Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"
I have very much enjoyed the rich dialogue on Frances Moore Lappé’s essay, “Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now.” It is a brilliant essay, puncturing myths that block the advance of change—particularly the myth that “large-scale operations relying on corporate-supplied chemical inputs” represent the only farming model capable of feeding the world. She advances compelling evidence that the reverse is true—that agroecology is really the only way to ensure everyone has access to healthful food.
Beyond her treatment of ecological farming methods, I was heartened to see her address two other critical social issues:
- Concentration of ownership—noting, for example, that a seed market once made up of small, family-owned firms is now dominated by three firms, controlling over half the global proprietary seed market.
- The importance of democracy—in, for example, her discussion of community-environmental governance in Tigray, Ethiopia.
There are two aspects of food production, however, that warrant more fine-tuned treatment. One is the issue of ownership and design of enterprises in the food system. The other is the issue of treatment of agricultural workers.
Lappé’s essay posits a distinction between two paradigms: “industrial agriculture” and “agroecology.” While she talks about the importance of more “relational” models, this analysis would benefit from greater nuance. Lappé importantly notes that the “root of hunger” is “the concentration of social power.” Yet she terms her beneficial model “agroecology,” and discusses this paradigm almost entirely in terms of physical farming methods. The arrangements of social power—in both industrial agriculture and agroecology—are not precisely analyzed for each paradigm.
For example, she writes, “Within so-called free market economics, enterprise is driven by the central goal of bringing the highest return to existing wealth.” This is a nice observation, as far as it goes, but it misses something. The problem is not free markets, but corporate ownership and control by an elite. One could have widespread employee ownership, for example, and still have free markets enabling consumers to choose where to buy their food.
Similarly, she discusses agroecology as a paradigm that she presumes is more relational, without building out an analysis of the importance of local, broad-based ownership and good working conditions. She is not alone in this. Consumers tend to assume that ecologically grown and locally grown equates with ethical company practices. Yet research I did at Tellus Institute a few years ago found this was not the case. In a 2012 report, “Worker Equity in Food and Agriculture,” co-authored by Tellus and Sustainalytics, we found that even organically grown food can involve poor wages and dangerous working conditions for farmworkers and food workers. We looked at worker treatment at the 100 largest US food and agriculture companies (which overwhelmingly dominate the food industry, due to market concentration), and found that the daily struggle of farmworkers was off the radar for both employers and consumers. Of the estimated 1.4 million crop workers in the US, more than half are likely undocumented, which makes them particularly vulnerable to employer abuse. Yet even legal farmworkers in the US are excluded from most provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, giving them no access to the minimum wage requirements, overtime rules, and unemployment insurance that other workers enjoy.
In addition to worker conditions, Lappé might consider pointing to another aspect of relational models: broad-based ownership. Farmer-owned cooperatives have a long history in the food industry, representing ways that small-holder famers can gain market power, both in the US and abroad. One example is Organic Valley in Wisconsin, a farmer-owned dairy cooperative with $1 billion in revenue, which systematically reaches out to bring new farmers into organic methods. Its fundamental purpose is to pay its farmer-suppliers as much as possible—in contrast to Wall Street-owned agricultural companies, which aim to pay farmers as little as possible. Not all farmer-owned cooperatives exemplify best practices. But because farmers elect the board in these cooperatives, their voices have a greater chance of being heard.
The contrasts between industrial and ecological farming methods are important. But these physical technologies are only one-half of the paradigms in question. Social architectures are the other half.