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

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Source: UNESCO Courier, Jan 2001 p20.

Title: A knife at the throat of half a billion farmers.(agricultural
policy)(Statistical Data Included)


Free trade threatens to drive half the world's farmers off the Land, even though they hold the key to feeding the world and protecting the environment

In the 1950s, an African farmer produced ten quintals of grain, says Marcel Mazoyer [1], professor at the national agronomical institute in Paris. He kept eight to feed his family, and had two left over to sell on the market at $29 per quintal (at current rates). He thus had $57 of income to cover basic expenses. Today, with a quintal fetching less than $14, he must sell four to obtain the same amount and purchase vital necessities. He can no longer feed his family, much less make a profit that would enable him to invest in ways to increase production. His chances of living, or rather eking a living off the earth dwindle with each passing day.

A farmer in the Punjab could "modernize" his farm thanks to the Green Revolution (see box, p.22). Fifteen years ago, he used $30 worth of fertilizers to harvest a tonne of grain (see article, pp.27-28). Today, soil depletion and the harmful effects of uncontrolled irrigation force him to spend $80 for the same amount of produce. Meanwhile, the market price has dropped and self-sufficiency has become impossible. He must sell his harvests to purchase a good part of his food, seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. The outcome is inevitable: this farmer will have to sell his land to pay back his creditors.

These two case studies are not unusual among the world's 1.3 billion farmers and agricultural workers [2]. In the developed countries, including eastern Europe, only 45 million farmers, or roughly seven percent of the working population, are left. In the developing world, they account for over half the working population, men and women combined. On average, each farmer cultivates one hectare and harvests one tonne of produce. Almost none owns a tractor. Three-quarters do not even own an animal to pull a plough. Over half of these southern farmers suffer from chronic malnutrition: three-quarters of the 800 million human beings who go hungry every day are impoverished farmers. The little that they manage to sell has lost half its worth during the past 30 years.

[Graphic omitted]"With such low income, they can afford neither tools, nor selected seeds, nor fertilizers; they can barely survive," says Dr. Mazoyer. And they must confront a growing threat: the opening of borders, which puts them in direct competition with the northern hemisphere's industrial agro-businesses, whose productivity per farmer may be up to 1,000 times higher.

"Agro-business" is relatively recent: it did not become widespread in developed countries until after the Second World War. Until then, family farming had predominated since the agrarian reform that followed the dismantling of feudal properties. Agro-business relies on increasingly advanced technology based on mechanization, chemistry (fertilizers and herbicides), the selection of seeds and ever-costlier investments. The results are mixed.

Footing the bill of a model stretched to the limits

On the one hand, productivity has skyrocketed in the north. Grain yields per hectare are an average of two-and-a-half times higher than they were 40 years ago; on the most efficient farms, a single farmer working alone can cultivate 300 hectares. These productivity gains have been higher than in manufacturing and services. They have resulted in continuously dropping produce prices, and therefore in a steady decline in the amount of income that consumers spend on food.

On the other hand, the limits of this model are increasingly obvious. The outbreak of "mad cow" disease provides some idea of the ravages that high-yield, industrial farming can cause. Environmental damage-polluted aquifers, soil depletion, decreasing biodiversity--is on the rise. This form of agriculture guzzles 70 percent of potable water consumed. And now it is suffering from a backlash, because yields and profitability have hit a ceiling. That explains why spreading genetically modified organisms is a central issue for industrial agriculture in search of a second wind.

This model's expansion also comes with an economic and social cost. The former is largely masked. Through a process that economists call "externalization," society as a whole foots a good part of the bill. "Externalization" will continue in the future, because one day the bill for environmental damage will have to be paid. It is already present in the form of taxes which citizens pay to subsidize farmers. Most of this aid is allocated depending on production volumes and cultivated surface areas, and benefits farms that are the best suited to agro-industry; the rest are gradually sidelined. The major social cost results from the ongoing concentration of land, which, according to Rolf Kunnemann of the NGO Foodfirst Information and Action Network, bears all the hallmarks of a "new feudalism." In the United States, 50,000 farms vanish every year. Polish farmers' organizations say that their country's membership in the European Union will spell the end of two-thirds of the country's farms, "in the best of cases."

In the north, the casualties benefit or have benefited from social safety nets or training programmes to learn skills for new jobs in other industries, which is what approximately 50 million former farmers in the developed world did during the past half-century. But how will southern cities absorb a massive influx of people leaving the countryside when they already have 600 million inhabitants who are either unemployed or scraping by on odd jobs in the parallel economy?

[Graphic omitted]Yet this model in crisis is the one spreading across the planet, despite its clearly identified negative effects, especially in terms of environmental and social repercussions (see box p. 23). Agro-industry has a blatant interest in conquering new markets in the south, because those in the north are saturated. But this development comes with a price: 500 million farmers in the south will be driven off the land because they lack the means to be or become competitive.

The planetary spread of agro-business is based on a binary postulate that has been repeated so often it has acquired the force of truth: the only possible alternative would be either the hopeless "archaism" and immobility that characterize southern farming, or "modernization," which would purely and simply graft the north's industrial agricultural revolution onto the south. But, observing the effects of this type of modernization in the developing world, Ignacy Sachs and Ricardo [3] explain that "the great landed estates inherited from colonial rule are turning into agricultural companies. Their economic efficiency, assessed by macro-social standards, is questionable." They see a new paradigm emerging: "the production of wealth goes hand-in-hand with the simultaneous reproduction of poverty."

Time to give a chance to family farming

Is there a third way? Yes, replies a chorus of agronomists and farmers: family farming which, when given a chance, breaks production records and enables farmers to earn a decent livelihood.

Giving family farms a chance means first of all breaking with the urbanization policy that most governments in the developing countries have adopted. Because cities are more turbulent than the countryside, governments are trying to feed them at a lower cost. The liberalization under way is exacerbating this situation, because world farm prices are generally lower than local ones. What's more, exports of cash crops are becoming a priority to balance trade, which is kept under close watch by the IMF and the World Bank. However, for farmers in poor countries to advance, "the fruit of their labour must be remunerated at a price which allows them to purchase additional means of production," says Mazoyer. "Without protectionism, without trade barriers, they will not be able to grow."

The second obstacle is agrarian reform. In a recent study, Krishna Ghimire, a researcher at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), said that land ownership remains a hidden explosive issue. The best-known case is Brazil, where 20 percent of the landowners possess 88 percent of the land (see pp. 24-26). Only a few countries have undertaken genuine agrarian reform, including Mexico in the early days of the twentieth century; Japan, Taiwan and South Korea after the Second World War; China and Cuba after their revolutions. Almost everywhere else, the laws passed in the 1950s and 60s have not been applied. In southeast Asia, only India's West Bengal and Kerala states, where 10 percent of the region's population lives, have completed land redistribution.

Furthermore, says Krishna Ghimire, the major international organizations have come round to the doctrine of "market-assisted agrarian reform," which assumes that the law of supply and demand can be fairly applied. But how could an Egyptian agricultural worker acquire a feddan of land (0.42 hectare), which would cost him the equivalent of an entire lifetime's income?

To show the potential of the family farm, the fact that it is not a solvent market for agro-industry has to be acknowledged. Instead, it must accomplish a scientific revolution geared towards its needs and means. Only governments can undertake these substantial research efforts, which must directly involve farmers and their know-how.

Between 1800 and 1940, family farms in the northern countries tripled their gross production, then doubled it in the half-century that followed. Small farms do not damage the environment. They stimulate the active use of the soil, mobilize reserves of family labour and ensure high returns on investment. They benefit from subtle knowledge of the natural environment, encourage diversification as opposed to rigid specialization, and take a personal interest in quality because they consume the same produce that they sell.

[Graphic omitted]"The undernourishment of 800 million people is not related to insufficient world production," says Mazoyer. "The problem is insufficient production in the poor countries." Giving family farming a chance at last is the indispensable condition to eliminate the scourge of hunger. Farmers who are fighting for their rights are also fighting for everyone to be able to feed themselves decently and sufficiently.

