Pambazuka News has published another winner, this time from William Aal, Lucy Jarosz and Carol Thompson. It's a response to a particularly bad Foreign Affairs article in which Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, suggests that what we need to combat hunger is to throw the peasant off the land, bring machinery to bear on agriculture, and plant GM crops.
It is, as Aal et al note, a full-speed backward vision of agriculture, filled with wild fantasies of infinite production and zero environmental or social consequences. Frankly, it's a Stalinist vision, one that owes more to the dreams and delusions of the 1950s than anything else. In the next issue of Foreign Affairs, Paul Collier presents his solution to the transportation crisis: nuclear-powered flying cars.
Open letter to Paul Collier, director of Oxford's Centre for the Study of African Economies
William Aal, Lucy Jarosz and Carol Thompson (2009-02-05)
Paul Collier advocates 'slaying three giants' to end the food crisis: peasant agriculture, the fear of scientific agriculture, and the myth of biofuels from grain to overcome US oil dependence. His analysis is, however, very much grounded in the agriculture of the last century.
Collier continues to make the 20th century-long argument that increased yields is what can feed the hungry, a point that seems self-evident. But much research now documents that the hungry remain with us, not because of a lack of food but rather because of distribution and the inability of the poor to access food that is available, often only a few miles away. Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics (1998) for demonstrating not only the theory, but the empirical reality, of famines occurring in the midst of plenty. Moreover, research on commercial agriculture demonstrates its negative effects on the environment, public health, and farming families (Magdoff et al. 2000; Nestle 2002). Commercial farming is highly dependent upon fossil fuels for production, processing, and transport, and is a major contributor to climate change (IPPC 2007).
Collier is correct to lament the high price of food in 2008, causing food riots in about 80 countries. However, he places blame for 'the root cause' on the increasing consumption of the Asian (i.e., Chinese and Indian) middle-classes. The statistics tell a different story. As stated by a senior economist at the International Grains Council, Amy Reynolds, 'At the start of the decade, a small amount of grain—18 million tons—was used for industrial purposes. This year 100 million tons will go towards biofuels and other industrial purposes. Can anyone really tell me that hasn't had an impact on what we pay for food?' (Chakrabortty 2008, p. 4).
There is never one root cause, and using grain to feed American cars, instead of people, is just a single factor, but one we can change quickly. We fully agree with Collier that Americans must end their addiction to oil, by refusing to put, as he states, one-third of our grain production into gas-guzzling vehicles. A longer term issue, but relevant to increasing demand, is that more than half the US grain and nearly 40 per cent of world grain is being fed to livestock, rather than being consumed directly by humans (Pimentel 1997).
Other contributing factors include the increasing costs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and increasing speculation on commodities markets (Stewart and Waldie 2008). These factors demonstrate, contra Collier, that the root causes of the global food crisis are related to the political economy of commercial agriculture itself, and not simply a matter of supply and demand.
We disagree quite strongly with Collier's derisive depiction of 'peasant agriculture'. He attacks the populism that 'Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.. This overly general categorisation seems to include the very diversified category of small-scale family farming, a category which comprises the majority of farm operations throughout the world. These smallholders (often female farmers) are highly entrepreneurial and innovative. They are even more efficient than commercial agriculture, if one uses the measure of capital expenditure per bushel or tonne of yield.
Many scientists now provide statistics that 'Africa can feed itself' and that 'organic farming can feed the world' (Halberg et al 2007; Norstad 2007). Organic food production and localised forms of small-scale food production are among the fastest growing areas in agriculture today as the health and environmental effects of commercial agriculture are increasingly rejected and as people move to more healthful plant-based diets. Small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.
Commercial agriculture, according to Collier, may increase yields by 10 to 20 per cent. Yet long term analyses from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) demonstrate, across the globe, that 'best practices' of smallholder agriculture will double yields. 'Best practices' include the sharing of seeds (farmers' rights), research following farmers' requests, available and affordable credit and yes, agricultural extension. Collier is very wrong in saying that the latter has 'largely broken down', for many sources across the African continent document that removing the government from agriculture was a systematic policy of the World Bank (Berg report) and USAID from 1981. If agricultural credit, extension and markets do not work in Africa, the explicit policy of removing 'government interference' from agriculture is a major cause.
Another way Collier reveals he is caught in the last century is that he considers 'scientific' thinking as coming from those with white coats in elaborate laboratories. The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not 'scientific', even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years. These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing. Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 per cent of our current medicines. Americans, for example, need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans. In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits. As the FAO concluded (1996, p. 13–14), 'The chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern commercial agriculture.'
A major point which Collier avoids is that genetically modified seeds rely on the patenting of life forms, which most all the world rejects, with the exception of the US government and the global biotechnology industry. Much of the genetically modified research currently involved in the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations) relies on freely taking seeds and experimenting them with them in the laboratory; if an innovative trait is produced (e.g., pesticide resistance), the plant is patented, with zero recognition to other breeders of the variety over thousands of years. By adding one gene, the corporation patents the whole plant, and often, the whole specie. Africans call this act 'biopiracy', or the theft and privatisation of genetic wealth which had previously been available to all (Mushita and Thompson 2007). We agree with farmers that the sharing of biodiversity is both the past, and the future, of human sustenance.
Food is a human right, not a corporate commodity for speculation. Mother Nature does not operate on a boardroom quarterly profit margin. But food production can be very profitable, sustainable and feed all of us. It is just not capable of feeding the 'giants' of Wall Street or the City of London; it is those giants' interference with food production that needs slaying, because food produced mainly to feed corporate profit will merely lead to more food crises, not fewer.
* William Aal is with the Community Alliance for Global Justice, Seattle. Lucy Jarosz is a professor of geography at the University of Washington. Carol Thompson is a professor of political economy at Northern Arizona University.
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.
A LETTER FROM GEORGE NAYLOR
Agriculture does not need 'business as usual'
January 22, 2009
By George Naylor
I'm sorely disappointed in George McGovern and Marshall Matz's disturbing commentary piece, "Agriculture's next big challenge" (Jan. 4), which makes a failed argument to continue with business as usual for industrial agriculture. Our current fossil-fuel based system has led to severe degradation of the land, while encouraging giant livestock feedlots and factory farms that severely degrade air and water quality.
Industrial agriculture has also given us diets loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and cheap fast food. No wonder obesity, particularly among low-income Americans, is now an epidemic.
How can McGovern and Matz ignore the broken social system throughout American farm communities and not perceive the human tragedy industrial, Green Revolution agriculture will bring to Asia, Africa, and Latin America? As a corn farmer from a family farm tradition, I would hope that my country through the new Obama administration would champion a vision of family farm agriculture based on food sovereignty principles, where everyone has access to economic opportunity in rural areas and to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food.
The recent landmark report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, backed by United Nations Agencies and the World Bank and comprising over 400 scientists, showed that commercial agricultural practices are endangering the planet while also failing to rectify the hunger of millions. To reverse this, the report said investments in ecological practices and science that encourages participatory knowledge creation and the integration of indigenous knowledge shows more promise than relying on transgenic crops and other chemical-intensive Green Revolution tactics. It is a false idea that American food can feed the world, an idea that only invites more disdain for American economic arrogance. Developing countries need a democratic vision to become self-sufficient in building their own local food economies just as we need a democratic vision to transform our own.
The planet, our rural communities and our children's diets will be the better as soon as we wake up to scientific facts instead of the usual agribusiness propaganda recycled by McGovern and Matz in their apologetic defense of industrial agriculture. I hope President Obama and Gov. Tom Vilsack's vision for change will confront this challenge head on.
National Family Farm Coalition