Few things in life are more regrettable — or more criminal — than nixing a budding love affair. But that’s exactly what Paul Collier proposes in his article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. In his attack on sustainable agriculture, Collier writes that “the middle- and upper-class love affair with” – and I quote – “peasant agriculture” must be slain.
How nasty of him to refer to organic farming as “peasant agriculture” – something he takes to doing throughout the article. Like the feuding families who insult each other’s name in Romeo and Juliet, Collier tries to give sustainable agriculture a bad name. But call it what he will, sustainable agriculture will “smell as sweet” to its devotees, to borrow from Shakespeare’s famous play.
It’s not too hard to understand people’s growing passion for organic farming. It’s easier on the environment and achieves yields that rival those of industrial agriculture. According to food writer Michael Pollan, organic agriculture achieves 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields and in drought years, frequently exceeds them. And that, Pollan says, is without the benefit of public investment in scientific research on organic farming techniques.
Collier argues that commercial agriculture and investment in technology — genetically engineered seeds and the like — are the only way to bump up farm yields and meet the needs of a growing world population. He dismisses organic agriculture, in the same way that the Capulets dismiss the Montagues and vice versa.
Collier also dismisses and glosses something else: the many drawbacks of large-scale farming – environmental degradation, reduced food variety and nutritional value, and threatened food safety and security, chief among them.
Collier advocates large-scale agriculture even in Africa, going so far as saying that land could be used more productively if managed by “large companies,” meaning foreign companies, specifically those in Brazil. Why Africa would ever want that after years of colonialism is beyond me. It seems to me that what Africa needs is small-scale agriculture on a massive scale.
Collier puts down organic farming, but his put-downs don’t hold up very well. He portrays organic farming as a luxury lifestyle best suited for “burnt-out investment bankers” — an image inconsistent with “peasant” farming. Perhaps Collier doesn’t know that many young people are eager to get into farming, with increasing numbers applying for farm apprenticeships, according to the Northeast Small Farm Institute, a non-profit that runs an apprenticeship and other programs for aspiring farmers.
Despite the high price of land and the hard work, many novice farmers are starting small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers either through farmers markets or community supported agriculture. Others are more imaginative with their farm businesses. Some, for example, are targeting the suburbs, helping suburban home-owners plant gardens in their yards or morph lawns into gardens.
The young farmers I met were looking for a meaningful livelihood and ways to make a difference in the world. The new generation of agrarians welcomed the idea of having their own farm businesses, contrary to Collier’s sweeping generalization that most people would rather opt for “wage employment.”
He also makes the ludicrous claim that “entrepreneurship is a minority pursuit” in successful economies. In the United States, small businesses far outnumber large ones. In 2007, there were 27.2 million small businesses in the U.S., according the U.S. Small Business Administration. The number of large business, in contrast, was slightly more than 17,000 in 2005. On top of that, small companies employ about half of all private sector employees and create more than half of nonfarm private gross domestic product.
Collier clearly has a big “big business” bias that bigger is better — that scale and mass production is the way to make businesses efficient. Yet as the financial crisis is telling us, getting big carries big risks.
Why not, I ask, give small-scale sustainable agriculture a chance? Why not let the people’s love affair with organic farming be allowed to progress? Let people continue their romance with small “peasant” agriculture, let them have their small farm businesses. Let love flourish where it may. Hard as Collier might try, true love can’t be slain.