1. Author of Histoire des agriculteurs du monde ("History of the World's Farmers"), Seuil, Paris, 1997.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics come from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

3. Nouvelles configurations villes-campagnes ("New town-country configurations"), published by UNESCO's MOST programme.


The 1994 Marrakesh accords setting up the WTO include an Agreement on Agriculture. During the negotiations, the world's two great food powers--the United States and Europe--argued in favour of liberalization, as tong as it protected their farmers' interests. The Cairns group--14 of the world's leading food exporters, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil--took a hard line in defense of free trade. Poor developing countries barely made themselves heard.

The final agricultural agreement contains three sections:

* Market access: tariffs on imported products must gradually decrease by 36 percent. For each product, percent of national consumption must be freely imported.

* Export subsidies must also be lowered by 36 percent (in value), but not export credits, which are used extensively by the United States.

* Domestic price supports must be reduced: farm price subsidies must drop by 20 percent. But member states have the right to subsidize their farmers' income, which Europe does. Five years later, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that Europe and the United States have increased their aid to farmers, but 20 percent of them receive 80 percent of the assistance. According to the FAO, developing countries have barely increased their exports, while imports are much higher than before. A new round of talks is scheduled in 2001.


In the 1950s, the Rockfeller and Ford foundations transferred farm technology to Asia, which was suffering from chronic food shortages, and Latin America, which was ravaged by land conflicts. Both areas were experiencing a rise in mass discontent, a concern in the context of the Cold War.

The Green Revolution, which resulted from a massive outpouring of public funding to small, owner-occupied farms, was based on the cultivation of high-yield crops such as rice and wheat, the expansion of irrigation and the spread of agro-chemicals, but without mechanization. Affecting approximately half the southern hemisphere's farmers, it boosted their yields and, especially in Asia, helped them achieve food self-sufficiency.

But the Green Revolution had little impact on the most disadvantaged areas. Elsewhere, this model is in crisis because of declining public aid in the wake of structural adjustment, harmful effects on the environment caused by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the economic vulnerability of farmers who have shifted from mixed-crop subsistence farming to single-crop cultivation for the market.


It would seem that the rural population is ageing everywhere, isn't it?

That's something I observed while doing research on the beneficiaries of agrarian reform in the Philippines several years ago. To be fruitful, access to land must be accompanied by access to credit. Banks grant loans over 30-year periods. When a farmer is over 50, he finds himself at a dead end.

[Graphic omitted]Why do young people want to leave the land?

First, because they don't own any, or very little. Rural poverty increased during the 1980s as a result of structural adjustment plans that countries in debt negotiated with the IMF. That is something I observed in three cases: the Madi valley in Nepal, which opened up to agriculture in the 1960s; the Sinai desert in Egypt, which has been farmed for a dozen years; and the state of Pernambuco in Brazil.

Are the three situations similar?

In Nepal, the plots are too small and there is no hope of enlarging them. The future there lies in emigrating to India, where the Nepalese, who have a reputation for integrity and bravery, have locked up the security-guard market, or to the Gulf states. In Ras Sudr, Egypt, the government gives each family a plot of land where it grows olive trees and vegetables. The nearby tourist resorts are an outlet for their produce. These families had no hope of moving anywhere else in Egypt because inequality of land ownership is still rife. There is one overriding feeling in Ras Sudr: resignation.

Are the landless Brazilian farmers more determined?

Yes, the beneficiaries of agrarian reform know that in town their children will spend more and be exposed to a crime-ridden environment. Most often, they are former farm labourers who know a lot about soils and crops. But the other side of the coin is that they were wage-earners who worked in mechanized agriculture, and lack the savings mentality that characterizes farmers in Asia. I spoke with a farmer who sold his corn harvest to purchase cornmeal in a store. For every $14 he earned, he spent $13.90. Not producing the food you consume is incomprehensible to me.

(*.) Researcher and chief project manager on agrarian reform and civil society at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva.

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