In response to the 2008 food crisis that triggered riots over three dozen countries, the U.S. Agency for International Development has promoted public-private partnerships for export-based agricultural production, bringing transnational corporations to the forefront.
An emerging narrative in global agriculture emphasizes the need to create “enabling conditions” for private sector investment. This is problematic because it seeks to render the integration of developing world agriculture into global markets — long predicated on politically and economically unequal relationships — compatible with humanitarian objectives. And the diversion of land from local production continues to leave poor countries dependent on global food markets — precisely why Africa was hit hardest by the 2008 price spike.
For example, Pepsi Co. is investing in chickpea farming in Ethiopia for its global supply chains. The way the U.S. government talks about this project, multinational agribusiness is cast as the solution to hunger.
“What’s exciting about this is that in order to manufacture the product, they will buy from smallholders,” Ertharin Cousin, former U.S. ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture agencies in Rome, said in an interview. “In those same places you have off-farm jobs being created for unskilled labor that was previously unemployed. Those are the kinds of collective partnerships that smallholders benefit from and that the private sector helps drive.”
Transnational corporations’ involvement in Africa, then, has become legitimized under the banner of “development."
The danger, ultimately, is that as development grants a sense of credibility to such investments, it becomes forgotten how they have historically come at the expense of food security. Looking at poor countries’ global market linkages in a historical perspective helps to elicit this point in three ways.
First, Africa’s early engagement in global agricultural trade occurred in the context of political subordination to European colonial powers. The political relations of the colonial era run antagonistic to the democratization of the global system that would benefit poor farmers.
Second, when the 1980s “structural adjustment” programs pushed by the international financial institutions oriented African agricultural economies toward export, it opened the door for injection of Western agribusiness capital to solidify their supply chains. The result was Africa’s increased vulnerability to food insecurity, which should give pause to any development models that would replicate the type of foreign investment seen in the wake of structural adjustment.
Third, and most recently, developing world agriculture has increasingly served as a source of inputs for manufactured foods controlled by agribusiness processors and distributors, which extract low prices from farmers in order to keep down the final price of their products. The rise of agriculture as an industry in itself has meant more and more farmland used not to produce more food, but rather to provide ingredients for manufactured foods industry. Just look at the lengthy list of ingredients on your supermarket items.
Once developing countries enter global supply chains, they are locked into supporting export production by diverting both land and public resources from local food production. As a way to boost exports, states grant property rights to large-scale producers and invest in irrigation that benefits these farmers. In the age of globalization, states have been re-oriented toward the interests of global agribusiness capital and away from local people’s livelihoods.
As UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter writes, “These countries are caught in a vicious cycle. The more they are told to rely on trade, the less they invest in domestic agriculture. And the less they support their own farmers, the more they have to rely on trade. In the current climate, this means relying on imports of grain at historically volatile prices.”
The inequitable land access associated with export agriculture becomes intensified as developing countries seek to deal with the price volatility of their commodity exports. During times of low global prices, they have little choice but to ramp up production, often involving encroachment onto small farmers’ lands. Thus exporting countries must avert a capitalist crisis in a way that inevitably accelerates a social crisis of peasant displacement.
If we are to fight food insecurity, the challenge is to restructure the power relations in the global food economy to promote local food networks anchored by smallholder farmers. The recent fascination with public-private partnerships only perpetuates the marginalization of small farmers in developing countries.
But at the same time, social movements around the world are uniting to contest transnational agribusiness control and to assert the rights of farmers. The change will come not from development institutions but from these very movements.