25.05.2023 |

Fertiliser firms tripled their profits in 5 years and drive food prices

Foto: James Baltz, Unsplash,

While people grappled with a severe food crisis and farmers saw their costs increase, the world’s largest fertiliser companies tripled their profits during the past five years. The profits of the big nine fertiliser companies grew exponentially from an average of around US$14 billion before the Covid-19 pandemic to US$28 billion in 2021 and then to an astounding US$49 billion last year, a brief published by GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reveals. The document released on May 23th presents the latest data on fertilizer industry profits and is an update to the report ““The Fertiliser Trap”, published by the two organisations in November 2022. GRAIN and IATP look at how these companies have contributed to the current food crisis by increasing prices far beyond increases to production costs and thereby boosting their profit margins by a massive 36% in 2022. “To deal with fertiliser cartel’s profiteering, actions must focus on supporting farmers to reduce or eliminate their use of chemical fertilisers”, they write in the brief. Such actions would not only help to bring the costs of fertilisers down, but could also help address the climate crisis and its impacts on food production due to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by chemical fertilisers.

The two organisations say that there are shocked by the scale of profiteering. Given the sky high fertiliser prices of 2022, it was expected that fertiliser companies would generate large profits but GRAIN and IATP were surprised by the record revenues the firms earned. A graph compiled by the organisations depicts the total profits of the big nine fertiliser companies over the past five years, rising from $14 billion dollars before the pandemic to US$28 billion in 2021 and then to US$49 billion in 2022. The report says that international agencies like the World Bank argue that the Russian war in Ukraine is responsible for the spike in fertiliser prices because the war lead to high natural gas prices (used to produce nitrogen fertiliser) due to shortages and trade disruptions. But another graph presented in the report shows that the problem also has to do with the monopoly power of the fertiliser companies. The big nine fertiliser companies increased prices far beyond the increases in production costs and boosted their profit margins to a massive 36% in 2022.

According to the report, “fertiliser prices are coming down from their stratospheric heights earlier this year, but the effects of the price spike are still being felt. The high prices and lack of supply in some countries caused farmers to cut fertiliser use, thereby reducing production levels and contributing to an alarming rise in global food insecurity.” The NGOs argue that the high prices have also pushed many farmers deeper into debt: “Farmers from Cameroon to the U.S. say they are still spending three times as much on fertilisers as they were a few years ago. And in countries where fertilisers are heavily subsidised, the price spike has saddled governments with huge debts.” The report cites India as an example where the central government’s expenditure on fertiliser subsidies last year skyrocketed from US$9.8 billion to US$17.1 billion. The organisations denounce that “people are paying the price for the fertiliser industry’s price gouging.” Not only people but also the planet is paying a high price. Chemical fertilisers are a major source of environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, with nitrogen fertilisers alone accounting for one out of every 40 tonnes of annual emissions.

IATP and GRAIN say that bold new approaches are urgently needed to reign in corporate power in the food system and turn the food crisis around. When it comes to fertilisers, policy actions like windfall taxes and price controls could be a solution. But to deal with both profiteering and environmental catastrophe we need to transition food production to rely far less on chemical fertilisers. “The fertiliser industry will be pushing for the opposite when it gathers for its annual meeting in Prague this week, yet around the world there are farmers and rural movements already leading a transition away from chemical fertilisers, with plenty of successful examples to learn from,” they write. What’s holding us back is the structural political change needed at all levels to address the excess profiteering from the fertiliser industry, and chart a new path toward more resilient food systems, the brief concludes. (ab)

31.03.2023 |

IPCC: Agroecology is an effective option to adapt to climate change

Changes in yields are projected (Photo: CC0)

Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, with unequal historical and ongoing contributions arising from unsustainable energy use, land use and land-use change, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production, warns a new report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But there are “multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change”, according to the scientists, and these options are available now and need to be taken without delay. The synthesis report, released on March 20, summarises the UN body’s most up-to-date knowledge of science related to climate change, its impacts and risks, and mitigation and adaptation. It includes the contributions of the three IPCC working groups to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and the findings of three special reports published between 2018 and 2022. The summary was prepared by 93 authors and approved during a week-long IPCC session in Interlaken in March. “Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” explained IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”

The scientists first looked at current status and trends with regard to our changing climate, pointing at the drivers of climate change and its impacts. Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, they find. Global net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have reached 59 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) – about 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990. In 2019, around 79% of global greenhouse gas emissions came from the sectors of energy, industry, transport and buildings together and the rest from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU). Global warming has resulted in more frequent and more intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones. This has led to widespread negative impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people. According to the report, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are heavily exposed to climate change. “Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change,” said Aditi Mukherji, one of the authors. “Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected,” she added. Increasing weather and climate extremes have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security, hindering efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. The main impacts are observed in many locations and/or communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, the world’s least developed countries, Small Islands and the Arctic. “In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions,” Dr Mukherji explains. Indigenous Peoples, small-scale food producers and low-income households were affected most.

The authors also look at the pace and scale of what has been done so far. They establish that adaptation planning and implementation has progressed across all sectors and regions. Examples of effective adaptation options in the agricultural sector that are mentioned include “cultivar improvements, on-farm water management and storage, soil moisture conservation, irrigation, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape level diversification in agriculture, sustainable land management approaches, use of agroecological principles and practices and other approaches that work with natural processes”. The scientists also write that ecosystem-based adaptation approaches such as urban greening, restoration of wetlands and upstream forest ecosystems have been effective in reducing flood risks and urban heat. “Some land-related adaptation actions such as sustainable food production, improved and sustainable forest management, soil organic carbon management, ecosystem conservation and land restoration, reduced deforestation and degradation, and reduced food loss and waste are being undertaken, and can have mitigation co-benefits,” they add. But despite progress in some sectors, adaptation gaps exist, and will continue to grow at current rates of implementation. Maladaptation is happening in some sectors and regions and current global financial flows for adaptation are insufficient, especially in developing countries.

The next section of the report analyses future climate change, risks, and long-term responses. The scientists warn that continued greenhouse gas emissions will lead to increasing global warming and by 2030, global surface temperature in any individual year could already exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850-1900. Risks and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change will intensify with every increment of global warming: They are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present, and even higher at 2°C. With further warming, climate change risks will become increasingly complex and more difficult to manage because risk drivers will interact. Climate-driven food insecurity and supply instability, for example, are projected to increase with increasing global warming, interacting with non-climatic risk drivers such as competition for land between urban expansion and food production, pandemics and conflict. Some future changes are unavoidable and/or irreversible but the good news is that they can be limited by a deep, rapid and sustained global reduction of emissions. However, adaptation options that are feasible and effective today would become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming and losses and damages would increase. All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C involve rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade.

The final section of the report is dedicated to responses in the near term and stresses the urgency of near-term integrated climate action. The authors highlight that there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity. “Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” These system transitions involve a significant upscaling of different mitigation and adaptation options. “Feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available, with differences across systems and regions,” the report finds. There are many options in agriculture and land use that would provide benefits and that could be upscaled in the near-term across most regions. According to the report, conservation, improved management, and restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the largest share of economic mitigation potential, with reduced deforestation in tropical regions having the highest total mitigation potential. “Effective adaptation options include cultivar improvements, agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape diversification, and urban agriculture.” Some options, like the conservation of high-carbon ecosystems such as peatlands would deliver immediate benefits, while others, such as restoration of high-carbon ecosystems, take decades to show measurable results.

