The protesters said agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes, and damages the environment and biodiversity.
A protester wearing a protective suit and mask holds up a sign toward passing cars that reads in Portuguese “A better world according to Monsanto is a world with more cancer”. Photo: Nelson Antoine/AP
BRUSSELS — United under the declaration, “we are fed up,” around 30,000 people from several associations representing farmers, beekeepers and consumers, as well as environmental, development and food organizations, gathered in Berlin to demonstrate against large-scale agribusiness.
The protesters said that agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes and damages the environment and biodiversity. They demanded environmentally friendly farming, protection for bees, access to land and healthy, affordable food for all. They’re also seeking fair prices for farmers, an end to hunger, food scandals, monocultures, GMOs and land grabs by governments and investors.
Escorted by some 70 tractors, they marched through the streets of the German capital, from Potsdamer Platz to the government buildings of the Ministry of Agriculture and the offices of the federal chancellor. The demonstrators expressed their demands to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
Instead of continuing with “clientelism politics for the agro-industry,” the federal government should change the direction of agricultural policy toward sustainable farming and healthier food.
The demonstration took place at the start of the international Green Week, the world largest fair for food and agriculture, which took place from Jan. 17-26. The fair is traditionally an opportunity to raise awareness of the negative impact of large-scale intensive food production. This was the fourth year for the march and the biggest so far, according to the organizers, a coalition of organic associations such as Bioland, Demeter and Naturland, and international NGOs such as Oxfam Germany and Slow Food.
This year, discussions during the Green Week focused on food security. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, an estimated 840 million people suffer from chronic hunger in the world, and food demand is on the rise. The health of another two billion people is compromised by nutrient deficiencies. With the world population expected to rise to nine billion by 2020 – from seven billion today – the tricky question of how to feed everyone while protecting the environment arises.
Large-scale intensive farmers claim they have managed to keep putting food on European plates at relatively little cost to the consumer since World War II, and it is the only way to feed everyone. But research on the impact of mono-cultures and other forms of intensive agriculture has shown that it leads to widespread environmental degradation. This includes losses in the productive capacity of the soil, increased pressure on water resources, biodiversity loss and climate change. Intensive farming is also heavy on inputs such as energy, pesticides and chemical fertilizers and is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.
Food unfairly distributed
On the other hand, as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and others have repeatedly explained, feeding the world is not so much a problem of quantity than of fair distribution. Most of the people suffering from hunger live in the south, and more particularly in Africa. On the other hand, there are around 1.5 billion people mainly in the north, who are overweight or obese, consuming more food than their bodies need and exposing them to greater risk of diabetes, heart problems and other diseases.
Additionally, according to the U.N. Environment Program, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted; and every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food, 222 million ton, as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, 230 million ton. This shows there is something clearly wrong in the way food is distributed and used around the world.
Big business also prides itself on keeping food prices down for consumers, but this often results in damages for small-scale farmers, who still produce the vast majority of food in developing countries and who do not get a fair price for what they produce. As a result, small-scale farmers are driven out of agriculture and have difficulties in feeding themselves, thereby increasing the number of undernourished people agribusiness claims to feed.
What is more, a report compiled by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Environmental Program in 2008, contradicts the popular myth that organic-farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the world. The research suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields that were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.
The study found that organic practices actually outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility and better retention of water and resistance to drought. In short, organic farming can feed Africa and bring higher incomes to poor, rural farmers.
US-EU agreement widely criticized
This is all the more important given a new report released last month by UNEP in Davos, Switzerland, according to which up to 849 million hectares of natural land – nearly the size of Brazil – may be degraded by 2050 should current trends of unsustainable land use continue.
According to the report, the need to feed a growing number of people globally has led to more land being converted to crop land at the expense of the world’s savannah, grasslands and forests. Agriculture currently consumes more than 30 percent of the world’s land area and cropland covers around 10 percent of global land. Between 1961 and 2007, cropland expanded by 11 percent, a trend that continues to grow, it added.
Commenting on the UNEP study, Kirtana Chandrasekaran, Friends of the Earth international food sovereignty coordinator said: “Across the world, land is being grabbed from local communities who are best placed to manage it and feed local people and converted to plantations producing food and fuels for developed nations. This is unjust and can be prevented.”
“Our common approach to food production is simply not sustainable today,” said Helena Semedo, FAO deputy director-general, who was present during Green Week. “Creating healthy and sustainable food systems is key to overcome hunger and malnutrition around the globe.”
The organizers of the Berlin demonstration also widely criticized the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and the EU, and the fact that the German government, defending the business community’s interests, has positioned itself as a key driving force behind it. The opponents of the agreement fear that the negotiations will lead to major EU standards applicable to consumers, agricultural production and health and safety having to be brought into line with much lower norms applicable in the USA.
“Behind closed doors, the EU Commission is negotiating a free trade agreement that will damage farmers and consumers alike. The vast majority of people don’t want chlorinated chicken, meat containing hormones and GM food coming in through the backdoor,” said Jochen Fritz, from the coalition of organizers. He noted that this was precisely what would happen if the planned free trade agreement were concluded.