This shift towards big agriculture and more profitable monocultures made small farmers more dependent on expensive chemical fertilisers, forcing them into ever greater levels of debt. In India, 10,677 agricultural workers were reported to have taken their own lives in 2020, many of them farmers trapped by mounting debts resulting from the high costs of these farming inputs.
Unfair terms of trade and global lending – enforced by multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – are also to blame.
Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), introduced by the World Bank following the debt crisis across Latin America and Africa after the 1979 oil crisis, coerced poorer countries into privatising their public sectors and reducing their welfare mechanisms.
Adhering to strict policy packages in nearly every key sector – from agriculture to education and healthcare – became compulsory in exchange for any future loans from the bank or the IMF.
SAPs meant indebted countries across the Global South had to convert from prioritising indigenous crops that the local population depended on, to producing cash crops for export. As a result, local populations and farmers became more vulnerable to food scarcity – due to the negative ecological effects and decline in food accessibility.
Zambia: seed privatisation
In Zambia, for example, the structural adjustment agenda included the privatisation and liberalisation of the seed system. It began with the liberalisation and deregulation of ZAMSEED in the mid-1990s, which led to a decline in support for farmer cooperatives. In addition, the priority of maize as a cash crop has led to a decline in crop variety, meaning the local population has fewer food sources available.
“Under recent policy changes, priority is given to maize production. This is one of the key drivers for monocropping, which is responsible for the reduction in varieties of available foods in Zambia,” Chiliniya from FIAN told openDemocracy.
FIAN is documenting how the corporate control of agriculture is weakening food security. Seed systems have gone from being cooperative-led (which gives farmers more agency and fair prices) to being corporate-led (which prioritises profits).
“Farmer-managed seed systems have been replaced by commercial seed systems,” Chilinya said. “Most smallholder farmers are unable to purchase seeds at the commercial price and hence they cannot grow any food.”
These commercial seeds are also more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. “Most people focus on cash crops at the expense of other crops that are more resilient to extensive weather changes. In the wake of extreme weather changes like those experienced in 2020 and 2021, the country falls into a food shortage,” added Chiliniya. According to the World Food Programme (WPF), 48% of the Zambian population is unable to meet minimum calorie requirements.
Kenya: food crisis
openDemocracy also spoke with food justice activists in Kenya, which is experiencing a severe food crisis. “Land degradation is affecting food production in Kenya because of the overuse of chemical fertilisers,” said Leondia Odongo, co-founder of social justice organisation Haki Nawiri Afrika.
As in Zambia, the disastrous legacy of SAPs is to blame. In 1980, Kenya was one of the first countries to receive a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank. It was conditional on reducing essential subsidies for farmer inputs, such as fertilisers. This process instigated a shift towards farming cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, instead of farming key staples for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.
“Agricultural inputs that were previously provided to farmers free of charge went into the hands of private entities under the guise of efficiency,” Odongo explained. “This has resulted in smallholder farmers being abandoned to the mercy of transnational corporations in the seed and agrochemical industry, which dupe farmers with information about seeds and chemicals.”