The authors also focus on equity and inclusion, governance and policies. They underline that prioritising equity, climate justice, social justice, inclusion and just transition processes is important. Integrating climate adaptation into social protection programs, including cash transfers and public works programs, is highly feasible and increases resilience to climate change, especially when supported by basic services and infrastructure. “The greatest gains in wellbeing could come from prioritizing climate risk reduction for low-income and marginalised communities, including people living in informal settlements,” said Christopher Trisos, one of the report’s authors. Finally, the authors highlight that effective climate action is enabled by political commitment, well-aligned multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies and strategies. “Drawing on diverse knowledges and cultural values, meaningful participation and inclusive engagement processes – including Indigenous Knowledge, local knowledge, and scientific knowledge – facilitates climate resilient development, builds capacity and allows locally appropriate and socially acceptable solutions.” However, accelerated climate action will only come about if there is a many-fold increase in finance, says Trisos. Insufficient and misaligned finance will hold back progress. (ab)

10.03.2023 |

IPES-Food calls for debt relief and food systems transformation

Food Distribution in Sudan (Photo: USAID,,

The world is currently on the brink of a growing debt crisis that could plunge millions more into hunger as countries struggle to feed their populations, leading food experts have warned. According to a new report, unsustainable and inequitable food systems are a key contributor to the spiralling debt crisis. The 31-pager, published on March 6th by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES Food), an international group of 23 food system experts, argues that import dependencies, extractive financial flows, boom-bust commodity cycles, and climate-vulnerable food systems are combining to destabilize the finances of the world’s poorest countries. “Last year’s record high food prices may have receded, but the food crisis is still biting and it’s entering a dangerous new phase – of skyrocketing debt distress and spiralling hunger in dozens of low and middle-income countries,” says IPES-Food expert economist Jennifer Clapp. “Rising debt bills are becoming unaffordable for many governments, just as they struggle to pay for food and fertilizer imports – and they’re running out of road. Decades of progress in reducing hunger risks being undone.” And the situation is already grave. At the end of 2022, some 349 million people were facing acute food insecurity, with 49 million on the brink of famine, while some 828 million people were chronically undernourished. The report therefore calls for comprehensive debt relief and a radical transformation of food systems to build a basis for sustainable public finances in low-income countries and durable progress in the fight against hunger and poverty.

The introduction to the report gives an overview of the rapidly unfolding hunger crisis and debt crisis. Following a decade of steadily rising debt levels, public finances in low-income countries have come under even greater pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic disruptions caused by the Ukraine war. In 2022, low-income countries were not only affected by rising food prices but also soaring import costs for fertilizer and energy. Rapidly rising interest rates in wealthy countries have played a key role in turning those pressures into an emerging debt crisis. By January 2023, US federal reserve rates had risen from 0.08% to 4.33% in less than a year, with over a third of developing countries seeing their currencies depreciate by more than 10% against the dollar. This meant that dollar-denominated debts suddenly became more costly to service. As a result, global public debt rose to its highest levels in almost 60 years and the debt servicing costs of the world’s poorest countries increased by 35% in 2022. About 60% of low-income countries, and 30% of middle-income countries, are now considered at high risk of (or already in) debt distress. A map in the report shows that some of these countries are also classified by UN agencies as suffering from acute food insecurity or a major food crisis. 21 countries are nearing catastrophic levels of both debt distress and food insecurity – including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. IPES-Food says that Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Zambia already defaulted on sovereign debts between 2020-2022, raising concerns that another 12 governments could also be close to default. And in January 2023, Ghana requested urgent restructuring of its foreign debt, while Pakistan's foreign reserves had reportedly run dry, leaving food shipments sitting in its ports and sparking emergency talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Debt accrued by low-income countries is frequently blamed on economic mismanagement, corruption, and external shocks but this does not tell the whole story. The IPES Food experts argue that, although rarely acknowledged by policymakers, today's unsustainable and inequitable global food systems are a key contributor to the debt crisis. Chapter 2 identifies four ways in which food systems are deepening the current debt crisis. The first driver is import and dollar dependencies which generate high debts and prevent countries investing in diversifying their food systems and economies. Export orientation was heavily prioritized through structural adjustment programmes which included the promotion of cash crop exports and cheap grain imports, and the withdrawal of state subsidies for food and fuel. These reforms were accompanied by multilateral trade liberalization that exposed developing world agriculture to unfair competition with highly subsidized production in the Global North. The authors explain that the effects of these policies have been particularly acute in Africa, with staple food production declining and the continent’s food import bills more than tripling over recent decades. Agricultural exports have grown in parallel. Many developing countries have specialized in cash crops, to generate dollars to pay off debts and import staple foods, often at the expense of diverse food crops traditionally consumed by local populations. “Many African countries’ economies and food systems are on the brink of meltdown,” says Million Belay, IPES-Food expert and co-ordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. “We’re selling coffee and cotton to the rich to pay off debts, while we import increasingly unaffordable staple foods from outside, climate change batters our harvests, and interest payments spiral out of control.”

The second driver are extractive financial flows. Over decades, governments have cut social spending and outsourced food system investment to corporate actors and creditors – resulting in uneven development, persistent hunger, and the depletion of state capacity – and ultimately funneling resources out of the Global South, the report summarizes. “With initial policy reforms failing to deliver the desired results, and public resources perpetually strained in low-income countries, governments have increasingly turned to public-private partnerships (PPPs) to finance development projects. Agriculture-focused PPPs have become particularly prominent in the wake of the 2007-2008 food price spikes, coming alongside (and sometimes enmeshed with) development aid.” The report refers to corporate-friendly partnerships with a focus on boosting productivity via chemical inputs, and developing agri-exports and growth corridors, e. g. the Gates Foundation-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the US-led Feed the Future initiative or the now-defunct G8 New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition. The authors criticise that PPPs and other agri-development financing vehicles have further contributed to the erosion of state functions and accountability mechanisms and did not meet their proclaimed goals. For example, AGRA continues to receive millions of dollars of funding despite failing to deliver on stated hunger and poverty reduction goals, while “Feed the Future” has offered limited returns on huge private sector investment to date. The external debt is increasingly owed to private creditors such as banks and companies. In 2022, poorer countries paid 47% of external debt payments to private lenders, 12% to China, 14% to other governments, and the remaining 27% to multilateral institutions like the IMF. Financial transfers from the Global North are often dwarfed by the funds funnelled out of developing countries. In 2021, developing countries paid $356 billion in interest payments alone, while only $185 billion were received in aid. For many countries, this results in a perpetual strain on public finances, low capacity for state action, and insufficient investment in resilience and social policies like anti-hunger programmes. During the first year of the pandemic, 64 developing countries spent more on debt payments than on healthcare.

