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A global monoculture

(Tuesday, July 8, 2003 -- CropChoice) -- Ms. Helena Norberg-Hodge, International Society for Ecology and Culture, UK:

Governments around the world are promoting more global trade in the blind belief that their ailing economies will be boosted by throwing themselves open to economic globalisation. The goal of free trade--of all the treaties, agreements and single markets-- is to amalgamate every local, regional and national economy into a single world system.

And all around the world the hidden subsidies promote industrialisation to fit in with the demands of the 'global marketplace'. Internationally, our tax money is being used virtually without our knowledge or consent to fund the building-up a large-scale industrial infrastructure -- irrigation schemes, roads, freight terminals, power stations, credit arrangements and tax-free 'enterprise' zones -- all of which favour industrialisation and globalisation.

And all over the world, it is the big, global enterprises which are in the best position to profit from such subsidies, such policies. Often transnational corporations do best of all: companies like Del Monte which owns plantations all over the world, companies like McDonalds which owns fast-food outlets all over the world, and companies like Cargill which sells the crop varieties which the other transnationals want to buy. Only 4 cents of every food dollar in the US goes to the farmer, while 96 cents goes to the middleman.

The impact of export-led economics is particularly evident in developing countries, where the impact is more recent and the process is frighteningly fast. Industrial, export-oriented production of food for example, allows goods to be produced on a large scale, to be transported long distances and sold at artificially low prices -- in many cases lower than goods produced locally. For example, Ladakh, a region on the Tibetan plateau, has provided enough food for its people for 2000 years.

However, now the Indian government is bringing in subsidised food from industrial farms located on the other side of the Himalayas. Ironically, the food arriving in lorries by the tonne is cheaper in the local bazaar than food grown five minutes walk away. In Mongolia, a country which has survived on local milk products for thousands of years, and which today has 25 million milk-producing animals, one finds mainly German butter in the shops. Under these conditions, most small farmers find that it is no longer worthwhile to continue farming.

The end result of all this long-distance transport of subsidised goods is that local economies are being steadily dismantled and the fabric of local communities is being destroyed. Thousands and millions of rural people, their livelihoods destroyed, flood into the burgeoning urban slums where they hope to find a job. Urbanisation is, indeed, equated with 'development,' and seen as the future for all nations, with 90 per cent of the world's population predicted to be living in cities by the year 2015. Yet in the rapidly burgeoning megalopolises jobs are few and far between, and wages and working conditions are often grossly inadequate. A growing middle class in some developing countries is entering the consumer culture on the back of this economic 'progress'. But they are in the minority. For the majority, the end result of these changes is a fragmented society suffering growing levels of crime and violence, AIDs and child neglect, drug abuse, homelessness and despair.

And in the West the urban poor are experiencing similar stresses. And just as rural society in the developing world is disintegrating, so it is in the West. Social fragmentation in the British countryside may be quieter than in the cities, but it is every bit as painful. The recent farming crises--BSE and Foot and Mouth--grew straight out if the intensive farming system and it is mostly small farm that are being broken under the strain. Farming has one of the highest suicide rates of all British occupations.

The many negative impacts listed here are all too real. But because they aren't apparent in the national balance sheet, the GDP, they are ignored by economists. The GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, measures the "health" of the economy by how much money changes hands per capita in a given year. Economic theory claims that this system brings gains for everyone. However, all expenditure and profit is included, which means that costs resulting from injury, pollution and social stife are counted as part of a healthy economy. Goods and services that are given, shared or traded and do not involve monetary transactions are simply not counted.

Some regions enjoy comparative advantages over others in given areas of production, so to economists, it makes sense to specialise in monocultures for trade -- be the monoculture manioc grown in Thailand to feed European cattle, or cheap labour in China producing plastic carrier bags for British supermarkets. This adds to everyone's GDP. But when distantly produced goods are heavily subsidised, often in hidden ways, we cannot really talk about comparative advantage, or for that matter free markets. We should instead be talking about the unfair advantage that industrial producers and huge corporations, enjoy at our expense.

It is therefore in everyones interest that the process of globalisation be reversed. The most effective way of doing this would be for governments to get together to curb the power of multinationals by negotiating new trade and investment treaties that would remove the subsidies powering globalisation and give local production a chance. For example, if the hidden subsidies for fossil fuel use were removed, local and national economies would become much stronger. But such international measures would not in themselves restore health to economies and communities: long-term solutions require a range of small local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they take place.

Unfortunately, many people are opposed to the creation of stronger local economies for all manner of reasons. Some, for example, imagine that the aim of economic localisation is complete self-sufficiency at the village level. In fact, localisation does not mean everything being produced locally, nor does it mean an end to trade. It simply means creating a better balance between local, regional, national and international markets. It also means that large corporations should have less control, and communities more, over what is produced, when, where and how; and that trading should be fair and to the benefit of both parties.

It is also sometime feared that localisation will lead to repression and intolerance. On closer examination, however, it is clear that the opposite is true: the global economy is itself nothing less than a system of structural exploitation that creates hidden slaves on the other side of the world and forces people to give up their rights to their own resources. Localisation is not about isolating communities from other cultures, but about creating a new, sustainable and equitable basis on which they can interact. In the North, being responsible for our own needs means allowing the South to produce for itself, rather than for us.

We need to reveal the connections between our many global crises to spell out the truth about trade and the way we measure progress, and to graphically describe the ecological, social, psychological and economic benefits of localising and decentralising our economies.

Helena Norberg-Hodge
International Society for Ecology and Culture
Foxhole, Dartington
Devon TQ9 6EB

7 July to 21 July 2003: gpgNet Forum on "The Multilateral Trade Regime Seen Through a Global Public Goods Lens: New insights on old problems."

Read the complete background paper to the discussion at http://www.gpgnet.net/discussion.php