Firstly, and most obviously, rather than specialise their production for export, farmers should be encouraged to diversify their production for local and regional markets. More localised food production and marketing systems would be far more diverse than today’s homogenised global system, and would more closely reflect the geographical, climatic, and cultural diversity of the places where food is produced and consumed.
If a greater proportion of the food people eat were to be locally produced, ecological niches for food production would be matched by the economic niches farmers need to survive. A mix of local, regional, national, and international production would still be available – the goal would not be to put an end to the international trade in food, but to avoid transporting food thousands of miles when it could instead be produced next door.
Such a shift would help revitalise rural economies decimated by the global economy. Less money would be skimmed off the price of food by corporate middlemen, and far more would remain in the hands of farmers. This would especially be the case with the direct marketing of food via farmers’ markets and farm stands, box schemes and other forms of community supported agriculture.
If farmers were not impelled to specialise their production in a few global commodities, the trend towards ever larger and more highly mechanised farms would abate. Since small farms use a proportionally higher amount of human labour than mechanised inputs — UK farms under 40 hectares, for example, provide five times more per-hectare employment than those over 200 hectares — a return to smaller farms would help bring back some of the 700,000 farm jobs the UK has lost during the last half-century of agricultural ‘progress’.
Localised food systems would also be far better for the environment, in large measure because the ecological toll of needless food transport would be eliminated. Within the global food system, ‘food miles’ are immense: today, the food on the typical American family’s dinner table has travelled some 1,500 miles on average, and is thus ‘embedded’ with significant amounts of transport energy, pollution, and greenhouse gases. Not all this transport can be explained away by the greater availability of ‘exotic’ foods, since countries are often both importers and exporters of the same product. In 1996, for instance, Britain imported 47 million kilogrammes of butter, while exporting 49 million kilogrammes.
Perhaps the most obvious immediate alternative to the conventional farming treadmill is for farmers to convert their production to organic methods. Over the last few years, the consumer interest in organic agriculture has shot up dramatically, and demand is currently way ahead of supply. In the UK, for example, up to 70% of organic food sold is currently being imported because British farmers just cannot supply demand. The number of organic farms in EU countries jumped from 33,000 to 80,000 in just the three years between 1994 and 1997.
With no sign of this demand slowing, converting to organic is one way for farmers to shift to new production methods, which are also of huge benefit to the environment. Unfortunately, the conversion process from chemical to organic agriculture is a lengthy and expensive process. What is really needed now is a huge increase in government support for farmers to convert to organic production, which could benefit both the environment and the rural economy.
The proximity principle
But the real key to rejuvenating rural economies will always be narrowing the distance between producer and consumer. British organic farmer Julian Rose has proposed what he calls an ‘integrated sustainable development plan’ for the British countryside, based on what he has dubbed ‘the Proximity Principle’. This refers to the need for all action in and for the rural economy to be closely integrated and localised. So, for example, redundant farm buildings could be utilised for small local businesses of all sorts, perhaps supported by rural tax breaks, incentives or grants from national or local government. Action on renewable energy could involve thinking about local forestry patterns and woodland regeneration rather than buying in coal or using the national grid. Local timber and stone could be used, as it once was, for local construction. In addition, of course, farmers' markets, roadside stalls and farm-gate shops could be set up to bring local food straight to consumers, cutting out the middle men and bringing the proceeds of food production straight back into the local economy.
Most importantly, says Rose, local land should be set aside specifically for supplying the needs of local people, cutting out much of the reliance on imports of foods that can easily be grown locally, to the benefit of the rural economy.
But even if all of these things were to happen, farmers would still be battling against skewed regulatory frameworks, laws and rules drawn up for the benefit of large-scale producers, and a general presumption against small-scale rural production by most modern governments. What is needed, then, is a series of policy changes at top level designed to favour the small farmer.
These might include different levels of regulation for different sizes of farm, massive reduction in and redirection of subsidies – linking them, among other things, with production and with environmental protection – tariff protection for local foods, genuine land reforms, tax reforms and the reversal of biases in policies for technology, education, research, infrastructure and credit, which unfairly advance large farms at the expense of larger ones.
This will be a complex and long-term process, but it is imperative it starts now, at both national and international level. And the first step must be a recognition by governments that farming is not only in crisis, but needs local, sustainable solutions focused on farmers rather than corporations.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000