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Agribusiness and its helpful critics

Environmentalist proposals to cut food production are disastrous for everybody except the big farming corporations, says James Heartfield

British farmers are facing bankruptcy because they cannot sell their sheep. Indian farmers are committing suicide because of falling grain prices. The National Farmers' Union says that the countryside will become a desert as people leave the land. Environmentalists say that agribusiness is poisoning the food chain, destroying the land and people's livelihoods.

It is worth remembering just what a success story the revolution in agriculture has been. In the 1970s environmentalists revived Reverend Thomas Malthus' predictions that food would run out, and the world's growing population would starve. But new agricultural techniques - mechanisation, high-yield crops, chemical fertilisers and irrigation - have ensured that food production has more than kept pace with population growth. In 1900, for example, the world grain harvest stood at 400 million tons, but today that figure is 1.9 billion tons.

What's more, the agricultural advance known as the Green Revolution has increased yields while reducing the amount of land in production. Since 1981 the world's grain-harvested area has fallen from 732 million hectares to 690 million hectares. And improvements in the rearing of livestock have put meat into many more people's price range. In the green State of the World Atlas, Lester Young estimates that a farmer in 1900 fed seven other people. Today his grandson feeds 96.

But that success story is also part of the problem for farmers and farm labourers. Increased productivity means that more is produced by fewer people. As a consequence of increased productivity, prices fall. While some farmers have gained a lot through the Green Revolution, others have lost out.

For decades, governments in America and Europe subsidised farmers as an important source of social stability who could generally be relied upon to vote Christian Democrat, Tory or Republican. But while small farmers were being artificially supported, big agribusinesses like Cargill and Philip Morris were seizing the market. In America today half of all farm products come from just two percent of farms. Conversely, the 73 percent of farms which are smaller family concerns produce only nine percent of US farm products.

In Asia, grain yields have increased but prices keep falling, leading to a massive growth in the rural poor. In India agriculture now contributes just 27 percent of the country's wealth, but employs 70 percent of the population. In Thailand, 60 percent of the population works on the land, but agriculture produces just 11 percent of GDP. In the 1950s Indian rural incomes were around 70 percent of urban incomes. Today that figure is more like 16 percent. And while industry has enjoyed impressive growth, it has not been able to absorb the rural poor.

With these social problems arising out of the revolution in agriculture, the environmentalists' criticisms seem to make sense. In the past they used to say that there was not enough food. But now they say that there is too much. In the 1980s the environmental movement reinvented itself as a protest against agribusiness.

According to environmentalists, we need to reverse the Green Revolution and go back to more 'appropriate' farming techniques. Instead of large capital-intensive agribusiness, we need smaller-scale, labour-intensive farming. That, they say, will be better for the environment, the food chain, and farmers.

As practical proposals, these would be a disaster. Organic farming accounts for less than one percent of farm produce in the developed countries, because relatively few people want overpriced quick-rotting food. Organic farming has lower yields; in the very best of conditions it produces 20 percent less than mainstream farming, at far higher cost. One farmer says that 'I'm lucky to get half as much yield from my organic acres' (see R Bate and J Morris, Fearing Food, p6).

As a programme for resolving the problems of agriculture, then, the environmentalist solution is untenable. But that does not mean that green ideas are serving no purpose. On the contrary, arguments for restraining agricultural production are proving very useful - for agribusiness itself.

The world glut in food production presents agribusiness with a problem. The big manufacturers need to scale down production over all, by taking their less efficient rivals out of the market. The irony is that green ideas about small-scale agriculture and land preservation are actually helping governments to negotiate a reduction of output on behalf of big producers.

Over two years the British government's Organic Aid programme has converted 169 213 hectares of land to organic farming, at a cost of £2 286 000. This is not an alternative, but a way of getting those farmers and their produce out of the overcrowded mainstream market. Other subsidies to small farmers are more explicit: the EU set-aside scheme that pays them not to produce anything; the Wilderness scheme that pays them to never produce anything again; the Scottish and Welsh Assembly schemes that promise retirement packages to get them out of the market altogether.

