prepare for the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) "World Food Summit" in Rome in mid-November. Can you tell us what went on in Leipzig and your concerns about the direction of the Summit?

The industrialized countries. . . want to get control of our food production as such, but in order to do so, they also have to get control of seeds and seed markets and in practice control of all plant and animal genes.

Maria: The meeting in Leipzig on plant genetic resources was organized by the FAO, and the main point of the meeting was really about control of the world's plant genetic resources. Should these be controlled by multinational corporations, or stay in the hands of small farmers and indigenous communities? The controversy at this Leipzig meeting was around the Charter on Farmers' Rights, which the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used to try to keep control over seeds in the hands of farmers and local communities. The representatives of the United States argued for the rights of multinational corporations, and in the end it seems that the American lobby won, supported by the Europeans. The Europeans, and the Germans particularly, were very weak.

Various Third World people, the NGO representatives, and those from a number of Third World governments were against this policy. So it is the same old picture again. The industrialized countries that favor industrialized agriculture and global marketing of food want to get control of our food production as such, but in order to do so, they also have to get control of seeds and seed markets and in practice control of all plant and animal genes. If this policy succeeds, individual farmers, small farmers, will in the future no longer have control over the regeneration of their own seeds. A few big agri-business corporations will have the whole seed sector in their hands. And to a large extent companies like Cargill already do.

What was discussed at Leipzig will most likely be endorsed in Rome in November. That means further globalization, "corporatization" and liberalization of the whole seed sector and of all genetic resources in the world.

Anna: Where does the UN stand on this?

Maria: The FAO still tries to protect the farmers and food security, to some extent, but has no power of its own. The World Bank and the new World Trade Organization (WTO) are all behind the globalization and liberalization of trade and tariffs in a global market that now also includes agricultural products. The World Bank is dominated by the interests of the big multinational corporations. Although I believe that there is no uniform UN stand on this, I think the dominant interests economically are also the dominant interests in the UN.

Anna: You mentioned what this process means for farmers, namely a dependence on multinational corporations. They have to become customers of these big corporations, which their own governments cannot control. And they cannot even plant their own seeds once they switch to commercial hybridized brands.

Maria: Yes, I think this is precisely the whole threat of this globalization of trade, particularly in food. Because the big multinational corporations cannot be controlled by any national government now. The GATT agreement, which is now the WTO, liberalized trade in agriculture and food for all the nations which have signed these contracts. [GATT refers to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, which, since its last round of negotiations, known as the "Uruguay Round," has also included agricultural products. In January 1995, the GATT was integrated into the new World Trade Organization (WTO).] Now national governments can no longer even attempt to protect either their small farmers, for instance against food dumping from the US or from Europe (i.e., selling excess crops at below production prices, thus driving local farmers out of their own markets). That is how a number of agricultural economies and local farmers have been ruined in Africa, in India and other parts of the world. Another thing is that these multinational corporations can now go to these countries and directly invest there, even in the agricultural sector.

One example of this is in India, where Pepsi has established outlets, and where Kentucky Fried Chicken is trying to establish its chain. Pepsi has done one thing that is particularly telling, which shows how this policy works. It is the case of what is called Bikaneri bhudjia. This is a small snack produced by women in the desert area of Rajasthan using locally grown millet, oils and lentils. Otherwise not much grows there. It was a productive cottage industry developed around making and selling this snack, supporting hundreds of thousands of women, and also the small traders who sold this snack. It was a very well-integrated local food economy famous because it was local, had a tradition, and used local plants.

But now Pepsi has simply robbed the knowledge to make these Bikaneri bhudjias, this snack. They have not paid for any rights or patent fees to the people who made it traditionally. They produce it on a high-tech basis, and sell it at a lower price to the people. In one stroke they have ruined hundreds of thousands of women who had this income. And the Indian government has no right to say "no" to this kind of piracy, because to do so they would violate the laws of the WTO.

It is not just that large corporations control from outside, or take things out, but they also invest in these countries, even in the poor countries, bringing in their own capital and ruining whatever there is of local food security. . .

So this is what is happening. It is not just that large corporations control from outside, or take things out, but they also invest in these countries, even in the poor countries, bringing in their own capital and ruining whatever there is of local food security, local self-sufficiency, local food culture and a local regional economy which was integrated, ecologically sound, and gave an income and a livelihood to people, particularly to women.

