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Endangered: The Family Farmer


by
Julie MARDIN



At the last WTO conference in Cancun, Mexico, South Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, wearing a placard that said, WTO KILLS FARMERS, climbed a police barricade, and plunged a small Swiss Army knife into his heart. 

Back in his home in the mountain slopes south of Seoul, Lee had created Seoul Farm, 30 hectares of grazing pastures, paddy fields and buildings, housing and sheds miraculously built on steeply wooded slopes.  Nobody could have imagined cows grazing at such a gradient, or conceived of the mini cable-car to transport hay from the higher slopes to sheds below.  His farm became a teaching college with live-in students, and his fame had grown as a visionary farm leader who had mastered a hostile land.  In 1988 he had won a UN award for rural leadership.

Yet after agricultural reforms put in motion by the Uruguay Round (which later became the WTO), South Korea started to reduce agricultural subsidies and opened its markets to highly subsidized food imports, leading to a collapse in the price of beef, and the eventual foreclosure of the Seoul Farm.  Lee became an active fighter against the policies of the WTO, going on hunger strike thirty times.  Even though he entered politics, and was elected to his state legislature three times as a farmer representative, none of these paths seemed to be sufficient for him to effect change and help protect farmers from free trade.

As Lee's regretful sacrifice alarmingly alerts us, one of the casualties of globalization has been the small family farmer, sadly in more than just metaphorical terms.  In fact, the suicide rate among farmers worldwide is far higher than among the regular population.  In England and Canada it is twice the national average.  In India, there appears to be a virtual epidemic.  Nearly 2000 farmers have committed suicide in Rajasthan in the last three years.  In the cotton growing areas of India, more than 10,000 farmers are said to have committed suicide over the past 20 years, many of them by drinking the pesticides that failed them.

When one comes to think of the technology that was sold to these farmers, one can see it as a sort of trap.  It is true, Indian farmers were jubilant in the early 1980s when the fourth generation pesticides synthetic pyrethoids were introduced in the cotton growing areas of the country.  For the first two or three years, the chemical killed almost everything in sight, the targeted pest, the "American bollworm," as well as all the beneficial insects.  Slowly, however, the bollworms developed resistance to the sprays, the number of costly and toxic sprays increased, as did the resistance to the chemicals.  Along with crop failures came mounting debt.  I am not even getting into the environmental hazards of such substances in terms of the physical well-being of the farmer, the land, and the consumer, but purely the economic ones.

Those same people who promoted the Green Revolution technology, often do generously acknowledge the environmental hazards of their past methods, especially when they are promoting their new "green" solution which is bio-engineered crops, such as Bt cotton, incorporating a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and, so they say, precluding the need for any pesticides.  BT cotton is touted as a success story in China, but what is not as widely discussed is the fact that they have started having to spray pesticides in order to deal with the third and fourth generation of the American bollworm insects, due to a growing resistance to the BT gene.  It is widely accepted that the third generation of the pest presents the most challenge.  Scientists are now trying to create new genetically manipulated varieties with two Bt genes.  What next? asks trade policy analyst, Devinder Sharma. The gene from a scorpion, or a snake? (1)  It seems the farmer will now be faced with a far more dangerous and untested biological treadmill, as well as the chemical one, that has created an ongoing cycle of poison.

Those who look for technology to answer the world's hunger problems are missing part of the picture. In terms of regaining the health and productivity of the land, we have to, to a certain extent, undo the elaborate mechanisms that we have painstakingly built up over the past decades, stop burdening farmers with these unsustainable and expensive techniques, and return to some of the old wisdom.  There are a few examples we can look at.  For instance, Indonesia in the mid 1980s, when President Suharto faced a crisis with brown plant hopper insects and their devastated rice crops.  He decided to heed controversial advice from the FAO at the UN and the International Rice Institute, to ban 57 pesticides and institute a nation-wide integrated pest management program.  Despite dire warnings from the chemical industry, led by the American Embassy in Jakarta, that Indonesia would be risking an epidemic of hunger and starvation, in the next two years, rice production increased by 18%, pesticide consumption was drastically reduced, as was the cost of cultivation.

