Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow. Many of us have been advised not to talk while eating, but eating without talking is hardly ever an option. We often muse over many issues as we munch. Meal time offers a time to appreciate the culinary skills of the cook and the generosity of the person providing the meal. It can also be a time to reflect on the source of the ingredients used in preparing the meal, their modes of production and distribution. Tracing the route from the seed to the bowl can be extremely informative and often helps the eater to better appreciate the roles of the farmer in the process. While some have the luxury of ruminating on the art of food, almost a billion persons on earth go to bed hungry and are simply happy to have a meal when they can find or afford one.
The saying that we are what we eat underscores our responsibility to ensure that we eat healthy. We cannot wish to eat healthy if we do not devote time to examine the political economics of food, including ownership of seeds and access to land. We cannot ignore the players behind the processes by which seeds are cultivated in particular communities, nations or regions and the related farming inputs that go with such seeds and farming methods.
A book that should be a required read for public policy makers related to seeds, farming and food as well as farmers and consumers has just been published. That book is titled Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. It was released on February 5, 2019 and is written by Timothy A. Wise. The author, Wise is a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Programme. Wise is a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.
Eating Tomorrow is a book with three major sections. The first part speaks of Africa and the new Colonialism while the second part deals with what the author calls The Roots of Our Problems. The third section looks at trade regimes and how our Right to Food is being traded away. Reading the book has been quite a journey for me. The book is highly accessible and drips with wisdom and high-quality information. Raj Patel’s foreword to the book does not leave any reader in doubt about the seriousness of the matter under consideration. He states plainly in his opening lines, “More people are hungry today than yesterday. For the first time in a generation, global hunger is increasing. It’s not just the absolute number of malnourished people on the rise. The percentage of humans facing food shortages is climbing too.”
Patel goes on to add, “Industrial agriculture is an engine for the exploitation of humans and the web of life.” He also added, “If you want to invent pandemic disease, you couldn’t imagine a better laboratory than the hells of concentrated animal feeding operations, in which the constant drip of antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for the next deadly swine or bird flu. Along the food production line, workers in the food chain are treated as brutally as the product they butcher. And a complex web of social and ecological subsidies allows the system to produce food that appears as a bargain but is increasingly likely to contribute to chronic disease and ecological destruction.”
Wise and Patel underscore the fact that policy should be people driven. A person’s stand with regard to the health of the planet and people greatly influences the manner of interpretation and analyses of complex situations. And here we should say that those promoting modern biotechnology are welcome to promote their pet projects, but characterizing those opposed to these risky experimentations as “enemies of the state” is nothing but hate speech and is highly unbecoming of anyone wearing the toga of a scientist. Autocratic force-feeding of citizens with genetically modified foods just because the outcome of laboratory experiments validates a hypothesis is actually opposite to patriotism.
Wise is not shy of taking clear positions on the food and farming debate. Writing from research experience from the field, he quotes small scale farmers referring to “Climate-Smart Agriculture” as “Climate-Stupid Agriculture”. The fact presented is that farmers have developed climate adaptation strategies including intercropping, soil improvements and drought resistant varieties. Getting farmers to abandon the seeds that ensure diversity and soil building for chemical and artificial inputs, open the farmers to vagaries of often manipulated market forces. He notes that the high use of insecticides and herbicides end up literally leaving soils lifeless.
Besides examples from Asia, Latin America and North America, much of the book focuses on Africa and provides plenty of food for thought for our governments. He reminds us that the food crisis of 2008 was triggered by the massive diversion of food and land into biofuel production and the surge of speculative capital rather than on scarcity. In Nigeria, indeed in Africa as a whole, we are constantly being fed with the neo-Malthusian fear of humungous rise in population and fears of scarcity – the very hooks used by predatory agribusiness and supporting governments to dispossess poor farmers of their lands and force them into becoming farmhands or sharecroppers.
Wise gives examples of massive land grabs on the continent that failed either due to popular resistance or due to the wrong headedness of the schemes. Examples include the ProSavana project driven by Brazilian and Japanese investors, that sought to grab up to 10 million hectares of fertile lands in Mozambique and the spectacular failure of jatropha as a miracle biofuel crop in Africa.
African governments accepted the notion that jatropha and other crops were needed to build a green OPEC in Africa as proposed in 2006 by then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. It was said to grow on marginal lands and since the fruits or seeds were not edible they would not compete with food crops. But jatropha planted on marginal soils only yielded marginal returns. Proponents of jatropha ended up grabbing massive land areas and this was accompanied by degradation of agricultural lands, in Swaziland, Mozambique and Tanzania. After the failure of the experiments, we hardly hear of jatropha being touted as the miracle biofuel crop. Silently, the crop has returned to its veritable use as a hedge crop and as a marker of the graves of those who died far from home as is the case with the nomadic Nyaburu people of Tanzania.
Eating Tomorrow reveals how government policies are often based on pressure from transnational seed and inputs companies as well as politically powerful nations bent on dumping surpluses from their own farming outputs. We also read about the place of Bill Gates and Rockefeller funded Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition launched in 2012. The architecture of the Alliance is that “Donors would provide aid; private companies like Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, and DuPont would make a non-binding promise to invest and participating African governments would commit to reforming their national laws and regulatory systems to ‘enable the business of agriculture.’”
Wise reports on the resilience of indigenous crop varieties in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique and how externally driven policies have been very harmful to farmers and farming, forcing poor farmers to buy seeds each year and only benefiting international agribusinesses and other speculators. Monoculture cropping, in the words of Wise “produces monoculture diet deficient in many basic nutrients.”
The scope of this column does not allow us do a comprehensive review of this all-important book, and we will probably return to it in the future. Eating Tomorrow is a book that goes beyond diagnosing problems and offers real solutions. It fittingly closes by stressing that we all have the right to eat safe and healthy food and that we should not be content with only eating today but also work to ensure that we eat tomorrow. This is the crux of the struggle for food sovereignty and against the wholesale adoption of policies and practices built around aid, philanthropy or trade relations.