Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"

Fred Magdoff

Frances Moore Lappé’s essay captures numerous facets necessary to understand the current state of farming as well as the possibilities for the future. Along the way, she dispels false notions about industrial agriculture and the potential for small farms and presents a compelling case for the importance of agroecological approaches to farming and living. And you can never explain too many times that the persistence of hunger and malnutrition amidst plenty is not an issue of production—there is sufficient food produced to feed everyone in the world—but of disparities of economic and political power.

Let me turn to a few of Lappé’s central points, ones that I completely agree with. We know how to produce food in ecologically sound ways and that true empowerment of small farmers in the poor countries of the world, along with ecologically sound growing techniques, can have profound beneficial effects. In addition, small farm production using agroecological principles and practices can produce high yields per acre and encourage community members to work together. Assistance is needed to make rural areas more attractive, with the amenities required for a good life. This will help reduce the mass migration to slums of the South’s cities that have few job opportunities, help the countryside to flourish, and assist in achieving food security for a region, and perhaps, a country.

That said, I wanted to offer several points of clarification:

(a) I would suggest that the heart of the matter is not “an economic model and thought system,” but rather natural outcomes of the way the economic system of capitalism functions. The model and thought system are ways people try to describe this particular economic system; they are derived from living in its midst.

(b) Concentration of production in agriculture (input industries, processing industries, and farming itself) or manufacturing is a natural outcome of a competitive system in which production is for the purpose of making profits. Smaller firms and farms are not able to compete with the market power or economies of scale—which include both physical economies of scale and strictly financial ones—of larger units and thus go out of business. (In the wealthy countries, some small farms are able to survive by fitting into limited niche markets.)

(c) Decisions made by capitalist firms—be they in the service, manufacturing, or farming sector—are made for the purpose of producing profits (greatest income minus input costs).

(d) This means that ecological or social effects are at best secondary or tertiary concerns during the decision-making process, although in most cases they aren’t considered at all. (Regulations, if they are enforced, may alter this, of course.)

(e) This is the origin of the social and ecological problems that arise from the way the capitalist economic system works. Economists call them “externalities,” even though they are very much internal to how capitalism operates. They are best viewed as costs that businesses, instead of paying for, force onto people and the environment. Decisions that are completely rational within the logic of capital are at the same time ecologically and/or socially irrational. For example, Carrier recently announced that it is moving manufacturing of furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico, putting some 1,400 employees in Indiana out of work. A Carrier manager explained it clearly: “This is strictly a business decision.” That is precisely the logic of capital. It is the same logic that makes sense of the factory system for raising animals. The whole purpose is to produce animals at marketable weights and have them processed as quickly and cheaply as possible so as to maximize profits. But there is nothing socially or ecologically rational about the inhumane raising of animals with routine use of antibiotics, the separation of the animals from the fields that produce their feed (necessitating large amounts of fertilizer application on the cropland while piles of manure accumulate on the factory animal farms), the poor treatment of farm labor and workers in the processing plants, etc.

(f) There are many examples of successful agroecological projects, and Lappé cites one in Ethiopia. But Ethiopia is also one of the prime targets for the twenty-first-century land grabs that are displacing inhabitants and providing few (if any) jobs. A successful agroecology project shows what is possible, but the existence of the self-interest of powerful economic and political forces indicates the enormity of what must be dealt with in order to create a better life for all inhabitants.

This brings me to the last paragraph of the essay. To me, the issue is to change the economic-political-social system to one that depends upon (modified, by deletion, from Lappé) "[d]emocratic governance—accountable to citizens, not to private wealth—[which] makes possible the necessary public debate and rule-making… within democratic values and sound science.”

But the only way truly democratic governance and ecologically rational decision-making about what goods to produce and how to produce them can meaningfully occur is outside the logic of capital and the “logic” of the market. Markets might serve a minor purpose in a post-capitalist society, but only if there is true equity and social justice. However, extreme care is needed because as market mechanisms “naturally” function, they reproduce power (wealth) relations. They cannot do otherwise as long as significant differences in “private wealth” exist.

I would suggest that that food, clean water, sanitation, health care, education, and other basic human needs should not be commodities—produced in order to sell in the marketplace with the objective of making profits. Rather, such goods should be produced for the purpose of people using them. While distribution might entail the use of markets (though other mechanisms are possible), these goods should be considered among those that are the right of every human being. For this to happen, we need a profoundly democratic and equitable economic-political-social system that, by the very way it functions, supplies the basic needs of everyone using approaches and techniques that ensure the world ecosystem in which we are embedded—with all its complexities, essential cycles, and biological interrelationships—remains healthy over the long term.

Fred Magdoff
Fred Magdoff is Emeritus Professor at the University of Vermont and co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.

Cite as Fred Magdoff, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet," Great Transition Initiative (April 2016),

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