To Feed and Protect the World, Rein In Corporate Ag

12/02/2013 08:08 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

On World Food Day 2013, Kauai County Council passed a bill forcing the world's largest agrochemical-GMO corporations to publicly disclose when and where they are using highly dangerous pesticides, often blended in untested combinations and sprayed in the open-air next to schools, homes and waterways. The bill passed into law on November 16 with a 5-2 override vote of a mayoral veto.

World Food Day serves as a reminder that nearly one billion people go hungry, despite there being more than enough food for all. With sustainability central to this year's theme, the event also directed attention to the fact that our global food system is highly fossil fuel dependent and is a primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is also rapidly degrading the soil, water, forest, genetic diversity and other resources that are vital to agricultural productivity, human health and all life.

Food production and distribution are not inherently destructive. Agriculture can also be a major source of carbon sequestration and a builder of biodiversity and ecological resilience. But moving in the direction of a sustainable and equitable food system requires reining in the power of transnational corporate agribusiness, and its drives to intensify and standardize production, privatize resources that were previously "common," and monopolize the global food system.

As recognized by the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment of global agriculture to date (the IAASTD), led by the United Nations and World Bank and including over 400 experts from more than 80 countries, the only way to feed the world sustainably is to strengthen the small to mid-scale farm sector and agroecological science and farming in particular. Smallholder agriculture currently feeds an estimated 70 percent of the world using only 30 percent of agricultural resources, while industrial agriculture sucks 70 percent of resources and only produces 30 percent of the world's food. There are a growing number of high-level reports from the UN and other development agencies declaring that the only way to solve the food and climate crises is to move away from corporate industrial agriculture. Yet this path continues to find support at all levels of policy-making, resulting in the displacement of regional food economies and increasing marginalization of those who feed the world most stably and sustainably.

The idea that a "free-market" (ie policy-facilitated monopolistic) corporate food system will somehow nourish us all has proven imaginary. We are reaching record highs in global hunger alongside record grain harvests and record breaking profits for big agribusiness. The incredible, concentrated wealth and power of corporate food players has been achieved partly through the externalization of costs onto society as a whole. While middle-class consumers may enjoy some luxuries of variety and convenience, it is a small elite that reaps the financial benefits of an industrial corporate food system. We all pay the prices of a hungry, sick, progressively toxic and heating-up world, with the poorest paying the highest.

In Hawaii, corporate agribusiness partly externalizes its costs in the form of pesticide pollution. The agrochemical giants are one subsection of a corporate food system that includes fewer and fewer producing, processing, marketing and retailing mega-businesses. Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow, Bayer and BASF now control 75 percent of private sector plant breeding research, 60 percent of the commercial seed market, and 76 percent of global pesticide sales. These companies use Hawaii's land, air and water to experiment with pesticide-GMO crop combination technology that in recent years has brought them huge profitability and facilitated further consolidation of the global seed and agrochemical markets.

The chemical companies' bloated bottom lines are being subsidized by costs that our islands are paying, and will continue to pay for generations. On Kauai, our fragile ecology is undoubtedly impacted by the use of an estimated 18 tons of restricted use pesticides annually, as well as likely five times that amount of general use pesticides. Atrazine and other chemicals are showing up in drinking water and drainage ditches leading from agricultural fields into coastal waters, which provide subsistence to many local families. Doctors fear we are witnessing unusually high levels of rare birth defects and certain types of cancers, respiratory problems and other illnesses. The island's residents are paying the missed opportunity costs of using our most productive agricultural lands for experiments that produce little local revenue and nothing for local consumption.

Negative externalities are inherent to capitalism, but regulatory regimes can either help to protect society and common goods, or further facilitate the interests of capital over people. The agrochemical industry has found Hawaii's regulatory environment highly favorable (and influenceable), and this is a primary reason they have become so strongly established in the islands. While the industry presents complex charts of acronyms and arrows in order to make the claim that they are over-regulated and anything more would add to a bureaucratic nightmare, the simple fact is that they are allowed to spray pesticides banned in many other countries next to homes and schools. On Kauai, experimental operations apply pesticides 250 to 300 days per year, 10 to 16 times per day. If neighbors believe they have been poisoned, they can file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture that takes an average of three years to investigate. There is no public notification of pesticide violations.

The lack of protection for people and environment led to Kauai County Bill 2491, mandating pesticide disclosure and small buffer zones around schools and residences. While it seems like not much to ask for, the chemical industry pulled out all the stops in their attempts to defeat the bill. They continue to threaten to sue our County of 65,000 for their right to spray indiscriminately. They have enrolled the assistance of the governor and state law-makers, who we can assume are drafting the blueprints to preempt our county's right to govern and protect. The industry's fight on Kauai lays bare the fact that their power and profitability lies in being able to operate in a way that is not transparent, and not accountable to the public good, health or the environment.

Kauai's passage of a pesticide disclosure law may seem a small step, but it is a piece in a much larger trend to turn the tide towards a more sane, just and sustainable food system. Testifying before the Kauai County Council, BASF's operation manager stated that the industry was against the bill because it might have the "ramification" of similar laws being adopted in other places. It would be wise to prove BASF correct. Kauai absolutely should set precedent for common-sense regulation of the agrochemical industry. The State ought to follow, using Kauai's law as a floor and not a ceiling, and re-affirming Counties' rights to protect health and life. All jurisdictions globally, from large to small, should be inspired to take appropriate actions to rein in the run-away power of corporate food players, from seed all the way up to the supermarket shelf.