corn in Ghana

corn in Ghana

In his essay Destroying African Agriculture Waldo Bello describes how:

African agriculture is a case study of how doctrinaire economics serving corporate interests can destroy a whole continent’s productive base.

Until the 1970s, Africa was able to feed itself and export food. Now most African countries are net importers. Among the international financial institutions, the IMF, and the World Bank, there was no intention to assist or maintain Africa’s ability to feed itself:

As then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it at the start of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1986, “the idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost.”

What Block did not say was that the lower cost of U.S. products stemmed from subsidies that were becoming more massive each year, despite the fact that the WTO was supposed to phase out all forms of subsidy.

Bello’s essay is short and crystal clear in describing the net effect of structural adjustments and agricultural dumping.

Mark Plotkin writes in his book about ethnobotany Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice:

Ironically, if the American farmer had to grow only species native to the United States, we would be living off of Jerusalem artichokes, pecans, black walnuts, sunflower seeds, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and gooseberries. To paraphrase the contemporary Kenyan economist Calestous Juma, the exploitation of tropical plant resources by the United States has turned a continent of berries into a global agricultural power.

I was leafing through Plotkin’s book today looking for another quote, which I didn’t find yet, when I found the previous passage and thought it particularly ironic in light of Block’s sentiments above. There is another related issue Plotkin discusses. He is speaking of medicinal uses for plants, but the same holds true for food crops:

… new medicines were probably just waiting to be found in the rain forest plants, but one of the issues that troubled me as I began my research is what has come to be called “intellectual property rights.” Briefly stated, no matter what disease an ethnobotanist might find a cure for during the course of his research, the indigenous peoples who taught him the cure would not benefit from the sales of the new drug.

American agriculture has profited by exploiting the botanical heritage of the entire world. Now giant corporations such as Monsanto are trying to engineer plants from across the globe, so that they cannot be grown anywhere without paying tribute to Monsanto. Local people, whose heritage is these crops, do not share in the profits, and may be forced to pay tribute to a corporation to enjoy their own heritage.