Vandana Shiva, a prominent author in
India, titled her essay “Globalization and the War against Farmers and the
Land,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader edited by Norman Wirzba (2003).
first this title seemed to be hyperbole. But she was serious that international
agribusiness corporations were actually at war against farmers (that is, poor
farmers) and the land. And the more I read, I became convinced that she was
right. The corporations, of course, do not see themselves in this way. The
essay is outdated only in the numbers that it cites; the basic situation is
little changed since 2003.
kind of agriculture that is promoted by big agribusiness around the world is
the kind that requires farmers to buy patented seeds and to use expensive
inputs, such as irrigation water, pesticides, and fertilizers. The fields are
monocultures, which consist of only one type of crop (the cash crop). There are
many poor farmers (especially in India, about which Shiva knows a lot) who
cannot afford these purchases or, if they do, they go into debt; and each round
of harvest makes them fall deeper and deeper in debt. (I cannot help but think
of Sixteen Tons, the song
about American coal miners who worked hard only to find themselves deeper in debt every
year.) As a direct result of being overwhelmed with debt, Shiva indicates, many
farmers in India have committed suicide, often by drinking pesticides. Farmers
who are not quite so desperate just sell their kidneys. Agribusiness may
provide cheap food for you, American consumer, but brings unspeakable misery to
poor farmers who raise it. The situation is little different in Mexico,
according to Angus Wright’s book The Death of Ramón González, where farm
workers endure (or don’t live to endure) pesticide poisoning so that Americans
can have cheap fresh vegetables in winter.
course, agribusiness corporations will not say “We make huge profits off of
human suffering.” Instead, they have to come up with a justification, and to do
so they use creative numbers. Here are some examples.
the corporations need to convince people that monocultures (one type of crop)
have superior yields to polycultures (different crops mixed together).
According to their published figures, monocultures always outproduce
polycultures. But the way they calculate these yields is on an area basis:
tonnes of yield per hectare. They are hoping that we will not notice their
mathematical sleight-of-hand. Of course a hectare of just wheat will
have higher wheat yields than a hectare of wheat mixed with beans. All other
things being equal, a hectare of monoculture wheat will yield exactly twice
as much wheat as a hectare that is only half wheat. That is like saying that
nobody lives in your house because, at this moment, your bedroom has no one in
it. But if you calculate crop yields over the whole countryside of wheat
and beans, polycultures almost always outproduce monocultures. This, according
to Shiva, is the correct way to calculate the yields. She calls this the land
equivalent ratio (LER). In India, the overall LER is 1.62. That is,
polycultures yield 62 percent more than monocultures. Or, if you calculate a
polyculture’s yield just on the basis of the actual area used by a particular
crop, the yield is 62 percent higher. A cassava/maize/groundnut polyculture
outproduces monocultures of these three crops by a factor of 2.51.
polycultures (that is, traditional native gardens) can outproduce monocultures
by an even greater factor. Shiva gives an example of terraced fields in the
Himalayas, which produce jhangora, marsha, tur, urad, gahat, soybean, bhat,
rayans, swanta, and kodo. (You’ve probably never heard of any of these, except
soybean, but the people eat them.) Shiva notes that the polycultures produce six
times more yield than monoculture rice even during dry years. I would have
said, especially during dry years, because different crops have
different water requirements, and a drought is unlikely to kill all the
different kinds of crops, thus leaving some food—and income—for the poor
biodiversity in traditional polycultures can be breathtaking. Shiva notes that
in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers (mostly women) cultivate 120 different kinds of
food plants in the spaces alongside the cash crops. Of course, this
reduces the yield of the cash crops a little, but not as much as you might
expect, since the food crops compete only partially for light and
moisture with the cash crops.
top it all off, the monocultures are for cash crops intended for other people,
not the farmers, to eat. Would a monoculture of kodo out-yield the kodo grown
in polycultures? Nobody knows, since the agribusiness corporations do not sell
kodo seeds, and nobody knows whether or how much kodo yield would increase with
fertilizer and pesticides.
agribusiness monoculture would not survive long if its success depended on
feeding local people. Then why does it persist? One reason is that agribusiness
has convinced international lending agencies that the only profitable kind of
agriculture is based on irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide. The loans,
therefore, are for groundwater pumps and chemicals. If you just want to raise
food for your village, it is hard to get a loan, and even harder to pay it
back. Recently, mostly since Shiva wrote this piece, microcredit has become available to many small farmers, craftspeople, etc. These are very
small loans that can be paid back when a farmer, using whatever methods she
prefers, earns profits from extra crops or from crafts. The developers of the
idea of microcredit (Muhammad Yunus and the leaders of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) won the Nobel Prize for it in 2006. Despite the success of
microcredit, there is still a long way to go.
on small farms is more profitable, though not to the agribusiness corporations
that sell the inputs. In India, according to Shiva, farms up to five acres
earned 735 rupees per acre, while farms 35 acres and over earned 346
rupees per acre. These numbers are different now, but the difference is
probably even greater today.
feed local people, but the very purpose of monocultures is to export food from
countries that have a lot of poor people to industrialized countries such as
the United States. China is now appropriating land in poor countries to get
food and raw materials from them.
also considers agribusiness to be at war with the land because high-input
monocultures often require irrigation, which contributes to salt buildup;
pesticides and fertilizers poison the runoff water.
possible problem is that, as fewer people each year want to farm, the remaining
farmers must cultivate more acres. In doing so, they may need more inputs and
will be unable to give as much attention to each acre.
Agribusiness says, we
are just trying to feed the world. Defenders of small farms say, we are
just trying to feed the world, and we can do it better than agribusiness.