Sunday, 5 September 2010

Book Review - "Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance" edited by Jennifer Clapp and Doris Fuchs

Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance
Edited by Jennifer Clapp and Doris Fuchs
Published by the MIT Press, London ©2009
ISBN 978-0-262-51237-4 (price on Amazon: £18.00, new with free delivery)

Despite a few reservations, I found this book to be very informative and interesting, and would recommend it. The agrifood business is important in the discussion of environmental law because, as the editors mention, farmers are the stewards (or trustees) of almost one-third of the Earth’s land. Corporate governance that uses an industrial agricultural model and relies heavily on chemical use and plant genetic engineering is shown to be antithetical to sustainability. Inequality, erosion of democracy, lack of transparency, reliance on international trade for food security and heightened vulnerability are other negative aspects of corporate dominance in food production and distribution discussed in this book. The term ‘biotechnology’ is used throughout the book, but often the term ‘genetic engineering’ would have been more accurate, specifically with reference to genetic modification (GM) which is explained in my comments for Chapter 6 below.

In the introductory chapter, the editors set the dialogue framework for the book which was written together with nine other academic authors: half from Europe, half from North America and one from Australia. Corporate power is discussed and analysed by using three categories: discursive power (e.g., media, public relations and lobbying), structural power (e.g., private standards, organic certification, and private ownership of seeds) and instrumental power (e.g., membership of key policymaking committees, ability to withhold intellectual property information, and even law making positions). They also set the scene of today’s global scale of production, trade, and marketing of food and agricultural products by describing developments over the past 50 years. They highlight that transnational corporations (TNCs) are involved at all stages of the food production chain and have become more concentrated in recent years. The authors acknowledge that despite some set-backs, TNCs in the agrifood industry have continued to grow at a steady rate. The book is divided into two parts: Part I, Chapters 2-5, is devoted to the nature of corporate power in global agrifood governance; and Part II, Chapters 6-9, refers to the corporate governance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Chapter 2 Retail Power, Private Standards, and Sustainability in the Global Food System, by Doris Fuchs, Agni Kalfagianni, and Maarten Arentsen
In this chapter, the authors’ discussion was based on the retail corporations that are setting private rules, some of which are more stringent than, but all in conjunction with, public laws. This is a common line of reasoning in defence of corporate actions used by many corporations today based on corporate responsibility claims, only this chapter tailored it to fit in with food quality and food safety – the issues that are favoured by TNCs over societal and environmental issues (and discussed further in Chapter 3). The authors give examples where incidents of food contamination were remedied by TNCs, but also note that there are still constant ongoing unsafe food incidents due to the nature of the enterprise. In the end, the authors argue for stringent political regulation of retail power with a public regulatory framework. They show that private standards with respect to environmental issues are likely to remain limited.

Chapter 3 Certification Standards and the Governance of Green Foods in Southeast Asia, by Steffanie Scott, Peter Vandergeest, and Mary Young
The authors in this chapter chose to discuss organic food in relation to Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, due in part to the 2007 industry projections which showed the Asia-Pacific region as the fastest growing organic foods market. They discuss how corporate retailers are perceived to be the outlets of choice for these foods largely because organic food is being used as a commodity with less value added reaching the farmers who have less autonomy over the process with many small farmers being pushed out of the market. They show that rather than supporting green alternative agriculture production processes with direct producer-consumer linkages in which the cost of social and environmental sustainability is internalized, corporate involvement in organic production in these countries has led to marginalization and subservience of local knowledge and practices and primarily serves consumers abroad.

Chapter 4 In Whose Interests? Transparency and Accountability in the Global Governance of Food: Agribusiness, the Codex Alimentarius, and The World Trade Organization by Elizabeth Smythe
In this chapter, Smythe covers the issues of transparency and legitimacy in the area of labelling of GMOs in food. For nearly twenty years, the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s Committee on Labelling has been working to establish rules on labelling GM food and feed. Since the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995 these standards, although still voluntary guidelines, have been promoted to being “semi-binding” on states. Smyth points out that agribusiness TNCs have a vested interest in uniform standards for labelling and have greater funds to participate in the lengthy, complicated process of developing Codex standards. Risk assessment of GMO issues are determined by Codex with the assistance of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization experts, but most of the evidence is furnished by the food manufacturer’s scientists. Throughout the chapter, Smythe clearly sets out the transparency questions about safety, traceability, and the environment that prevail at all levels of governance in food labelling.

