DEVELOPING COUNTRIES: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Small farms offer solution to world food shortages
, October 11, 2008
The output of small farms per acre is substantially higher than that of large agribusinesses, according to several studies across the world. Patrick J. Byrne reports.As the output of small farms in developing countries is up to 20 times per hectare more than that of larger farms, rallying to the cause of small farmers should be the response to the world's food shortage.
This conclusion, though, flies in the face of the long-held left-right consensus that the future of farming is to get bigger.
Despite this almost universally held belief, the case for small farmers feeding the world's most disadvantaged remains strong.
Writing in Britain's Guardian
newspaper (June 10), George Monbiot said that it was Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who, in 1962, first discovered that there was an inverse relationship between the size of the farm and the output per hectare.
Since then, dozens of studies have confirmed this finding. For example, a recent study in Turkey found that farms of less than one hectare produced up to 20 times the output of farms bigger than 10 hectares.
Similar results have been discovered almost everywhere - in Asian countries like India, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan, and in South American countries like Colombia and Brazil.Findings criticised
At first, these findings were criticised on the grounds that perhaps the small farms had more fertile land than did the larger farms. However, the inverse relationship was found to exist regardless of whether the farms being compared were on fertile or infertile land.
Then, when the Green Revolution saw the introduction of new varieties of high-yielding crops, the bigger farms - with more capital, which gave them greater access to fertilisers and pest controls - seemed initially to do better than small farms.
However, as the new crop varieties spread to the smaller farms, then once again it was the small farms that produced the highest yields.
Why do the small farms do better? Monbiot says that small farms use more labour per hectare than bigger farms. Because they are family farms, they tend to be more highly motivated than hired labour.
With higher quality labour, they "cultivate their land more intensively: they spend more time terracing and building irrigation systems; they sow again immediately after the harvest; they might grow several different crops in the same field".
However, the stigma against small farming remains, after a long and sometimes brutal history across the globe.
On the left, Lenin claimed that "small-scale production gives birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie constantly, daily, hourly, with elemental force, and in vast proportions".
On this basis, the leaders of the old Soviet Union took a hard line against peasant farmers. With great bloodshed, Soviet leaders ordered the forcible collectivisation of the peasant farms. It was an economic disaster. Food production in the USSR fell and the nation became a major food importer.
Yet, when farmers were allowed to own small plots separate from the collective farm, although the plots made up only 3 per cent of Soviet land under cultivation, they produced over a quarter of the Soviet Union's farm output.
In the West, the term peasant has had a derogatory meaning for centuries. In the 20th century, it has been used to denigrate the supposed backwardness of family farmers, instead of acknowledging their self-reliance and productivity.
These days, small farmers have fallen victim to the "get big or get out" philosophy, which deliberately favours large agribusinesses at the expense of smaller concerns.
As Ross Provis of Inverell, NSW, pointed out in 2000, "'Get bigger' simply meant buying out your next-door neighbour.... Despite the removal of some 168,000 farmers in this way, the profit levels of those who went into debt because of government policy, have continued to deteriorate." (News Weekly
, April 8, 2000).
Today, the mentality of "get big or get out" is being pushed onto the developing nations. As Monbiot points out, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation persists in arguing that farm output from small holdings "remains low". Based on this view, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concludes that it's vital to stop the fragmentation of arable land into small plots, and that farm consolidation is "indispensable for raising agricultural production".
Despite the much higher efficiency of small farms, the cards are increasingly being stacked against them.
Big business controls the patent rights over many new crop types, and it is only those farmers with sufficient capital to buy these seeds, fertilisers and chemical pest controls who can afford to grow these crops.Consolidation
The consolidation of the processing and retail sectors means that they increasingly want to buy from larger producers, reducing their transaction costs.
Further, the demand by industrialised economies for emerging economies to open their borders to free trade in agricultural goods means that Third World farmers often end up being undercut by heavily subsidised products imported from Western nations.
Consequently, as the world faces a food shortage, if policy-makers continue favouring big farmers over small farmers in the emerging nations, then food production may actually fall rather than increase.- Patrick J. Byrne.
George Monbiot, "Small is bountiful", The Guardian (UK), June 10, 2008.
Amartya Sen, "An aspect of Indian agriculture", Economic Weekly, Vol. 14, 1962.