That is just one case. The other case is basmati rice, which is very well-known. Now again this is being taken over by multinationals which sell basmati rice as "their" product. The Indian peasants' movement against this bio-piracy and this economic and ecological robbery says: "get out of India, we don't need these multinationals here." They simply want to throw them out, and they call their movement the "New Quit India Movement," like the old "Quit India Movement" started by Gandhi to end British colonialism. They say what is happening is really neocolonialism, which I think is correct.

Now this opening up of all countries of the world to multinational capital and to global trade is being propagated by the FAO as a means to secure food security.

Anna: They say they are creating jobs.

Maria: Of course.

Anna: Do you believe they are destroying jobs?

Maria: Yes, they are destroying jobs, as the Pepsi example shows. And they are destroying the environment. Another example, also from India, is the spreading of shrimp farms in rice land, which has been called by the Indian protest movement "the violence of the Blue Revolution." In order to start this export-oriented policy of food production, a number of international corporations together with Indian firms bought up or leased rice land in the delta areas of the Indian east coast. There they established shrimp farms by pumping salt water from the sea into the former rice fields. And then they planted the shrimp there. All these shrimp are for export: to Japan, to Europe, to the US. You can now buy cheap shrimp in all our supermarkets. People don't ask where it comes from. But this shrimp farming destroys the local fisheries. And it destroys the rice land, as the soil becomes contaminated with salt. Local people lose their jobs, as far fewer workers are needed in these shrimp farms. So the ecology is destroyed, the economy is destroyed, the local community is destroyed and child labor is used, to collect and transplant the shrimp seed.

The FAO says that there isn't enough land anymore for an increase in food production. But if we see how the land is being used now, we see that in the context of this globalization and liberalization policy the land is not used for local food production. It is instead increasingly used for export crops, for luxury items that are exported. For example, in western India they use the land for flowers, which are exported to Europe. Can you imagine? Or fruit. We will have mangoes now from India. But the local people will lose twice. These things grown for export-mangoes or other items-will no longer be available for the people there, as the prices will go up. And the land is no longer there for growing their staple foods. With more "modernization" of this export production, more people will lose their jobs and livelihood.

Increasingly land is used, as in India, for growing cattle feed-for corn or soy beans-for export to Europe where we have already an over-production of meat.

Increasingly land is used, as in India, for growing cattle feed -- for corn or soy beans -- for export to Europe where we have already an over-production of meat. So to propagate food security on the basis of this neo-liberal global economy as the FAO does is just nonsense. It cannot work. It destroys food security.

Anna: And it's even less secure because it is very tenuous. If there's any kind of disruption, war or whatever, they can't get these fragile exports out, and they won't be able to import the staples that are supposedly produced at cheaper cost elsewhere. It seems to put these populations at great risk.

Maria: Precisely, it puts them at the mercy of a few gigantic multinational food corporations. Whole populations at risk, and national governments have no sovereignty anymore to stop this process! It also undermines what we still understand as democracy.

Anna: There was some quite vocal opposition to trade liberalization and the formation of the WTO from farmers around the world. In Korea they wanted to protect their domestic rice, for instance, against cheap imports. So the dangers were known to some extent, but the opponents of this trading system were not strong enough to prevail.

Indian farmers have thrown out multinationals like Cargill.

Maria: I think this opposition is much stronger in the South than in the North. In India it is really very strong. Indian farmers have thrown out multinationals like Cargill. They have challenged the patenting laws in the parliament. They still do not accept the GATT/WTO as it is. But, also in India, the farmers are divided on this. Some farmer organizations are all for an export orientation and globalization, and while it lasts to get an equal opportunity in the world market for their products. Now the same is true I think in a number of countries. In Europe, as far as I know, only the French farmers really opposed GATT, whereas in Germany there was hardly any opposition.

The problem is that the number of people working on the land in Germany has become so small due to this policy that it is politically insignificant. Farmers just don't count in elections any more. So that is one problem here. And the rest of the people, the consumers, are not even aware of these processes. They do not know what GATT is, they do not know what TRIPS are. [TRIPS stands for Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights and is one of the clauses of GATT.]

They do not know what globalization really implies. There are only a few people in Germany, for instance, who really know about these issues and try to inform others. But the media ignores this issue altogether, and believe the propaganda that globalization is a good thing.

For instance, recently there was this G-7 summit in Lyons, where again the politicians tried to persuade the consumers that globalization is a good thing because all our food gets cheaper and cheaper. And of course people like that. They don't ask under what conditions, or what it means that the food gets cheaper. What does it imply for those who produce the food? What does it imply for the ecology? And in the last analysis what does it imply for themselves as consumers?

No Minister of Food and Agriculture can guarantee that people will be safe if they consume beef.

Look at the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) scandal affecting British farmers. No Minister of Food and Agriculture can guarantee that people will be safe if they consume beef. And many people have immediately stopped buying beef and even buying meat. For instance, when the news about the extent of the BSE scandal became known in Germany the consumption of beef dropped by 60%-within two days! And now I've read that, between February and May 1996, beef consumption went down drastically, and has not gone up again. So people have simply given up eating beef, or even meat altogether, because they are so horrified to learn how this process worked-that sheep cadavers were fed to cows. A television program showed how it was done, and after seeing these pictures everybody lost their appetite for beef. Yet this has been the normal factory kind of meat production for many years.

On the other hand, the Minister of Agriculture has to protect not the people but the interests of the industry. There are public relations campaigns and the like to restore people's faith in the beef industry. In Bavaria they have started grill parties with beef to show that German beef is safe. It's a kind of new protectionism, whether it's planned or not. And it goes along with a new nationalism: British beef is bad -- German beef is good.

It is the organization of a global capitalist market which produces these problems.

But many people have simply stopped going along with this policy which I think is very sane and very healthy. I also think that politically people have not yet understood that it is precisely the globalized market, not just the industrialized form of animal production, which causes these problems. It is the organization of a global capitalist market which produces these problems. It is impossible within a globalized free market to guarantee food security and safety for the consumers. Particularly since national governments have given up their sovereignty in these matters.

Another danger to food security is gene technology. In Germany an estimated 80% of consumers are against genetic manipulation of food products. However, in the context of the globalized market, this decision is no longer in the hands of our national government but is made in Brussels, the headquarters of the EU. It is mainly the European Commission which decides which foods can be sold in Europe. One example is soy products. Many people who do not want to eat meat any longer, or do not want to eat beef any longer, have turned to vegetables, and soy is one vegetable substitute for meat -- as in tofu, for example.

But now the American multinational concern Monsanto has produced a trans-genic soybean. This soybean has been genetically manipulated to be resistant to a herbicide which Monsanto also produces. They produce and sell this soy bean without any restrictions in the US, and it is mixed up with conventionally produced soybeans. So nobody is capable anymore of saying: "I don't want to eat genetically manipulated soy products." This is precisely the problem. There is no restriction in the US and no law to label these products so that people can have a choice. But what is worse, due to the WTO rules, the US can now force this gene-food into all markets, including the EU.

We do not know any longer what we eat. . . We have no way to say anymore that we do not want to eat genetically manipulated food. It is technically impossible.

Fourteen million tons per year of soybeans are imported into Europe. And the European Commission has agreed to this. Now when these things come into Europe, nobody here is able anymore to say "we don't want this," because they have not separated the genetically altered beans from other soybeans. Soy is used for all sorts of foods and food additives. Experts say that 20-30,000 human food products exist which contain soy. Soy powder is an ingredient in coffee whiteners, for instance. And that is exactly what "novel food" means. The big multinational food corporations produce foods which are combinations of things from all over the world, with so many components that nobody really knows what is from where and what is in what. We do not know any longer what we eat. What kind of democracy is this?

And now we have this kind of "novel food" which is being pushed through the European Commission by these big multinational concerns-like Monsanto but also European firms like Unilever or Nestle or Bayer and others who just want to sell this stuff to the consumer. What about consumers' freedom of choice and our food security? We have no way to say anymore that we do not want to eat genetically manipulated food. It is technically impossible.

Anna: What can consumers do besides educate themselves? Buy only from local organic farmers?

Maria: Yes, that would be one form of resistance. That is precisely what I think will be the outcome, and what we have to develop and to establish. First of all, if we want to know what we eat, we have to know the farmers who produce our food. That means we have to build up local links to local organic farmers, between consumers and producers. This would protect the environment, the consumers and the farmers too.

The second possibility is what Ronnie Cummings (an untiring activist in the campaign against gene-food in the US) has proposed in his "pure food campaign." He says that if multinationals refuse to label genetically manipulated food exported from America, then we should boycott all American food. I agree with him. We should simply say we are not going to buy anything from the US, or from Nestle, or from any other of these big companies. In fact, after the soy scandal became known, a campaign started in Germany to boycott all products labeled "vegetable oil," and urge consumers to buy specific oils like olive oil and sunflower oil instead.