A third driver are boom-bust cycles and corporate consolidation: When food prices rise, powerful and highly concentrated agribusinesses benefit while farmers get squeezed. “Grain trading giants such as Cargill are getting rich, as are many multinational energy companies. But growers themselves are barely in the black,” an article in the Financial Times is quoted. When prices crash, many farms and food businesses fail, leading to further corporate consolidation. In 2022, the nine top fertilizer companies were expected to quadruple their profits compared to 2020, while governments in the Global South were depleting their public finances to subsidize their farmers’ access to fertilizer. However, “for the world’s poorest rural communities, many of whom are net food buyers and have little access to state support, there is no upside to global price volatility,” the authors write. Frequently, animals are sold and families have to increase household debt in response to the current food price crisis. Through these cycles of boom, bust, and corporate consolidations, economic inequalities and power imbalances are growing – within agriculture, between farmers and agribusinesses, and among world regions – and investment in resilience is undermined. The fourth driver is the climate crisis. “Climate breakdown is fast becoming the biggest driver of economic collapse and debt distress in the Global South, decimating harvests and destroying livelihoods in countries least responsible for the crisis. With climate finance failing to materialize, it is becoming harder for low-income countries to repay debts and invest in climate-resilient food systems,” the authors warn. In most low-income countries, debt servicing costs continue to exceed climate spending. The lack of public funding leaves low-income countries increasingly reliant on further debt to address climate resilience – but instead of being able to access low-cost capital, countries are being penalized for their climate vulnerabilities in the shape of higher interest rates, the authors conclude.

In the final chapter the authors argue that comprehensive debt relief must go hand-in-hand with food system transformation, to build a basis for sustainable public finances in low-income countries and durable progress in the fight against hunger and poverty. In order to break the cycle of unsustainable food systems, hunger and debt, IPES-Food calls for urgent action to provide debt relief and development finance on a right scale sufficient to meet the needs of COVID-19 recovery, climate-resilient food systems, and the Sustainable Development Goals. Their second recommendation is to repair historical food system injustices and return resources to the Global South. This could be done through windfall taxes on food profiteers and steps to achieve tax justice and repay ‘ecological’ and historical debts. Thirdly, they call for the democratization of financial and food systems governance. They argue that institutions like the World Bank and IMF must finally be reformed to break free from Global North biases over decision-making which disregards the interests of poor countries and marginalized populations. “Yes, the debts of poorer nations should be canceled to allow them to feed their people – but this is not enough,” said Lim Li Ching, co-chair of IPES-Food. “To get off the debt treadmill, it’s vital to break the vicious cycle of unsustainable food systems, hunger, and debt – by also investing in building resilient food and farming, repairing the historical injustices that have left poor countries funneling resources to the rich, and reforming international decision-making on food and debt to put poor countries first.” (ab)

15.02.2023 |

Over 76.4 million hectares were farmed organically worldwide in 2021

Organic farm in Curacao (Photo: A. Beck)

Organic farmland and retail sales both continued to grow worldwide, according to a new report published by FiBL and IFOAM – Organics International on February 14th. More than 76.4 million hectares of land were farmed organically at the end of 2021, representing a growth of 1.7 % or 1.3 million hectares compared to the previous year. The growth trend of the past years continued although at a slower pace. This is the message of the 24th edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture”, presented at BIOFACH, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food. The report collects data on 191 countries with organic farming activities. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.7 million hectares, but it is estimated that 97 % of the farmland is extensive grazing areas. Argentina ranks second (4.1 million hectares), followed by France with 2.77 million hectares. France reported a significant increase of 8.9 % compared to the previous year. China is ranked fourth with 2.75 million hectares and an increase of 13.1 %, followed by Uruguay with 2.74 million hectares. Due to the large area of organic farmland in Australia, almost half of the global organic area lies in Oceania (36 million hectares). Europe had the second largest area (17.8 million hectares or 23 %), followed by Latin America (9.9 million hectares or 13 %). The highest absolute growth was registered in Europe (up 747,924 hectares or 4.4 %) while Africa showed the strongest relative growth (up 17.3 %). The organic farmland decreased in Latin and North America.

Currently, only 1.6% of the world’s agricultural land is farmed organically, but many countries have far higher shares. In 20 countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2021, up from 18 countries in 2020. The top five countries with the largest share of organic land were Liechtenstein (40.2 %), Samoa (29.1 %), Austria (26.5%), Sao Tome and Principe (21.1 %) and Sweden (20.2 %). 86 countries experienced an increase in the area of their organic agricultural land, while a decrease was reported in 37 countries. Many countries kept up or initiated support activities for organic agriculture, including new action plans or policies aiming to foster growth. According to the report, there were 3.7 million organic farmers worldwide and their number increased by 4.9 % compared to the year before. However, the authors point out that calculating precise figures is difficult here because some countries only report the number of companies, projects or growers groups which may each comprise many individual producers, hence the total number might even be higher. Almost half of the world’s organic producers (48.6 %) live in Asia, while Africa is home to 30.6 % and Europe to 12 % of organic producers. The country with the highest absolute numbers is India with 1.6 million farmers, followed by Uganda (400,000) and Ethiopia (218,000).

Consumer demand for organic products across the globe continued to grow, but slower than in 2020. Global retail sales of organic food and drink reached around 125 billion euros in 2021 and experienced a total increase of 4 billion euros (+3 %) from the previous year. In 2021, the United States was the leading market (48.6 billion euros), followed by Germany (15.9bn euros), France (12.7bn euros) and China (11.3bn euros). Estonia was the country that registered the biggest market growth with an increase of 21 %. Looking at the shares the organic market has of the total market, the leader was Denmark with 13%, followed by Austria (11.6 %), Luxembourg (11 %) and Switzerland (10.9 %). Swiss consumers spent the most on organic food with 425 euros, followed by per capita consumer spending in Denmark (384 euros) and Luxembourg (313 euros). “Growth in the global market for organic food and drink slowed in 2021,” writes Amarjit Sahota in a special chapter on the global organic market. “Market growth rates slowed as consumer buying habits returned to pre-pandemic levels. The exceptionally high growth in 2020 was because of COVID-19 elevating consumer interest in health & wellness issues,” he explained. “Organic foods were sought after as consumers focused on disease avoidance and building personal immunity. Demand for organic foods surged after the pandemic began in the spring of 2020. Slower growth occurred in 2021, and there is expected to be lower growth in 2022.” The next edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture” will show how the war in Ukraine, rising food prices, inflation and weakening economic conditions, especially in Europe, will affect the organic food market. (ab)

10.02.2023 |

Let's talk about the benefits of pulses

Pulses are great - and colourful (Photo: CC0)

On February 10th, World Pulses Day is celebrated – at least by those who know about the importance of chickpeas, beans and lentils as a powerful and nutritious ally against climate change. Since the celebration of the International Year of Pulses in 2016, each year on this date, fans of the superfood have been trying to raise public awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production. In line with this year’s theme “Pulses for a Sustainable Future”, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlights how pulses, the edible seeds of leguminous plants, can provide a better life for farmers in water-scarce environments since they have a low water footprint and can better tolerate drought and climate-related disasters. “Pulses contribute in diverse ways towards the transformation of our agrifood systems, and can help us address multiple global crises,” said FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu in a press release published on February 10th. “Pulses can contribute to increasing the resilience of farming systems, help to improve soil biodiversity, and are crucial components of multiple cropping systems,” he added.

