In recent years, agricultural giants have made a financial killing. According to a Greenpeace report, the biggest companies in grains, meats, dairy, and fertilisers handed over $50bn to their shareholders in 2020-21. At the same time, the number of people affected by hunger rose by 46 million, up to 828 million people around the world in 2021.
In other words, the report shows that the global food system is broken. It is benefitting the few least in need of support very well, rather than the many who need it most. Moreover, the Greenpeace report warns that the injustices of the current system “are set to deepen” amid the worsening climate crisis. The nonprofit has called for structural change that prioritises food sovereignty – meaning peoples’ rights to control their own food policy and systems – to tackle global hunger.
The hunger profiteers
Greenpeace published its report, titled Food Injustice 2020-2022 and subtitled ‘Unchecked, unregulated and unaccountable: Who are the hunger profiteers?’, in late February. Among other things, it analysed the shareholder returns in 2020 and 2021 – through cash dividends and share buybacks – of large companies in grains, meats, dairy and fertilisers.
Four top grain industry companies paid out $2.7bn in cash dividends, along with at least $3.3m in share buybacks, during the assessed period. The same amount of fertiliser companies provided a total of $7.8bn, whereas six meat companies returned $6.4bn to shareholders. The report noted that dairy giants provided the most “astronomical” returns to shareholders, with five firms giving a total of $36.6bn.
Greenpeace’s Davi Martins highlighted the report’s key findings and message in an article on the subject. Martins put the companies’ vast returns to shareholders into context. He wrote that these companies returned $53.5bn in total to shareholders, which could:
provide food, shelter, medicine and clean drinking water for the 230 million most vulnerable people on Earth
Controlling the system
Martins explained that corporations made these billions during “a period of unprecedented turmoil” in relation to food supplies, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. According to Martins, they were able to do so amid these crises because they own the market. Elaborating further, he wrote that the report analysed 20 agribusiness corporations in total, which are able:
to wield wildly disproportionate control, not only over the supply chains for food itself, but over information about those supplies.
The companies in question include Cargill, Yara, JBS, and Nestlé, for grain, fertiliser, meat, and dairy, respectively.
As Greenpeace’s report indicated, agribusiness corporations secure control over supply chains, in part, by using their profits to buy up smaller companies. Their control over large shares of agricultural markets also enables them to control the information about those markets, the report said. This means they can choose to withhold or release information:
which allows for greater extraction of wealth to the benefit of owners and shareholders
Leonida Odongo, from the Kenyan social justice organisation Haki Nawiri Afrika, also argued that food sovereignty is key to resilience amid the climate crisis. In comments to the Canary, Odongo also warned that agribusiness corporations are among the industries that have considerable influence over African governments.
She highlighted the push for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on the continent as an example. Odongo argued that while GMOs are being pushed “under the guise of addressing food insecurity”, they are “anchored” in industrial agriculture.
The concentration of ownership described in Greenpeace’s report is central to how industrial agriculture works. But the further spread of such practices in Africa will be destructive for its biodiversity and ecosystems, Odongo said, as it has proved to be elsewhere. Moreover, she suggested that industrial-scale production is unnecessary, with Africa having enough arable land to feed itself and others.
As the Canary has previously reported, many African farmers – represented by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) – have called on international funders to back agricultural initiatives on the continent that are ecologically sound and offer self-sufficiency for people. In other words, they asked that any funding that makes its way to Africa for agriculture supports people, not corporate-led systems.
For AFSA and other civil society actors, the most resilient systems in the face of the climate crisis involve agroecology. This is the practice of cooperating with nature to yield agricultural produce, rather than using artificial inputs like pesticides and fertilisers. It’s an ecological, not a technological, approach. As such, knowledge of and respect for the particularities of different ecosystems is key.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also recognised the value of agroecology in its reports. As Mongabay reported in 2022, it said that the “holistic approach” to farming can “contribute to both climate mitigation and adaptation”.
Climate crisis hitting women hardest
With people in Africa among those bearing the worst impacts of the climate crisis, despite being least responsible for it, the importance of resilient food systems there cannot be stressed enough. Odongo stated that these impacts are hitting women hardest, who are the anchor of the farming sector in Africa. Indeed, a recent UN report highlighted that women agricultural workers overall are facing worsening inequalities due to the climate crisis, as Carbon Brief reported.
Odongo pointed to different ways that women are feeling climate-related impacts in Kenya. Several African countries are facing their longest drought in decades, for example. As a result, women have to travel long distances and join long queues at wells in search of water. Their extended time away from home can arouse suspicion of infidelity from their partners, putting them at increased risk of violence. Odongo also said that:
With rising costs of food and currency devaluation due to inflation, families are devising new methods of survival. Some eat less food; others skip meals while others put more water in their food to have more soup. Pregnant women and lactating mothers are suffering because they have less to eat. Climate change means more work for women and more stress.
Food sovereignty is the future
Writing in the Conversation, William G Moseley pointed out that over the course of decades:
global decision makers, big philanthropy, business interests and large swaths of the scientific community have focused on increased food production, trade, and energy intensive farming methods as the best way to address global and African hunger.
The approach has failed, the director of the food, agriculture and society program at the US’s Macalester College, said. He pointed out that food insecurity to some extent affects almost 60% of the continent’s population today. Moseley argued that:
The ravages of climate change and hunger do not occur in isolation, but are part of the system we have built. That means we can build something different.
For Moseley, Odongo, AFSA, and Greenpeace, food sovereignty needs to be at the core of any different system. Meanwhile, as Odongo said in an interview in 2020:
it is becoming clear that the future is agroecological
A system with food sovereignty and agroecology at its heart will not provide astronomical financial yields for the corporations that the Greenpeace report detailed. Instead, many hope it could yield the food that people need in the most climate- and wildlife-friendly way possible.
Featured image via meriç tuna / Wikimedia, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC0 1.0