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World crisis sows problems for agriculture

The Brunei Times, June 9, 2009. By: Joao Pedro Stedile

IN THE 250-year history of industrial capitalism, there have been numerous cyclical crises, at least three of them global and systemic, including this one. In the preceding crises, capitalists always introduced measures to repair the system and restart the cycle of expansion and capital formation.


One of the most important of these measures is the necessary destruction of surplus capital (in a few months more than five trillion dollars have been vaporised), increasing the exploitation of workers to boost profit margins across the board through unemployment, salary reduction, and increased worker productivity. The International Labour Organisation predicts that 40 million workers will lose their jobs in this crisis.

In this context, the effects of the crisis on agriculture have very particular features.

In the last 20 years the southern hemisphere has seen an alliance forged between the major landowners and the corporations that control the agricultural production and the world food markets ¿ agribusiness.

This form of mechanised, capitalist, landowner agriculture demands an ever increasing supply of both agrotoxins and credit. It needs the financial credit to buy the industrial inputs produced by corporations. But the current crisis has effected the irrigation of capital and resulted in a decrease in the production of items destined for the world market, a decrease in the profit margin, and high unemployment among the seasonal agricultural workers, most of whom are immigrants.

Although the pace of capital investment in agriculture has slowed, there has been an intensification of the appropriation of the natural resources that are still available. In recent years there has been a noticeable capitalist offensive to buy up more land, specifically areas with biodiversity, mineral reserves, and sources of water and energy.

The tendency is towards owning natural resources that are low-priced now because they are not being exploited but that in the next cycle of accumulation will generate huge profits when placed on the market. At the same time corporations are seeking greater control of the seed market. In many countries we have seen the imposition of the use of genetically-modified seeds, which according to the World Trade Organisation the corporations have ownership rights to, though in reality they are part of the patrimony of humanity.

Brazil and many countries in Asia and Africa are victims of the greed of international capital that decided to hibernate there during the crisis to be able to reconstitute and concentrate themselves in preparation for a new cycle of accumulation.

Throughout the world the peasant farmers continue to resist and are feeling the negative and positive consequences of the crisis.

What is negative is the drop in demand for their products in local markets as a result of the lowered income of the worker population, which is increasingly urbanised, unemployed, or precariously employed. The emigration of youth to the cities or developed countries has slowed because of a lack of jobs there. For this reason the quantity of remittances sent back by emigrants from the South to their families, usually peasant farmers, has fallen.

The pressure of the major corporations to take over more land and natural resources has also sparked social conflict. In almost all the countries of the South the land that is most fertile and closest to the markets is being fought over in hand to hand skirmishes between the peasant farmers and capitalists, who want to impose the for-export agribusiness model.

In the many cases in which peasants farmers were the caught in the industrial agriculture model and bought the inputs made by corporations, they now see the prices of these products rising far faster than inflation. Many farmers have gone into debt and had to abandon their land, particularly in Asian countries like India, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The resources that governments had previously dedicated to social assistance for farmers ¿ health care, education, transportation, and technical assistance ¿ are being redirected to save the capitalists, to the great detriment of those services.

The positive aspects of the crisis are related to the fact that the small farmers, though they operate in a capitalist field, can produce their own foods and not lose their jobs. Their income may shrink, but they don't go bankrupt.

Large scale monoculture production, which destroys other forms of animal and vegetable life and generates food that is increasingly adulterated by agricultural toxins, is causing an imbalance in the environment, air and water pollution, and climate change.

These contradictions are leading the populations of cities to ally themselves in the medium term with the peasant farmers to bring about a change in agricultural production to make food healthier. The crisis will inevitably spark a long and intense debate in society about the usage of natural resources, and could bring about positive changes in world agriculture.

The capitalists want to produce dollars and profits. The peasant farmers want to produce healthy foods and well-being. Disputes arise whenever the two groups meet. The future, though, is on the side of the peasant farmers, and against the plunderers of nature and the exploiters of people.

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