Davids, Goliaths and others

By Sopan Joshi
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2005

-- Agribusiness and Society edited by Kees Jansen and S Vellema Zed Books, New York, 2004

No, the multi-national corporations haven't taken over. Not agriculture at least: not in India, anyway. If you can't bring yourself around to choosing between the conspiracy theories of radical activists and the thinly veiled chicanery of Monsanto's public relations spin doctors, don't lose hope. Agriculture in developing countries -- India, more specifically -- has too many variables to prove anybody right. Nobody can ever give you the complete picture, not even for the smallest constituent of the farm sector. There is plenty of room for serious thought, experiments, exchange of knowledge and strategising -- provided the limitation of each voice is above board. And that's why books such as A gribusiness and society are important. The book never loses its firm grip on sanity and doesn't veer into highly polarised positions that characterise debates on agribusiness and society.

Strengths and weaknesses Lead editor Kees Jansen introduces the book as a query into "the balance of power between state, corporations and social movements". Jansen almost manages to convince us that he's neutral in the agribusiness-versus-non-governmental organisation (ngo) debate. But nobody is neutral here -- including those completely oblivious to agriculture, voluntarily and involuntarily. Halfway through Agribusiness and society, you'll realise the book is full of information and analyses showing how agribusiness corporations fail to live up to their social commitments. This it does through very engaged accounts. For example, William Vorley, a former employee of Ciba-Geigy, now with the International Institute of Environment and Development, relates how the agribusiness biggie undermined the obligations it took on as part of its Vision 2000 programme.

The detailed case studies used in Agribusiness and society, come from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australia. The book, though, is weak on Asia, the most populous continents and the locale of some of the most vibrant discussions on agriculture. One wonders if the editors plan a separate book on Asia. Going by the list of contributors of this volume, it seems unlikely. All of them are from institutions in the Netherlands, the uk, the us, and Australia -- with two exceptions, both from Brazil. But this homogeny takes something away from the high-fidelity narratives. Also let's not forget that the editors have to deal with a serious constraint: it's much more difficult to get independent academic work on agriculture in Asian countries. Very difficult in India, at least. Most players with an academic grounding in agriculture here are oriented either towards government-corporate camaraderie or involved too deeply with the ambitious plans of activist groups.

The book disappoints us on another count. Despite the protestations of its title, Agribusiness and society doesn't have enough of society (excepting chapter ten on gmos in Brazil). Agreed the book is primarily about the responses of agribusinesses to environmentalism, markets and public regulation. But such an enquiry also demands a sociological insight, deeper than what the ngos have to say. One gets the impression that the editors see ngos from a west European perspective. In developing countries, governments are more crooked as a matter of course; necessarily, ngos are also more complex entities in the South. We already know how governments and ngos of the North pervert multilateral institutions. When a serious book such as this is published, one expects academics to make this realisation explicit. Not here. In the absence of such discussion, the book relies heavily on technology analysis. "The premise of this book is that new technologies... are central for making a substantial shift towards sustainable agriculture", Jansen clarifies.

But what the book doesn't have takes nothing away from what it does. It manages to cover most of the large corporations (a task made easier by the rapid acquisitions and mergers in international agribusiness): Syngenta, Ciba-Geigy, Calgene, Dow, Shell. However, the most extensive coverage is dedicated the most loud-mouthed of the lot: Monsanto. Julie Guthman's chapter on organic farming in California, for example, brings out the inherent contradictions of organic farming, favoured by environmental ngos across the world. She shows how agribusiness can tailor organic farming to its requirements, resulting in high land prices that cause the same agricultural intensification to which organic farming is one of the supposed answers. Jansen's enquiry into two banana companies in Honduras gives a nuts-and-bolts analysis of how corporate self-regulation works and how its doesn't. In fact, the book gets deep into the issue of shareholders influencing company policy. For long, environmentalists have hoped that social pressure can be exerted on companies through the stock market. They will find some surprises in this book. Many others will also. A recommended read.

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