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).
At 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 The essay is outdated only in the numbers that it cites; the basic situation is little changed since 2003.
The 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.
Of 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.
First, 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.
Sometimes, 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 farmers.
The 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.
To 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.
Clearly, 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.
Polyculture 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.
Polycultures 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.
Shiva 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.
One 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.