Most people throughout the industrial world see cheap and readily available food as simply another modern amenity, such as electricity or running water. Few understand that agriculture has always been political, because it is tied to human survival. Even fewer know that the world is currently undergoing one of the greatest agrarian revolutions in history: one in which small farmers, en masse, are being driven out of business and off the land by large farmers and agribusiness, creating widespread political, economic, cultural, and environmental chaos.
The instruments of this revolution include the World Trade Organization (WTO), regional trading agreements such as NAFTA, and the European Union. These promote international agricultural trade over domestic agricultural equity and stability. Up until the early 1990’s, almost all governments followed supply-management policies that kept agricultural prices high through price supports, set-asides, and loans. These policies were never perfect, but they allowed small farms to thrive and helped stabilize rural societies—always an important political goal, especially in developing countries with large and impoverished rural populations.
These policies began to change with globalization. Large producers and their host countries—namely, the United States and the European Union—began aggressively to promote policies that increased supplies to lower prices, thus making them competitive on the world market. They used the WTO and other international agreements to gain access to world markets and force governments to change their agricultural policies to accommodate free trade. As a result, trade barriers have fallen, the volume of global trade has risen, and large farmers and agribusinesses are making record profits. But this rapid policy shift has devastated small farmers and rural communities throughout the world.
Free-market advocates see these changes as simply another consequence of competition and a movement toward greater market efficiency. But this is a false understanding. These new agricultural policies and trade agreements have shifted government support away from the small to the large producers. One such policy in the United States is direct payment to farmers for lost income resulting from falling prices. This compensation barely covers production costs, forcing many smaller producers out of business. Large producers can still make hefty profits because of their greater economies of scale. They also receive the bulk of income subsidies. In 2003, the wealthiest one percent of American farmers received an average of $215,000 per year, compared with under $9,000 per farmer for the poorest 80 percent.
As farm incomes dwindle, more farmers go out of business. (Two thousand went under in Europe every week from 1995 to 2000, and farm foreclosures are at all-time highs in America.) Lower farm profits also reduce land prices, so even when small farmers want to cash out of farming, they lose. Naturally, large farmers buy up cheaper land, which only increases their control over production and supply and their market power.
These changes in agricultural policy have had an even greater impact at the international level. Because of massive subsidies, large firms can sell their goods on the world market at up to 60 percent below production costs. Even Third World peasants, with far lower land and labor costs, cannot compete with this “free trade” onslaught. These firms (hardly farms) are dumping their excess production on world markets. In Third World countries, the social consequences are worse than in America or E.U. countries, because there are no economic alternatives for poor peasants who lose their farms. They flood into already overcrowded cities or enter international immigration streams (legal or illegal).
Peter Rosset, an agronomist and food activist, has spent years working in rural Mexico, where he has seen the effects of free-trade policies firsthand. Because of her proximity to the United States and the warm relations between Mexican and American government and corporate elites, Mexico has borne the brunt of this global revolution. Over one million farmers have been forced out of business over the last decade, and countless millions have left the countryside for the cities, or the United States, for good. Many send money back home to support their family farms so they can stay in business. These laborers are subsidizing their Mexican farms with money made in America, where the government subsidizes the big businesses that destroyed Mexican farms in the first place.
Agriculture is the last economy being transformed by industrialization and commercialization, and Rosset argues that this should not happen. Food production differs from other forms of production because it is so closely linked to human health and survival. In addition to providing nourishment, a stable food economy sustains social and political stability in rural areas and preserves cultural traditions and the environment. Rosset argues that food is more than a commodity; it is the foundation of a complex web of social and ecological relationships that are simplified and ultimately destroyed when big businesses (and big government) reduce agriculture to mere production for the market.
Rosset’s goal is food sovereignty, which would be based on creating government programs and markets that support small producers and rural communities over the interests of big corporations. With the right policies, small producers can provide stable food supplies at reasonable prices and higher quality than large producers can. Rosset realizes that subsidies are viewed with suspicion in America and Europe. However, he explains, some type of government support is necessary in agriculture more than in any other economic sector, given the inherent risks involved. The real question is, Who benefits from these policies? Rosset argues convincingly that policies that support small farmers are most critical in restoring equity and stability in agrarian economies the world over.
Rosset discusses the social, cultural, and environmental benefits of local food economies. He fails, however, to address the significance of sound food economies to national security: Local and regional agriculture reduces risks to food supplies. Food is now grown far from its ultimate place of consumption. Most food consumed by Americans travels over a thousand miles to its final destination, making it vulnerable to war, disease, natural disasters, economic downturns, and even terrorism.
Rosset explains well the technical aspects of agricultural policy and global trading arrangements, but his book’s real significance lies in revealing the massive destruction wrought by the global neoliberal trading regime and the powers behind it. Its main weakness is its failure to go beyond policy prescription as a means of change. Rosset does not discuss the role of consumers and investors, especially in the industrial nations, in driving corporate and government policies. The demand for cheap and abundant food maintains their hegemony over the food economy. Rosset also fails to recognize the spiritual nature of food and agriculture. In all healthy societies, food, like sex, is respected because it is essential to life. As such, food production and consumption are enshrined in rituals and customs that celebrate human participation in the life cycle. When food, or sex, is removed from the protection of the community and given over to the domain of government and the market, it loses its spiritual value and becomes a purely material good.
The Southern Agrarians and others such as Wendell Berry have defended the centrality of farming to a good and orderly society. Culture and agriculture are inseparable; when one declines, so does the other. The only way to slow the process of disintegration is to support policies that make small-scale farming viable again. Consumers and investors can do their part by supporting, whenever possible, local farmers over those of distant states or countries. If enough people become aware of the high social costs of cheap food, the gargantuan forces of globalization can at least be kept at bay, and maybe—someday—even forced to retreat.
Unfortunately, conservatives, like most Americans, do not view food and agriculture as important political issues. What is more disturbing is that the political left does. Leftists are the ones taking up the fight for small farmers and communities throughout the world. The left-leaning publisher of this tract, Zed Books, has published an entire series on agricultural issues. Even in my home state of South Carolina, which is purportedly conservative Christian and agrarian, the Democratic challenger for agricultural commissioner, who advocated family farming and food security against industrial agriculture, was handily defeated by the Republican incumbent, one of the state’s largest and wealthiest farmers.
The worst long-term consequence of the current agricultural revolution is that, if a counterrevolution ever materializes, it will probably be a leftist operation, allowing the left to monopolize the debate over how to protect agriculture and community life. In accomplishing this, the left will penetrate the last bastion of traditional life and transform it into a radical one. That would be the greatest revolution of all.
[Food Is Different: Why We Must Get the WTO Out of Agriculture, by Peter M. Rosset (New York: Zed Books) 163 pp., $17.50]