Here are the main aspect FAO mentions in its eulogy to pulses: Pulses create economic opportunities for smallholder farmers as they typically offer better profit margins than cereals. For farmers, pulses are an important crop because they can both sell them and consume them, which helps farmers maintain household food security and creates economic stability. The nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses can improve soil fertility, which improves and extends the productivity of farmland and reduces the need to apply synthetic fertilizers. When cereals are grown after pulses in agricultural cropping systems, they can yield 1.5 tonnes more per hectare than those in monocropping systems. Moreover, pulses can help mitigate climate change by increasing the soil’s ability to store carbon and by restoring poor and degraded soils. In addition, pulses are rich in nutrients, minerals, B-vitamins, making them an ideal source of protein particularly in regions where other protein sources are not available or economically accessible. They are low in fat and rich in soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol and help in the control of blood sugar. While beans, chickpeas and peas are the most well-known and commonly consumed types of pulses, there are several other lesser-known varieties from around the world such as vetches, lupins, and Bambara beans, all beneficial for food security, nutrition, health, climate change, and biodiversity. So stop reading and prepare a delicious meal with pulses. (ab)

17.01.2023 |

Richest 1% have captured almost two-thirds of all new wealth since 2020

Poverty and wealth are often found side by side (Photo: CC0)

Poverty has increased for the first time in 25 years and, at the same time, the richest have become dramatically richer since the pandemic began. Since 2020, the richest 1% have captured almost two-thirds of all new wealth – nearly twice as much money as the bottom 99% of the world’s population. Food and energy companies more than doubled their profits in 2022 while over 800 million people went to bed hungry. These are just some of the sad messages of a new policy paper published by development organization Oxfam on January 16th, the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where elites are gathering for their annual meeting in the Swiss ski resort. “Survival of the Richest” shows that billionaire fortunes are increasing by $2.7 billion a day while at least 1.7 billion workers now live in countries where inflation is outpacing wages. “While ordinary people are making daily sacrifices on essentials like food, the super-rich have outdone even their wildest dreams,” said Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International. “Just two years in, this decade is shaping up to be the best yet for billionaires – a roaring ‘20s boom for the world’s richest.”

The report focuses on how taxing the rich could address the current multiple crises and skyrocketing inequality. Oxfam’s calculations are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available. Figures on the richest people of the world are from Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List 2022, while wealth data comes from Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2022 and other sources such as the World Bank. The report shows that during the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis years since 2020, billionaires have seen their wealth increase extraordinarily. Almost $42 trillion of new wealth was created between December 2019 and December 2021. $26 trillion or 63 % was bagged by the richest 1 %, while $16 trillion or 37 % went to the bottom 99 %. This comes on top of a decade of historic gains: The number and wealth of billionaires doubled over the last decade. Between 2012 and 2021, new wealth worth 127.5 trillion was created. The top 1% captured 69 trillions of this wealth or 54% which shows that their share has increasing rapidly since the pandemic began. A comparison of Forbes’ Billionaires Lists of 2020 and 2022, with all figures adjusted to October 2022 prices using the US Consumer Price Index to account for inflation and make the numbers comparable, shows that billionaires’ wealth increased by $2.63 trillion in real terms. There are 987 days between the dates of the two lists, so the wealth of billionaires grew by $2.7 billion a day.

Supply-chain bottlenecks caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, corporate behaviour, and climate change have pushed food and energy prices to an all-time high, with food prices expected to be 18% higher in 2022 than in 2021, and those for energy 59% higher. This was another blow to the world’s poorest people but the wealth of billionaires and corporations surged in 2022 with rapidly rising food and energy profits. According to the policy paper, 95 food and energy corporations have more than doubled their profits in 2022. They made $306 billion in windfall profits (defined as 10% above their 2018–2021 average net profit) and paid out $257 billion to rich shareholders. Soaring profits of companies bring fortunes for the richest since share ownership is skewed towards higher-income groups. In the US, for example, the richest 1% own 53% of shares. The Walton dynasty, which owns half of the US retailer Walmart, received $8.5 billion in dividends and buybacks over the last year. Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, owner of major energy corporations, has seen his wealth soar by 46% in 2022 to $136.2 billion at the end of October 2022. At the same time, at least 1.7 billion workers now live in countries where inflation is outpacing wages. In the US, the UK and Australia, studies have found that 54 %, 59 % and 60 % of inflation, respectively, was driven by increased corporate profits. The World Bank is speaking of the largest increase in global inequality and the largest setback in global poverty since the Second World War and announced that the world has almost certainly lost its goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. The same applies to the hunger goal: Over 820 million people – roughly one in ten people – are currently undernourished.

Oxfam therefore calls for a systemic increase in taxation of the super-rich to claw back crisis gains driven by public money and profiteering. It says decades of tax cuts for the richest and corporations have fueled inequality, with the poorest in many countries paying higher tax rates than billionaires. Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men, paid a “true tax rate” of about 3 % between 2014 and 2018. Oxfam compared this to a flour vendor in Uganda who makes $80 a month and pays market fees collected by the local government that amount to 40% of her profits. The report argues that in recent history, taxation of the richest was far higher. Over the last forty years, governments worldwide have slashed the income tax rates on the richest. “At the same time, they have upped taxes on goods and services, which fall disproportionately on the poorest people and exacerbate gender inequality,” the authors write. In the years after WW2, the top US federal income tax rate remained above 90 % and averaged 81 % between 1944 and 1981. Similar levels of tax in other rich countries existed during some of the most successful years of their economic development and helped to expand public services like education and healthcare. Currently, only four cents in every global tax dollar now comes from taxes on wealth. Half of the world’s billionaires live in countries with no inheritance tax for direct descendants. Rich people’s income is mostly unearned, derived from returns on their assets, yet it is taxed on average at 18 %, just over half as much as the average top tax rate on wages and salaries. “Taxing the super-rich and big corporations is the door out of today’s overlapping crises,” says Gabriela Bucher. “It’s time we demolish the convenient myth that tax cuts for the richest result in their wealth somehow ‘trickling down’ to everyone else. Forty years of tax cuts for the super-rich have shown that a rising tide doesn’t lift all ships – just the superyachts.”

Oxfam is calling on governments to introduce one-off solidarity wealth taxes and windfall taxes to end crisis profiteering. In addition, governments must permanently increase taxes on the richest 1 percent, for example to at least 60 % of their income from labor and capital, with higher rates for multi-millionaires and billionaires. Oxfam says governments must especially raise taxes on capital gains, which are subject to lower tax rates than other forms of income. Moreover, the wealth and resources of the richest 1 % needs to be redistributed by implementing inheritance, property and land taxes, as well as net wealth taxes. According to new analysis by the Fight Inequality Alliance, Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam and the Patriotic Millionaires, an annual wealth tax of up to 5 % on the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires could raise $1.7 trillion a year, enough to lift 2 billion people out of poverty, fully fund the shortfalls on existing humanitarian appeals, deliver a 10-year plan to end hunger, support poorer countries being ravaged by climate impacts, and deliver universal healthcare and social protection for everyone living in low- and lower middle-income countries. “Taxing the super-rich is the strategic precondition to reducing inequality and resuscitating democracy,” explains Bucher. “We need to do this for innovation. For stronger public services. For happier and healthier societies. And to tackle the climate crisis, by investing in the solutions that counter the insane emissions of the very richest.” (ab)

