Inside the Big Pushback Against Big Ag's Agenda to Sell GMO Seeds and Pesticides

In 2007, the United States agricultural industry spent over 7.8 billion dollars on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides combined. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman is one of the experts leading the movement against the widespread use of pesticides. She is a senior scientist and director of the Grassroots Science Program at the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). She is also a graduate of Yale and Cornell Universities with degrees in women’s studies and ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Marcia about her work with PAN, and with agroecology field schools in Asia and Africa. 

Food Tank (FT): After studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and women's studies at Yale University before that, what sparked your interest in working with (or rather against) pesticides?

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman (MIE): After working on the Thai-Cambodian and Somali-Ethiopian borders throughout the 1980s, I came to realize that while political conflict over resources are at the heart of so many of the world’s problems, the ecological and environmental dimensions of these struggles (along with the social and political) must be in the forefront of solutions. That is what led me to build on my early studies in gender, politics and development with PhD research in agroecology at Cornell, and my subsequent work developing community-led farmer field schools in ecological pest management in Asia. There I witnessed the pervasive influence of pesticide companies in the fields and over government agencies, along with the intensive —and frequently unprotected—use of pesticides by farmers who had been encouraged to abandon their traditional methods of farming by government extension programs and institutions like the World Bank. These experiences eventually led to me to join the advocacy-oriented Pesticide Action Network, where I have been for nearly 20 years now!

(FT): In Somalia, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Cambodia, you developed successful schools of sustainable agriculture, literacy, and ecologically sound pest management. Do you think it would be more or less difficult to set up the same schools in lesser-developed parts of the United States? This is all while taking into account the roles of women and economic success in the societies aforementioned.

MIE: The most successful field schools I’ve seen have grown out of grassroots movements and are grounded in the sharing of knowledge within a community or between communities, often with engagement of allies having relevant or complementary expertise. This can happen anywhere and is already occurring in the US. I had the honor of participating in an Agroecology Encuentro in Florida this year, organized by the Rural Coalition and the Farmworker Association of Florida. They adapted the Brazilian model of agroecology field schools, brought farmers and farmworkers together and held hands-on workshops on how to transform the agroecological and political dimensions of our food and farming system. Unfortunately, the US Department of Agriculture tends to be far more interested in enabling the pesticide-GMO model of corporate agriculture, than in leading this kind of agro-ecological transformation. Still, an agroecological revolution is taking place all over the world, and gaining ground here in the U.S. too.

(FT): While in these other countries, did you witness any large agricultural corporations, similar to Monsanto in the US, trying to control the agricultural industries of these countries? If so, to what degree were they in control?

MIE: I did observe the influence of pesticide companies over government agencies in many of the countries where I worked or visited. This proved to be the biggest obstacle to our efforts to nourish agroecological transformation. With six companies controlling almost three-quarters of the global pesticide industry, their market power and therefore political influence is extensive. In many countries, they provide pesticide sales commissions to local extensionists, which amount to more than their government salaries; they’ve been known to bribe government officials to ensure approval and import of their products. In some places, government officials are routinely invited to sit on the boards of pesticide companies. Pesticide industry representatives show up at international pesticide treaty negotiations, have even misrepresented themselves as government officials and generally obstruct progress in talks that could result in phasing out harmful pesticides. When there’s this much intrusion of corporate influence into the public sphere, governments are generally unwilling to strictly regulate pesticide use or to invest in agroecological programs that have the potential to liberate farmers from pesticide dependence and decrease pesticide sales. 

(FT): When working against corporate giants of the agricultural business, what have you found to be the most difficult part of gaining ground against these businesses?

MIE: One of the toughest parts of our work to support agroecological transformation is countering the power and influence of multinational agribusiness over government agencies, science and public policy. The six companies I mentioned earlier have close ties to governments all over the world. In the United States, these companies spent over half a billion dollars lobbying  Congress in one 10 year period alone. Pesticide and biotech company representatives move through a revolving door in and out of public agencies like EPA, USDA and FDA. Recently, there have been whistleblower cases filed in the U.S., in which scientists at the US Department of Agriculture have complained of harassment from USDA and been warned not to publish their research or told to remove their names from journal articles, when their findings regarding harmful impacts of certain top-selling pesticides were considered by USDA to be “controversial.” And there appears to be an Orwellian epidemic of pesticide industry underwriting of “Chairs of Sustainable Agriculture” at some of our land grant universities. I find this erosion of scientific integrity in our public institutions very troubling.

(FT): With regards to organic agriculture research funding, have you or any of your colleagues been working at gaining more funding from the USDA? 

MIE: We do not seek funding from USDA, but believe that USDA can and should designate much more funding and resources for organic agriculture research, education and outreach. A study in 1997 found that USDA dedicated less than half of 1 percent to organic farming. A new university study published last month found that even now, USDA invests a mere 1.5 percent of its total US$2.8 billion ag research budget to agroecological farming. USDA does have some very good programs promoting conservation Meanwhile, our public land grant institutions — faced with shrinking budgets for agricultural research — are increasingly forging partnerships with the major pesticide and biotech companies, allowing these companies to influence the direction of university and graduate student research. 

(FT): How were the farmers that are using agroecological practices, including ecological weed and insect pest management, able to break the 'mold' and become the innovative farmers leading the way towards more sustainable agriculture?

MIE: I’ve spoken to farmers trapped on the pesticide treadmill — in Senegal, in Indonesia and the Philippines, in many places — who reached a turning point: their soil had been worn out, their crop plants weakened and more susceptible to disease and pests, some were resorting to yet more expensive and increasingly hazardous inputs, but falling into debt while they and their family members became ill from pesticide poisoning. Those farmers who “broke out of the mold” as you say, often observed another farmer using agroecological practices, building up their soil, diversifying their farm, while feeding their families and turning a profit - and they wondered if they could try that too. Or they may have heard about these practices and begun experimenting on their own. Farmers are the world’s original scientists, you know! But the impacts go beyond the individual.  When communities come together to build soil and replace hazardous chemicals with agroecological approaches, they are very successful at create lasting solutions. In Andhra Pradesh India, over 10 million farmers are implementing community managed sustainable agriculture. Their pest management costs are down 80 percent, they’ve diversified their crops, reintroducing traditional millets and spices, outside grain purchases dropped 44 percent, community food security is up. Meanwhile, tremendous energy and leadership is coming from young women farmers active in hundreds of women’s groups in the region. There are so many examples of success that goes beyond the individual farm, spurring major social, economic and political change throughout a community and beyond. PAN International’s new book on agroecology describes dozens of these successes from around the world.

(FT): Are these farmers succeeding economically in their efforts to become more sustainable? Because that may be the deciding factor for many farmers trying to change their practices to think more towards the future.

MIE: Yes, absolutely. Whether Chinese farmers managing rice-fish-duck systems, Nicaraguan organic coffee growers intercropping with plantain, Tanzanian farmers employing contour farming in their complex millet, maize, legumes and sunflower systems, or Idaho farmers integrating a 7-year vegetable and small grain crop rotation with pasture-fed cattle  — these farmers are succeeding economically and showing us that another world is not only possible but is already flourishing right here, right now. 


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