This is, of course, a very difficult proposition right now, because most of us are already dependent for our food on these multinational concerns and the big global supermarket. Unless we begin to build up local and regional economies and food production systems where consumers and producers know each other, we will not even have an alternative. We will simply be kind of hostages as far as food is concerned, to these huge corporations. That is really what worries me most.

Not even the ecological parties like the Greens in Germany are totally aware of this threat.

We have to understand that we must protect small organic farmers everywhere. That is really the only way for our own food security, not only in the Third World but in the industrialized north too. That is something which has still a very long way to go, because not even the ecological parties like the Greens in Germany are totally aware of this threat.

The problem seems to me to be that countries like South Korea, or even Germany, for that matter, want to be industrialized countries only. And they want to sell their industrial products not only at home but in the world market. However in order to be able to do so they have to import something too, products from countries which are less industrialized. That is why we now have a new international division of labor between so-called industrialized countries and so-called agrarian countries. And the Third World countries are now being turned, more and more, into agrarian countries which sell foodstuffs to these industrialized countries. I think this is a kind of contradiction which again, this global market cannot solve. As long as industrialized countries think they have a comparative advantage by producing machines and cars and computers and so forth, while relying on food imported from outside, then they are really left at the mercies of the fluctuations of this market.

Even for South Korea, food security through global free trade is not possible, both in a qualitative and also eventually in a quantitative sense. The same for Germany. Because no one knows how these fluctuations will go. Even now, the US has said that due to the low prices of food for the past years there are no food stocks, or not enough food stocks anymore to be sold in the world market, and that they have to preserve their grain to feed their own cattle.

The only remedy is to stick to a policy of national self-sufficiency in food. . . We have to re-shape the whole international division of labor.

Therefore, in a very short time there will not be enough food available, even for those countries which have the money to buy it. This is a very precarious, dangerous situation as far as food security is concerned. The only remedy is to stick to a policy of national self-sufficiency in food. Not only in the poor South but in our industrialized countries as well. We have to give up this stupid policy of specializing, and saying that "these are industrialized countries and these are agrarian countries." We have to re-shape and reconsider the whole international division of labor.

Anna: I know you are very concerned with the roles of women and how these affect society. Korea and so many other countries whose roots are in an agricultural society, are seeing that many of the people remaining on the land now are women, many of them are older women. The old traditions are dying out, the culture is changing, and the loss of food self-sufficiency implies even greater cultural losses which especially affect women.

Maria: Of course, this affects women directly. If food is getting scarce and as we said already about India, if the land is being used to grow luxury goods then there will not be enough food for the poor. Food prices will go up and people will go hungry. So that is one definite result of this policy. The other, as you said, is the destruction of the whole culture which is based on food and for which the women -- everywhere -- are guardians. The cultural identity of people is closely connected with food. And if that is handed over to the multinational corporations which produce food industrially this will go-totally. So it's not just poverty and malnutrition as such which will be the result, but also the destruction of a cultural identity, of a spiritual dimension of food and so many other things as well. This process is being accelerated by the fact that the young men, but also young women, will try to migrate to the cities in search of wage work.

Everything that is industrially produced gets a price tag, becomes a commodity, and has a value. But the subsistence work which women have been doing and will have to do more and more will have less and less value and the men will go away and will no longer support them. So a tremendous gap between men and women will emerge. Women will have to see how they and their children can survive under ever worsening conditions, whereas the men will go to the cities. It is already happening. And the FAO talks about this so-called "urban bias," where more and more people will live in urban areas, and fewer and fewer on the land.

Anna: But they are helping create it.

Maria: Yes, of course, they create it. And they don't have any policy to stop this process, or to reverse it. If the FAO would look for inspiration to the women, who so far have been the guardians of food security, instead of to the multinational corporations and the World Bank and GATT/WTO, they would have more creative ideas about how to halt this trend towards urbanization. And they would also realize that there are already thousands of more sustainable alternatives to create food security-in a qualitative and quantitative sense-than those proposed in the World Action Plan for the World Food Summit.

This interview was originally printed in Korean in the November, 1996 edition of Green Korea's popular monthly magazine, Small is Beautiful.

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