Food

Judge blocks debt relief program designed to help farmers of color amid lawsuit

While Congress managed to pass the American Rescue Plan, which included $4 billion for Black farmers and other minority farmers, many of those farmers have yet to reap any of the benefits from that piece of legislation.

According to The Washington Post, judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin's Eastern District, on Thursday, June 10, issued an order temporarily halting the program. The ruling was made in response to a lawsuit filed by a conservative group representing white farmers who believe the program "is unconstitutional because it discriminates against them."

The publication reports that the lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rick Esenberg, the group's president and general counsel, criticized the program as he claimed it raises "grave constitutional concerns."

"The Court recognized that the federal government's plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm," Esenberg said.

However, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture argue otherwise. In fact, the department is vowing to push back in the program's defense when the situation goes to court. In a statement to The Washington Post, Matt Herrrick, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) director of communications, spoke out on behalf of the department.

"We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers," Herrrick said. "When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress."

The program, which was passed along with the $1.9 trillion relief package back in March, had a targeted goal of correcting the long history of imbalance where funding for farmers is concerned. For decades, Black and Latino farmers along with other minority farmers have faced difficulty obtaining funding from the government. The COVID-19 pandemic further contributed to those difficulties as people of color were disproportionately impacted.

"Over the last 100 years, policies were implemented that specifically twisted in a way that disadvantaged socially disadvantaged producers," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. "There's no better example of that than the covid relief efforts. Billions of dollars went to White farmers, because the system is structured in a way that gives them significant advantages."

At this point, it is unclear how long the program will be stalled due to the lawsuit.

A call for more plant-based eating has started a meat war

Colorado Governor Jared Polis's declaration of March 20 as "MeatOut Day" to promote plant-based diets—which are beneficial to human health, the environment, and the prevention of cruelty to animals—sparked controversy between animal rights activists and the meat industry that went beyond state lines.

Polis is not the first major politician to promote this message to eat less meat; he joins governors and mayors in 40 additional states and cities who have signed similar proclamations in recent years. Originally conceived in 1985 as the "Great American Meatout" by the Farm Animal Rights Movement, an animal welfare nonprofit based in Bethesda, Maryland, to protest a U.S. Senate resolution proclaiming National Meat week, MeatOut Day has been proclaimed by state and national governments around the globe.

"Removing animal products from our diets reduces the risk of various ailments, including heart disease, [high blood] pressure, stroke, various cancers, and diabetes; and… a plant-based diet helps protect the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, preserving forests, grasslands and wildlife habitats, and reduces pollution of waterways," said Polis in his proclamation.

The announcement was applauded by environmentalists and animal rights advocates. But there has also been significant pushback, unsurprisingly, from the meat industry and the politicians who support it. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association (CCA) slapped back with their own call to have a "Meat In" on March 20. "On this day, CCA encourages Colorado to meet in a restaurant and order your favorite meat dish, meet your family and friends for a meal featuring meat!"

"For our governor to say that we should have a meat-free day is the last straw," said Republican State Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer. "It's just one more attack against my county." Polis's declaration also raised interstate hackles. "That is a direct attack on our way of life here in Nebraska," Governor Pete Ricketts said at a news conference at Frank Stoysich Meats, the Omaha-based butcher shop where he announced the creation of "Meat on the Menu Day." Colorado Public Radio dubbed the growing clash a "carnivorous culture war."

But if Nebraska's way of life involved a healthy and safe natural environment and stable climate, then Ricketts might take a deeper look at what eating meat is doing to the planet. "It's tempting to believe in quick technological fixes that will let us keep indulging in burgers without the climate guilt," Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist at New York University, and Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at Harvard Law School, wrote on Wired. "But the fact is that currently, the only real solution available is to produce and eat less beef."

As Polis said, plant-based diets do help protect the environment, but that's merely a more pleasing spin on the main, terrifying fact: Meat-based diets are having devastating consequences on the environment and climate. The emissions alone from the meat industry are reason enough to curb our meat intake. The livestock sector is responsible for 16.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is currently on target to account for nearly half of the total amount of greenhouse gases that global human activity can emit into the atmosphere from now until 2030—if we are to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius maximum temperature increase outlined by the Paris climate agreement.

It's not just all the burps and farts that ruminants like cows, sheep and goats emit (which account for about 5.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases), but the massive deforestation occurring, primarily in the Amazon, to make room for raising cattle and the grains, like soy, meant to feed them. The grazing land used for the production of meat and dairy combined with agricultural land used to produce the animals' feed takes up 30 percent of the Earth's land area—and 80 percent of all agricultural land in the United States.

In April 2020, scientists from the University of Michigan and Tulane University released new research that modeled different climate outcomes between 2016 and 2030 based on varying adjustments in Americans' diet. In one scenario, they found that if Americans were to replace 50 percent of animal products with plant-based foods, they would prevent more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. In another scenario, in which Americans reduce their consumption of beef by 90 percent, that number would increase to preventing more than 2.4 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from being emitted. That would be like taking nearly half of the world's cars off the roads for an entire year.

The scientists write that "this diet projection exercise emphasizes the important role that changes in diet can play in climate action," adding that such changes "will require the concerted efforts of policymakers, the food industry and consumers."

"Moving the American appetite from our burger-heavy diet to plant-based eating is a powerful and necessary part of curbing the climate crisis," said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona, which supported the study and released a policy guide, "Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030," to help decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels to promote the dietary shifts that must happen to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis from happening, like deadly heat waves, sea-level rise, the spread of disease and extreme weather events, species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

"We can't ignore that public health, sustainability, climate resilience and food security are all part of the same recipe. Our government has a responsibility to make healthy, climate-friendly foods more accessible to all Americans, and that starts with the dietary guidelines," said Feldstein. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the meat supply chain's vulnerabilities, but our food system faces even greater long-term threats from climate change. We desperately need policymakers to support sustainable diets and a resilient food system."

In declaring Colorado's "MeatOut Day," Gov. Polis became one of those policymakers. And he doesn't just have environmental and climate science to back up his decision. Health experts and animal rights advocates also have reason to cheer. In 2015, after reviewing more than 800 scientific studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm, classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen for human colorectal cancer, while red meat was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

More recently, in a study published in the journal Diabetes Care in February 2020, researchers from Harvard University, University of Chicago, Oregon Health & Science University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine found "[c]onsiderable evidence from long-term prospective cohort studies… that diets high in red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and all-cause mortality." The researchers conclude, "For the prevention and management of diabetes and other chronic diseases, it is important to… emphasize dietary patterns high in minimally processed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, while limiting red and processed meats."

There is also a powerful ethical argument supporting the shift from meat to plants, as factory farming is the largest source of animal cruelty in the entire span of human history. According to United Nations data, more than 70 billion land animals worldwide are killed for food every year. (Our fish consumption is another magnitude altogether, with commercial fish farms killing up to 120 billion fish annually, with another trillion fish caught and killed in the wild.)

"At no other time in history have so many animals died or suffered so much throughout their lives," writes the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Animal Equality. "For many animals, the only time they see and feel the light and warmth of the sun will be during the trip to the slaughterhouse."

"Meat has always been politicized and meat-eating tied to a lot of perceptions of American identity and masculinity, especially here in the American West," Heide Bruckner, a professor at Colorado University, told Colorado Public Radio following Polis's announcement. Bruckner, whose research involves alternative food systems like urban gardens, organic food and animal-welfare certified meat, supports MeatOut Day as an easy way for people to think about their food choices. "There is a large area in between that all-or-nothing approach that we really should explore," she said. "Realistically, one day isn't radically going to shift perception, change behaviors or reduce meat consumption. But I do believe it can provide an opening for some to consider the role that meat plays in their diet."

Perhaps there hasn't been a radical shift in perception regarding meat, but there has been a steady growing shift. Since MeatOut was first launched 35 years ago, Polis pointed out in his proclamation, "more than 35 million Americans have explored a plant-based diet and reduced their consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs; and major food manufactures and national franchises are marketing more vegan options in response to this growing demand."

Young people are driving that shift. According to research conducted in 2019 and published last year by YouGov, a London-based market research firm, millennials (22 percent) are far more likely than Gen Xers (13 percent) and Baby Boomers (11 percent) to say they've adopted a vegetarian diet. In 2019, YouGov polling found that more than one in five young Americans "say they would be willing to eliminate meat from their diet in order to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change." Younger Americans have shifted to veganism at nearly double the rate of older Americans, according to data compiled by Statista, a market research firm based in Hamburg, Germany. In 2018, half of American millennials were curious about a vegetarian lifestyle.

"Agriculture is the heart and soul of Nebraska," said Steve Wellman, the director of the state's agriculture department, who said meat products generate about $12 billion annually for the state. That may be true now, but he would be well-advised to look at the trendlines that show a big growth in plant-based diets—especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted food supplies, exposed the horrors of animal agriculture, and revealed the connection between the meat industry and pandemics. "[S]tartups focusing on plant-based protein—including Plantible Foods, Rebellyous Foods, Livekindly, and InnovoPro—have continued securing millions in funding amid the pandemic," reports CB Insights, a market intelligence firm based in New York. "Demand for vegan meat soared, with sales up by a staggering 264% in the 9 weeks ended May 2, 2020."

But it's not just startups that are getting into the plant-based market: Eight of the top ten meat processing companies, including JBS, Tyson and Cargill, are now making or investing in plant-based meat substitutes to meet the growing demand. Last year, Arkansas-based Tyson, a meat giant that is the world's largest food processing company, rolled out a vegan line. The company said it was part of their effort to adapt to "changing consumer demands." After OSI North America, which produces meat patties for major fast-food chains like McDonald's, partnered with vegan meat producer Impossible Foods in July 2020, Kevin Scott, the company's senior executive vice president, told Reuters that plant-based meat's "time and place is right now."

"Just as we will evolve past racism, sexism, ageism and religious persecution, we will evolve past barbarism toward animals, too," Earth | Food | Life contributor Nina Jackel, founder of the animal rights nonprofit Lady Freethinker, wrote in Salon. She may be right, but if we do, we will do so without the help of Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose meat-loving "way of life" is really a "way of death"—for people, animals and the planet.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

India’s right-wing government is so hungry for profit it will risk a famine

India's right-wing government has been deploying all the modern tools of repression against a historic farmers' protest. Much is at stake. For the people of India, their agricultural system is about to get far more precarious. For its farmers, ruin, and bankruptcy for millions, is all but guaranteed. For the government of Narendra Modi and his elite backers, it's a crossroads moment; they calculate that their political power is assured for decades if they can refashion the politics of rural India and force dependency upon the farmers.

The farmers are protesting because the three farm bills, which were passed by the central government in September 2020, will dismantle the state-run agricultural procurement system in Punjab and Haryana, the breadbasket states of India.

In its defense, the Modi government has simultaneously claimed that the bills will enable a great modernization and also that nothing will change; the billionaires who will benefit (Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani's Adani Group) have denied having any interest in entering the newly privatized business.

The billionaires have been set loose in the henhouse. As Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty from the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics reported, India's top 1 percent in today's "Billionaire Raj" have a similar share of the national income as the top 1 percent did under the British Raj.

The "Billionaire Raj" is preparing to turn India back from a country of hunger (on the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India is 94th out of 107 countries) to a country of famine.

Agrarian Crisis Rooted in British Colonialism

The roots of India's agrarian crisis are far deeper than the three new laws. The seeds of the agrarian crisis were planted in the soil of British colonialism.

Precolonial India was characterized by historian H.H. Khondker in 1986 as a moral economy, a "social arrangement which guarantees a minimum subsistence for all." In Mike Davis' book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, he argued that "Mogul India was generally free of famine until the 1770s. There is considerable evidence, moreover, that in pre-British India before the creation of a railroad-girded national market in grain, village-level food reserves were larger, patrimonial welfare more widespread, and grain prices in surplus areas better insulated against speculation." The Mogul state "regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation," relying on "a quartet of fundamental policies—embargos on food exports, antispeculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without a forced-labor counterpart—that were an anathema to later British Utilitarians." The Marathas, another major pre-British power in India, forced local elites to feed the hungry during famines. The British were horrified, calling this the "enforced charity of hundreds of rich men." The Sikh Empire ruled in Punjab, where many of the protesting farmers are from. Its rulers enacted land reforms even while fighting the Mughals and the British.

Then the British East India Company took over the collection of revenues in Bengal, and the British Empire spread its tentacles across the subcontinent.

Historian Navyug Gill summarized the British system as follows in an article in Outlook Magazine: the British introduced "caste-based private property, the tethering of revenue demands to cash payments, and embedding agriculture within global circuits of production and consumption… [A]ctual harvests no longer corresponded to taxation rates, and fluctuations in commodity prices meant drastic swings between modest prosperity and widespread impoverishment. A bumper crop could be rendered worthless by uncontrollable forces in far-off parts of the empire, and yet the revenue would still have to be paid. The bane of those who became peasants was being at the mercy of the state as much as the seasons."

The commodification of food followed—and so did famine.

Providing insights about the extent of famines in India under the British rule, Davis' book highlights that "[a]lthough the British insisted that they had rescued India from 'timeless hunger,' more than one [district] official was jolted when Indian nationalists quoted from an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that contrasted 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia." The British imposed new humiliations: "Requiring the poor to work for relief, a practice begun in 1866 in Bengal under the influence of the Victorian Poor Law, was in flat contradiction to the Bengali premise that food should be given ungrudgingly, as a father gives food to his children."

As H.H. Khondker noted, British writer W.H. Moreland in the 1923 book From Akbar to Aurangzeb "made a distinction between" "work famines" under British imperialism and precolonial "food famines." During the pre-imperialism period, people starved because of actual food shortages. Under imperialism, people starved because they were poor, had no employment, and therefore couldn't be fed under a Victorian morality that said you couldn't get something for nothing.

An Economist article published in 1883, which was quoted in Dan Morgan's 1979 book Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World's Food Supply, stated, "A good wheat harvest is still as much needed as ever to feed our closely packed [British] population. But it is the harvest already turning brown in the scorching sun of Canada and the Western States—the wheat already ripe in India and California, not the growth alone of the Eastern counties and of Lincolnshire, that will be summoned to feed the hungry mouth of London and Lancashire."

Mass death through starvation was the price of enabling the British Empire to build a truly global, militarized economy in grain, under which agriculture in all reaches of the globe could serve imperial designs and food itself could become a weapon. Food insecurity for the colonies purchased food security for the metropole.

German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "Famines do not simply occur; they are organized by the grain trade."

Development experiences between India and China are often compared and can be useful here as well.

Pre-colonized China was even better organized than Mughal India. Before the 1839 Opium War, China under the Qing dynasty "had both the technology and political will to shift grain massively between regions and, thus, relieve hunger on a larger scale than any previous polity in world history," as Davis explained in Late Victorian Holocausts.

Imperialism in China led to famine there too, the largest of which occurred in 1876. The multiple Opium Wars, which forced the Chinese government to pay massive reparations to its invaders and plunderers, shattered the old food security system. The state "was reduced to desultory cash relief augmented by private donations and humiliating foreign charity," Davis wrote.

In both India and China, the years of imperialism—the commodification of grain—condemned tens of millions to death by starvation.

Food Security in Independent India and China

Post-Independence, newly sovereign India and China both attempted to get their countries back on the path of food security. Both efforts had initially disastrous results. China had a severe post-Independence famine from 1959 to 1961, worse even than the ones under imperialism. China corrected this trajectory and went on to eliminate hunger and, in 2018, to eradicate poverty as well, as reported at the time by Chinese writer Qin Ling and in Robert Lawrence Kuhn's documentary film "Voices from the Frontline: China's War on Poverty," which was initially aired on PBS before being pulled in May 2020.

In stark contrast with China, India did not have a famine since Independence, but has tolerated chronic hunger. In the most famous comparison of the two countries, economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in their 1991 book Hunger and Public Action that:

"Comparing India's death rate of 12 per thousand with China's of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958–61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame."

India's National Family Health Survey for 2019-20 showed that in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, sometimes touted as an economic model, 39 percent of children under the age of five have had their growth stunted by malnutrition. The report is full of similar achievements, state-by-state, by the current Indian government. Approximately 25 percent of all hungry people live in India, where around 195 million people are undernourished. Thousands per day, perhaps a million per year, die of malnutrition in India, most of whom are children.

A majority of the population lives in poverty.

India's Flawed Agrarian System

Navyug Gill outlined the limited nature of India's post-Independence agrarian system in his article about the roots of the farm bill demonstrations. "[W]hat was put in place from the 1950s onwards was a system of rules, quotas and regulations meant only to minimize the worst of colonial depredations. The purpose was to mainly fulfil the growing needs of a famine-stricken country while bringing about a modicum of stability for landholders of varying sizes. In other words, the state modified and re-directed rather than transcended the tensions among national food supply, capitalist imperatives and rural wellbeing."

Let's go into the details of these measures, using several interviews conducted in different media with agriculture researcher Devinder Sharma as our source material.

From India's independence in 1947 until the mid-1960s, India was dependent on food aid from the United States' PL 480 program. The Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) were established in the 1960s with the intention of getting India off of this dependence on U.S. food aid. The system was built in tandem with the U.S.-sponsored Green Revolution, which sought to use capital-intensive, high-tech, high-input techniques to increase yields. The danger was that in the absence of such a system, higher yields would lead directly to a crash in agricultural prices, the ruination of farmers, and a British Empire-style cycle of disaster.

Two pieces were put in place to protect against this. First, government-run markets, the so-called "mandis," were set up where the government would purchase the farmers' grain at a guaranteed price (which would later be called the "minimum support price," or MSP) if the private sector could not. Second, the government, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), would "mop up" the surplus production in bumper crop years and move that grain to deficient areas through the public distribution system. The system worked: the Green Revolution yields did indeed materialize. The mandis raised enough in taxes to fund not only the market infrastructure but also a network of village roads and certain rural development funds. Dependence on PL 480 grain was broken. And there were no more famines.

There were, however, flaws with the system. First, as environmental activist Vandana Shiva documented, the environmental effects of the Green Revolution rendered it unsustainable in the long term. Second, environmental unsustainability was matched by financial instability; the imported American model of the Green Revolution was based on saddling farmers with impossible levels of debt.

There were also limitations, including a gap in procurement, as Sharma explains: despite the announcement of the MSP for 23 crops, only two (wheat and rice) are actually procured by the government—and without actual government procurement, the mere announcement of an MSP is meaningless. Infrastructural limitations also reduced the system's effectiveness, as Sharma goes on to say: the goal was for farmers to have access to a mandi within 5 kilometers, which would have meant setting up 42,000 mandis. But in more than 50 years, only 7,000 mandis have been established.

The result of these limitations is that only 6 percent of farmers access the minimum support price (MSP), while 94 percent are dependent on the market, explains Sharma during an interview with Newsworthy. The fact that so few farmers access the MSP is used by government proponents to argue that the farm bills are removing the last fetters on an efficient market. But, Sharma asks, while quoting figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, if the market system is so good for India's farmers, why have 364,000 of them committed suicide since 1995? Why do farmers want an assured—and higher—MSP? The analogy with the labor market is clear enough—if the labor market were as good as free-market proponents claim, why would there be a need for a minimum wage, much less unemployment insurance?

The private buyers who want to get into the government business have promised that farmers would get higher prices than the MSP from them. Devinder Sharma asked during his interview why they would have any objection at all to a minimum support price, if they planned to pay more. He points out that the state of Bihar, which did away with its APMC system in 2006, sees farmers trucking wheat and rice into Punjab and Haryana to sell at the (now threatened) minimum support price guaranteed in those states.

