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Improving yields and destroying the environment

A short but very interesting item was recently broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme. A recording of the programme can be replayed here where a summary is also available. The report highlighted a disaster in the production of corn, wheat and soya beans in the US. This was not because of the widespread recent drought, but an additional man-made disaster which may have longer-lasting impact.

In effect, large US farmers have been encouraged to adopt genetically modified strains of the seed varieties for these different crops. The specific form of GM was resistance to extremely powerful weedkiller, which was then used exhaustively.

But giant ragweeds have developed resistance to that weedkiller just as many campaigners had suggested. Now 2,4-D a new chemical will be deployed that last saw widespread use in the rice fields and jungles of South-East Asia as part of Agent Orange. Formerly, it had been used as in Vietnam part of the campaign to destroy foliage and crops. Now, it will be used in the US to destroy all vegetable life including weeds, except for the seeds once more genetically modified to withstand it.

It seems almost incredible, but the response of vast agrichemical companies like Dow and Monsanto is to develop even more highly resistant seed strains. At the same time, at US insistence, consumers are not allowed to know whether they are purchasing goods made of GM products.

This intensification of both the efforts to increase yields at all costs and the hoodwinking and fraud perpetrated on consumers are likely to intensify in the current crisis. The crisis is characterised by a slump in investment. In effect, firms stop investing when they cannot be sure of making a profit. As a result, measures to increase productivity and schemes that amount to reckless fraud or endangerment (of consumers or the environment) are likely to increase in an effort to increase profits. Marx put it this way:

If the rate of profit falls, on the one hand we see exertions by capital, in that the individual capitalist drives down the individual value of his own particular commodities below their average social value, by using better methods, etc, and thus makes a surplus profit at the given price; on the other hand we have swindling and general promotion of swindling, through desperate attempts in the way of new methods of production, new capital investment and new adventures, to secure some kind of extra profit, which will be independent of the general average and superior to it”.

Mass unemployment and lower pay are key consequences of the current refusal to invest, but so too are the growth in reckless schemes involving swindling and environmental depredation.

This article first appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin.


  1. Syzygy says:

    I heard another BBC programme several years ago, which ‘revealed’ the ‘new discovery’ that sowing wild flowers (otherwise known as weeds) increased fertilisation of fruit etc because ‘weeds’ provided food for pollinating insects during the rest of the year! It had the same impact on me as the use of Agent Orange by the bio-tech corporations… head in hands, shaking in sheer disbelief at the terrifying crassness of these people. They have no imagination let alone any understanding of the interdependence and co-operative nature underpinning ecosystems.

    The commodification of the natural world is reaching a much more threatening level for humankind.

    William Buiter, chief economist at Citibank proposes that water itself (rather than water utilities) must be privatised.

    ‘I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years… Once the spot markets for water are integrated, future markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments – puts, calls, swaps – both exchange-traded and OTC will follow.’

    It is argued by the corporates, that the environment is being destroyed because it does not have a price tag, and is, therefore, not valued. Their answer is to assign it an economic value, by bringing the resources into the market. This is the callous madness of sociopaths.

  2. You had me 100% of the way until you quoted Karl Marx as he predicted would be living in a communist utopia by now and I don’t think that’s the case. At least not yet.

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