Carol Thompson, AW member, publishes in Pambazuka: Cartels chaining the global food agenda

Cartels chaining the global food agenda

‘BOP’ping the hungry

Carol Thompson

2011-09-28, Issue 550

With their eyes firmly on the money making potential of the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) global food market, profit-seeking corporates punt food security through the enhancement of the global food value chain. But, writes Carol Thompson, this avoids distinguishing who is ‘valued’ and who is ‘chained’.

It is not conspiracy theory, nor exchange within free markets, nor how they frame the debates. It is how they organise and plan, over years, for global dominance. The goals of the Global Agenda Council (GAC) for Food Security, an initiative of the Global Economic Forum (Davos), are available for all to see how food, chemical, and beverage cartels are planning ‘the transformation of agriculture’ among smallholder food producers across the continents, as a response to climate change.


To understand their preparations, the first acronym we must learn is BOP – their reference to the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, or what the rest of us would rather call the ‘global majority’ (54 per cent of the world’s population). The GAC for Food Security cites ‘BOP’ as the 3.7 billion persons earning US$8 per day or less, largely excluded from formal markets. What the BOP represents to the cartels is an ‘untapped market’ of persons who spend 50 per cent of their income on food, or about US$1.3 trillion a year, for that expenditure occurs mainly in local markets, not linked to the global food chain. Those planning to tap this BOP market include sponsors such as Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge Limited, Cargill, The Coca-Cola Company, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Monsanto Company, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, and Nestlé, encouraged by the Gates Foundation and its Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA).

Other statistics, however, belie their image of ‘marketing’ the poor out of hunger, for the 2011 UNICEF Report on the State of the World’s Children estimates that about 1.7 billion (26 per cent of the world’s population) still exist on US$1.25 per day or less, persons who obviously have little or no discretionary money.

Therefore, the portion of the BOP that can even be targeted through market mechanisms is about two billion, those whose daily struggles keep them precariously above the absolute poverty line. Aggregating these two groups reveals that the GAC for Food Security agenda concerns not the reduction of hunger, but rather, how to have those with a bit of discretionary cash purchase food in the global cartel market and not from their neighbours.


The two billion persons at what one could call, the top of the BOP, will benefit from ‘enhancing the global value chain’, according to the GAC for Food Security. The global value chain refers to value-added accounting, where a raw commodity like maize has relatively low value while still on the stalks in the field, becomes higher valued and priced when picked and transported; gains further in value when de-cobbed and packaged with other ingredients to make a fast-food dinner; and reaches the highest price (and lowest value?) of all when distilled into liquor for our palates or ethanol for our cars. It is the cartels who control this ‘global value chain’ from the fields to our stomachs or petrol tanks. In the US, the farmer earns only 8-15¢ of every food dollar (depending on the product), partly due to the high costs of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, paid to those who also control the global food chain after the maize leaves the farm.

It is accurate that the global value chain of processing raw food into exotic frozen food dinners or greasy fast ‘food’ creates jobs and stimulates the multiplier effect in income generation. However, as with the farmer whose harvest is the material out of which the value chain is made, the workers earn a fraction of the incomes of the CEOs and managers of the cartels. Referring to the enhancement of the global food value chain as a way to provide food security avoids distinguishing who is ‘valued’ and who is ‘chained’.


The Global Agenda Council for Food Security prides itself in mobilising a diversity of stakeholders to address the problems of climate change and the rising demand for food. Yet their understanding of diversity is as myopic as their concepts of markets and value. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest in the world ($36.7 billion, 2010), is listed as ‘civil society.’ The other stakeholders don’t extend any further into the masses of civil society: Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Schwab Foundation, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), World Resources Institute (WRI), and more. They promote relations with Kenya and other South countries, but those extend only to the high levels of government and business. The whole initiative is totally top-down from the high mountains of Davos, Switzerland and only descends to the upper classes and CEOs of emerging economies.

The organised smallholder farmers around the globe are nowhere to be found among the ‘stakeholders’, although they feed 85 per cent of the world’s population. Who is the ‘stake’ – the very essence of food production – and who is the ‘holder’?


We do welcome that this initiative fully recognises that governments are needed to guarantee basic sustenance for all humans. Weather and market vagaries do increase hunger and elected leaders, given the public trust, need to guarantee food as a human right (UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948), not a privilege of those who can enter the marketplace. The hungry cannot walk into the market, let alone bargain prices with the powerful.

Since 1980, the powerful represented by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and then the WTO (1995), have systematically removed governments from financing agriculture, taking credit schemes, research and extension away from the public domain. This neoliberal project extended throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, although the perpetrators in the USA and the EU continued to increase their governments’ roles in agricultural research and finance. The first seeds branded by Pioneer Seeds in the 1930s (Pioneer Hi-Bred, now a division of DuPont) were fully developed by breeders working for the US government; Pioneer simply privatised a public good.

The US seed and chemical industries have never looked back, relying on public subsidies (corporate welfare) for research, extension services, and more recently, development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the US government has assisted the ‘marketing’ of GMOs by requiring the World Food Programme (WFP) to accept its GM seed as food aid (in Mexico, 1994, and during other food crises, such as from the 2001 Southern African drought to today in north east Africa); this US-directed WFP aid enhances a pattern of sourcing patented GM grains from the US, for otherwise, the African continent has successfully resisted purchasing them (except South Africa) in the commercial market.

