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David Nally

David Nally is a political geographer and lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
Bhaskar Vira

Bhaskar Vira is senior lecturer in environment and development at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College.

Empty words won't fill hungry stomachs

There is good reason to be sceptical about the new initiatives coming out of Davos targeting smallholder farmers.
Last Modified: 26 Jan 2013 15:07
The world's political and business elite gathered on January 23 in Davos, Switzerland [AFP]

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".

 Looking ahead to the 2013 Davos meeting

Collier's remarks are only the latest instalment in a long history of disparaging small farmers. Victorian elites castigated in equal measure Indian ryot 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" [PDF], 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 percent of global agricultural holdings, and produce food for almost 70 percent 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.

Annual meeting convenes amid global uncertainty

What makes us even more cautious about the feel-good language of partnership is the issue of trust, or more precisely the absence of it. Several of the transnational corporations behind the Davos initiative have a sullied record when it comes to engagement with local farming communities. In Palakkad district in Kerala, India, for example, Coca-Cola were found guilty - and obliged to pay compensation - for the "over-extraction" of ground water supplies causing artificial shortages to local farmers and residents. To prevent growers from "illegally" using their seeds, Monsanto Company continues to carry out random farm inspections and regularly threatens growers with lawsuits over the terms of use of its patented crops. Meanwhile Wal-Mart, another company associated with the World Economic Forum's "New Vision for Agriculture", is well known for its price-squeezing strategies. What the company describes as "supply chain optimisation" means that small growers and food producers must bear the brunt of its efforts to maintain low prices at the till. If past record is any indication of future conduct we ought to approach the promises emanating from Davos with great scepticism.

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 evidence suggests that uncertainty and volatility in agricultural markets have their greatest impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. An important report [PDF] authored by the World Food Programme, and published in 2009, noted that while food markets help "promote efficiency in resource allocation, especially through the signals they send to food producers, who favour high prices... [they] tend to fail most often and most severely for those who need them the most - the hungry poor". Smallholder farmers are notoriously "risk averse" when it comes to food markets, not because they are inherently conservative, as is often alleged, but because increased market integration means greater vulnerability to price fluctuations. Risk aversion, as distinguished anthropologist James Scott has observed, is a perfectly rational response to food markets that all too often tilt against the poor.

Counting the Cost
The economic malaise and its perils

We should not romanticise subsistence agriculture - unquestionably it is challenging and often a brutal way of life - but it can be a safer bet when food markets are volatile, as they have been since 2007. There is an important difference between the concept of food security, which can create and perpetuate a culture of dependency (on state agencies, well-meaning international donors and charities), and food sovereignty, which expresses a much deeper need amongst the most vulnerable groups to exercise democratic control over their food production and consumption choices when faced with uncertainty. By creating more integrated global production and consumption systems, while market-based reforms may facilitate the smooth flow of commodities to the highest bidder, they are unlikely to reinforce the abilities of local groups to assert control over their food choices when confronted with the sorts of price volatility that has characterised agricultural markets over the last few years.

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.

The assumption is that this "rationalisation" of landholding will result in a rural-to-urban transition similar to that experienced in parts of Europe in earlier centuries. In the past rural surplus labour was regularly absorbed by out-migration or industrial employment in nearby towns and cities; indeed, this was perceived to be the engine of modernisation and economic growth, ensuring the availability of a large reserve of cheap labour to serve the expanding needs of capital. 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". Moreover, for the new generation of dispossessed farmers, out-migration to more affluent countries is politically disallowed, so the crowded favelas, squatter camps, and slums of the global South must make room for one more family after another, pushed out from their rural production systems, but also virtually unemployable in the modern urban economy without the skills and knowledge that are needed to succeed in these fast-growing and globally connected cities. "Scale up" is thus the first stage in a trajectory that author Mike Davis describes as the "urbanisation of world poverty".

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.

David Nally is senior lecturer in human geography and Bhaskar Vira is senior lecturer in environment and development at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and both are fellows of Fitzwilliam College. A shorter version of this article was published on The Guardian Poverty Matters blog. The issues raised in this article will be debated at Kings Place, London, on Monday at the second of three events organised by the University of Cambridge's strategic research initiative in Global Food Security.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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