This Monsanto-free project has led the creators of A Patented Life down some unexpected paths for sure, not the least of which has entailed serious expansion of our vocabulary. Bear with me as I try to take you along one somewhat mucky trail that starts with dead honeybees…
Because of this project our daily lexicon now contains terminology like bacillus thuringiensis or Bt – that’s the naturally-occurring insecticide that has been genetically inserted into seeds, making Bt plants, like cotton for instance, toxic to insects. Or monoculture, the model of industrial agriculture promoted by Monsanto, et al. as part of the GMO regime.
Now, we’re adding another term to our increasingly esoteric vocabulary: neonicotinoids, somewhat sexily known as neonics. While the genetically modified Bt crops themselves are classified as insecticides and are indiscriminately toxic to friend and foe alike, neonics are a class of topical pesticide used in farms and homes which coats seeds or plants, contaminates flowers and pollen, and kills the bees whose job it is to pollinate.
Turns out, neonics are directly connected to another term – Colony Collapse Disorder – a global epidemic. A recent Huffington Post article on Monsanto’s acquisition of a bee research company nicely outlines the confluence of issues conspiring to decimate the honeybee population and after reading it I genuinely take issue with the name Colony Collapse Disorder. The term seems to suggest the bees themselves have some sort of collective pathology that is causing their own demise. As though it’s the bees’ fault, not the monoculture, industrial agriculture system that dramatically narrows their once diverse diets, that poisons what limited options are available to them, that crowds them into commercial hives which Rick Rigutto from Weaver’s Way aptly compares to cattle feed lots, and that corrupts the gene pool through artificial insemination of the queens.
Regardless of what you call it, though, what experts all seem to agree on is a declining bee population has serious implications for our food supply. Which leads me to one last vocabulary word: famine. But don’t worry, because with Monsanto now entering into the bee research field we can be assured they’ll come up with solutions to the bee epidemic that will benefit all of humanity – or at least those who are Monsanto shareholders.
I arrived in Bangladesh on the 9th of February 2012 and by the 11th I was in the field in the northern char areas, traveling with DEW to hear from farmers about their struggles and strengths as they adapt (or not) to the changing climate. We spent long days hearing from dozens of farmers like the indigenous Garo women of Tatihati village in Sherpur District.
Sitting in a central area surrounded by homes made of corrugated metal, the packed dirt ground freshly swept of debris, we listened to the women tell us stories of crop damage due to exceptionally foggy weather over the last several seasons. At the end of the meeting one woman approached me and said she has no hope for herself, but rather hopes for a better life for her children. Another woman simply asked me to pray for her. Nothing more.
Finally, a few women came close to me, clearly asking something and making forward clawing motions in the air with their hands. Confused, I turned to the person translating for me. He hesitated, and then explained the government has a program where the Ultra Poor (also referred to as Hardcore Poor) can get a job digging in the dirt to fill up holes in the road for food. I had no response. I thought perhaps I misunderstood or the language barriers limited explanation.
As we were walking back to our vehicles, I suddenly became overwhelmed not only by the sheer desperation of these suffering women, but also by the official answer to that desperation.
Several weeks later I reviewed a World Bank report from 2011 talking about the current economic status of Bangladesh. It turns out I did not misunderstand the translation: the formal government policy was spelled out in this report.
“Food for Work – this program operates in rural areas only. The beneficiaries are generally women selected by the Union Parishad who must be fit and willing to work in infrastructure projects in the area for food. The work includes planting trees, digging canals, building embankments, road building and maintenance, etc. The total budget allocation for this program in the current fiscal year is Tk9.9 billion” (World Bank, 2011, p. 12).
I also found another…
“Test Relief – a program administered by the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, and undertaken as needed following large-scale or localized disasters. The participants are largely self-selecting, with wages and labor requirements set to discourage the non-poor from participating. Workers are paid 3.5 kg rice or wheat for every day of work.” (bold emphasis is mine)
This blatant exploitation of the vulnerability of the poor is breathtaking. People are starving so they’ll work for anything, in any capacity. In times of crisis, it is the poor who suffer most. For example, inflation is an ongoing concern in Bangladesh, but inflation of food prices is particularly acute. The World Bank reported in 2011 overall inflation year-on-year was 10.5% while food inflation was at 14%, noting food prices were last this high during the 2008 food crisis.
Food makes up 66% of the total household consumption expenses of the poorest 40 percent of households in Bangladesh. Rice, the main staple, accounts for about 33% of total household expenditures. Compare that to the US: A quick google search told me Americans spend about 10% of their household consumption on food. So when food prices rise globally, Americans are far more insulated from hunger than poor Bangladeshi families.
While arable land is increasingly being “developed” for industrial uses (further exacerbating the intense poverty and hunger), a majority of it remains cultivated for food, with rice production, at over 30 million metric tons, largest crop in Bangladesh. The irony of course is that those who produce the nation’s food are nonetheless struggling to feed themselves.
This blog started off as an overview of rice farming in Bangladesh. But I hope as you watch this video of stunning landscapes and hard-working people you keep in mind the heavy cost paid by those tilling the soil.
Fish in Bangladesh are a vital source of financial and nutritional health for the rural poor. Small-scale fish farms and hatcheries contribute to the local economy and provide an affordable source of protein and other essential nutrients to many in rural areas, where nearly half of the population faces starvation and malnutrition.Yet threats to fish and the people who rely upon them are very similar to other agriculture sectors: changing climate impacts water levels, fish habitat is being taken for non-agriculture uses, and industrial pollution poisons the ground water through runoff or through direct toxic dumping.
The Fish Site reported that in fiscal year 2008-2009 alone, more than 3 million tons of chemical fertilizers and 45,000 tons of insecticides were used in farmlands across the country, according to Department of Agriculture Extension data. Rains wash away nearly 25% of these chemicals into the
watershed. And that reflects only the byproducts of industrial agriculture practices. In the northern part of Bangladesh, people in Kulpur village rely on fish from the river as a main staple of their diet. But the village has the bad fortune to be located downstream from a chemical fertilizer plant that periodically dumps ammonia into the river, killing the fish. I visited the village, only accessible by boat, in early February. Crossing the river I noticed several small fish floating belly up in the water. The people told me for the last 2 weeks fish had been dying from ammonia poisoning, the second time this has happened in 3 years. For people already struggling to get food in their isolated community, the impacts have been devastating.
Aside from toxins, access is also becoming a concern. As market demands encourage farmers to raise particular varieties of fish like silver carp and tilapia, the shift from affordable, indigenous fish has serious impacts on the poor, according to a study from the International Food Policy Research. This is a trend seen in poor countries throughout the world, not only Bangladesh.
Yet the IFPC notes in Bangladesh efforts have begun to “promote semi-intensive polyculture in small, seasonal ponds, using the nutrient-dense small fish mola together with carp species. Mola greatly improves the nutritional value of the output of the pond, has no negative economic consequences, and adds about 10 percent to the total productivity of the pond.” This model allows small fish farmers to still have market access with higher-priced fish while providing an essential food source for local consumption.
Once again, I am reminded that the industrial agriculture model (promoted by the Monsantos of the world), with its emphasis on chemicals, monoculture, and large-scale methods, runs counter to the health and well-being of humans and the land that sustains us.