Big firms vs. small farms

  • Countering the influence of multinational fertiliser companies

By Sumudu Chamara

The concept of agroecology and related practices, such as the use of organic fertilisers, were prevalent several decades ago and they are not new concepts. However, they were subdued by newer, chemical products-based agricultural practices promoted by large-scale companies, and that is why going organic is considered a new movement by some parties. In this context, embracing agroecology, or Sri Lanka going organic, also means going against practices and beliefs promoted by multinational companies.

This was highlighted by a group of international agricultural experts, who, during a webinar held on Saturday (23), extensively discussed the impact of large-scale corporations on the world’s agriculture and also on movements trying to promote eco-friendly farming practices. 

The webinar, titled “International Context of Agroecology”, was joined by Pesticide Action Network – Asia and the Pacific Executive Director Sarojini Rengam, GRAIN’s Asia Programme’s Afsar Jafri, La Via Campesina International Co-ordination Committee Member Pramesh Pokharel, and Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development Secretary General Esther Penunia, and was moderated by Sasanka Dias. It was organised by Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), Renaissance Sri Lanka, and Greenfem, and is the third instalment of a series of webinars titled “Building a Sri Lankan Organic Farming Model”.

Corporations and agroecology 

Rengam, speaking of politics of food and agriculture production with a focus on the global agrochemical industry, noted that decades of unsustainable agricultural practices have caused ecological imbalance within the agriculture sector, among other issues. She added that it should also be noted that this discussion is happening around the world in a context where rural people around the globe are suffering from increased hunger and poverty, owing to unprecedented challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as climate crisis and loss of biodiversity.

She added: “More and more rural people are losing their rights and access to land and natural resources, and rural people’s demands for food and rights amidst the pandemic must be heard and realised. Now is the best opportunity to push for genuine food systems change, and there is an urgent need for food sovereignty-related policies. We also have to realise that agroecology can be one of the ways forward and out of world hunger.”

In a context where small-scale food producers produce around 70% of the total global food production according to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and an estimated 450 million labourers work on industrial plantations and farms, she added that only a handful of large-scale agrochemical corporations are benefiting from the existing agricultural system, which heavily depend on chemical fertilisers and chemical pesticides, among other chemical productions.

“The top four agrochemical corporations control 67% of the commercial seed market and agrochemicals, while they also control 70% of the pesticides market. We are looking at about a $ 36.4 billion a year business that is controlled by just four corporations. We can see the same situation when it comes to fertilisers as well. The top five fertiliser companies control around 18% of the market.”

Rengam emphasised that this situation has led to the destruction of sustainable agriculture, food production, people’s livelihoods, and also health. 

“There is a dependence on corporate-controlled resources and corporate agriculture, which began with the Green Revolution. The consolidation of corporations and agricultural input industries was encouraged and prompted by various companies and governments, particularly the US Government. That started the destruction of the way farmers and small-scale food producers have been producing food, and impacted people’s health. It also led to neoliberal policies imposed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and free trade agreements. This continues even today. International financial institutions and private corporate foundations support expansion of transnational corporations, particularly agrochemical corporations. When it comes to corporate agriculture and climate change, we can see that corporations are joining the movement of providing technical and technological solutions to climate change.”

Furthermore, she stressed the importance of supporting people’s democratic aspirations pertaining to food sovereignty.

“Right to food, agriculture, and food production, decent livelihood, and health, are crucial matters in this discussion. Food sovereignty provides a framework for redressing the exploitative imbalance, and food sovereignty translates the right to food into a more comprehensive demand for production of nutritious, culturally acceptable, and agro-ecologically produced food. Therefore, demanding state responsibility in implementing food sovereignty and upholding the right to food, livelihood, and health are also crucial.

“Food sovereignty demands that governments develop policies for food and agriculture production and distribution at all levels of governance, and also it demands that states take responsibility for providing a model of production which builds on agroecology based on pesticide-free, safe, environmentally friendly methods of sustainable farming. Agroecology should be adopted as a viable, pro-people and pro-planet alternative.”

She opined that agroecology can only be viable and beneficial if pursued in the context of agrarian reforms and long-term rural development, and when land and other resources necessary to produce food, including seeds and water, are unencumbered by corporate monopoly control. She also observed that having substantial and reliable state support for production and extension services, as well as a steady domestic market that will absorb locally and agro-ecologically grown farm produce, are also important in this endeavour.

Meanwhile, Jafri extensively described how mainstream agricultural and development projects have negatively affected nations’ attempts to embrace environmentally friendly agricultural practices including organic farming. He spoke of how some of the World Bank (WB)-implemented/planned projects have led to such results.

“WB has influenced agriculture in many countries, in many ways, and it continues to influence the direction of food and farming through promotion of new technologies. There is a close link between WB operations and policy direction with regard to farming. 

“In fact, the Green Revolution was pushed in the 1960s by WB and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It supported agricultural projects pertaining to the fertiliser industry, groundwater exploitation, introducing high-yielding seeds, and setting up banking institutions to finance the Green Revolution. In fact, the Green Revolution was also a planned transformation of agricultural practices used by farmers, and it involved changes in many aspects of agriculture such as agricultural technologies related to inputs, farming methods, seeds, soil management, disease management, water and irrigating, machinery, research, and infrastructure.”

He noted that as a result, over time, farming lands have become “addicted” to chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, causing various issues, including soil degradation, which has led to loss of productivity. He added that chemical fertilisers greatly diminish the capacity of the soil to feed plants, and also make roots more susceptible to various conditions, and plants to pests and various diseases.

“One of the reasons Sri Lanka has banned chemical fertilisers is because pesticides and herbicides cause a huge impact on the people including farmers. Farmers have died due to diseases (related to the use of those products). In fact, the pesticides trade is now well established in the agriculture sector, and its health and economic impacts on farmers have become a matter that affects many crops leading to indebtedness and distress among farmers.

He further described how various projects promoted and supported by WB have led to adverse results in terms of farming and related businesses. He opined that signs of degradation are quite apparent in many countries. 

“WB forced countries to dismantle the various structures that had been built, and gave loans to the seed sector mainly to privatise the seeds industry and to allow access to multinational seeds corporations. WB conditions also forced countries to liberalise seed imports and encourage foreign investments in the seeds sector. Such projects have also negatively affected the seed and crop diversity. In addition, such projects have led to privatisation of lands. In 1991, WB and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) used the financial crisis that existed at that time to push for changes in agricultural trade policies, through structural adjustment programmes which led to several changes. WB is also promoting subsidies for rich nations, not poor nations, and this is mainly because the removal of subsidies is likely to raise the world prices of food and agricultural products. WB is also promoting false solutions to the climate crisis. These have affected many countries all around the world.”


During the discussion, Pokharel pointed out challenges faced by agriculture sector reforms in the international context. 

He noted that industrial agriculture, neoliberal policies, and also the climate crisis have posed serious challenges to farmers and the agriculture sector. He noted that some such practices involve using the Covid-19 pandemic against the people to destroy local economics, adding that such have been observed in India and Nepal.

He added: “Years of rampant neoliberalisation and industrial corporate agriculture have resulted in deeper inequality, grabbing of resources, marginalisation, and also increased world hunger. Even the UN food system has been hijacked by corporations.

“Therefore, we are at a critical juncture in the history of humankind. Many organisations have joined the food sovereignty movement, and we have important tools for our struggle, i.e. the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and the UN Decade of Family Farming (2019-2028). Also, growing consciousness on health and culturally appropriate food production are sustainable ways to achieve these targets.”

Speaking of the international situation of agroecology, Pokharel added that agroecology remains a hot topic of discussion in many of the global forums, and that it has, in fact, become more famous. He noted that at present, a large number of parties are willing to pay attention to agroecology, despite the fact that it was a much ignored practice in the last few decades and was considered an outdated traditional practice.

He expressed concerns that agroecology has been interpreted in many ways, and has been misinterpreted at times by various parties for their benefit. Explaining why some corporations have misinterpreted and misused this concept, Pokharel added: “Agroecology is an opportunity to transform the face of conventional agriculture. Many big farmers’ organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) use it as a large amount of funds and resources are concentrated on it. They want to introduce a new form of corporate agriculture in the name of green transformation, because conventional and corporate agriculture has various impacts on the environment, sustainable production, and human health.

