Grow-ing Disaster: The Fortune 500 Goes Farming

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Published: December 15, 2016

Thousands of greenhouses cluster along the valleys of Lam Dong province in the central highlands of Vietnam. At night, the strong glow from their lights illuminates a flow of trucks carrying fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs to Ho Chi Minh City or to nearby ports for export. Competition among traders here is intense. The climate is ideal for the production of a number of high-value cash crops, and companies fight to secure their supply of farmers’ products or for a share of the lucrative market in chemical inputs, seeds and farm equipment such as plastic greenhouse covers or drip irrigation piping.

Farming in the highlands is a high-stakes business. Each season, farmers gamble on which crop will pay the highest price or which new seed variety will reach the yields promised by dealers. Sometimes the payoffs are big. But losses resulting from crop failures, a sudden drop in prices or scams by traders are just as frequent. Debt weighs heavily on the area’s farmers.

Money is not the only problem. There’s a looming water crisis from the depletion of water tables and the pollution caused by pesticides and fertiliser run-off, which is generating a public health crisis. Land conflicts are escalating too, especially in the hills where indigenous communities live. Finally, there is a potential threat to food security from producing so many crops that local people don’t eat. Most farmers seem to agree that the government is doing little to address these challenges.

It is in this context that some of the world’s largest transnational food companies are rolling out a program promising “market-based” solutions. Vietnam’s central highlands are the showcase for Grow Asia, an agricultural program led by Nestlé, PepsiCo, Monsanto and other food and agribusiness giants. Grow Asia is the Southeast Asian leg of a global initiative under the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture”, which promises to increase food production, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity globally by 20 per cent each decade. Also under the Grow umbrella are Grow Africa, Grow Latin America and several national programs.

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