Yet this history of government financing agriculture was not extended to South countries as their government funds were removed from agriculture as a conditionality for debt financing.

The logic behind the de-financing of national food production is the same logic found in the current ‘food security’ initiative. Just before the formation of the WTO, then US Agriculture Secretary, John Block, expressed it well: ‘The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available in most cases at lower cost.’ (McMichael 2005, 278).

Now as the North once again begins to recognise that all governments need to spend public funds for food (the internationally accepted goal for Africa is 10 per cent of government budget expenditure for agriculture, but the reality remains about two per cent across the continent), the corporations are defining what government participation means. The GAC for Food Security is quite specific. First and foremost, government must provide the infrastructure (roads, rails) to link local markets to the global. The ‘global value chain’ will feed us all, not our community markets, de-linked from the cartels. Then there are many efforts to make seed laws uniform, in terms of their certification and facility in passing through customs across borders. This goal would seem to assist everyone in sharing seeds, the basis of food biodiversity. In Africa, however, it becomes a means for forcing governments to accept genetically modified seeds, entering the continent via South Africa. Uniform seed laws compromise the precautionary principle of the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety, which allows governments to prohibit the entry of GMOs, in order to guard against genetic pollution of traditional varieties.

The nature of the proposed public/private partnership is clarified in the Davos 2011 meeting report about their roles:

‘The unique approach of this “blueprint model” is the strong and committed leadership of both the government, which acts as “orchestrator” in providing a framework for investment based on the public interest, and that of the private sector, which acts as “executor” and technical advisor in many cases. Donors play a key enabling role, and bring both technical expertise and the ability to scale the model across countries and regions.’ (World Economic Forum 2011, n.p.)

The governments are to offer incentives to agricultural investment, while the private sector executes the programs. The technical expertise comes totally from the outside, denying any traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) among the farmers who bred and developed the seeds over centuries. The farmers, whose expertise have provided the world with our biodiverse food, are treated as recipients, not innovators, and certainly, will not be in charge of the farming and marketing systems linking them to the global food value chain.


Certainly, smallholder farmers do need support from their governments to improve research, production and marketing, but their choice, as expressed in international forums for decades now, is to improve their food production in the context of food sovereignty and farmers’ rights. One source of power is knowledge and farmers possess the knowledge to increase food production in sustainable ways, for they are the very source of innovation – from ideas about zero tillage to water harvesting to improved seeds – that corporate cartels are trying to co-opt. The farmers across the globe are demonstrating, every day, how to share knowledge, without privatising it, without enclosure, and still make a profit.

Linking local food production to the ‘global value chain’ means chaining vital production to the commands of corporate board rooms, who view food commodities as no different from mother-boards or ethanol. As Bill Gates (founder of the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa) recently admitted, ‘I’ve never been a farmer. Until recently, I rarely set foot on a farm.’ (Thurow 2011, 1) The corporate goal is to capture the innovations and production of farmers in order to link them to the global market, for only then can such wealth be registered in the corporate board rooms. Instead, farmers are demanding food sovereignty, commanding their own choices of what is ‘food’ (not sugar, coffee nor jatrohpa), how it is produced, and what will first be sold locally.

Farmers’ rights, protected by the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT-2004), refers to the collective rights of farmers to save, exchange, breed and plant any seeds. It refutes what the WTO and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) are trying to enforce, namely that farmers will only be granted the ‘privilege’ of experimenting with patented seeds in their fields. Instead, the IT honours farmers for their contributions across millennia to our current food biodiversity.

By sharing and innovating, the farmers have given us all the means by which to overcome the worst calamities of climate change: they have bred, conserved and freely offered a cornucopia of biodiverse foods; constantly the innovators in their fields, they work to find ways to overcome problems from weather variability. It is this genetic wealth and constant innovation which will provide food security, not the money-changers in their mountain-top councils: ‘bopping’ and ‘chaining’ would better describe their plans.


* Carol Thompson is with AGRA-Watch, Seattle, USA
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


Global Agenda Council on Food Security, World Economic Forum. 2010. Report. (accessed 8 September 2011)

McMichael, Philip. 2005. ‘Global Development and the Corporate Food Regime,’ in Frederick Buttel and Philip McMichael, eds. New Directions in the Sociology of Global Development London: Elsevier, pp. 265-300.

Thurow, Roger. 2011. ‘Expert Commentary – The Importance of Innovation,’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative, 24 May. (accessed 20 September 2011)

UNICEF, 2011. State of the World’s Children 2011. (accessed 15 September 2011)

World Economic Forum. 2008. Business Solutions for Sustainable Food Production – The World Economic Forum’s Work to Address Hunger and Global Food Security. (accessed 18 August 2011)

World Economic Forum. 2009. The Next Billions: Business Strategies to Enhance Food Values Chains and Empower the Poor.
(accessed 18 August 2011)

World Economic Forum. 2010. Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture – A Roadmap for Stakeholders.
(accessed 12 September 2011)

World Economic Forum. 2011. Agriculture and Food Security. Report from Davos.
(accessed 8 September 2011)


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