Return to Small Farms Could Help Alleviate Social and Environmental Crises


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The epic blow-up at Copenhagen was ultimately about something very simple. It was about economic growth — about who gets to grow, how fast, under what terms, using which energy supplies.

Within this purportedly zero-sum framework, if China grows quickly, burning cheap coal for fuel, with a slowly increasing amount of renewables added to the mix, the West will have to cut growth too sharply. Meanwhile most of the global South worries that the Copenhagen proposals could have permanently put a stop to their plans for growth.

But what if there’s an escape from this cul-de-sac? What if development — entailing, but not the same as, economic growth — could co-exist harmoniously with sharp emissions reductions? What would that imply for development planning?

The question is not rhetorical. It can.

Take a glance at the latest Food First! report, in which the authors assert that

“Sustainable, smallholder agriculture represents the best option for resolving the fourfold food, finance, fuel and climate crises.”

Before proceeding, it’s important to clear away a bit of the debris of received wisdom. Paul Collier, for example, in an influential Foreign Affairs article, suggested that the peasants who for the last 50 years have flowed in great waves to the cities were “right: Their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful.” Collier’s right, of course, but you have to add one thing: “modern agricultural production” isn’t suited to sustainability, or development, or preventing global warming.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem like “modern agricultural production” is even good for production.

In Latin America, for example, roughly 17 million campesinos, farming about 33 percent of the region’s cultivated land, grow 51 percent of the corn, three quarters of the beans, and 60 percent of the potatoes that are used for “domestic consumption,” according to Berkeley agronomist Miguel Altieri. In Brazil, farmers controlling just 30 percent of the country’s agricultural land produce 84 percent of the country’s cassava and 67 percent of all beans.

Indeed, Altieri shows that on a per-hectare basis, small farms are able to strongly out-produce large ones. It’s not the first time this claim has been made.

The quick counter is that agricultural labor is onerous and backbreaking, that no one wishes to do it, that freeing up farm labor by using mechanical devices and chemical inputs allows former farmers to move into the cities, raising productivity, contributing more effectively to national GDP, and so on.

That’s a reasonable claim, except for the fact that there’s now more available labor in the world than the world knows what to do with, so much so that much of the global South, its former peasantry, lives in dilapidated shanties on the peripheries of urban cores.

So it makes sense to try to think of creative, non-coercive ways of encouraging such people to move back to the countryside. At the very least, they’d be able to contribute meaningfully to the broader economy, as well as to their country’s economic development more generally — small family farms provided the impetus for South Korean and Japanese economic development, by creating a backbone of rural demand to provide markets for urban production. Furthermore, as Annie Shattuck and Eric Holt-Giménez note,

"Walter Goldschmidt’s classic study of agriculture in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the 1940s compared areas dominated by large corporate farms to areas still dominated by smallholder farmers. In towns surrounded by family farms, the wealth generated in agriculture circulated among local businesses. There were more local enterprises, paved streets and sidewalks, parks, churches, clubs, newspapers, schools, higher overall employment and more vibrant community life.

"In communities near large, mechanized farms, small towns died off."

Beyond the excellent effects on local economic development, one half of the seemingly intractable global warming problems, small farms are a big piece of the other half of the problem, too, because small farms cool the planet, both literally and by drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. As Shattuck and Holt-Giménez argue,

"Small, biodiverse, ecological farms have a positive effect on climate remediation because small farmers usually amend their soils with organic materials that absorb and sequester carbon better than soils that are farmed with conventional fertilizers. Around four tons of carbon per hectare is stored in organically managed soils."

There are also beneficial effects on CO2 emissions because small farms, especially those 2 or 3 hectares in size, are far less likely to be input-intensive. So fewer artificial fertilizers, herbicides, machines, threshers and tillers that require a constant input of fossil fuels — on the whole, far less use of man-made artifacts that end up contributing substantially to agriculture’s CO2 emissions.

Furthermore, small farmers live near their work, and thus their food seldom has to travel far in order to get from their food-plots to their stomachs. Often enough, it doesn’t have to travel at all, especially if it doesn’t have to be processed. So fossil fuels aren’t used, and so the CO2 emissions associated with burning them, the energy costs associated with transport and processing, are removed from the over-all tally sheet assessing agriculture’s CO2 cost.

Could resolving such huge, inter-laced problems be really so easy, so straightforward? Just some land reform in the global South? It could. Makes you wonder why it’s not on the agenda.


See also:

Agriculture Industry’s Oil Addiction Threatens Food Security

One Change Could Cut Brazil’s Carbon Emissions in Half

EPA Cracking Down on Urban and Agricultural Runoff Blamed for Dead Zones

Organic Farming Yields Far Better Crop Resistence and Resiliance

USDA Census (Part I): Small Farms on the Rise in America

Mexico City Gives 2010 Summit a Front Row Seat to the Climate Crisis


(Photo: Brazilian farm, gmellaci / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)