The APMCs are accused of being government middlemen, Sharma notes. But the biggest fortunes in the world are already being amassed by middlemen "wearing a tie and a suit," from Walmart to Amazon, who want "to replace the traditional middlemen" the government has acted as. India's super-rich, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, are the picture of the American-style, well-connected, monopolist middleman. If the farm bills are not repealed, the new private grain trade will fall into their laps.

Years ago, Canadian agricultural economist Ian McCreary did a study of the Indian food procurement system. In an interview on February 6, McCreary told me that after crunching three decades of numbers, he found the Indian system to be "quite successful in its objectives" of providing stable prices and food security. The government assumed the financial risks, of which there were several. On the one hand, low international prices combined with a bumper crop at home would see India trying to store grain (expensive in India) or export at a loss. On the other hand, importing in a year when prices were high could get extremely expensive. But neither of these problems could be solved by privatization, as McCreary explained: "If the government wanted to contract out the storage, they could have done that within the structure of the current system." And even after privatization, if prices rose to the point where millions of people couldn't afford to purchase food, the government would still be responsible for feeding them.

McCreary had concluded that extending government procurement at the minimum support price to pulse crops from drier and less productive regions would benefit both farmers and those who received food through the public distribution system. While he shared concern for the farmers, McCreary was also very concerned about the food security implications of the new farm bills. "Poor consumers are going to be very vulnerable in the event of international prices being driven up."

The government weighs these implications against opportunities for Reliance and Adani to make profits in a new market. McCreary further said, "When you move from a situation where [the] market is controlled and prices operate within a defined range, to one where you're exposed to the market, the players that buy and sell grain to arbitrage have [the] potential to make quite a bit of money."

Privatization of Grain Procurement in Canada

India's rulers look to the West for inspiration; but in fact, Western agriculture should be an inspiration to no one. The nightmarish consequences of privatized corporate agriculture are poorly understood by those who see only Western agriculture's productivity and not its real social and environmental costs.

Take the example of Canada. The privatization of government grain procurement in India today under Narendra Modi is analogous to the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) in 2012 under Canada's right-wing former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Established in 1935, the CWB was a farmer-run, farmer-funded marketing agency that worked through a "single desk"—private buyers had to buy from the Wheat Board and could not negotiate prices directly with farmers. Farmers earned more. Former National Farmers Union (NFU) president Terry Boehm estimated before the privatization that "Wheat Board marketing and single-desk selling bring hundreds of millions more dollars to farmers each year than they would receive in an open market." Like India's system, the CWB was privatized amid half-hearted murmurings about "increased economic opportunities" for farmers through a rapid and deceitful piece of legislation—in this case, called the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act. The elected board was dismissed, the assets turned over to their new owners, a joint venture called G3 Global Grain Group. Within two years of the privatization of the CWB, several of the grain companies increased their profits by billions.

Like the APMC, the CWB wasn't perfect—some farmers no doubt had believed they would do better on their own, while others complained about a lack of transparency. These farmers, Boehm says, "now labor under a system dominated by multinational grain companies that disclose almost nothing." Ed Sagan, another NFU member, did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that an average farmer has probably lost nearly half their income since the CWB was dismantled—a figure confirmed by multiple years of Statistics Canada reports. A chart produced by the union outlines many of the depressing new realities.

Meanwhile, the United States, Canada, and the EU are demanding India produce less locally and provide a bigger market for highly subsidized grain sourced from the metropole. Economist Prabhat Patnaik has noted that "diversification away from food grain production and importing food grains instead from imperialist countries has been a demand of the U.S. and EU for quite some time."

Looking Beyond the West for Solutions

Neither Canada nor the United States offers any kind of model for agriculture. In the United States, farm incomes are on a continuous decline, and rural suicides are on a continuous rise. Throughout Europe and North America, agriculture is heavily subsidized, with the average U.S. farm receiving subsidies of tens of thousands per year ($61,286 in support per farmer, compared to $282 per Indian farmer, by one estimate). Indian farmers have the suicides, but they will never have the subsidies, nor will they have a fraction of the land per farmer that North American and European farmers have.