13.12.2022 |

Statistical report looks at changes in food and farming since 2000

Maize - one of the main crops (Photo: CC0)

The world of food and agriculture has changed remarkably since the turn of the millennium. The global production of primary crops increased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2020 while the number of people working in farming worldwide went down 17% in the same period. A new statistical yearbook, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations on December 12th, offers a synthesis of the major factors that are relevant in the global food and agricultural landscape. On 380 pages, this annual publication covers themes such as agricultural employment, agrifood trade, fertilizer and pesticide use around the world as well as environmental and climate factors. Much of the information provided can also be found at FAO’s statistical database FAOSTAT but in the yearbook, the facts and figures are easily and quickly accessible and they authors illustrate the most important facts about the past, present and future of food and agriculture with 69 figures, 32 maps and 59 data tables as well as some thematic info boxes. “FAO is committed to ensuring free access to current, reliable, timely and trusted data, necessary to chart a course towards more sustainable and equitable agrifood systems and a world free of hunger,” said José Rosero Moncayo, Director of FAO’s Statistics Division. The statistics which are based on FAOSTAT’s more than 20 000 indicators covering more than 245 countries and territories are presented in four thematic chapters.

Chapter 1 focuses on the economic dimension of agriculture. Today, some 866 million people – or 27 % of the global workforce – work in agriculture (including forestry and fishing), compared with 1 043 million people (or 40 %) in 2000. Between 2000 and 2021, agricultural employment has declined from around 800 million to roughly 580 million people in Asia. This means that more than one out of every four agricultural workers has left the sector for another job outside agriculture in the region. In Europe, half of the agricultural workforce left while in Africa, employment in agriculture increased. The contribution of agriculture, forestry and fishing to the economy grew by 78 % in real terms between 2000 and 2020, reaching USD 3.6 trillion in value added in 2020. This represents an increase of USD 1.6 trillion compared with 2000. In Africa, the value added more than doubled over the period (+147 %), reaching USD 413 billion. Asia was responsible for the largest share, contributing 64 % of the world total in 2020: the continent shows an increase of 91 %, from USD 1.2 trillion in 2000 to USD 2.3 trillion in 2020. Until 2019, the global contribution of agriculture to gross domestic product (GDP) declined, which is expected to accompany the growth of total GDP. Due to the pandemic and the restrictions related to COVID-19, the value added of the industry and services sectors declined while that of agriculture kept increasing, resulting in an artificial jump of the share of agriculture in the total in 2020.

Chapter 1 also looks at inputs. Global pesticides use increased during the period 2000–2020 by 30 %, to 2.7 million tonnes in 2020. Pesticide use peaked in 2012 and began declining slightly in 2017. The Americas were the region that contributed the lion’s share with 51 % of pesticide use, followed by Asia (25 %), Europe (18 %), Africa and Oceania. The share of the Americas increased from 44 to 51 % of global pesticides consumption while that of Asia and Europe decreased by 4-5 points to 25 % and 18 %, respectively. The USA were the largest pesticide user in 2020 in absolute terms with 0.41 million tonnes, or 15 % of the world total, slightly ahead of Brazil (0.38 million tonnes) and China (0.27 million tonnes). The countries with the highest pesticide application per hectare are Saint Lucia with 20 kg/ha, Maldives (17 kg/ha) and Oman (16 kg/ha). Total agricultural use of inorganic fertilizers, expressed as the sum of the three nutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O), was 201 million tonnes in 2020. The share of nitrogen was 56 %, while phosphorus made up 24 % and potassium 20 %. The overall fertilizer use in 2020 was 49 %, higher than in 2000. The use of nitrogen increased by 40 %, of phosphorus by 49 % and potassium by 81 %.

Chapter 2 gives an overview over production, trade and prices of commodities. Between 2000 and 2020, the production of primary crops, such as sugarcane, maize, wheat and rice, grew by 52 %, reaching 9.3 billion tonnes. Cereals were the main group of crops produced in 2020, with roughly one-third of the total. Just four individual crops accounted for about half of global primary crop production: sugar cane (20 % of the total with 1.9 billion tonnes), maize (12 % with 1.2 billion tonnes), wheat and rice (8 % each with 0.8 billion tonnes). For each crop, the top producer also held a sizeable share of the global output. Brazil, for example, accounted for 40 % of world sugar cane production, whereas the USA grew 31% of the world’s maize output. The global production of vegetable oils increased by 125 % between 2000 and 2019, to 208 million tonnes in 2019. Palm oil registered the largest increase with 236 %. It overtook soybean oil as the main vegetable oil produced in 2006 due to the use of palm oil for biodiesel. World meat production reached 337 million tonnes in 2020, up 45 % or 104 million tonnes compared to 2000. With a share of 35 %, chicken meat was the most produced type of meat in 2020, followed by pig meat (33 %). Chicken showed the largest growth in absolute and relative terms since 2000 (+104 % or 61 million tonnes).

The chapter also analyses the FAO Food Price Index, which measures the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities. Since January 2000, the index increased from 85.4 points to 138 points in August 2022. It spiked in 2007/2008 during the food price crisis that saw the price of cereals reach record levels, especially rice and wheat. Food prices skyrocketed again in late 2010 and early 2011 (especially sugar and dairy). The index declined during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic reflecting uncertainties faced by commodity markets. However, it climbed between May 2020 and March 2022 to 159.7 points, its highest value ever, due to a combination of factors including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the supply chains, the rebound in activity and demand experienced in 2021, and the disruption to exports of cereals and vegetable oils from Russia and Ukraine.

Chapter 3 focuses on food security and nutrition but the figures are quite similar to those already published in the SOFI report that was released in July by five UN agencies. The 20-year trend for the prevalence of undernourishment is frustrating because after a decades-long decline and five years of relative stability since 2014, undernourishment has increased sharply between 2019 and 2020 and rose at a slower pace between 2020 and 2021. Nearly 10 % of the world population suffered from hunger in 2021, compared with 8 % in 2019. The situation is most alarming in Africa: In 2021, 20.2 % of the African population were undernourished. The statistics show that food supply is on the rise. The world average dietary energy supply (DES), measured as calories per person per day, has been increasing steadily to 2,963 kcal per person per day in the period 2019-2021, up 9 % compared with 2000-2002 when the average DES was 2,712 kcal. Food supply is highest in Northern America and Europe with 3,537 kcal per person per day. Africa has the lowest supply with 2,589 kcal. The region first saw a steady increase in DES but it stopped in 2012–2014 and went down again. The fastest increase took place in Asia where dietary energy supply went up 14 % over the last two decades. However, greater availability of food does not necessarily translate into access to it. The report also depicts the other face of malnutrition: Obesity among adults of 18 years and above increased rapidly in every region of the world between 2000 and 2016. In 2016, 13.1 % of the adult population was obese, an increase from 8.7 % in 2000. Oceania and Northern America and Europe had the highest prevalence of adult obesity (both at around 27–28 %), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean.

