This move towards large-scale farming and more profitable monocultures made small farmers more dependent on expensive chemical fertilizers, forcing them into ever-increasing debt. In India, 10,677 agricultural workers are believed to have committed suicide in 2020, many of whom were farmers trapped by mounting debts resulting from the high costs of these agricultural 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.
The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), introduced by the World Bank following the debt crisis in Latin America and in Africa after the 1979 oil crisis, forced the poorest countries to privatize their public and reduce their social protection mechanisms.
Adherence to stringent policy packages in almost all key sectors – from agriculture to education and health – has become mandatory in exchange for any future bank or IMF lending.
The SAPs meant that the indebted countries of the Southern Hemisphere had to shift from prioritizing indigenous crops on which the local population depended, to producing cash crops for export. As a result, local people and farmers have become more vulnerable to food scarcity – due to negative ecological effects and declining food accessibility.
Zambia: seed privatization
In Zambia, for example, the structural adjustment program included the privatization and liberalization of the seed system. It started with the liberalization and deregulation of ZAMSEED in the mid-1990s, which led to a decline in support for agricultural cooperatives. Additionally, the prioritization of maize as a cash crop has led to a decrease in crop variety, which means that local people have fewer food sources available.
“As part of recent policy changes, priority is being given to maize production. This is one of the main drivers of monoculture, which is responsible for reducing the varieties of food available in Zambia,” FIAN’s Chiliniya told openDemocracy.
FIAN documents how corporate control of agriculture undermines food security. Seed systems have moved from being run by cooperatives (which gives farmers more agency and fair prices) to being run by corporations (which prioritize profits).
“Farmer-managed seed systems have been replaced by commercial seed systems,” said Chilinya. “Most smallholder farmers are unable to buy seeds at market prices and therefore cannot grow 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 major climate changes. As a result of extreme weather changes like those experienced in 2020 and 2021, the country falls into food shortage,” Chiliniya added. According to the World Food Program (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 due to the overuse of chemical fertilizers,” said Leondia Odongo, co-founder of social justice organization 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 the reduction of essential subsidies for agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers. This process has led to a shift towards growing cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, instead of growing essential staples for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.
“Agricultural inputs that were previously provided free to farmers have been transferred to private entities under the guise of efficiency,” Odongo said. “This has resulted in smallholder farmers being left at the mercy of transnational seed and agrochemical corporations, which trick farmers with information about seeds and chemicals.”