Similarly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of its cheap oil supply, Cuba had to undergo a major re-thinking of its methods of supplying food for its population.  As the value of their foreign exchange also dropped, they were unable to obtain the same amount of food imports, fertilizers and pesticides, which had something like an 80% drop in availability.  They had to return to a largely organic farming technology, involving biological substitutes for the chemical fertilizers, such as composts, earthworks, green manure, and instead of pesticides using integrated pest management techniques, planting resistant plants, rotating crops, and using microbial agents to combat plant pathogens.  They also carried out a major program of land reform, where huge inefficient, state-run farms were divided up into smaller co-ops.  By 1996, Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for 10 of 13 of its basic food items.  Productivity increases came primarily from the small farms.  The government also threw its support behind a growing urban gardening movement, which has also been extremely important to the recovery of the Cuban food supply.

Brazil's fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, has instigated similar innovations in its urban resources, making city plots available for local, organic farmers, as long as they keep prices within reach of the poor.  They have started posting where to find the cheapest prices for over forty food staples, and enhanced nutrition by replacing processed foods with local organic food in school lunches.  There is even a campaign to protect those newly arrived from the countryside against global corporate food advertising and the allure of processed foods.  What an effect such policies might have in urban centers all over the world, including in first world cities, with its growing problems of homelessness, hunger, as well as the growing epidemic of first world food diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

And in Kenya, where experts declared the land beyond hope, women of the Green Belt Movement have launched an anti-desertification campaign that has planted 20 million trees, and is beginning to recover diverse, traditional food crops.

While these working solutions may not sound as glamorous and futuristic as others, they represent some of the many citizen-driven projects that are flying in the face of conventional wisdom.  For those who claim they are interested in efficiency, just contrast the simplicity of these ideas with the expense in research and development, not to mention public relations, for such risky and untested ventures as bioengineered foods.  Think of the new "Golden Rice," that is said to be the answer to preventing blindness in malnourished children in India and other parts of Asia.  One analysis calculated that one adult male would have to eat 18 lbs. of the stuff in order to meet his RDA.  This is not taking into account the amounts of fat and protein also required in order to convert beta carotene into vitamin A, also generally lacking in the diets of the malnourished.

Even if genetically engineered crops were a scientific breakthrough, historically, as post World War II experiments in "Green Revolution" technology have shown, the introduction of new technology has only exacerbated the disparity between the wealthy and poor, favoring the larger farmers and squeezing out the smaller ones, and increasing the dependence of all on the corporate suppliers.  With the movement towards patenting seeds and technology, this lack of control over one's own destiny will be even more intensified. 

Other aspects that have rigged the game against the small producers are free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, which as reported by Food First, have increased rural poverty and inequality, in both the first and the third world, threatened small family farmers, and hurt consumers.  The forces that somehow allow the prices that small farmers receive to fall, while consumer prices continue to rise, have only been strengthened.  

In the third world, free trade is also often accompanied by structural adjustment policies, imposed by the World Bank and the IMF as terms of their loans, which means cut backs in government spending on health, education, and social support.  Stable agricultural pricing policies are abandoned in favor of the market, while at the same time first world countries increase their subsidies to industrial farmers, thus creating a highly unequal trading relationship.  State-run industries and utilities are sold off, often at bargain basement prices, price controls are removed, leading to rapid price increases for basic goods and services, farmland is converted to cash crops for export, rather than food for local communities, making farmers’ livelihoods dependent on the vagaries of the international commodities market.  These policies have a pretty dismal record in practically every country they have been implemented.  Most, instead of increasing prosperity, have again increased the disparity of income, and, contrary to claims, effected a slow down in economic growth.  China, cited once again as the great success story in alleviating its hunger problems, is perhaps unusual as it has so far resisted many of the neo-liberal free market policies imposed by the IMF.

Some might say these are the most efficient systems, maybe the small family farmer is a thing of the past.  In fact, this is the purported philosophy of much of the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and such philanthropic institutions as the Rockefeller Foundation.  Their aim is to convert small farmers’ plots into growing cash crops for export, so they can generate enough money to buy cheap first world imports, and transition into jobs outside of the agricultural sector.  And yet such policies have not succeeded in generating the needed employment for displaced farmers, and poverty rates, instability and hunger have only gone up.  The most practical and humane tactic seems to be to acknowledge the small family farmer as the basis of local economies and of national economic development.  They are in fact, by their history, and through their longer and closer ties, the natural stewards and guardians of the land, insurers of biodiversity, and food security, and in fact what helped today’s industrial economic powerhouses like the US, Japan, China, and South Korea get off the ground.  People such as Lee Kyung Hae are the building blocks of a strong economy, and a healthy population.  It seems if we are to alleviate world hunger, we have to create the situation where the small family farmer can prosper again. 