“True agroecology is a model of agrarian transformation against industrial and corporate agriculture, privatisation of resources, use of hazardous external inputs, commodification of food, loss of seeds, land and territory, and climate change. This is a farming system based on the family farm model that protects small farms, and is also a suitable agriculture system that avoids chemicals and protects soil and soil fertility. It uses multi-cropping practices, and aims at localising production for localised food governance.”

With regard to adopting agroecology for food sovereignty, Pokharel said that the concept of agroecology focuses on autonomy and sovereignty of farmers, and that essentially, it is about going back to the roots of agriculture, while integrating science with culture.

“It is also accurate to say that agroecology is a movement against monocropping, corporate agriculture, and the Green Revolution. It calls for healthy food and climate justice, and fights commodification of resources, land, water, seeds, food, and market monopolies,” he opined.

Speaking further of the concept of agroecology, he added: “Agroecology may be practised in the form of organic farming , permaculture, and zero-budge natural farming, and it is not at all a newly invented system. It has been practised by farmers around the world for many years, and it is based on indigenous knowledge, local adaptive techniques, biodiversity, and innovation. It focuses on transforming social, political, and economic aspects of the present farming system. 

“It is not about merely buying organic or biological fertiliser from the market, using monocropping by industries and corporations, or using GMOs (genetically modified organisms). However, corporations can be seen making plans to sell their products using the term agroecology, and most likely, we will get to see corporations producing and selling organic compost, biofertilisers, and biopesticides in future. Therefore, we must identify and reject false solutions.”

In response to the question whether agroecology can feed the world, he said 70% of the world’s food is being produced by small farmers, using agroecological methods.

“Studies have shown that there are methods to increase production without disturbing nature, even though we still need more facts and findings to educate those who are against it. To do it, we will need the support of researchers, academics, and scientists,” he said.

Pokharel added that organic agriculture, which plays a crucial part in agroecology, involves focusing on several principles, including the principle of health (based on sustaining and enhancing the health of soil, plants, humans, and the planet as an indivisible unit), the principle of ecology (based on living ecological systems and cycles, working with them, emulating them, and helping to sustain them), the principle of fairness (based on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the environment and life opportunities), and the principle of care (based on protecting the health and wellbeing of current and future generations and the environment).

To achieve food sovereignty, he said several steps, such as localising food systems, using community wisdom (traditional practices), and identifying the “food for people” concept without using food as a commodity, are necessary. In addition, ensuring fair trade, farmers’ rights, necessary agrarian reforms, and farmers’ control over food and agricultural sector decision-making, are also crucial, according to Pokharel. 

Role of family farming in agroecology

Meanwhile, Penunia explained the importance and contribution of the concept called “family farming”, which Pokahrel said is an important element of agroecology and strengthens small farms.

She explained: “Family farming is a method of organising agriculture, forestry, fisheries, pastoral, and aquaculture production. It is managed and operated by families, and predominantly reliant on family labour. Family farming accounts for more than 90% of farms in the world, and occupies around 70-80% of farmland. As far as production is concerned, it accounts for more than 80% of the world’s food in terms of value. When it comes to the size of farms (in family farming), farms smaller than two hectares account for 84% of all farms, and family farming operates 12% of all agricultural land and produces 36% of the world’s food.

Speaking of the Asia-Pacific region, Penunia said that 74% of the world’s family farmers live in the Asia-Pacific region, and that 80% of the world’s small-scale family farmers are also from this region. 

Under the UN Decade for Family Farming (2019-2028), UN member states have passed a resolution to recognise the unique role of family members in sustainable development, and it has mandated the formation of a global action plan to meet the objectives of the decade.

As the Sri Lankan Government goes ahead with its plan to establish an organic farming culture in the country, unforeseen challenges keep emerging. Although most of these challenges are related to the short transition period, which a lot of farmers have difficulty dealing with, at some point, the country will have to handle resistance from large-scale companies selling chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. Therefore, the Government’s plans pertaining to going organic should be strong enough to manage those parties as well.