‘Business as usual’ for agrochemical industry damaging to biodiversity, farmers

Rice seeds distributed by Corteva Agriscience to farmers in Quezon province, Philippines to supposedly help ensure food security amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo credit: Business Mirror)

Penang, Malaysia— As the world celebrates International Biodiversity Day, PAN Asia Pacific said that it should not be “business as usual” for agrochemical transnational corporations (TNCs), which are using the COVID-19 pandemic to aggressively promote highly hazardous pesticides and genetically-modified crops, which may result to further biodiversity loss and damage to farmers’ health and livelihoods.

In the Philippines, Bayer and Corteva AgriScience have been supporting the government’s “Plant, Plant, Plant” program, a program by the Department of Agriculture to ensure food security in the country amid COVID-19, by distributing rice and corn seeds and pesticides or “crop protection products.” In particular, Bayer said that it will intensify its processing and distribution of hybrid Arize rice and Dekalb corn seeds to help boost food production during the pandemic.

Many of Bayer’s Dekalb corn hybrid products are genetically-modified to resist Monsanto’s cancer-causing herbicide, Round Up (glyphosate). Monsanto has been acquired by Bayer, which is currently facing thousands of lawsuits in the US for the health harm caused by glyphosate. Despite this, Bayer announced plans in March to penetrate the market in Mindanao (Southern Philippines) with a new product, Vt Double Pro Dekalb, which is genetically modified to be glyphosate-tolerant and resistant to the fall armyworm.

“We are concerned that agrochemical firms are riding on food security programs of governments as opportunities to further promote and make farmers dependent on their hazardous products—especially now that farmers are more vulnerable due to loss of income. More than ever, this pandemic has shown that chemical-intensive farming is unsustainable, with farmers going deeper into debt if unable to recoup their losses for even just one harvest as a result of COVID-19 restrictions,” said Sarojeni Rengam, PANAP executive director.

In contrast, farming communities that practice agroecology have shown greater resilience in the face of the pandemic, because of lack of reliance on external inputs and ability to strengthen local supply chains. “Governments should instead consider supporting self-sufficient, farmer-led agroecological practices. Reports from our partner organisations in the region show that agroecological practices have kept communities healthy and fed amid this crisis,” Rengam said.

The UN International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, in a communique on COVID-19, has affirmed that “a paradigm shift” from corporate-controlled industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems is “more urgent than ever.” It stressed that agroecology allows for the production of healthy food while protecting the environment, increases disease resistance by harnessing diversity, and reduces vulnerability to trade disruptions and price shocks.

In contrast, the use of pesticides and hazardous technologies pushed by agrochemical TNCs have been a major driving factor in the drastic decline in biodiversity. According to a FAO report on the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, loss of biodiversity is affecting the world’s capacity to produce food. According to the report, approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive because of biodiversity loss. Many species crucial to food productions—such as birds and pollinators—are under threat of extinction. Loss of genetic diversity has also been alarming, with only nine crops accounting for two-thirds of global food production.

Yet, agrochemical TNCs and collaborating institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are using concerns over food security during the pandemic to push for the same, discredited agricultural system. For instance, in the webinar “The future of food systems in Southeast Asia post-COVID19” organised by IRRI and the FAO, Jean Balie, IRRI’s head of Agri-Food Policy, said that they are “looking to increase the mineral and vitamin content in rice grains” as a response to the pandemic, alluding to renewed promotion of the genetically-modified Golden Rice, which has recently been approved for commercialization in Bangladesh and the Philippines. 

“We must not allow the agrochemical industry and IRRI to use the pandemic as a renewed opportunity to wreak more havoc on biodiversity and the lives of farmers as they already have. For the better post-COVID-19 world that we all seek, agroecology must be considered the ‘new normal’,” Rengam concluded.###

Reference: Sarojeni Rengam, PAN Asia Pacific, Executive Director, sarojeni.rengam@panap.net