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Empty words won’t fill hungry stomachs




  • With the launch of the “Enough Food for Everyone IF” campaign, global food security is once again high on the public agenda. The UK campaign hopes to mobilise massive public support leading up to the scheduled meeting of the G8 in Enniskillen in June this year, trying to replicate the considerable success of the Make Poverty History movement in 2005. One of the key pillars of the IF Campaign is land, and drawing attention to the plight of poor farmers who are being forced to relinquish their property in what has been described as a neo-colonial “land grab”.
    We have, of course, seen processes of alienation and dispossession accelerating over the last century. In The Age of Extremes, the final volume in his much-fêted quartet of books, published in 1994, historian Eric Hobsbawm declared that the “death of the peasantry” constituted “the most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of this [twentieth] century”, sealing “us off forever from the world of the past”. “The peasantry,” Hobsbawm continued, “which had formed the majority of the human race throughout recorded history, had been made redundant by the agricultural revolution.”
    While many on the left felt that this was a premature obituary, several commentators on the right saw the demise of the peasantry as an essential precursor to progress and prosperity. In the pages of the American magazine Foreign Affairs, Paul Collier, an Oxford don and former Director of the Research Development Department at the World Bank, mocked “the middle- and upper class love affair with peasant agriculture” and the view that “peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved”. Given the present food crisis, Collier announced, support for small-scale farming marks a “retreat into romanticism”. In Collier’s view, “the world needs more commercial farms, not less”.
    Collier’s remarks are only the latest instalment in a long history of disparaging small farmers. Victorian elites castigated in equal measure Indian farmers, Irish cottier tenants and African sharecroppers as primitive, idle, mendacious and improvident. To imperial eyes they were symbols of obsolescence, no more capable of agricultural improvement than the dodo was capable of flight. And as with the dodo their future would be short-lived; extinction was the inevitable and natural dénouement. Famines usually did the trick.  
    Much the same narrative that characterised the colonial period carried over into the Green Revolution, as “de-peasantisation” became the sine qua non for agricultural development. The push for higher yields and greater agricultural productivity required a strong agricultural support structure, including expensive pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and regular irrigation, much of which was beyond the capacity of small-scale growers. It didn’t help that influential voices within the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations – the key agents introducing high-tech plant breeding and industrial farming to the global South – dismissed rural peasants as human obstacles to agricultural modernisation.
    Reasons for caution
    At first blush a new report by the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture”, launched last week to coincide with its annual meeting in Davos, promises a break in this spiral of misanthropic thought. Recognising that the planet is home to some 500 million smallholders – who support two billion people, account for 97 per cent of global agricultural holdings, and produce food for almost 70 per cent of the world’s population – the report stresses the importance of “collaborative action” with smallholders to deliver food security, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability. 
    No longer fossils from by-gone era, smallholders are identified as “change agents” and future “catalysts” in the business of agricultural transformation. The report insists that “smallholder-inclusive” projects can be devised in partnership with private sector investors, governments and civil society organisations. With the right incentives those projects can then be scaled-up to the regional and national level, promoting poverty reduction and comprehensive rural development. “Step Up to Scale Up” is the clunky new buzzword, but is this really a departure from old practice – a genuinely “a new vision for agriculture”?
    We believe there are good reasons for caution.
    Firstly, partnership, as envisioned in this report, is clearly a David-meets-Goliath type alliance. Though local businesses and indigenous farmers frame the picture, it is global agribusiness that dominates the view. Can smallholders really have a voice when faced with the collective bargaining power of Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola Company, Diageo, DuPont, General Mills, Monsanto Company, Unilever, and Wal-Mart – just a few of the 28 partner companies that drive the initiative? Genuinely inclusive “bottom-up” decision-making needs to be distinguished from the platitudinous rhetoric of development partnerships and participation, which all too often masks the vast asymmetries of power between participants.
    Market volatility for smallholders
    Wal-Mart’s approach to extracting maximum value and profit from its supply chain illustrates our second reason for suggesting that the signals from Davos may not necessarily be good news for farmers and growers around the world. The “New Vision for Agriculture” clearly prioritises market-based approaches to food security and poverty reduction. Significantly the report asks: “With the models employed, are smallholders able fully to participate in the market, or are most still mainly at the subsistence level?” The contrast between subsistence agriculture (“bad”) and market participation and commodity production (“good”) is not, however, a straightforward one. We need to recognise that markets can yield good and bad outcomes for the world’s poor. Adopting a morally neutral position on the operation and outcomes of markets impoverishes public debate, as Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has so powerfully argued in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.
    The global land grab
    Thirdly, the “scale-up” idea, on which the “New Vision for Agriculture” hinges, is also profoundly problematic. The desire to transition small growers into high-value commodity producers assumes that off-farm employment opportunities are available for those who must exit agriculture as farmlands are rationalised, and mechanisation and the economies of scale squeeze out the need for “inefficient” allocation of family labour to small-scale peasant farming. This is the thinking that was articulated in the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report, Agriculture for Development, which argued that smallholders who could not compete in the global agricultural marketplace should abandon farming to “more productive users” and take up wage labour.
    This sort of thinking has legitimised a global “land grab” that is staggering in scale; one report, by an alliance of civil society and international organisations, the International Land Coalition estimated that, between 2000 and 2011, an area of land over eight times the size of the United Kingdom (a total of some 203 million hectares) had been purchased or let to states, commercial farmers, private investors, and parastatal agencies from mostly poor, developing countries. Ironically, the same report also found that the highest demand for land investment came from biofuel production, producing the ultimate double whammy – dispossessing small scale local farmers and substituting food crops for agro-based fuels to meet the consumption demands of gas guzzling foreigners.
    Driven from the land in the nineteenth century, for example, Irish peasants found work in the naval stockyards of Boston, the cotton mills in industrial Lancashire, and the coalmines encasing Glasgow city. By contrast, even in some of the fastest growing economies in Asia, such as India, employment generation since the adoption of liberal reforms has simply not kept pace with the rate of economic growth, a phenomenon being characterised as “jobless growth”.
    There is, finally, the unshakeable sense that we have been here before. At the end of the 2012 Olympics, the British athlete Mo Farah was brought to Downing Street to raise awareness ahead of David Cameron’s “hunger summit”. “While people around the planet have been enjoying and competing in these Games there’s another world where children don’t have enough to eat, and never get the start in life they deserve,” declared the Prime Minister. Readers of the best-selling young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, could not have missed the allusion. For the Prime Minister, this was a very clever PR stunt.
    Public handwringing and future assurances are now part and parcel of the annual cycle of political life, with little tangible proof that this makes any difference on the ground, where it matters most. Against this background, it is far too easy to be cynical about the recent commitments emanating from Davos, and the fleeting media attention cycle that surrounds public campaigns on food, hunger and global justice issues. For the sake of world’s smallholder farmers, let’s hope we are wrong.                 –Aljazeera

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