Food Disempowerment and the Science of Dispossession
by Kavingo Matundu on 16 May 2016 3 Comments
‘‘He who controls what you eat also controls you’’ – Thomas Sankara, the late revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso


There is need to examine food independence of communities within the changing agricultural production techniques. It looks into the food production methods that humanity has applied from ancient times to date. It contrasts modern technological farming methods with those of traditional communities and tries to decipher the true motivation behind each case.


Is science compatible with healthy agricultural production and conservation of nature?


The question is framed this way to examine the role of modern science in food production and its effect to nature. The history of agriculture by rational man since humanity discovered farming is characterized by the effort to improve crop and livestock productivity.


Traditional agrarian communities of ancient times, just as the indigenous ones existing today, throughout history researched and deployed scientific methods to increase their farm yields. Communities engaged in crop farming would improve the production and quality of their yields by selecting the best seeds from one season and replanting during the next one. Over time, they discovered to leave one farmland furrow to replenish its soil nutrients for a season or two before returning to plant on it again. This way, they were guaranteed of both increase and quality of their farm produce. On the other hand, the communities that practiced livestock improved the quality of their breeds through cross breeding and allowing inbreeding only among desired breeds. The results were always largely as expected.


Traditional fishing communities had deep understanding of breeding patterns of fish and would stop fishing at a certain part of a river or lake or ocean when they noticed the earliest signs of reduction in stock of a certain type of fish; they moved to another point long enough to allow breeding of more fish.


These practices are still in use today among many indigenous communities of the world. The farming methods confirm the important role that science has always played for humanity in agricultural production. None of these traditional methods has been known to harm nature.


Modern Technological Agriculture


With modern technological advancement, farmers today have at their disposal superior methods of food production that have high yields which cannot compare to the modest production methods of indigenous communities. Today, there are high yield food crop seeds; modern fertilisers that can enrich soil and instantly improve plant quality; and potent chemicals that can destroy weeds and kill agricultural pests. The net effect of these technological advancements has been increased global food production. This has come at a time when world population has increased to 7 billion people, thereby increasing the demand for food.


But this modern technology-based food production has not been complemented by fair or effective distribution to all the people. There are many parts of the world, as in Africa, where people still starve to death for lack of food while in other parts food waste runs into millions of tons per year. Agriculture is now big business, probably the biggest in the world, generating billions of dollars in profits globally to individuals and big corporate companies. The motivation to make profits supersedes the need to feed the needy.


Indigenous communities practiced and still practice agriculture for self-sustenance. Any surplus is/was stored for use before the next harvest. Commercial farming on the other hand is motivated by profits. The higher the profit and the more frequently it can be made, the more lucrative the business. Hence, more sophisticated ways are needed to achieve this end and modern agricultural technology offers multiple choices to that effect.


Everyone has to eat to live, but not all people would like to be farmers and need to buy food. This has promoted the rise of commercial agriculture almost everywhere in the world. Under the guise of increasing food production to feed the growing world population, commercial agriculture sector has organised itself in more sophisticated ways right from production to storage and distribution. Motivated more by profits than the need to feed the world, scientific agricultural methods are increasingly applied with limited caution to their accompanying side effects. Some notable areas of concern in this regard are discussed below.




Traditional farming methods ensured existence of a wide diversity of seeds which improved agricultural production by selecting the best seeds from one harvest and planting them in the next rainy season. People freely exchanged seeds to promote farm productivity and no one had sole rights to any seeds. Seeds belonged to the community.


Modern agriculture uses the laboratory to engineer limited varieties of seeds with high production, which fit specific weather conditions. The seeds are then patented and ownership rights reserved by companies. Anyone who wants to plant them has to buy them. Seed production today is therefore big business which is controlled by few corporate companies that produce seeds for almost all types of major and staple foods in the world – rice, maize, wheat, vegetables, fruits and many other different types.


The transnational companies are backed by aggressive marketing that is fast pushing natural seeds towards extinction as corporates tighten their grip on farmers and global food systems. Sub-Saharan Africa is in special danger.


Today, just ten corporations control half of the global market for commercial seeds. Most of them are also pesticide manufacturers, focusing on crops from laboratory engineered seeds which they produce and that support chemically intensive agriculture.


Some governments have been trying to maintain protection and control over natural seeds through establishing public plant breeding systems. But the public plant breeding systems have in recent times been reduced to contractors of these transnational companies. Even universities and national agricultural research institutions are caught up in a similar web, with many in contract with these corporates.


Whilst commercially produced seeds may have superior yields to traditional seeds, a number of factors associated with them are not endearing. Most of these laboratory engineered seeds cannot be replanted as the next yield may be dismally too low. They have managed to destroy and replace natural seeds, leaving affected communities with just one option of buying new seeds every planting season, thereby incurring unanticipated and expensive costs, and converting the same communities to permanent seed markets. This means that unlike in the past, everyone in such communities cannot plant unless they buy new seeds. They can no longer plant their seed of choice anymore.


