Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: Multinational Monitor, Oct 1996 v17 n10 p27(1).

Title: A Cautionary Tale: Failed U.S. Development Policy in Central
America.
Author: Steve Farnsworth

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1996 Essential Information Inc.

By Michael Conroy, Douglas Murray and Peter Rosset Boulder, Colorado : Lynne Rienner, 1996 211 pages, $40.00

Agricultural revolutions can be dangerous. While they may present opportunities to earn export income from new products, the unintended consequences and short-term difficulties of rapid shifts in farm production can cause severe problems, including starvation, malnourishment, flooding, pesticide poisoning, soil erosion and cultural destruction.

Unfortunately for many agricultural sectors of Central America, it is largely the dangers of agricultural revolutions, rather than their optimistic promises, that have been realized. In recent decades, corporate multinational food production programs, aided by U.S. and international agricultural assistance funds, have steadily driven down the production of locally consumed food stapels, like beans, corn and other grains, while pushing up production of flowers, vegetables and fruits to be sold for export.

In the process, agricultural communities lose twice. The price of food -- which many agricultural workers must now buy -- goes up, while overproduction of perishable export crops results in meager payments that too often do not even cover costs. Many of the smallest farmers actually lose three times, since many borrow more than they can afford to pay for new pesticides and equipment involved in the new, often unprofitable production.

But it is not the farmers who deserve the blame. Foreign and local government officials push the new crops and production techniques like an opiate. Banks have been far more willing to offer loans for cultivation of new export products. And exporters have offered visions of wealth far beyond what they actually paid when the requested products arrived at market.

In A Cautionary Tale, a trio of experts on agricultural production in Central America provide a reasoned analysis of recent rural developments in five countries from the region: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The three authors, respectively academic experts in economics and sociology and the head of the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), provide some positive examples of export success, but they generally offer a highly critical look at the internalization of agriculture in the region.

Besides analyzing export statistics and the growth of agricultural sector debt in these nations, this comprehensive book considers the health and safety risks of increased pesticide use as well as the less tangible, but real, costs in lost national sovereignty associated with dependence on powerful corporate and transnational production bureaucracies.

A Cautionary Tale is not a dull academic treatise. Throughout the work, the authors give voice to individual farmers who tell stories of how their crops are rejected at market, how they struggle with bank loans brought on by shifting to production of new export crops and how they suffer from pesticide-related health problems. The authors also shed light on the plight of many small farmers, who find it particularly difficult to switch to new products of produce on a mass scale given their small holdings.

The solution, the authors suggest, is found in looking to organic agricultural production. The idea seems to address many of the problems found with current exports: organically raised food generates higher profit margins, organic production favors smaller farmers (who can farm more intensively than larger operations), organic food is a growth industry and does not require huge capital outlays and heavy pesticide use. The authors are forthright in acknowledging the problems of this approach -- in particular the fact that some organically grown products may be quite perishable -- but on balance their suggestions seem viable.

This book, with its broad perspective and sensible solutions, offers a compelling approach for reducing the traumatic consequences of sudden agricultural adjustments. A Cautionary Tale presents a viable alternative to Central American farmer's dismal Grapes of Wrath experience over the past decade.

 
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