Silvia Ribeiro: “No one can live without food”
Interview with Silvia Ribeiro on agriculture 4.0 and agri-food transnational corporations’ power in the podcast Feminist Rage
Questioning the power of transnational corporations in our lives means questioning production and reproduction of many spheres of our society. How we live, what we wear, how we deal with our relationships, how we work and understand politics, all these aspects are to some extent influenced by the corporate power, which undermines and exploits our lives. How we eat and what we eat as well.
The new episode of the podcast Feminist Rage addresses the food industry, its impacts on the rural and urban populations, and the struggles to stop it by supporting food sovereignty, agroecology, and environmental justice. The subject integrates the agenda of the World March of Women’s struggles, which calls upon the International Day of Feminist Solidarity Against Transnational Corporations on April 24. Feminist Rage is a bilingual radio show produced by Real World Radio [Radio Mundo Real] and by the World March of Women.
We reproduced the interview the podcast made with Silvia Ribeiro. Silvia Ribeiro is a Uruguayan researcher and environmental activist who lives in Mexico and is a member of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration [Grupo de Acción sobre Erosión, Tecnología y Concentración] (ETC Group). The ETC Group dedicates to, among other things, research into the corporate structure and the impact of new technologies on agriculture and nutrition.
To unveil the connection between nutrition and transnational corporations, we want to learn about the main transnational corporations in the food industry today and what they have in common.
What the main agri-food companies have in common is their huge size and the fact that very few companies control all stages of the entire agricultural supply chain, when it comes to industrialized products. We hear a lot about some of these companies, such as Monsanto (now a property of Bayer) and Syngenta — companies that occupy the first stages of the chain. Walmart, a supermarket which is now the largest one in the world, is on the other end of the chain. Each connection in the chain between Monsanto and Walmart, from agricultural inputs, seeds, and pesticides to distribution, contains four or five companies.
Monsanto/Bayer are the “initiators”, followed by cereal distributors, very important in Latin America, such as Cargill and Bunge. The following stage is occupied by food processing companies, among which the world’s biggest ones are Nestlé, Danone, Pepsi, Coca-Cola — companies that monopolize water. After them, there are the supermarkets, among which Walmart is in the lead, but there are others, such as Carrefour, Tesco, etc. The bigger problem here is that each of these stages are occupied by four to ten companies controlling more than a half of the market. In some sectors, it is more concentrated, such as in seeds and pesticides, in which very few companies control 80% of the global market. The most absurd aspect of the transnational corporations’ presence in the agricultural and food industry is that it is not any industrial field. No one can live without food.
Remarkably, the majority of humanity is not fed by industrial chains, but by what they manage to obtain through smallholders, peasant producers, small cattle holders, artisanal fishermen and fisherwomen, urban vegetable gardens. This is what feeds most people.
Transnational corporations’ presence in the agri-food industry allows them to misappropriate a huge quantity of land, water, and energy. In fact, in most cases, they do not produce food; they produce mostly commodities, in other words, industrialized goods. It is so serious because this is one of the industries key to people’s survival throughout the planet, and those companies that control it are not interested in nutrition at all, they just want to make more money.
So, what can we say against the argument we have heard so many times about the role of these food industry transnational corporations in the increase of hunger?
The pandemic and the recent war in Ukraine illustrate the matter of hunger. Hunger should not exist, but the companies take advantage of any situation of conflict to speculate over scarcity. Wheat and corn prices have increased by 20% and 30%, reaching 40% in some places. However, the truth is that Russia and Ukraine supply about 5% of the wheat and corn consumed in the world. The products of the last harvest are still there. But these companies control prices because they are the majority in each sector.
In any situation of restriction, whether due to the pandemic or due to war, they speculate and exponentially increase prices. On one hand, it affects the people who need to buy food; on the other, as industrial agriculture owns more than 75% of the world’s agricultural lands, peasants who want to produce healthy and affordable food have no ways to do this.
There is always a relation between speculation of the companies in the market and their power over the territories, either as to land, water, energy.
In addition to the fact that transnational corporations occupy the entire chain, from the field to our plates, we specifically want to understand how these companies behave in agribusiness.
Companies that produce seeds, agrochemicals, and pesticides are massively concentrated in the first stages of the chain. Four companies (Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, which is now Chinese, Corteva, which is a consolidation between Dupont and Dow, and BASF) own more than 60% of the world market of pesticides and seeds of all types. They control all transgenic seeds, produced to increase dependency on pesticides.
Most transgenic seeds tolerate toxic herbicides manufactured by the same company or originally created by it. Companies increased production of transgenic seeds although their yield is lower than that of hybrid seeds, and although they require a huge increase of toxic products.
How do supermarket and superstore transnational corporations are inserted in this chain? What is their role until they reach the final consumer?
For a long time, people bought food, particularly fresh food, near the place where it was produced. There has been an impulse to control the food market and centralize it through supermarkets and superstores. To begin with, they tried to remove all small food traders in urban areas through unfair competition.