Further, the laboratory engineered seed varieties produce harvests whose methods of storage defy the timeless traditional methods that communities have used across ages. In some cases, the failure of indigenous communities to understand this has led to food poisoning, even death in some cases. Appropriate storage methods for harvests from these new seeds require expensive synthetic chemical treatments which add new and unanticipated financial pressure to the budgets of affected peasant communities.


On a related note, the DNA formations of the laboratory engineered seeds remain a controversial subject with regard to health effects on consumers of the foods they produce. Different types of ailments that were not common in the past (e.g. cancer) have been associated with foods produced from these seeds. Research is still being conducted in this regard.




Many Indigenous communities still depend on natural methods of rejuvenation of soils for improvement of soil fertility and increased farm yield. These include crop rotation, organic manure, leaving the land fallow, among others. These natural methods helped the indigenous agrarian communities to produce enough yields to sustain themselves from one season to another and surplus for use for social purposes including sharing with needy neighbours and relatives and even for barter trade in exchange of what they did not have.


Modern technological agriculture has increased food production tremendously per unit of land under use. The increase is particularly powered by chemical fertiliser which is a huge commercial enterprise with patented fertiliser products owned by multinational companies and which generates billions of dollars in profits across the world. These private enterprises compete with one another for market share of their respective products, and to maintain or expand their market shares, they keep inventing a growing range of fertiliser products with varied abilities to improve crop productivity.


These fertiliser products have reached almost all parts of the world today including many indigenous agrarian communities whose lower yields had no side effects and whose foods were also comparatively more nutritious.


The soil is home to thousands of living organisms, invisible to the naked human eye. They play a big role in mixing, aerating, making humus and generally making the soil favourable for plant life, including food crops.  Chemical agriculture hurts this type of life. The natural ability of soils to rejuvenate is eliminated. Thereafter, farmlands can produce harvests only with continued application of chemical fertilisers.


As fertilisers increase agricultural harvest, their chemical traces end up systemically in the produce itself and get consumed as food. The health effects to consumers are adverse. The chemical fertilisers also remain in soils and during rains they are washed away as poisonous runoff that ends up in water bodies used by unsuspecting people, livestock, wildlife and marine life. The adverse effects continue to be documented by research scientists.




Globally, over 4.6 million tons of 500-odd chemical pesticides are sprayed on crops. With this massive application, only 1% of the sprayed chemical pesticides are effective; 99% are released to untargeted soils, water bodies and atmosphere and finally absorbed by almost every living organism. Many pesticides contain mercury arsenic and lead which are harmful to the environment and toxic to all forms of life, including human. Different scientific studies have determined that soils under farm chemicals have lost anything between 30% and 75% of their organic matter from poisoning by these chemicals.


Before 1870, natural pesticides were used to fight agricultural pests. Since 1945, the man-made inorganic pesticides terminated the era of natural pesticides. Pesticides are today a billion-dollar business. With companies competing to control global market shares for increased profits, safety of the environment and different species, including human, has been downgraded.


Most leading manufacturers of pesticides are also the top manufacturers of modern crop seeds and synthetic fertilisers. The six largest manufacturers of agrochemicals (BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont) already control 77% of the global market. For herbicides, their market share is estimated to be as high as 98.5%.


Many countries lack capacity and competencies necessary to enact enough or even effective laws to regulate the activities of these private interests to guarantee safety of their products to both consumers and the environment. The private companies capitalise on these weaknesses to influence adoption of weak national laws that promote corporate market shares without regard to factors like human health and protection of nature. The problem is worse in developing countries, especially in Africa, even though trade in these products is limited on the continent. It is steadily increasing with time.


Impact on climate


Most fertilisers are petroleum-based with huge component of chemical nitrogen. These fertilizers contribute immensely to greenhouse emissions, about 15% of global greenhouse emissions.


Then, mechanised commercial food transport (air, land, sea) is a mega-business. It is estimated that over half of all food produced for commercial use gets spoilt. Further, food processing and subsequent preservation through refrigeration are practiced on a massive scale across the world, which all contributes to greenhouse emission.


Land grabbing for food production


Due to the need to generate more profits, and given unavailability of adequate arable land in their countries of origin, commercial farming companies have begun to acquire land overseas. They enter into land lease agreements with governments to use the land to produce foods for export to international markets.


This commercial agricultural land lease practice is increasing in poor countries, some of which experience constant acute food shortages, including in Sub-Saharan Africa that suffers endemic food shortage. In many cases the land given for lease to corporates is forest land belonging to indigenous communities. The land is cleared of its natural vegetation leading to loss of biodiversity and negatively altering ecosystems. The affected communities are forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands to pave way for large scale agricultural farming. The host governments earn revenue in form of rents while the companies earn the right to produce food targeting export markets. The losers are the indigenous communities whose social order is permanently disrupted as they are scattered to look for homes elsewhere.


Corporate firms also engage in intensively mechanized and highly chemicalised farming to maximize on production while minimizing on costs. The result is altering soil textures, killing millions of soil organisms and polluting rivers, lakes, oceans and other water bodies by chemicals during rains when the runoff ends up in these water bodies. These activities contribute to greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere, leading to climate change and global warming. 


Using the law to sustain or suppress safe agricultural practices


As the purpose of corporate farming is profit, there has been a continuous global effort to create rules to govern production, storage and trade in food in favour of transnational corporates. Most of these rules are within the framework of WTO and increasingly as national laws.


Relying on favourable global trade rules, private multinational agro companies are adopting more aggressive methods to produce more products in order to generate more profits. The rules set a range of standards to be met by all players including peasant farmers. For example, they set standards on seed varieties to use, storage specifications, packaging and transportation, including terms of selling the produce. In most cases, the rules are set in favour of big corporate firms with capacity to meet these regulations to the exclusion of peasant and indigenous farmers.


However, communities are not completely powerless in protecting themselves. Where they have access to right information and support, they can fight and win battles again the excesses of corporates. They can mobilise and push their governments to put in place good laws that can protect natural seeds; promote use of organic fertilizers; promote use of environmentally-friendly pesticides; and guard against land grabbing by transnational commercial farming corporates.


Mexico and Venezuela


In 2007, Mexico passed a Seed Law that in many ways criminalises natural indigenous food seeds while promoting and protecting production and sale of genetically modified seeds owned by multinational companies. The Law requires all seeds to be produced on farm or bought, without any other alternative. It makes illegal the exchange of seeds or receiving because this means once exchanged or received, the seeds have neither been bought nor been produced by the receiver.


Even if one produces his own seeds with intention of selling, there are numerous and complicated certification requirements by the law that even some established companies would find challenging to meet, leave alone peasant farmers. But transnational corporates are well equipped to meet such conditions.


Mexico’s Seed Law was enacted with immense technical support and influence from a national association of seed sector players called Mexican Association of Seed Producers (AMSAC). Even though the Association calls itself Mexican, its board members include major seed multinationals: Syngenta, DuPont, Monsanto, Pioneer, Vilmorin, among others. No wonder that the law, with so many hidden clauses that technically outlaw natural seeds of the peasants, came into effect.


Across the border in Venezuela, the parliament passed a Seed Law in 2015 that protects the natural seed. The campaign to enact the new law was driven by peasant farmers, indigenous people and environmentalists from across the country who demanded a complete re-write of the seed law, the initial draft of which had been in favour of, and had been influenced by, the multinational seed companies.


The new law imposes strict regulation on all hybrid seeds and prevents research, production, import and distribution of all GM seeds in order to protect natural seed as well as the environment and human health. It outlaws seed patenting and promotes sustainable and natural agriculture methods such as natural cross breeding, seed saving and sharing. Under this law the country will have a National Seed Institute or seed controlling system to regulate, audit and control the quality of imported seeds to prevent and punish all violations against the GMO ban.


What can be done?


Left in the hands of commercial interests, the problems associated with agro industry can only worsen with time. There is therefore need for conscious effort to rethink sustainable ways of addressing these challenges by putting the wellbeing of nature and life at the centre of technologies and innovations. To this end, different stakeholders need to take action to arrest and reverse the worsening trends.


Governments need to put in place effective regulations that protect, preserve and promote natural agricultural practices, especially ones that have been passed on through generations and which have no known side effects to nature or human life. Governments need to regulate the activities of modern agro industry to ensure their activities are without health risks and negative impact to the environment.


Government should establish and sufficiently finance national institutions that effectively regulate a country’s agricultural activities, including research and vetting of agricultural products and activities in the country. This would inhibit manipulation by vested private interests at the expense of public good.


Communities: Public institutions involved in research or in custody of information on the adverse effects of modern agricultural technology need to share this information. Peasant farmers’ organisations and indigenous community leaders can play a key role in the protection of farming practices that protect the environment and human life.


Scholars, environmentalists and civil society: must intensify research in modern agriculture to determine the safest and most sustainable practices that preserve nature while improving human health. Indigenous community knowledge is a reliable repository of good agricultural practices. They need to find effective ways of sharing their research findings with communities. They can also offer support to citizens to initiate and engage in dialogues with government to stay committed to protecting and promoting safe agricultural practices from the excesses of transnational companies engaged in agro-industry.



-        Grain: The Great Food Robbery-How corporations control food, grab land and destroy climate, 2012

-        Green Peace Germany: The Dirty Portfolios of the Pesticide Industry – Product Evaluation & Ranking of Leading Agrochemical Companies, 2008

-        Max Roser: (Paper) Our World In Data – Fertilizers and Pesticides,, 2015

-        Wen Jun Zhang, Fu Bin Jiang, Jian Feng Ou:  Global pesticide consumption and pollution: with China as a focus, School of Life Sciences, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, 2011

-        PAN Germany: Pesticides and health hazards; Facts and figures

-        FAO: FAO Statistical Year Book 2014- Asia and the Pacific Food and Agriculture, 2014


The author is a delegate from Kenya, at the Simhastha International Convention, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, 12- 14 MAY 2016; his email is

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