One first step towards this goal would be to get rid of first world export subsidies that do nothing but enhance the exporting power of agribusiness, and that keep third world markets out of reach of their own local farmers.  The yearly subsidy the US gives to its cotton farmers alone is three times our total aid to Africa.  Poor nations don’t need our aid so much as access to our markets, and especially access to their own. One Food First press release cites $50 billion as the amount Third World nations lose because of US agriculture subsidies, ironically the same amount that the rich nations give in aid to poor countries. While we as tax payers pay for these subsidies that benefit large industrial farmers, we also pay for foreign aid packages that barely make a difference.  We have to allow countries to get on their feet by giving them a fair chance at trade, also by giving them back their sovereignty and ability to make their own decisions on tariffs, guarding against dumping, and protecting of local industries, which the industrialized countries have never given up. 

If world trade organizations and world trade agreements are to be of any help, they must work to help prevent monopolies, rather than to facilitate them.  In order to prevent what threatens to be a corporate take over of our methods of growing and providing food world wide, we have to give room for local solutions to grow.  Also, burdensome and expensive technology needs to be re-evaluated and perhaps discontinued on a state-wide level, to relieve the growing financial burden on farmers keeping up with methods that in the long run seem like they will be unviable anyway.  Perhaps governments will begin to see the long term economic sense in having strong environmental laws.  In order to achieve this, of course, environmental rules and regulations need to be strengthened, not weakened, by trade agreements.  We also have to think locally in terms of our own needs as well.  For now, perhaps some of the things individual consumers can do are once again simple: patronize farmers’ markets, buy organically grown food whenever you can, not only for your own kitchen, but out at restaurants as well, and support the “fair trade”movement, by buying fair trade products.  These are products which have been certified by an independent certification process--Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International--as having been produced without labor abuses and with prices that are higher because of their quality or because they are organic.  Fair trade allows small farmers to receive fair prices for their products, and for them to function outside of the system that is so skewed against them.

1) Devinder Sharma, Stepping onto a Booby Trap, Indiatogether.org, November 2001 http://Indiatogether.org/agriculture/opionons/ds gmo1.htm

Other reading:

Jonathan Watts, Cancun: The Martyrdom of South Korean Farmer, Guardian, September 17, 2003, http://edstrong.blog-city.com/read/ww6124.htm

Luis Hernandez Navarro, Mr. Lee Kyung Hae, La Jornado, Mexico, September 23, 2003, http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/wto/1123.html

Farmers’ Suicides, Hunger Deaths and Globalisation: The corporate hijack of our food and agriculture, Press Release 3 January 2003, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, http://www.vshiva.net/press%20release/farmers suicides jan03.htm

Petter Rosset, Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements, http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/2003/f03v9n4.html

Peter M. Rosset, Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture, Chaper 12, pp. 203-213, in: Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment, edited by Fred Magdoff, jhn Bellamy Foster and Frederick H. Buttel (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), http://www.foodfirst.org/cuba/success.html

Anuradha Mittal, ‘Golden’ Rice is Tarnished, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/story/html?StoryID=16478

Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, A Better Way to Feed the Hungry, Seattle Post-Interlligencer, Wednesday, May 22, 2002, http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0522-03.htm

John Buell, Old Europe and New GM Foods, Common Dreams, June 24, 2003, http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0624-09.htm 

Food Policy Think Tank Reports Find Trade Agreements Hurt Farmers and Consumers While Benefitting Corporations, Press Release November 18, 2003, Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/press2003/policybriefsftaa.html

Mark Weisbrot, Robert Naiman, & Joyce Kim, The Emperor Has No Growth: Declining Economic Growth Rates in the Era of Globalization, Center for Economic and Policy Research, November 27, 2000, http://www.cepr.net/IMF/The_Emperor_Has_No_Growth.htm 

Robert Reich, Subsidies Keep Poor Nations Poor, Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 2003, http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1016-05.htm

Andrew Cassel, Why U.S. Farm Subsidies are Bad for the World: They make it possible for us to export food so cheaply that farmers in poorer nations can’t possibly compete, Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, May 6, 2002, http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0506-09.htm    

E-mail to Julie Mardin: juliemardin@earthlink.net

   
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