The BSE crisis exemplified what was wrong with agribusiness in the minds of green critics. Farmers were alleged to have put profit before health and poisoned the food chain by making feed out of carcasses. But the tighter regulations introduced post-BSE have not hurt big business. On the contrary, they have put smaller herds and family abattoirs out of business, leaving the way clear for big business to take over. Environmental criticisms were effectively used to 'rationalise' the industry and curb the excess capacity, at the cost of 890 000 cattle. The total cost of BSE measures in Britain between 1996 and 1999 was £3 billion.

Environmentalism has also provided a rationale for the extensive retirement of land from agricultural production. With increased yields, less land produces more grain, so agribusiness needs land taken out of production to avoid a glut. Conservation provides a convenient justification for governments to exclude land from farm use. The US government recently bought 50 000 acres of sugar cane land in the Everglades for conservation.

Pressure is on third world countries to earmark land 'for conservation' that actually just clears the way for first world agribusiness to clean up. When Gabon declared 1.4 million acres of tropical forest at Minkebe as a protected area for lowland gorillas, it extended the area of conserved land in Central Africa to 10 000 square miles. Those who once hunted and farmed those lands are now a potential market for European and American agricultural surpluses.

The environmentalists' argument for the use of 'appropriate technology' is particularly destructive. The implication is that advanced farming techniques are inappropriate for Africa or Asia. The effect is to shore up the West's monopoly over advanced technology - which is of course more 'appropriate' in white hands. The UN has consistently blocked development schemes in Africa that use fertilisers, and generally opposes the use of modern farm machinery. As a result, African agriculture is at a permanent disadvantage in competition with first world producers. The environmentalists argue that the spread of modern methods would create further unemployment as labour is expelled from the land. But it is perverse to think that African agriculture can be run as one vast outdoor labour camp. In practice, first world surpluses flood African markets, putting those farm labourers out of work anyway.

Subsistence farming in the third world is not a positive alternative to agribusiness. Bengali economist Rehman Sobhan explains that the 'capitalist revolution...shows little sign of eradicating minifundist agriculture which seems bound to it in a relation of functional dualism' (Agrarian Reform and Social Transformation, p41). Subsistence farming persists as a form of surplus labour created by that agribusiness. By celebrating subsistence farming as 'traditional', environmentalists are making a virtue out of rural unemployment.

The current crisis in world agriculture shows that the advantages of the Green Revolution need to be made everybody's property and not turned to the narrow advantage of agribusiness. If put into practice, the green alternatives to agribusiness could lead to mass starvation. But as a case for reining in production, they help to ensure that the agribusiness monopoly remains intact.

Normal for Norfolk

When Tony Martin shot a 16-year old boy dead on his farm, he became a hero among Norfolk farmers. 'I warned them that something like this would happen on the very day he was shot', Martin's local councillor told me. 'Now they admit that Norfolk has the lowest police funding in the country.' Norfolk also has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, but that does not seem to cut much ice with the local farmers.

'It's the Dids', says farmer Barbara, an impressive sergeant major's daughter-type. 'Dids?' 'Diddicois, travellers you probably call them. They are behind all the crime around here.' Everybody agrees. In fact it is the only thing that they talk about. 'You find them in the middle of the night driving across your farm and they just say "have you got any work?", but you know that they are looking for stuff to steal', says Dick. 'They steal farm equipment, diesel fuel, anything they can find. You want to go after them, but what if you go armed and they are not? Or what if they are armed and you aren't?'

'The police won't follow them into their camps', says Terry, jumping off his combine harvester in dark glasses and pipe. 'I'd send the troops in. That would soon sort them out.' It is true, of course, that travellers are a law unto themselves. It is also true that the police are cautious about taking on travellers' camps. But the farmers' crime panic is not really about crime, which is no great problem.

Farmers are feeling insecure for other reasons. In particular they are worried about 'the Dids' because they used to give them work, but now, with the rural economy faltering, there is none. 'They're not the same as the old travellers we used to get', says Barbara, echoing home secretary Jack Straw's distinction between real Romanies and travellers. 'We used to give them work on the fields, but these lot are different. They don't want to work.' What she means is that there is no work to give them. As surplus labour, hanging around hare coursing, 'the Dids' make the farmers nervous.

But now Jeremy from the Farmers' Union is getting a bit nervous that the farmers have been too explicit. 'Not all crime is committed by travellers, and not all travellers are criminals', he says. Barbara, Terry and Dick, meanwhile, are all looking at him as if he's been out in the sun too long.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999

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