Chapter 5 Corporate Interests in US food Aid Policy by Jennifer Clapp
Clapp begins the chapter discussing tied, in-kind food aid which is the type of food aid that is preferred by the US and which was historically used by the US to dispose of surplus food. Clapp sets out many of the largely dubious arguments later used by the US in favour of in-kind food aid. One such argument is that in-kind food aid is a tool in the fight against terrorism. Clapp prefers the primarily cash-based food aid system supported by the EU. She shows that besides being highly inefficient, the US in-kind food aid programs are distorting trade, especially in the countries where the food is delivered. In addition, she says there are environmental concerns of the recipients, especially with GM food aid. Clapp also mentions that there are general environmental issues involved because the US uses industrial farming to produce the food and insists on using its own ships to transport it half way around the world in the form of mostly grains.

Chapter 6 Feeding the World? Transnational Corporations and the Promotion of Genetically Modified Food, by Marc Williams
Williams’ goal in this chapter was to describe the corporate campaign to promote GM foods and his presentation suggests that he got caught up in the rhetoric in favour of this technology espoused by TNCs. Not long into his chapter, he produces a confusing remark about gene technology (a subset of biotechnology) which he delineates as “transgenics” (“the insertion of a new gene”) and gene modification (“the alteration of the sequence of genes”). It would have been more helpful instead if he had clarified that the discussion is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) along the lines of the EU legal definition which includes any procedure “that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” Further, the practice of genetic modification is also called genetic engineering which falls under the wider ambit of gene technology. Another point I would raise is about his reference to the twenty-three countries where GM crops were grown in 2007. He qualifies the number of countries with the word “only,” but fails to point out that they include the largest countries with the biggest agricultural production generally, i.e., United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Australia and India with Russia being the only country left for significant geographic/GM crop expansion. Having said all that, he creatively and amply demonstrates the discursive power of TNCs that use food security and environmental sustainability frames in their favour, while pointing out some weaknesses in the validity of their claims.

Chapter 7 Corporations, Seeds, and Intellectual Property Rights Governance
by Susan K. Sell
Sell’s chapter was an impressive coverage of GMO patent issues and the many global organizations involved in the process with particular emphasis on the structural and instrumental powers of TNCs gained by using patent laws. Her discussion focuses on the global aspect of patent enforceability with a comment that the US would prefer contract law to additional global regulation while the biotechnology industry in general is seeking a more efficient uniform global patent system. An interesting point Sell makes is how Monsanto and BASF with funding from Bill Gates (and Microsoft) are developing climate change stress tolerant genes. She gives references to show that because of the broad scope of the resulting patent applications, together with those applied for by Syngenta, if all are granted then these three firms will control a vast majority of climate-related gene families. Sell aptly describes the situation when she says that “[t]his combination of economic concentration with extensive and broad patenting means that a handful of global corporations are increasingly controlling the world’s food supply and entangling farmers in a dense web of licensing and royalty obligations.” She argues for the return to public funding for agricultural research.

Chapter 8 The Troubled Birth of the “Biotech Century”: Global Corporate Power and Its Limits by Robert Falkner
Falkner appears to play the devil’s advocate in this chapter by attempting to argue that business conflict “serves to limit the power of the corporate sector and opens up political space for other actors to shape the future of agribiotechnology.” One reason this premise cannot hold water is because of the statistic given by Falkner that the GM market was worth over $6 billion in 2006 with only medical appliances topping this figure in biotechnology. As Falkner points out, not only is the industry of such high value, but because of a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s, it is controlled by less than a handful of TNCs, with Monsanto in the lead by a long shot. According to Falkner, consumer opposition and protest groups have limited the commercial prospects of TNCs in the food biotechnology industry and he gives examples to demonstrate this using the GM labelling issue in Europe and the farmer’s choice, especially in rejecting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat in the US and Canada. But this argument does not have much weight against his opening statement that “since the mid-1990s the global GM planting area has grown at an average rate of 10 percent annually.”

Chapter 9 Technology, Food, Power: Governing GMOs in Argentina, by Peter Newell
Newell focuses on the role of the agribiotechnology TNCs in Argentina where evidence shows “increased chemical imports [...], deforestation associated with land clearing for GM production as well as concentration of land tenure and decreasing employment among labourers lower down the agricultural supply chain.” On the one hand Newell discusses how Argentina has embraced GMOs on grounds of export potential. But he also points out that the debate about biotechnology in Argentina has become urgent as a means to relieve hunger and a food crisis produced by economic collapse. However, Newell brings to light the impossible nature of claims by TNCs to benefit the poor and reduce the environmental impacts of intensive agricultural development. He discusses the intertwining of the state and TNC powers, especially discursive powers exercised through mass media, with a whole network to promote GMOs, which results in little policy space for society to demand change.

In the concluding chapter, the editors comment on the importance of this subject matter in that “food is the basis of our existence and has pivotal health effects.” In addition, they point out that the well-being of local, regional, and global ecosystems is determined by TNCs in the global agrifood business. They reiterate the often heard assertion that the public interests of social and environmental concerns are continually being trumped by the private interests of economic objectives.