Agribusiness Ambassador Attacks Agroecology

Reader Contribution by Steven Mcfadden and Chiron Communications
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 Photo credit: GoodSpray media

The U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been using his public office to denounce the clean, sustainable, and socially just initiatives of agroecology while defending the toxic chemicals and processes of industrial agriculture

As detailed in The Hagstrom Report, during a speech last February at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, FAO Ambassador Kip E. Tom complained about the agroecology movement for rejecting synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and also genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In his Forum remarks, Tom advocated for the agenda of the multinational agribusiness, chemical, and pharmaceutical interests with which he is involved. He asserted that science has proven these approaches to be safe and effective in boosting food production, and he deplored agroecology as both anti-science and anti-progress.

Before his appointment as the USDA Ambassador by President Trump, Tom was the CEO of Indiana-based Tom Farms LLC, which manages some 25,000 acres of land in the US and Argentina. The business is a leading supplier of GMO corn and soy seeds to DeKalb, and also to Syngenta and The Monsanto Company (acquired in 2018 by multinational pharmaceutical corporation Bayer AG).

Of note, as of October 2020 the Tom Farms website still lists Kip Tom as the Managing Member as well as the President of CereServ Inc. Neither the Tom Farms office nor the ambassador’s office in Rome responded to inquiries for clarification or comment on this potential conflict of interest.

Savagely Broken Food System

 In criticizing agroecology, Tom said: “We have to wrap our minds around the fact that of the 193 other countries [in the UN], many do not share our basic values and some of our core assumptions.”

He’s correct about agroecology and some nations not sharing his core values and assumptions. The production and profit values of multinational ag and chemical corporations have contributed to profound imbalances in the environment, in world climate, and in the health and welfare of human beings and farmed animals.  The corporate industrial ag food system that Tom defends has remained determinedly oblivious to the ruination of the sources, and to the chaos of the climate.

The staggering number of fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, glacial collapses, and oceanic dead zones brought about by the steadily intensifying impact of global climate chaos is a clear and present danger. Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to these mounting problems. They are not going to disappear if corporate industrial ag keeps churning along, business as usual.

As Amalia Leguizamón makes clear in her book Seeds of Power, while GMO soy has brought about modernization and economic growth in nations like Argentina (where Tom Farms is active), it has also created tremendous social and ecological harm: “rural displacement, concentration of land ownership, food insecurity, deforestation, violence, and the negative health effects of toxic agrochemical exposure.”

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Senator Cory Booker (D- NJ) said that the climate crisis, the pandemic, and rising demands for racial justice are all tied to a “savagely broken food system.”

Booker has introduced bills to prevent further consolidation in agribusiness, to incentivize climate-friendly farming practices and to increase support for small farms selling into local markets. He wrote The Farm System Reform Act to bring factory farming under control, and to begin a transformation to a safe and equitable future for consumers and workers alike. He also released recent legislation, the Local FARM Act of 2020, to support local food systems in the current COVID 19 context. Meanwhile in the House, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act to support, clean, local agroecological initiatives to help mitigate climate change.

In the context of the debate between the extractive approach of corporate chemical industrial agriculture, and the clean, sustainable, soil-enriching, and socially just approaches of agroecology, Senator Booker has been standing strongly for a healing approach. “We are on the right side of history,” he told The Guardian.

Image credit: David Silver Wikimedia

The Enlightened Approach of Agroecology

 In a bitter irony, USDA Ambassador Tom accused the agroecology movement of being “anti-science.” His accusation is stunningly off-kilter coming from a representative of the Trump Administration which has been fiercely anti-science across the board, as for example in its flat rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, as well as its vigorous (and tragic) rejection of scientific medical advice for controlling the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Agroecology is an approach to farming, food, and life possessed of depth, breadth, and sophistication. It offers a penetrating critique of the status quo, and a far-reaching, environmentally enlightened, justice-based vision of better ways to care for land, plants, animals, and human beings. While the term agroecology is not yet widely used in the US, elsewhere around the globe it is the common umbrella term for denoting organics, biodynamics, regenerative, and other wholistic, socially-just systems of drawing our sustenance from the earth.

Rather than a mechanistic formula for domination of nature to produce profits for a small group of investors, the core ideas of agroecology arise naturally from living, rhythmic, biological appreciation of the world and the life that inhabits the world. Consequently, the global and national movement toward agroecology recognizes and to employs systems that bring human needs into right relation with the needs of the natural world.

As University of Nebraska–Lincoln Professor Charles A. Francis noted in Agroecology: The Ecology of Food Systems, food systems are vast and fragile and exist in the multiple and interacting matrices of our increasingly complex national and global cultures. Agroecology recognizes farms as ecosystems embedded in broader landscapes and social settings, with which they interact continually and significantly.

In the book’s introduction, Francis writes, “We define agroecology as the integrative study of the ecology of the entire food system, encompassing ecological, economic, and social dimensions.”

While agroecological pathways can be traced to the evolutionary symbiosis of agronomy and ecology, other disciplines such as botany, zoology, sociology, anthropology, ethics, economics, and native wisdom ways are by now also part of the whole. In consilience (or convergence) these disciplines provide a range of insight yielding vantage points for studying the food system, for developing a broader set of criteria for evaluation beyond monetary profitability, and for transforming the farm and food system in a manifestly healthy way.

Open Letters

 In an open letter dated October 1, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) and the Agroecology Research-Action Collective denounced Tom’s attacks on agroecology. The new USFSA letter builds upon an earlier letter released last October (2019) where the organizations similarly called out Kip Tom for trying to block on-going policy negotiations on agroecology in the UN Committee on World Food Security 

The group’s 2020 letter states that agroecology is needed now more than ever to stop climate change and to ensure that everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food. They charge that Ambassador Tom is not just attacking the concept of agroecology at conferences, but is using his role as a taxpayer-funded US government official to try to undermine the democratic process of public policy development on agroecology at the UN.

Jennifer Taylor, an organic family farmer, and associate professor at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and one of the national coordinators of the USFSA, said that “agroecological farming systems promote soil fertility, soil and water conservation, biodiversity, healthy environments, mitigate pest damage and climate change.”

Taylor noted that organic farmers avoid synthetic hormones and antibiotics, and oppose the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, GMO/genetic engineering materials, and GMO agricultural strategies.

The USFSA repudiated the USDA’s decades-long support for extractive, “fencerow-to-fencerow” agriculture and a pro-agribusiness “get-big-or-get-out” policy framework. These policies have pushed millions of family farmers out of business and have polluted and poisoned rural communities.

The USFSA called for systemic changes in U.S. food and agriculture policy and a Green New Deal that centers the needs and voices of frontline communities and is based in environmental and climate justice.

“Ambassador Tom’s disdain for agroecology reveals that he indeed has a minimal understanding of the concept of agroecology,” said Patti Naylor, a farmer from Iowa who represented the USFSA and the North American region at the U.N. Committee on World Food Security.

“All of this is a threat to the power and influence of a global agrifood industry,” Naylor said. “The Ambassador’s role at the U.N. is to defend and expand the dominance of the agrifood industry.” 

In the 2020 Open Letter, Naylor made a key observation: “The conflict between the corporate model of agriculturebased on profitsand agroecologybased on the human rights, the rights of peasants, the protection of nature, and food sovereigntywill determine the kind of world we will leave the next generations.”

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available You can read all of Steven’s Mother Earth News blog postshere.

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