Chapter 4 deals with the sustainability and environmental aspects of agriculture. Between 2000 and 2020, agricultural land declined by 134 million ha – an area roughly the size of Peru. Some 4.74 billion hectares of the planet’s surface is agricultural land, including meadows and pastures as well as crops. The authors highlight that agriculture is both affected by climate change and an important contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Total emissions on agricultural land in 2020 amounted to 10.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2eq) of GHG released into the atmosphere, a decrease of 4 % compared with 2000. This decline is due to the fact that the decrease in emissions from forest conversion was larger than the increase in farm-gate emissions. Activities within the farm gate accounted for 7.4 Gt CO2eq or 70 % of all emissions in 2020, followed by net forest conversion/ deforestation (28 %) and fires in humid tropical forests and organic soils (2 %). Asia was the top agricultural emitter (36 % of the total) in 2020, followed by the Americas (30 %), Africa (23 %) and Europe (9 %). Of the 7.4 Gt CO2eq of agricultural emissions within the farm gate (those related to the production of crops and livestock), 38 % were from enteric fermentation generated in the digestive system of ruminant livestock. Manure left on pastures accounted for 24 %. Drained organic soils were responsible for a 12 % share, while methane from rice cultivation amounted to 9 %. The most CO2-intensive commodities on average in 2020 were cattle meat (30 kg CO2eq/kg) and sheep meat (24 kg CO2eq/kg), while the emissions intensity of pig and chicken meat was much lower (1.8 kg and 0.6 kg CO2eq/kg respectively). The emissions intensity of cereals is much lower, although rice emits more than five times than wheat and coarse grains. (ab)

10.11.2022 |

Report denounces farming’s costly dependency on chemical fertilisers

A worker fertilizing on oil palm plantation in Papua, Indonesia (Photo: Agus Andrianto / CIFOR,,

As farmers and governments are struggling to cope with increased fertiliser prices, the world’s largest agribusiness giants are making record profits, a new report reveals. According to “The Fertiliser Trap”, published by GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) on November 8th, G20 nations paid almost twice as much for key fertiliser imports in 2021 compared to 2020 and are on course to spend three times as much this year. This entails an additional cost of around US$ 22 billion in 2021 and 2022, while the world’s biggest fertiliser companies are expected to make almost US$84 billion profit over the same period. “This year, the bill for these energy-intensive products has hit new heights. With the world in the midst of an energy and climate crisis, prices for chemical fertilisers are at record levels,” the report authors write. “Fertiliser corporations are using their market power to capture mega profits, while farmers and governments are scrambling to try and cope with the added costs, especially in the global South.” They warn that high fertiliser prices are putting food production at severe risk in many places. The authors conclude that the world can no longer afford the food system’s addiction to chemical fertilisers. “The costs are too high, both in terms of the financial burden for farmers and public budgets, and the severe environmental and health impacts. Governments urgently need redirect public funds and policies away from industrial agriculture and towards agroecological farming.”

The report examines the wholesale costs of the three fertilisers imported in the greatest quantities to the G20 and a sample of developing countries for which data was publicly available, using data collected by Bloomberg Green Markets. One limitation was that for major fertiliser producers, imports only represent a small proportion of their total application of chemical fertilisers. However, domestic production and cost data were not easily available. This means that the findings of the report “only tell part of the story” – the extra costs in 2021 and 2022 to governments and farmers are likely to be significantly underestimated. The report finds that the cost of chemical fertilisers in both the global North and South has skyrocketed over the past two years, putting severe economic strain on farmers’ and public budgets. It is estimated that the G20 members spent almost twice (189%) as much for key fertiliser imports in 2021 compared to 2020 and in 2022, they will spend three times (288%) as much. This means that over this period, the G20 paid at least US$ 21.8 billion extra for the three chemical fertilisers they import in the greatest quantities. For example, the UK paid an extra US$ 144 million for fertiliser imports in the two years analysed, and Brazil paid an extra US$ 3.5 billion. For example, in January 2020 Canada was paying US$ 225 for a tonne of urea from the Baltic, whereas by January 2022, it had to pay US$ 814 per tonne. The nine developing countries examined together spent 186% more in 2021 and 295% more in 2022 for the same sample of fertilisers. This produces a total extra bill of US$ 2.9 billion. Among these countries is Pakistan, which paid an extra US$ 874 million. “The era of cheap fertilizers is over, and the costs have become too much to bear,” the authors write.

But why are costs rising? According to “The Fertiliser Trap”, the initial price increases in 2021 were driven by the rising cost of natural gas – a key raw ingredient for nitrogen fertilisers. After falling slightly in early 2022, there was another sharp increase due to the war in Ukraine which constrained the supply of both gas and fertiliser itself. Russia supplies 45% of the ammonia nitrate market. Russia and Ukraine are both significant exporters of phosphorus fertilisers. Prices climbed again in summer when it became clear the war would not end quickly and concerns over gas shortages in Europe returned. The authors add that some chemical fertilisers are not made from gas but from mineral deposits, such as potash and phosphate. However, the mining and production of fertilisers using these minerals is highly energy-intensive and thus still affected by gas prices. 75% of the world’s potash production comes from China, Canada, Russia, and Belarus.

But another factor is also fuelling fertiliser prices: corporate profits. The US$ 200 billion global fertiliser market is controlled by just a handful of companies. Only four of these companies control 33% of the entire nitrogen fertiliser production. In the US, Mosaic is estimated to control over 90% of the domestic phosphate fertiliser market. Given their market power, these companies have so far been able to pass on the increased costs of their raw ingredients and production processes to maintain or even increase their profit margins. According to company filings, the combined profits of nine of the world’s biggest fertiliser companies (Nutrien, Yara, Mosaic, ICL Group, CF Industries, PhosAgro, OCI, K+S, OCP) were just under US$ 13 billion in 2020. In contrast, if their reported profit levels in the first six months of 2022 are maintained, then over the whole year they will earn more than US$ 57 billion in profits, up 440% from two years ago. The profits of The Big 9 in 2021 and 2022 could reach a total of US$ 84 billion.

What can be done? The response so far from many governments has been to look for ways to increase chemical fertiliser production. Not surprisingly, this is also the solution that the world’s largest fertiliser companies are promoting. But GRAIN and IATP say that increased production will not resolve this crisis. First, the huge profits that fertiliser companies are making should be dealt with urgently. Some ideas that have been suggested include the imposition of windfall taxes and investigations into pricing. Second, governments should take urgent action to support a significant reduction in the consumption of chemical fertilisers. In countries where industrial agriculture is dominant, one of the most immediate and impactful steps that can be taken is public support for farmers to implement more efficient fertiliser use. In many countries, a large amount of fertiliser is over-applied and wasted. The excess evaporates or is washed away, polluting air, soils and water. In Germany, a study found that only 61% of fertiliser is reaching wheat crops, meaning 39% is wasted. In Canada only 59% of fertiliser reaches crops and in Australia 62%. Other measures include a change in subsidies in order to support a managed transition towards farming practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilisers. Public or private philanthropic programmes that support the introduction of fertilisers into farming systems which are not already dependent on their use should be stopped. “In many places, farmers are already demonstrating that they can transition away from the use of chemical fertilisers as part of a broader transition to agroecology, without sacrificing their yields”, the report finds. “Agroecology incorporates traditional knowledge with science, empowers farmers as actors in their markets, focuses on delivering varied and healthy food, and works with biodiversity and nature. With agroecology, instead of chemical fertilisers, farmers restore nutrients and fertility to soils through the use of manure or through the cultivation of plants that absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, such as legumes,” the authors conclude. (ab)

