The relentless assault on the food supplies of the world by industrial agriculture and its consequences continues unabated, and largely ignored. Recent developments involving principal staple crops include:
Bananas. Banana wilt disease continues to decimate the staple crop of East Africa, ravaging the plant relied upon by large populations in Uganda, Rwanda, western Kenya and Bukoba in north-western Tanzania. The disease, which is on a rampage because of the global industry’s insistence on using a single strain of banana (the Cavendish), is adding its threat to food security in a region where severe drought has reduced the production of maize, beans and milk. Banana producers in Central and South America, who supply a large portion of the American market, live in terror of the new strain of wilt finding its way there, because it is resistant to the chemicals they have used to control it in the past. Thus two methods used by industrial agriculture to maximize the production of bananas — monoculture and chemical control of pests and diseases — are the prime causes of a mortal threat to all banana production.
Casava. Agriculture officials and researchers in Uganda are warning of a serious threat posed by a new strain of cassava brown streak disease, saying it could wipe out the entire crop. Mike Thresh, a consultant on cassava viral diseases, said the disease was now occurring in areas previously believed to be immune, such as high altitude areas away from the Indian Ocean coastal belt of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is considered a threat to the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, where the crop is a major factor in food security.
Corn, soybeans. Farmers in the American breadbasket are fighting a plague of weeds that have evolved resistance to the weedkiller Roundup. A polyphosphate herbicide that kills all plants, but then quickly breaks down into inert compounds, Roundup was promoted by Monsanto as the basis for an entirely new approach to agriculture. Monsanto scientists altered the genes of corn, soybean and other staple crops so that they would resist Roundup, which could then be used instead of earlier, more toxic and persistent chemicals, to kill everything else. But as always happenes when industrial agriculture tries to kill everything else and grow one thing, “everything else” rapidly evolves its own resistance, which has now happened all over the world where Roundup has been extensivley used. The results: crops are requiring heavier and heavier applications of the pricey Roundup, plus additional applications of the old bad actors like 2-4,D and a return to expensive, intensive tillage.
Rice. The so-called “Green Revolution” — the use of genetically manipulated seed, synthetic fertilizers and intense chemical applications to try to increase production — has been such a stunning failure in the rice- and cotton-bowl of India that more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, and in one state alone — Punjab — they continue at the steady rate of one per day. The primary issue is the high cost of the GM seeds, available only from the global chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto. Plants grown from them do not produce viable seed, so instead of harvesting their own seed for free, as they have done for centuries, the farmers now have to buy it every year. It was supposed to be worth it because the yields would be higher, but they are not, and when the farmers cannot pay their debts, or cannot buy seed, many of them kill themselves.
All of these developments are consistent with a central theme of my book (Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living): that achieving economies of scale in industrial enterprises, including agriculture, simultaneously concentrates risks that may not be realized at the same time as the gains from the efficiencies, but will eventually more than countervail them. After decades during which these risks were well concealed, they are now manifesting around the world, with ominous implications for food security and political stability.