When small traders disappear, only the supermarket remains, and, having relative monopoly or dividing the area with other equally big supermarkets, they are able to control both price and offer. Walmart and Carrefour divided the countries and areas where they are located based on the removal of small traders, on one side, and by reducing our options regarding the food we want to eat, on the other.
Manipulation is always in action, until a certain dependency is created, of which they are in control. This is the role of big supermarkets: removing more and more of local production or local small traders. This increases the amount of transportation, energy for refrigeration, packages.
Some time ago, supermarkets also started making deals with smallholders, imposing quality and delivery conditions which, in many cases, are impossible to meet. Big supermarkets are spaces achievable only by big companies and transnational corporations.
Furthermore, we have discovered that another type of transnational corporation is involved, managing and controlling food: technology transnational corporations. How do they get to our food and what is their role?
Although it has started before the pandemic, the level of participation of digital companies, both in the agribusiness industry and in the distribution chain, has been widely increased by the pandemic. This is the last big industrial sector invaded by digitalization.
There is a movement toward an increased automation of agribusiness. From drones to automated bulldozers, everything is being used. Also in all points of the distribution chain, everything is presented through online platforms. With the pandemic, agribusiness and food companies have created a discourse in which online shopping is proclaimed as safer.
Digital companies are now getting into food or agriculture through supposed services. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba and Tencent. These seven companies are currently the world’s biggest companies in terms of market capitalization. On the other hand, two of them, Apple and Amazon, are also among the world’s biggest in sales. They have an enormous amount of money available, and one of their investments is precisely these so essential sectors, agriculture and nutrition.
In addition, they have much more control over our behavior toward food. The entire digital industry is centralized around data extractivism. They have information about production means, the territory, water sources, land, as well as about the routes of the goods, where they go, who buys them, where they enter, even who receives the food and how it arrives at houses.
The main value of these data is collective: they allow picturing the big collective trends, as well as power through individual ways — such as management of crossed data on health, work, hobbies, interests — to create customized markets.
These companies obtain most of their money with this type of data, sold for trade, marketing.
The subject of nutrition is even more important, because food behaviors not only have economic value, but are also related to health. This entire industry based on persuasion, group-driven and customized marketing is one of the biggest nowadays in what refers to technology companies.
It is such a dangerous kind of control, comprising from the territories and resources to our movements, the relationships we create, the food we eat, and what it means in terms of health.
The countryside technification followed by the online sale in platforms are inserted in a big umbrella called “agriculture 4.0”, which social and grassroots movements denounce as being a false solution. What does it mean?
They want to present agriculture 4.0 as if it could reduce climate change or lead to a lesser need for transportation, or to more options, but it is the opposite. What we see is more and more alienation, that is, a separation between people and how and where things are produced.
More than a false solution, it is really harmful. Digitalized agriculture involves huge amounts of energy, which, in many cases, is invisible. The infrastructure, or the use of artificial intelligence programs to process the massive amount of data, is one of the greatest consumers of energy in the world.
Separation between producers and consumers means less and less people in the countryside, whether due to automation or to the exodus caused by the market. It creates more climate change issues, and, as a result of invasion of territories, creates more hunger. And it definitely creates an even bigger distance between the people in the cities and production, despite an illusion that the virtual environment will make it easy for us to learn about the origin of everything we consume.
Social and grassroots movements emphasize, defend, and practice other connections with nutrition, other production means. Could you talk about some of them?
Our research into who produces food is more than 20 years old. We have also collaborated with many other organizations, such as GRAIN and Friends of the Earth. We have concrete data that show that 70% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders, agroforestry systems, artisanal fishery, and urban garden vegetables — with less than 25% of the land and water and much less than 10% of the energy used in the large-scale agriculture.
The social movements propose that an agrarian reform capable of providing greater access to land, with support, with more resources, would not only enable production of food for the entire population, but food of a completely different quality.
Local farmers, peasants, and Indigenous peoples are the very people who, in situations of crises such as the pandemic, managed to even share — including at no charge, in solidarity — their production in the countryside with other people who had no food. I do not intend to give a romanticized view, we all went through hardships during the pandemic, but these experiences, such as that of the Landless Workers’ Movement [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra] (MST) in Brazil, or of the Indigenous territories in Colombia and Ecuador, created solidarity relations in situations of crises and enabled people to survive.
One of the main causes of the impacts of the pandemic has been the comorbidities, the great number of diseases related to the industrial animal agri-food system. Creating other forms of production without pesticides, based on the peasant and ecological agriculture, and new relationships with the land and between the countryside and the city is of the essence.
We are talking about restoring the entire health sector, as well as care and nutrition, which, since the Middle Ages, as pointed out by Silvia Federeci, have been invisibilized and associated to women based on the argument that it is natural and biological. The same impulse to create sources of nutrition to disrupt the transnational corporations’ power can be used to retrieve and reformulate the concept of care, of nutrition, and the household environment and health as a whole in a collective way, by many hands. So that we may all agree that such aspects are not biologically connected to women, who should not be invisibilized neither an object of domination.