31.10.2022 |

IPES-Food rejects nebulous terms like ‘nature-based solutions’

Nebulous terms are being used in international summits (Photo: CC0)

At international climate, biodiversity and food summits, a growing number of green buzzwords are being used which rather obstruct than accelerate food system transformation. Agrifood corporations, international philanthropic organizations, and some governments are currently deploying the term “nature-based solutions” to ‘hijack’ the food system sustainability agenda, often bundled with problematic and unproven carbon farming and carbon offsetting schemes in partnership with major conservation groups. This is one of the key messages of a new policy brief published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a group of experts co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and Maryam Rahmanian, an independent expert on agriculture and food systems. The briefing, written after an in-depth exchange between IPES-Food and researchers from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), analyses how the competing concepts of ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-based solutions’, and ‘regenerative agriculture’ were used at recent international events. “There’s a battle of ideas over the future of food systems. Very loose terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being bandied about in international summits without clear definitions, and they’re open to being mobilized in the interests of all kinds of agendas. At worst they are a cover for green grabs that undermine people's rights and threaten the land and resources they depend on,” said Melissa Leach, IPES-Food expert and Director of the IDS. She highlighted that with the UN climate conference in Egypt (COP27) fast approaching, we must be very careful about the use of these ambiguous terms and reject solutions that are not clearly defined.

According to the brief ‘Smoke & Mirrors: Examining competing framings of food system sustainability’, there is widespread consensus on the need to make food systems more sustainable, but how to pursue that objective is subject to much debate. In recent years, terms such as ‘regenerative agriculture’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ have gained popularity within global governance and international development spaces and among agrifood corporations. The authors explain that “these terms add to a growing collection of concepts and ideas that are often used as bywords for sustainable development in discussing the future of food systems, including sustainable agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, nature-positive food production, sustainable intensification, conservation agriculture” and so on. The paper focuses on three concepts, ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-based solutions’, and ‘regenerative agriculture’, considering their origins, evolution, and how they are used in debates on the future of food systems. The authors looked specifically at how these terms were deployed in the run-up to, at and in the follow-up to three high-level summit events in 2021 – the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) and at the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15). They also examined the usage of these terms in other policy and funding spaces (e.g. corporate sustainability schemes and development initiatives).

The researchers found that one controversial idea, ‘nature-based solutions’, is rapidly gaining traction in international summits. The term was very prominent at the UNFSS, contentious in some negotiations at COP26, and has gained a foothold in CBD – where it is being heavily promoted by some parties and strongly opposed by others in ongoing negotiations towards the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. At the UN Food Systems Summit, the term ‘nature-positive’ was preferred in earlier stages. Across summit literature, ‘nature-based’ and ‘nature-positive’ were used as generic prefixes together with a range of topics – “suggesting that the terms are being used in a loose and aspirational way and perhaps to mask the specific and highly-critiqued approaches (e.g., carbon offsets) being promoted by a number of proponents of nature-based solutions”, the authors write. Nature-positive food systems; nature-positive agriculture and nature-positive approaches, practices, and solutions are just some examples that appeared in summit documents and processes. The UNFSS was organised around five action tracks and track 3 is dedicated to “nature positive production”. IPES-Food criticises that the concept of ‘nature-based’ lacks an agreed definition and a transformative vision and is being used to maintain agribusiness as usual. It is a depoliticized concept that ignores inequalities of power and wealth that lead to unsustainability in food systems. Therefore, it falls short of the deep, structural, transformative change required to make food systems truly sustainable in all three dimensions – ecological, social, and economic. In addition, the term is often bundled with risky, unproven carbon offsetting schemes that entrench big agribusiness power. The result is thus a dilution of food system transformation.

By contrast, ‘agroecology’ – the second concept analysed in the paper – is a term given formal definition through democratic and inclusive governance processes, backed by years of scientific research and social movement legitimacy. The authors explain that agroecology offers a more inclusive and comprehensive pathway toward food system transformation because it connects social and environmental aspects of sustainability, addresses the whole food system, is attentive to power inequalities, and draws from a plurality of knowledges emphasizing the inclusion of marginalized voices. Agroecology is the only concept among the three that has attained clarity and conceptual maturity through a long process of inclusive and international deliberation. In 2018, following a 4-year consultative process, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) laid out the ‘10 elements of agroecology. This framework was a milestone in bringing agroecology into mainstream policy debate and establishing a holistic version of it that included social justice components. This conceptual maturity was consolidated the following year when the High Level Panel of Experts of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) translated these 10 elements into a set of 13 operational principles to guide agroecological food system transformation. At the UNFSS, agroecology was mentioned as a type of nature-based solution under action track 3, emerging as a ‘game-changing solution’ under this track. However, the brief concludes that agroecology is not used as an overarching framework in the three fora studied. Insufficient attention to agroecology and food sovereignty was among the reasons why hundreds of civil society groups boycotted the UNFSS, and its outcomes remain highly contested. Agroecology was largely absent from the main business of COP26 and was not mentioned in the CBD’s main outcome document to date, the Kunming Declaration.

The third concept, ‘Regenerative agriculture’, is less prominent in policy spaces, the briefing note finds. Sustainable food system actors use it to emphasize regenerating natural resources. However leading agrifood businesses (including Walmart, Pepsi and Cargill) are in some cases invoking ‘regenerative agriculture’ in their corporate sustainability schemes, often in conjunction with carbon offsetting schemes, stripped of social justice dimensions. “Regenerative agriculture is a term at a crossroads. Highlighting the principles it shares with agroecology (…) can help to reclaim regenerative agriculture from corporate co-optation and reinfuse it with conceptual clarity,” the authors write. The brief also presents a number of recommendations for policy actors, observers, and advocates in global governance spaces on food, climate, and environment. IPES-Food calls to reject solutions that lack definitions, exploit ambiguity and mask agribusiness as usual, while ensuring inclusive global processes to deliberate on socially and environmentally sustainable food system solutions. Business as usual through nature-based solutions, as expressed at the UNFSS, should be rejected in the upcoming climate conference in Egypt. “COP27 faces crucial decisions on agriculture. Rapidly transitioning to more sustainable and resilient food systems is vital if we are to limit global warming and prevent mass crop failures,” said Molly Anderson, IPES-Food expert and Chair in Food Studies at Middlebury College. She stressed that undefined terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being used to keep the focus on vague aspirations and this is just another form of greenwashing. “True food system solutions emerge through global, deliberative, democratic processes, and agroecology is the best solution that meets that criteria today,” she added. (ab)

07.10.2022 |

Corporate concentration in the global food chain is increasing, report

Food barons
Front cover of the report (by Garth Laidlaw)

Many key industrial agrifood sectors are now so “top heavy” that they are controlled by just four to six dominant companies. This enables these firms to wield huge influence over markets, agricultural research and policy-development, thus undermining food sovereignty and driving high food prices, new analysis has revealed. A report published by the international research collective “ETC Group” in September shows that new technologies are enabling the biggest players in the industrial food and agriculture chain to further consolidate their wealth and control, especially via the digitalization of agriculture. The report “Food Barons 2022” is an update of ETC Group’s previous reports about corporate concentration and was researched over the last two years. Drawing on 2020 data and sales figures from 11 food sectors, it names and ranks the largest food corporations dominating each link of the 8-10 trillion dollar commercial industrial food chain. The authors also outline the latest corporate maneuvers that make the food system more vulnerable to shocks and disruptions. “We have to remember that structural inequality and corporate concentration drive high food prices. This report highlights the startling consolidation that has enabled profiteering around climate, conflict and COVID-19. It names the culprits who are fuelling growing hunger,” commented Veronica Villa from ETC Group’s office in Mexico City.