The development advice given to developing countries by the IMF and World Bank for the past several decades has been to depopulate the countryside and move the people into cities. People have moved. They were living in cities at the edge of survival, and when COVID-19 hit, they found themselves unable to survive there, leading to the largest urban-to-rural migration in human history. But more than half of the people of India still make their livelihoods from agriculture, which receives a public sector investment of 0.4 percent of GDP (compared, as Sharma points out in an interview with Enquiry, to 6 percent of GDP in tax concessions to the corporate sector annually, a number that has only grown with recent corporate tax cuts).

So what could be done? China recently eliminated rural poverty, but there is little in China's recent experience, with dedicated government and party cadres helping individual rural families with income-generating and income-supplementing initiatives, that India can emulate.

But there is no reason India couldn't find its own way to eliminate poverty. There is much that could be done, starting with Sharma's suggestions: The minimum support price could be extended to more crops, the price raised, and the number of mandis increased to reach the one-per-5-kilometers goal. The state of Kerala has set a minimum price of 20 percent above the cost of production for vegetables—and the prices end up higher than they announce. In PM Modi's own state of Gujarat, there's a very successful dairy cooperative called Amul. The cooperative model could be fruitfully extended to provide better livelihoods for farmers. Between work produced by national commissions, peasant movements, economists, and policy analysts, Navyug Gill has pointed out that "real alternative solutions are actually not hard to come by."

As so often occurs in our neocolonial world, it is the colonial baggage that must be discarded. Once it is, solutions present themselves in abundance.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

Why Bernie Sanders took a stand against a Biden nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.

The Senate voted 92-7 to confirm Vilsack, with Sanders (I-Vt.) and six Republicans opposing his appointment. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the only member who did not vote.

In a statement on his decision, Sanders first said that "I have known Tom Vilsack for many years and look forward to working with him as our new secretary of agriculture."

"I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry," Sanders explained. "I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job."

The Hill reports Sanders made similar remarks about Vilsack to journalists after the vote, saying that "I think he'll be fine, but not as strong as I would like."

The progressive group RootsAction praised Sanders on Twitter for taking a stand against Biden's pick to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout also welcomed Sanders' move.

"This is the correct vote. Vilsack failed farmers, farmworkers, the land, and the public, and Shirley Sherrod," Teachout tweeted, referencing the former Georgia state director of rural development at USDA who was ousted under Vilsack.

Sherrod, who is Black, recently told The 19th that "I have no ill will towards him, none at all," but added that if Vilsack returned as USDA chief, "he should be ready to get on the ground to make real change this time around. And we need to hold him to it. Black people need to see some real change."

As Common Dreams previously reported, Vilsack has faced criticism for the USDA's treatment of Black farmers when he headed the department during the Obama administration—among other critiques.

Center for Food Safety policy director Jaydee Hanson said in December that Biden's potential selection of Vilsack was "a huge step backwards in our urgent need to support agricultural systems that protect public health, the environment, and mitigate the ongoing climate crisis."

Early Tuesday, in anticipation of Vilsack's bipartisan confirmation, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter—whose group has been raising alarm about him for months now—issued a warning about what to expect going forward.

"We can confidently predict what Tom Vilsack's leadership of the Agriculture Department will look like, because he's led it before. And the prediction is grim," she said. "In his previous stint at USDA, Vilsack backed mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers. Similarly, he readily advanced industry-driven initiatives allowing companies to inspect their own poultry processing plants, dismantling federal oversight of food and worker safety."

"This administration needs to drastically shift course from the Trump era by supporting sustainable, independent farming, halting the toxic expansion of polluting factory farms, and ultimately, prioritizing consumer health and worker safety," Hauter added. "We have little hope that Tom Vilsack cares to undertake this effort, so we will be pressuring him doggedly to see the light."

