Another world is possible / FOOD & FARMING
Peter Rosset takes us on a quick world tour of sustainable
We live in a contradictory moment of human history. On the one hand we find the world’s farmers and farmworkers under more pressure than ever, from free trade and neoliberal budget slashing and from privatization policies of all kinds. On the other we increasingly have real and significant examples that a different vision of rural spaces – based on principles of social justice and ecological sustainability – can actually work, and can work better than agribusiness-as-usual.
Take the coastal strawberry-producing region of northern California. This is the birthplace of the tasteless, bloated, poisonous strawberry. When one visits conventional strawberry farms the soil is bare of all vegetation and is completely sterilized by annual fumigation with methyl bromide. The raised beds where strawberry plants sprout through holes in plastic sheeting are baked hard enough to break your toe if you kick them. The strawberry you get here tastes like a piece of styrofoam pumped up with sugar-water and pesticides. What is more, overproduction has driven prices down, causing farmers to cut farm-worker wages to an inhuman minimum. Even so, most of the strawberry farmers are losing money.
Enter Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm. More than a decade ago Jim decided to go organic. He was ridiculed and ostracized by his neighbors, who told him that without methyl bromide it simply would not be possible to harvest berries. But he proved that it was more than possible to rebuild the soil with organic matter and control pests without chemicals, establishing himself with a healthy market niche for strawberries that actually taste of something and are good for you.
Then a few years back the United Farm Workers union (UFW) announced a drive to organize the region’s miserably paid farmworkers. Most of the growers closed ranks, even going so far as to bring in hired-gun union-busting consultants, and managed to fight off the union. Except for Jim, who welcomed the UFW into his operation, despite being completely ostracized for the second time. Today he is the only grower with a union contract, he pays wages a few dollars per hour above the average, and is the only one to offer healthcare – for the whole family – paid vacations and workers’ compensation. These are virtually unheard-of benefits for migrant farmworkers. And guess what? Swanton Berry Farm is the only operation among its neighbors that is actually making a profit. The union is thrilled, using the farm as proof that social justice and organic farming make for good business for all.
Moving to the south-east, we come to the island nation of Cuba, subjected for decades to the inhuman US trade embargo. For decades Cuba was the paragon of industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture in the Caribbean, exporting sugar and citrus to the former Soviet bloc and importing food, agrochemicals and machinery in return. When the Soviet Union fell and the US stepped up the embargo, Cuba lost 85 per cent of its trade with other countries and was plunged into an economic and food crisis. But as a new book by Cuban authors details1, Cuba was able to resist adversity by turning inwards toward self-reliance, substituting organic farming techniques for the no-longer-available imported farm chemicals. Today Cuba produces more food than ever before, with a fraction of the pesticides it once imported, providing an inspiring national case study from which we can all learn.
Moving further to the south we come to Brazil, known for having the second-most inequitable distribution of land in the world. While the owners of giant latifundios leave an average of half their land idle, millions of peasants struggle to survive in temporary agricultural jobs. Enter the Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST, arguably the largest and most successful social movement in Latin America. The MST organizes landless families to occupy idle land belonging to absentee landlords, taking advantage of a clause in the Brazilian constitution which makes such land expropriable. Since its founding in 1985, more than 250,000 families have won title to more than six million hectares of land in a veritable ‘land reform from below’.
The new farmers created by this process earn on average 3.7 times the minimum wage, while still-landless rural workers get only 0.7 of the minimum. Infant mortality has dropped to half the national average. Beyond such undeniable benefits for MST families, the new small farm communities they create have jump-started depressed local economies. Typical rural towns in the Brazilian countryside have not fared well in recent decades. But when hundreds of new families arrive and turn idle land into productive farms, buying supplies and selling produce in local markets, the economies of these towns get a much-needed shot in the arm, as capital begins to circulate again at the local level.
From an environmental standpoint it is worth noting that over its 10 or more years of existence, the technological approach favored by the MST has evolved from a simple Green Revolution-style model to a firm commitment to agroecology, as they have learned from experience that the input-intensive model just doesn’t work for small farmers. What the MST shows us is that true land reform is viable and possible even when policy-makers tell us it isn’t.
But how many times have we heard that large farms are more productive than small farms? And that we need to consolidate land holdings to take advantage of that greater productivity and efficiency? The actual data shows the opposite – small farms produce far more per hectare than large farms.
One reason for the low levels of production on large farms is that they tend to be monocultures. The highest yield of a single crop is often obtained by planting it alone on a field. But while that may produce a lot of one crop, it generates nothing else of use to the farmer. In fact, the bare ground between crop rows invites weed infestation. The weeds then make the farmer invest labor in weeding or money in herbicide.
Large farmers tend to plant monocultures because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery. Small farmers on the other hand, especially in the Third World, are much more likely to plant crop mixtures – intercropping – where the empty space between the rows is occupied by other crops. They usually combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure serving to replenish soil fertility.
Such integrated farming systems produce far more per unit area than do monocultures. Though the yield per unit area of one crop – maize, for example – may be lower on a small farm than on a large monoculture, the total production per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far, far higher. It is the commitment that family members have to their farm, and the complexity and integrated nature of small farms, that guarantee their advantage.
This holds true whether we are talking about an industrial country like the United States, or any country in the Third World. At Food First we collected data on farm size versus productivity from around the world. In all cases for which data is available, smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit area – 200- to 1,000-per-cent more productive – than are larger ones. In the US the smallest farms, those of 11 hectares or less, have a dollar output per hectare that is more than ten times greater than large farms. While in the US this is largely because smaller farms tend to specialize in high-value crops like vegetables and flowers, it also reflects relatively more attention devoted to the farm and to more diverse farming systems.
And how many times have we heard that sustainable agriculture only works for isolated small farmers, but could never feed the world? Jules Pretty and Rachel Hines at the University of Essex have just completed a global study in which they found nine million mostly very small farmers in Asia, Latin America and Africa who have successfully adopted sustainable-agriculture practices and technologies on 29 million hectares – up from 100,000 hectares a decade ago.2 They found that average production is up by some 73 per cent a year, and as much as 150 per cent for farmers focusing on root crops, which shows the real productive potential of more agroecological alternatives.
For more than a century pundits have confidently predicted the demise of the small farm, labeling it as backward, unproductive and inefficient – an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of economic development. As we have seen, this is wrong. Far from being stuck in the past, small-farm agriculture provides a productive, efficient, more socially just and ecological vision for the future.
If small farms are worth preserving – indeed, if a small-farm model of rural development makes more sense than the large-scale, mechanized, chemical-intensive, corporate-dominated model toward which we are moving – then now is the time to educate the world’s policy-makers about the genuine value of small-farm agriculture.
If we want to create viable small-farm economies based on sustainable technologies, then the steps are more or less clear. We need trade policies that don’t damage local farm economies – and that means at the very least removing food crops from World Trade Organization purview. We need genuine land reform, and we need an end to visible and hidden subsidies for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, together with a renewed emphasis on supporting and upscaling successful cases of sustainable small-farm agriculture.
The good news is that the alternatives work, and work better than conventional agriculture. But we need to get down to the hard work of making them a political reality.
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