Small scale farming: A global perspective

Peter Rosset argues for small farms in the North...and Vandana Shiva champions those in the South

Peter Rosset...

In 1998, the US Department of Agriculture’s National Commission on Small Farms published a landmark report on the importance of small farm agriculture, and the necessity of both preserving small farms and promoting them for the future. Coming from one of the world’s most pro-globalised farming governments, the report, A Time To Act, was extremely significant. Among the many benefits of small farm agriculture, it listed:

• Diversity: small farms embody a diversity of ownership, of cropping systems, of landscapes, of biological organisation, of culture and traditions.

• Environmental Benefits: responsible management of the natural resources of soil, water and wildlife on the 60 per cent of US farms below 180 acres in size produces significant environmental benefits.

• Community Empowerment: decentralised land ownership tends to produce more, and more equitable, opportunities for rural people. Landowners who rely on local people, business and services are likely to be more responsible.

• Personal Connection to Food: farmers' markets, community supported agriculture and other such schemes bring home to consumers where their food comes from, and what effect its production has on landscape and environment.

• Economic Foundations: in many areas of the US, small farms are vital to the economy.

What is true for the USA is true for much of the world. The fact is that, despite the generalised assumption that large, capital- and chemical-intensive farms are more productive and efficient than small farms, this is often not the case. One reason for this is that, because conventional methods of measuring ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ are flawed, we are receiving the wrong answers to our questions.

Farm productivity is generally measured in terms of ‘yield’ – the production per unit area of a certain type of crop. Often, the highest yield of a single crop is obtained by planting it in a monoculture in a large field – hence, in these terms, large farms are often deemed more ‘productive’. But while such a monoculture produces high yields of certain crops, it provides nothing else of use to either the farmer or the environment. When the total output of farms – the sum total of everything they produce – is used as a measurement, rather than yield, small farms often come out on top.

Even leading economists at the World Bank have now come round to the view that redistributing land from large to small farmers would lead to an increase in total productivity. Reasons for this include:

• Multiple cropping: small farmers are more likely to intercrop various crops on the same field and integrate crops and livestock, making more effective use of space and time than large monocultures.

• Output composition: large farms tend to be land-extensive, while small farms tend to emphasise more labour- and resource-intensive use of land.

• Input use: large farms tend to use purchased inputs like agrochemicals, while small farms are more likely to use non-purchased inputs, like manure and compost produced on the farm.

Productivity, of course, is not the only issue in farming. More bushels of grain should not be the only goal of agriculture. And when considered in other areas, small farms are seen to be often more desirable than large farms.

All over the world, in rural communities dominated by large corporate farms, towns, small businesses and local amenities tend to die off. Often this is because the income earned by agriculture drains off into cities where the farm corporations are based, rather than circulating in the local economy. Where family farms predominate in the US, for example, there tends to be higher employment, more civic amenities, better services and more public participation in local life.

All this is not even to begin to mention other obvious benefits of small farm agriculture, such as better environmental stewardship – more biodiversity, a more patchwork landscape, often less intensive chemical use, etc, or benefits that can accrue to general social welfare through land reform in favour of many owners of smaller properties.

When taken in the round, then, it is clear that the case for small farms is a strong one, and must be made loudly and persistently, if the rural economy is to change for the better.

Dr Peter Rosset is Executive Director of Food First, based in the USA

Vandana Shiva...

We are often told that when farmers, NGOs or campaigners in the north oppose the current system of global trade in agriculture they are being ‘protectionist.’ This is used as a derogatory term, implying backwardness, selfishness and a desire to cling to privilege. The supporters of open trade in agricultural produce can often be heard saying that the poor of the South ‘need’ – indeed, are desperate for – access to the markets of the West. To deny them this ‘market access’ is to deny them the chance to ‘develop’ as the West has done. And what, after all, could be worse than that?

In fact, the term ‘market access’ like the term ‘development’ is actually a weapon used by the rich against the poor. It has become a catch-all phrase that facilitates the process of robbing the poor of the South of their last resources and their meagre means of survival for the benefit of western market hegemony. ‘Market access’ has become the new codeword for giving priority to exports above local needs, and putting the resources of the South in the service of luxuries of the West and the profits of corporations.

In fact, what would be best for farmers everywhere – in Europe, Africa, Asia and in my country, India – is a focus on relocalising production and consumption, and on meeting the needs of everyone, rather than corporations, rich consumers and amorphous ‘global markets.’

Currently, crops grown in Thailand, Brazil and India provide cattle feed for Europe’s intensive livestock industry. Scarce land in Colombia and India is diverted to produce flowers for Europe. African countries produce green beans for American markets while African children are denied access to basic food and nutrition.

This, at root, is what the market is about.

Each kilogram of food travelling across the world, from poor producer to rich consumer, produces 10 kilogrames of CO2, the leading contributor to global warming. And it is the poor of the South who bear the costs of this, too. The current drought in Gujurat and Rajasthan, the worst in living memory, is leaving millions without food and water. These are the costs of globalisation and export driven economies. Who do they benefit?

Not us.

The alternative is relocalisation – and it is a realistic alternative. It does not imply ‘going backwards’, it implies living within the limits set by nature and ourselves. Relocalisation in the West would mean that the poor in the South, who depend on scarce land, water and biodiversity, have access to livelihoods and resources for meeting their own needs and have the possibility of conserving their resources for themselves.

They would not be forced to grow export crops for the rich, from which they see little benefit.

The language of ‘market access’ through globalisation and free trade is often used linked to ‘special and differential’ treatment for the South. But the banana dispute before the WTO, for example, robbed Caribbean banana growers of their markets in Europe. The ‘market Access’ rules of the WTO work for the Chiquita banana corporation, not the small holder. They work for Cargill, not the Punjab farmer. Special and differential treatment is excluded by the rules of ‘free trade’, and market access is embedded in such rules. It is market access based on relocalisation, not market access based on globalisation which will provide fair, just and sustainable markets to the Third World poor. Relocalisation combined with fair trade would recover the banana markets for the Caribbean peasant.

Relocation implies, very simply, that what can be grown and produced locally should be produced locally, so that resources and livelihoods can be protected. Since the West will never be able to grow tea, coffee and bananas, the South will have its markets for these unique tropical products. There will be trade, but it will be fair, and on the South’s terms.

Relocalisation everywhere – in the South and in the West – would conserve resources, generate meaningful work, fulfil basic needs and strengthen economic and political democracy. I hope that people of the West will bring about movements for self-rule and localisation, so that the environmental and economic burden is lifted from the South, and we can all shape our economies, political systems and resource-use patterns to provide for our own needs, together.

Vandana Shiva is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, in New Delhi, India. She is also a writer, lecturer and prominent environmental activist 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000

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