Interview with Silvia Ribeiro:

A Comparison of Two Agricultural Models

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Silvia Ribeiro, researcher and program coordinator for ETC Group’s Mexico City office, says that while industrial agriculture is responsible for 44 to 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, small-scale farming not only contributes significantly to maintaining our food supply, but also to the cooling of our planet. This fact is something to keep in mind during the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, which will be held from 29 November to 10 December 2010.

As we get closer to the next climate change conference in Cancun, the question that comes to mind is how is the industrial agricultural model affecting global warming?

That’s a very important question because even governments, using the official figures from the United Nations, now recognize that industrial agriculture accounts for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. That’s huge – it’s equivalent to the amount emitted by transportation. Consider the entire agro-industrial chain, from the seed to the supermarket. This means producing food and grains on an industrial scale, and all that goes with it in terms of transportation, refrigeration, petroleum-derived products and the amount of packaging that large supermarket chains use (which, unbeknownst to many, is a top factor affecting the cutting down of trees). If you add ALL of that up, industrial agriculture, according to some authors, is actually responsible for 44 to 50 percent of greenhouse gases, not to mention that it uses 70 percent of the planet’s water. On the other hand, small-scale farming emits fewer greenhouse gases because products are generally meant for the local market. Farmers use very few petroleum-derived products, or none at all, either by choice or for economic reasons. What’s more, for the amount of land managed, varied and decentralized agriculture absorbs a large amount of carbon dioxide. So, what Vía Campesina (International Peasant Movement) began saying in 2007 – that small farmers were cooling off the planet – now there are figures to back them up.

What are the major trends in Latin American agricultural development?

One of the most serious problems is the merging of agribusinesses. Over the last thirty years, there have been an unprecedented number of corporate agribusiness mergers, regardless of whether we’re talking about agriculture or industrialism. For instance, Monsanto controls more than 90 percent of the transgenic seed market and the majority of all commercial seeds. But the same is happening all the way up the chain. You have five or six companies that control nearly the entire commercial seed market, four companies that control grain processing (Cargill, Dreyfrus, Bunge and ADM), there are four or five food processing plants, and the same goes for supermarkets. So you’ve got some twenty transnational companies that have enormous leverage over the governments and agricultural policy. But the reality in Latin America is that roughly half the population is rural and those producing the food are mostly small farmers. It’s like a constant brutal confrontation: on one side, the most powerful companies in the world, and on the other, the people, small farmers that continue producing most of the food.

What are the fundamental characteristics of agribusiness as an agricultural model?

Well, more than fifty years ago they introduced a type of mechanized agriculture that uses a large quantity of agrichemicals, which also makes it so that people can’t use their own seeds and have to buy them. The seed is the foundation, it’s the doorway to the food network, so whoever controls the seeds controls everything that follows. This is the increasingly common trend that we’re seeing in Latin America right now. So we’re producing industrial food of lower quality that especially favors corporate interests, leads to numerous health problems and creates dependency, which in turn is a fundamental factor why countries can’t become self-sufficient in their food production.

What can you tell us about monocultures?

Monocultures are an integral part of this type of agricultural practice for both crops and plantations. The monoculture model is the basis of all industrial agriculture in Latin America. Its use in Brazil is an example of one of the most widespread. Sugar cane, corn, soybeans, and eucalyptus monocultures are being planted in more and more fields, even taking over fields from those farmers who want to produce food. Generally speaking, those crops aren’t meant as food for people, they’re either exported to be processed in other places or used as biofuels in various locations. So it’s also a problem for who’s consuming what is produced.

Various free trade agreements have been in place for several years. What effect are they having on these small farmers?

The truth is that the free trade agreements have pushed greater numbers of small farmers into the cities, which increases the poverty level there and diminishes the possibilities for self-sufficient food production within countries. It has also caused the displacement and worsened the poverty of those who can provide solutions to both the food and global warming crises. (Translated by: Teri Jones-Villeneuve)

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