Editorial and full issue

by GRAIN | 14 Dec 2010

In our opening article we take an in-depth look at Malawi, the small east African country that has been widely seen as a beacon of hope in a continent beset by problems. In particular, the country has been praised for its success in promoting local farming so that, unlike many of its neighbours, Malawi has become self-sufficient in its staple food – maize. It is, indeed, good news that the President of Malawi no longer finds it acceptable to “go down on my knees and beg for food”, as he says. However, our report suggests that Malawi still faces problems – and serious ones. Hunger is rife: the UN’s World Food Programme and other agencies are feeding more than one million people in the country. And it is difficult to see how these people will ever be able to feed themselves unless Malawi, which has one of the most concentrated systems of land tenure in the world, redistributes land. The vast majority of farmers cultivate less than half a hectare of land, too little to guarantee a family’s long-term food security.

Another problem – and one that is rapidly getting worse – is the programme’s reliance on expensive, imported chemical fertilisers and hybrid maize seeds. This has an economic consequence, in that the government’s outlay on subsidies has become unsustainably high, and also an environmental one, in that these chemical inputs are weakening Malawi’s already fragile soils. There are some really exciting and viable agro-ecological farming projects, including one in Ekwendeni in northern Malawi. But these initiatives are rarely discussed by those, like US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who are trying to use Malawi as a showcase for a new green revolution in Africa, which they believe should be reliant on chemical inputs and hybrid seeds.

The green revolution crops up in another of our articles. Joan Baxter, a Canadian journalist, who has been reporting on Africa for over two decades, writes about the “perfect storm” that is currently gathering. She believes that the so-called solutions being imposed from outside are destroying the very elements that could help the region to find a way forward. She recalls how in the early 1990s an elderly African woman farmer asked her angrily, “Why do you bring your mistakes here?” At the time Joan had no response but, as you will find out when you read her article, she now believes she has the answer to the farmer’s question.
Another issue that has appeared repeatedly in recent editions of Seedling has been genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and this edition is no exception. In one of our shorter articles, we tell the tale of the current crisis in the Canadian flax (linseed) industry, an issue that has been largely ignored in the mainstream press. The crisis erupted in September 2009 when a Germany importer discovered that flax he had bought from Canada as “GM-free” was, in fact, contaminated by the GM variety. This was no chance finding, for one by one 34 other countries made the same discovery. Since GM flax has been banned from Canada since 2001, no one quite knows how the contamination happened. But it is clearly a huge problem for Canadian farmers: flax is one of their five main cash crops, and most importers want the product GM-free. Prices are in free fall.

On the other side of the world, in India, another GM drama is being played out. As we show in another article, a governmental agency authorised in October 2009 the commercial planting of Bt brinjal (aubergine or egg plant). As has been well documented in past Seedlings, the experience of Indian farmers with Bt cotton has been calamitous. Not surprisingly, farmer organisations immediately reacted with a barrage of protest and, just a day after the announcement, the environment ministry backtracked, saying that it would postpone the decision on Bt brinjal to allow consultations with “stakeholders”. Despite this initial victory, the farmers know that they are in a for difficult struggle, given the lobbying might of Mahyco, Monsanto’s partner in India and the main company behind the development of Bt brinjal.

In other articles in this edition, we invited the international food workers’ union, the IUF, to examine the global food industry, looking both at the way workers are treated and at the impact of the so-called “financialisation” of the industry. So accustomed have global investors become to high annual returns in the financial sector – of at least 25 per cent – that they are now demanding the same rate of profit from the food industry too. It is madness, something that is neither environmentally nor socially sustainable. And the imperative to stop it has never been clearer.

The editor

Author: GRAIN