The Family Farmer
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Devinder Sharma, Stepping onto a Booby Trap, Indiatogether.org, November 2001 http://Indiatogether.org/agriculture/opionons/ds gmo1.htm
Watts, Cancun: The Martyrdom of South Korean Farmer,
Guardian, September 17, 2003, http://edstrong.blog-city.com/read/ww6124.htm
Hernandez Navarro, Mr. Lee Kyung Hae, La Jornado, Mexico, September 23, 2003, http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/wto/1123.html
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
Rosset, Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer
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,
Mittal, ‘Golden’ Rice is Tarnished, AlterNet, http://www.alternet.org/story/html?StoryID=16478
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
Buell, Old Europe and New GM Foods, Common Dreams,
June 24, 2003, http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0624-09.htm
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
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
Reich, Subsidies Keep Poor Nations Poor, Christian
Science Monitor, October 16, 2003, http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1016-05.htm
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
to Julie Mardin: