A few months back, President Obama announced a three billion dollar U.S. initiative “to help Africa feed itself, “which is a noble goal, but the devil was all over his details. The first detail to note is that three billion dollars is a third of one percent of our country’s military budget. About one day of our military spending to help the starving Africans. Whoopee!
There were two major prongs to this plan. Two-thirds of the money, (That’s about sixteen hours worth of military spending.)will be given to a European chemical company to build a fertilizer factory in Africa, which would use natural gas to create massive quantities of ammonium nitrate, which is a powerful explosive as well as a fertilizer. (Remember the Oklahoma City Federal Building? The first attempt on the World Trade Center?). The second prong will introduce Monsatan’s GMO seeds to African farmers, “to increase their yields.” This from the guy whose wife scored big publicity points by putting an organic vegetable garden at the White House.
Both these prongs are going to do a lot more harm than good. The manufacture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is an energy-intensive, CO2-producing process whose result is a bag of white crystals that, not unlike cocaine, provide a short-term boost, but, in the long-term, have a deleterious effect–in the case of ammonium nitrate, the impoverishment of the soil to which it is applied. The high levels of ammonia in ammonium nitrate burn out soil micro-organisms, leading to depletion of organic matter and a decrease in the soil’s fertility and ability to hold water. The short-term solution, as with cocaine, is to apply a bigger dose of white crystals. Sooner or later, the excess nitrogen starts leaching into the water supply, which exacerbates the problem by polluting the water and making people sick.
. Then, too, the fertilizer must be purchased, a financial demand that can have disastrous consequences for small farmers in the third world. We’ll look more deeply at that soon. For now, let’s just point out that placing increased financial pressure on cash-strapped, subsistence farmers in the name of “improving their lives” is either cynical or naive. Time and time again, there have been demonstration projects and studies showing that the best way to improve the lives of subsistence farmers and the communities they feed is to help them find ways to increase the “circularity” of their farming, by increasing their use of local, organic inputs such as plant, animal, and human waste, and by returning to non-mechanized farming methods that require more labor and less machinery and fossil fuels. Neither the fact that we are running out of inexpensive ways to create those white crystals, nor the fact that producing the white crystals is destroying the soil and the atmosphere, seems to enter into the calculations of those who proclaim the superiority of white-crystal style farming–f’rinstance, President Obama, or Presidential wanna-be Romney.
The second prong of the fork with which our corporatocracy wishes to stick the people of Africa is the introduction of GMO seeds. There’s two really bad things about GMO seeds. The first is their toll on the humans who use them, and the second is the way their use destroys the land in which they are planted. We have only to look to India to see what the President and his cronies are promising to deliver to Africa. What we see in India is over 200,000 small farmers driven to suicide, often by the debts they incurred to buy GMO seeds and the chemical inputs necessary to grow them–not just the aforementioned fertilizer, but herbicides and pesticides that they lack the technology to apply “safely,” even in the manufacturer’s loose terms. Third-world farmers have traditionally saved their own seed, but it is illegal to save the patented GMO seeds, and frequently impractical as well, for, if the seed is a hybrid, it will either fail to produce fertile seed, or fail to produce a uniform variety–but you’re not supposed to even try planting them, because they’re patented. Intellectual property rights must be respected, y’know! So, when Obama talks about “helping” African farmers with chemical inputs, he’s talking about inducing a rash of debt-driven suicides. Hey, that’ll clear the playing field and help solve the overpopulation problem, right?! More on that perverse idea later. Back to GMO crops.
Herbicide use itself is highly problematic. Roundup, the go-to herbicide for GMO crops, is very nonspecific in its effects. It kills soil microflora just as readily as it kills broadleaf weeds and grasses, and thus is highly detrimental to soil. And, just as with ammonium nitrate, its production is energy-intensive and carbon-expensive.
So, to sum up, when we strip the facade from the President’s feel-good call to help foster agriculture in Africa, we find a plan that is likely to further impoverish the continent’s vast majority of smallholders, drive them from their land, and wreak havoc with the land’s ability to support plant life. So, who does benefit from this kind of “help”?
One group that is helped by alienating traditional people from their land base is foreign investors, both private and national, who are increasingly looking to Africa as a place to grow food to export, rather than to feed the hungry close at hand. China and other countries are making deals with debt-pressed, cash-starved governments, deals that involve the displacement of thousands of people from millions of acres in order to grow crops that will not feed Africans.
The other big beneficiary of Obama’s policy is the Monsanto Corporation. It is relevant to note, at this point, the “revolving door” nature of Monsanto’s relationship with the government. At least 35 individuals, representing both of the US’s major political parties, have been both on Monsanto’s payroll and the government’s, albeit not at the same time, as far as we know. We’re talking about some big fish here–Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Hillary Clinton both worked for Monsanto when they were private practice lawyers. Searle Chemical Company-CEO Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) was paid a twelve million dollar bonus by Monsanto when it acquired Searle, giving Monsanto the right to produce the carcinogenic artificial sweetener aspartame (“Nutrasweet”). after Rummy pulled strings to get it approved for human use, but that’s another story.
The Africa deal is not the only example of Obama’s–and our whole government’s– apparent willingness to go to bat for Monsanto. Attempts to pass laws allowing labeling of GMO foods, dairy products containing bovine growth hormones, and limiting the spread of GMO seeds have been shot down, and research suggesting that their widespread use might have serious negative effects has been suppressed., both in the current administration and the last several governments, no matter who was supposedly in charge.
Monsanto’s willingness to play with both major US political parties leads to another question. Should we really blame Barack Obama for all this? Or is he a genuinely well-intentioned guy, who thought he could make change happen by being elected President, but found, when he arrived, that his real role was to play spokesman for an unelected shadow government? As Robert Anton Wilson put it, “was the new President shown a video of the Kennedy assassination from an angle he’d never seen it from before, and told ‘you’ve got a nice family. Play along with us and nobody gets hurt.’”? Perhaps. A friend of mine who is an old smoking buddy of Al Gore’s tells me that Al told him in 1992 that Al and Bill knew the office they were running for was more ceremonial than executive, but they hoped to be able to make a slight difference in the direction of things. We all know how that turned out. (And remember, Gore had already written and become somewhat famous for Earth in the Balance, which, along with Albert Bates’ Climate in Crisis was one of the first books to call popular attention to the mess we are tangled in now.) Perhaps frustration with his figurehead status accounts for Gore’s lackluster run for President in 2000 and his subsequent flowering, at a convenient distance from politics.
So, maybe Barack Obama regrets his decision to become a kinder, gentler face for the corporatocracy than Dick Cheney and that guy he was with, but we may never know, because, like Clinton and Gore before him, he fears for his safety and his family’s safety far too much to ever spill those beans.
But, whatever the unspeakable truth may be about Barack Obama’s motivations and intentions, the inconvenient truth is that the African policy for which he is at the very least serving as a charming mouthpiece is not a policy that will benefit Africa. It is just another corporate iron hand in another velvet glove, grabbing for what’s left of the wealth of the continent that gave birth to us all, a corporate iron hand that doesn’t care who or what it crushes as long as it ends up with a fistful of dollars. And that’s the inconvenient truth about the Obama administration’s “African initiative.”