The report looks at so-called “food barons”, the world’s leading corporations in the food chain, including giant traders, food processors, grocers, technologists and financiers. The authors examine 11 key industrial “agrifood” sectors: seeds, agrochemicals, livestock genetics, synthetic fertilizers, farm machinery, animal pharmaceuticals, commodity traders, food processors, Big Meat, grocery retail and food delivery. Their rankings and the infographics in the report are mainly based on 2020 sales figures. They find that our food system has already tipped well into oligopoly. Economists typically speak of an oligopoly if at least 40% of a market or sector is controlled by just a few firms. The report shows that just four firms (ChemChina/SinoChem, Bayer, BASF and Corteva) control 62.3% of the world agrochemical market. The top six companies even control 78% of the market. The global market for agrochemical products was US$62,400 million in 2020. ChemChina and SinoChem (Syngenta Group) alone account for one-quarter of the global pesticide market – a share that is likely to expand rapidly following the 2021 merger of ChemChina and SinoChem. The global market for commercial seeds and traits reached $45,000 million in 2020. The top 2 companies (Bayer and Corteva Agriscience) control 40% of this market. The top 6 companies (the former two plus ChemChina/Syngenta, BASF, Groupe Limagrain/Vilmorin and KWS) control 58% of the seed market. Globally, just three companies (EW Group, Hendrix Genetics and Tyson Foods) control commercial poultry genetics, making it the most concentrated sector in the industrial food chain.

The report also looks at three critical, multi-sectoral trends that increase the ability of the Food Barons – Big Ag, together with Big Tech and Big Finance – to maintain control over the industrial food chain. The first of these is the digitalization of food and agriculture. Tech giants are becoming prime players in food, handling the data, networking and artificial intelligence that undergirds the newly digitized food chain. “The Food Barons are introducing a suite of new technologies and “techno-fixes” that are conceived and designed to entrench corporate control over food and agriculture even further,” says the report. ETC Group’s research reveals that every sector of the Industrial Food Chain is in the process of transforming into a digital enterprise. “The vista of new digital initiatives in food and ag is dizzying. On the farm, it includes concerted attempts to impose digital agriculture, weaving in drone sprayers, Artificial Intelligence-driven robotic planters and automated animal-feeding operations tricked out with facial recognition for livestock. Big Ag giants such as Bayer, Deere & Company, Corteva, Syngenta and Nutrien are restructuring their entire businesses around Big Data platforms.” The authors name Bayer’s ‘Field View’ digital platform as an example: It extracts 87.5 billion data points from 180 million acres (78.2 million hectares) of farmland in 23 countries and funnels it into the cloud servers of Microsoft and Amazon to generate new business strategies. The authors fear that these systems will displace farm workers, erode farmer’s rights and manipulate consumers. They also point to the fact that Deere, the world’s largest farm machinery company, now employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers.

The second trend is the rising power of Asian (especially Chinese) and Brazilian food barons. “In decades past, industrial agriculture was overwhelmingly dominated by corporations based in North America and Europe, and focused primarily on meeting market demand in those regions. Today, corporate players in the global South, especially China, Brazil and India are reordering the Industrial Food Chain, while adopting the same extractive model as their Northern counterparts,” the report finds. The authors highlight that the pace and scale of China’s hyper-industrializing agrifood system is without precedent. “Chinese Food Barons are catering to colossal domestic as well as global markets: China’s state-owned Syngenta Group is now the world’s largest agrochemical input firm (seeds, pesticides, fertilizers); and China’s newly consolidated COFCO is second only to Cargill as the world’s largest agriculture commodity trader.” The third trend is horizontal integration, including the increasing involvement of asset management companies in food and agriculture sectors, which creates the semblance of competition, but diminishes actual competition. In sectors such as grocery and food processing, giant asset managers Blackrock, State Street and Vanguard maintain the largest ownership stakes across many of the top firms, showing real competition to be an illusion. For example, these three large asset management firms collectively control more than one quarter of all institutional shares of agribusiness corporations such as Pepsico (20.51% of shares held collectively by the Big Three), Tyson (25.13%) and ADM (23.92%).

ETC Group warns that the extreme market power of a tiny number of firms documented in this report enables and drives high prices. The authors write: “The year 2020 was a horrific year for food security and health – but a bonanza for Big Food and Big Ag. In the midst of a global pandemic – combined with climate shocks, supply chain gridlock, price spikes, increasing hunger, food and energy shortages, civil strife, racial violence and wars – these Food Barons made the most of the converging crises in order to tighten their grip on every link in the Industrial Food Chain. In doing so, they undermine the rights of peasants, smallholders, fishers and pastoralists to produce food for their own communities and many others.” The report makes clear that policymakers and antitrust regulators haven’t developed the tools or the teeth to clamp down on 21st century oligopoly power – including the opaque power of tech giants and asset management firms. “It can be daunting to imagine taking on the Food Barons - They are backed by the titans of capital, have their claws in around 10% percent of the global economy and are ruthlessly buttressing the Food Chain with new technologies and false promises,” said Jim Thomas, ETC Group’s Research Director based in Canada. “But their power is illegitimate and not inevitable,” he added. The report also underlines that agribusiness is currently in a moment of significant transformation. “Agribusiness has failed to feed even a third of people on the planet, while wrecking ecosystems, economies and society along the way. As the food chain becomes more top-heavy these companies become more exposed and vulnerable. It’s time to topple, defund and divest the food barons of their power,” says Jim Thomas.

The authors outline three key proposals for action. The first is to support food sovereignty. According to ETC Group, it is urgent to recognize the vital importance of non-industrial food systems. Food Barons are not feeding the world and it is not in their interest to do so. In direct contrast, feeding people is recognised as a real need and is the core concern of peasants’ and grassroots organisations which have set a very clear path to be able to feed the world and rebuild the planet: food sovereignty and agroecology. The second proposal is to divest from the chain. “Institutions under pressure from civil society have already succeeded in partly directing funds away from tobacco, arms and fossil fuels on moral grounds. Grassroots climate movements have successfully named fossil fuel majors as the obstruction to meaningful climate action. Food movements should follow suit: it is a logical next step to demand divestment from the Industrial Food Chain,” says the report. Schools, universities, pension funds, local authorities and other public institutions holding investments in the identified companies should withdraw their funds from specific Food Barons and even from the entire industrial food chain. Third, powerful new technologies such as blockchains, drones, ag robots, AI platforms, RNAi, alt-proteins, designer microbes and gene drives should be closely monitored. “The participatory assessment of technologies based on precaution, as well as the development and support for the implementation of socially and ecologically useful technologies, should be a top priority for governments, multilateral communities or fora, and civil society,” the authors demand. Food governance bodies such as the Committee on World Food Security should prioritize horizon scanning, technology assessment and monitoring of new technologies that impact food systems. (ab)


Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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