India officials target Rihanna and Greta Thunberg for showing support of Indian farmers’ protest

Things in India just seem to be getting worse as officials resort to violence in response to the ongoing farmers' protest occurring nationwide in the country. Internet access restrictions, cellphone signal restrictions, and media restrictions have been enacted for several days in multiple districts as the government cracks down on advocates and others protesting injustices under the guise of "maintaining public safety and averting public emergency."

For months, thousands of farmers have marched and protested against three bills passed in India's parliament in September. Protests have spread from the Indian capital of New Delhi to other parts of the country and garnered global attention with well-known icons like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeting about the issue. While thousands have applauded the two for engaging prominent Western figures in the cause silenced by many Indian stars, Hindu nationalists, and conservatives in India have launched campaigns against the two celebrities for spreading misinformation and propaganda.

Within hours of Rihanna's tweet linking to a CNN story on the issue and questioning why people weren't talking about the protests, the ministry of external affairs released a statement criticizing "celebrities and others" for their "neither accurate nor responsible" comments. In support of the Indian government, some Bollywood celebrities tweeted against "propaganda" that threatened India's unity and body-shamed Rihanna.


The worst of it comes from Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a vocal supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu-nationalist group one could say is equivalent to the Proud Boys. In a series of tweets, Ranaut not only criticized Rihanna's work, but her appearance and even her skin color. Honestly, Ranaut's disgusting behavior should have gotten her removed from Twitter.

"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken," Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in a statement on Wednesday. "The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible."


But the negative and false narratives right-wing conservatives spread in India, including calling Rihanna a "porn star," did not stop her tweet from going viral and spreading awareness of the farmers' protests. Both Western celebrities and athletes followed suit in sharing that this issue should not only be spoken about but supported. Wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers Juju Smith-Schuster even donated $10,000 to provide medical assistance to farmers in need, many of whom have been protesting outside despite deadly cold temperatures.

Rihanna was also supported by Thunberg, who tweeted that she stood "in solidarity with the #FarmersProtests in India," and that "no amount of hate threats or violations of human rights will ever change that." Thunberg even shared a link to register objections to the new laws and a toolkit, in response to which Delhi police said they were investigating whether there was an international campaign to damage India's reputation. The toolkit, Thunburg said, was to "enable anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing farmers protests in India to better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis."

In response to the support Rihanna and Thunberg created online for the farmers protesting, India's government and alt-right officials resorted to violence, as they have done in the past. Indian government officials not only burned photos of Rihanna and Thunberg, but issued arrest warrants for them on the basis that they were inciting terrorism. Tweets shaming the two from Bollywood celebrities quickly gained attention, and headlines in local Indian newspapers highlighted the two by saying they were inciting propaganda and trying to negatively impact India.

Rihanna's tweet couldn't have come at a worse time for India's government. In the last few weeks, global attention towards the farmers' movement has resulted in criticism towards India's handling of the protests by both the United Kingdom and Canadian officials. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly been criticized for his support of Donald Trump and similar tactics of encouraging violence at peaceful demonstrations. According to NBC News, as farmers are not only a key part of India's economy but one of the most influential voting blocs in India, Modi faces challenges in any upcoming elections.

Rihanna's tweet has resulted in the issue becoming a topic of conversation in the U.S. and more awareness being created. Advocates have consistently urged that action to be taken to no avail. hile it is sad that it took a Western celebrity tweeting about the issue for it to garner more attention, it is also laudable that Rihanna took the time to do so. It sheds light on the fact that injustice cannot go unremarked upon.

It also gives activists hope that change can come and that there is support at all levels. While multiple Indian celebrities have been silencing the issue and calling the protests terrorism for their own comfort, Western celebrities raising their voices puts pressure on Indian officials to take action because of the global attention.

As of this report, an injunction issued by India's Supreme Court has temporarily paused implementation of the new laws, but farmers stand strong in demanding total appeal.

"The government treats us like thieves but we are fighting for our rights," Harbachan Singh, a farmer from Punjab who is managing a community kitchen at the Singhu border, told The Guardian. To learn more about the bills in question, check out this quick explainer on why the protested laws are not just an Indian issue but a global issue.

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