• Matteo De Vos

2018 takeaways through the lens of food

From sugar highs to gut-wrenching lows, here is a look back at 2018 through the lens of sustainable food from the For Food's Sake podcast

1. Monsanto (Bayer AG) facing its Tobacco moment

The 2018 Dwayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto trial marks the world’s first-ever court case over claims Monsanto's Roundup herbicide causes cancer. In this groundbreaking case, Lee Johnson, a father of three and former school groundskeeper, alleges that his exposure to Monsanto's weedkiller gave him cancer.

Thousands of similar legal cases are awaiting trial in 2019. Is this Monsanto’s 'Big Tobacco' moment?

An initial hard-fought, bittersweet victory led to a unanimous verdict in which Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to Mr. Jonhson.

Investigative veteran journalist Carey Gillam walks us through the initial trial here — FFS 035-Monsanto On Trial

The damages have since been reduced to $78 million, which terminally-ill plaintiff Lee Johnson has accepted. Monsanto (Bayer AG) continues to push for a re-trial.

For more on Monsanto, including its historic $63 billion acquisition by Bayer this year, listen to FFS 026 — We Need to Talk About Monsanto

2. Brexit: British and EU farmers are on the fence

Is there a silver lining to be found in Brexit for farmers? Can Brexit deliver a fairer, greener, better policy deal for British farmers?

It depends on who you ask. Uncertainty is the name of the game.

Patrick Holden, pioneer of the sustainable food movement, discusses the hopes and fears for British farming here — FFS 031 - Farmers Facing Brexit

The optimist will tell you that the UK government's phasing out of area-based payments (the so-called "Pillar 1" payments of the EU Common Agricultural Policy) is good news. Such payments are said to benefit wealthy landowners and big agricorporations (Nestlé, Cadbury, and Kraft), not ordinary farmers.

The pessimist will point out the inadequacies of certain half-measures in the UK Agricultural Bill and raise the alarm over a future free trade agreement with the US that slashes food and animal welfare standards, flooding the UK market with cheap imported foods that crush British farmers.

What could Brexit mean for EU farmers? That all depends on the future of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The EU CAP currently accounts for 40% of spending in the total EU budget, providing subsidies for farmers across the EU. Cuts to the budget due to Brexit are being considered. A proposal for EU CAP reform in June by Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan faced heavy criticism from politicians, farmers, environmentalists, and even the European Court of Auditors, the EU’s financial watchdog for failing to deliver on environmental promises. Similar criticisms were levied against the 2018 US Farm Bill — dubbed a 'Failure of Imagination'.

For a discussion on the ins and outs of the EU CAP, see our conversation with Dr. Alan Matthews here — FFS 027- Money Well Spent? EU Farm Subsidies

3. UN adopts landmark Declaration on Peasant rights

On 17 December 2018, the UN adopted a declaration that supports the battles that matter most in food: the fight for peasant rights and food sovereignty— including land rights, access to natural resources, seed saving and the right to use traditional agricultural knowledge and practices.

With 121 votes in favour, 8 votes against and 54 abstentions, the UN General Assembly adopted the "Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas".

The declaration follows decades of political mobilisation, organising and persistence in championing the rights of peasants, spearheaded by La Via Campesina.

Activist and award-winning author Raj Patel makes a convincing case for the desperate need for such political mobilisation in the food movement in FFS 036-Chicken Nugget Capitalism.

4. Trump's Trade Wars shifting grain trade markets

Trump's trade war with China has not been kind to US farmers, and may irreversibly shift global grain markets.

These farmers voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The question is, how long will they stick by their man?

It all started with the Trump administration's tariffs on Chinese goods. Next came Beijing's response: a heavy tax on U.S. agricultural products, including a 25% tariff on soybeans — the most valuable U.S. farm export ($12 billion sold in 2017 to China alone).

China, the world’s largest importer of soybeans, is scaling back its imports of U.S. grain to feed its pigs. It's turning to Brazil instead, and to a lesser extent to Ukraine and Russia. China is diversifying its supplier base, and with good reason: the US may have irreversibly tarnished its reputation as a reliable trading partner.

5. Two opposing visions for the future of food

The path we choose to solve our environmental dilemmas (and our food system in particular) hinges on how we understand and frame the problems we face.

Two paths dominate contemporary debate, policy and action in the world of food and sustainability. Award-winning author Charles C. Mann joined us to discuss these competing visions, propelled by what he calls the "Wizards" and "Prophets" in FFS 034 — Wizards and Prophets.

Is innovation and technology the solution that will push us beyond our predicaments to overcome earth’s natural boundaries, or is the answer to scale back and respect the ecological limits of our planet?

How we choose to answer these two questions deeply shapes how we approach the problem of food today.

Does the answer lie with fine-tuning industrial agriculture, doubling down on GMOs, investing in gene-editing, CRISPR9, "Smart agriculture", and a (more efficient) 'Green Revolution 2.0'?

Or is the answer to abandon the industrial agriculture model, and embrace decentralised community-based agriculture that mimics complex natural ecosystems and allows local rural communities to thrive? Is it mere hubris to believe that we can outsmart nature?

What these respective visions fundamentally disagree about is humanity’s relationship to nature and to the natural world.
Is farming something to be minimised and automated, brought out of sight and out of mind so that we can pursue higher purposes — or is it central to our well-being, part-and-parcel of maintaining communities, and vital to our connection with our living planet?

All 2018 For Food's Sake episodes: