Peasants Marginalized by Big Farms

Yves here. We have posted from time to time on how Big Ag has not been the boon to many economies that it was promised to be, particularly in terms of sustainability. This article points out that smaller farms, oriented towards producing mainly for its owners, are more productive in high-fertility areas, among other reasons due to greater crop diversity, than big farms that are typically mono-culture operations.

By Vikas Rawal, Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who has conducted field research on agrarian relations in different parts of India for three decades, and works on global agricultural development challenges and omo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. Originally published at Jomo Kwame Sundaram’s website

A recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study shows the largest farms cultivate a high and increasing share of agricultural land in much of the world.

Farm Size Concentration

World Agricultural Census data for 129 countries show about 40% of the world’s farmland is operated by farms over 1000 hectares (ha) in size. About 70% is operated by the top 1% of farms, all bigger than 50 ha each.

A rising share of farmland is in larger farms. But farm sizes in developed and developing countries seem quite different. Farms smaller than 5 ha accounted for 63% of land in low and lower middle-income countries. But such farms covered only 8% of farmland in upper middle and high-income countries.

The “share of farmland farmed on the largest holdings has increased in … several European countries (France, Germany and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and in the United States of America.” Similarly, in recent decades, more land in many Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries is in larger farms.

Data Coverage Uneven

Most agricultural censuses in developing countries do not cover large scale farms well. Official agricultural statistics in many developing countries focus on farm households, often ignoring corporate farms.

Agricultural censuses typically rely on land records, usually neither up to date nor complete. Large farms often have land registered to different persons and entities, typically to avoid taxes and bypass land ownership ceilings and regulations.

Government surveys in India have not comprehensively covered large farms, understating inequality. Other data from India suggest the top fifth of farms account for 83% of land.

Even where large farms are legally recognized as commercial entities, land is often held via subsidiaries in complex arrangements. For such reasons, the extent of concentration is probably greater than what the study suggests.

Ominous Trends

Despite its limitations, the study findings are ominous. Changing inequalities in farmland ownership and cultivation have reduced the smallholder or peasant share of food production.

The study suggests that ‘land grabs’, new laws and policies have enabled large (capitalist) farmers, agribusiness corporations and other commercial entities to control most of the world’s farmland.

Disparities in government support allowed by World Trade Organization and other trade agreements have enabled large farms in developed countries, like the US, to gain more advantages over relatively uninfluential peasants in the South.

More advantages to big farm capital in recent decades, particularly to large-scale commercial agriculture in the global North, have enhanced their edge. More peasant distress has pushed many deeper into debt. Many of the most vulnerable have had to migrate, seeking precarious employment elsewhere.

Under various pressures not to protect food agriculture, developing countries have cut support for peasants. Withdrawal of such assistance has forced farmers to buy inputs at commercial prices. Meanwhile, many have to sell their produce cheap to those providing credit or other facilities.

By enabling easier land takeovers, commercial farming has quickly spread in ecologically fragile areas such as the Brazilian Cerrado, various parts of sub-Saharan Africa and steep slopes subject to deforestation.

Small Farms,World Food

The study has triggered a controversy by asserting that ‘family farms’ is a broader category than smallholdings. These would include large family-owned or run farms.

Hence, family farms account for 80% of the total value of food produced in the world, while smallholdings account for only 35%. These estimates have been contested by several civil society organizations who have protested to the FAO Director General.

Most agricultural censuses do not provide data on production by farm size. Instead, the study divides the total market value of a country’s food output by its total farmland. It then assumes a constant food output value per hectare. But this ignores significant differences in crop output among farms of different types.

Commercial Bias

In many countries, large farms produce more commercial crops, not necessarily food. These may be for manufacturing (e.g., rubber, cotton), animal feed, or to be industrially processed for consumption (e.g., sugar, palm oil, coffee).

Many smallholder peasants consume significant shares of their own farm outputs. They typically work on limited land and need to meet their own food needs, rather than maximize cash incomes. Hence, their priorities may be rather different from those of commercial farms.

More fertile regions (e.g., river deltas) tend to have greater population densities, smaller farm sizes and higher productivity. Such smaller farms often grow multiple crops yearly, while larger farms with harsher agro-climatic conditions (e.g., higher temperatures, more snow or less water availability) often only have a single crop annually.

Although not universal, and often overstated, there is evidence of smallholders having higher land productivity, inversely related to farm size, owing to differences in the way factor inputs are used by various types of farms.

By assuming constant food output value per hectare, the study ignores many important variations, and probably under-estimates the contributions of small farms to world food supply.

Peasants Marginalized

The study shows how various systemic advantages and biases have enabled big capitalist farms to control more of the world’s farmland and food supplies. But the share of food supply produced by smallholder producers is far from settled.

While more pronounced in rich countries, large corporate farms have also been growing in many developing countries. Even where family farming is predominant, increasing farm sizes have been apparent.

The study rightly notes the need to consider different types of farms in making appropriate policies for family farms of various sizes. This is necessary to better formulate policies to address poverty and livelihoods, especially for smallholder producers in distress.

It even suggests the need to “hold large scale and corporate agriculture accountable for the negative externalities of their production (for example on the environment)”. Besides better farming data, farmland concentration and its many implications in various parts of the world should be more appropriately addressed.

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  1. bassmule

    I feel fortunate, indeed, to be living in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, home to dozens and dozens of local farms. As CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) reps like to brag: 17 feet of topsoil.

    CISA: Buy local

    1. Randall Flagg

      Amen to that in the Green Mountain State too right up I-91 all the way to the Canadian border. Thankful for all the little farms all over this State.

  2. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Same thing kicked off in Romania in around 2010 – peasants forced off the land they had likely held for generations.

    ” Due to a lack of transparency in land acquisitions, it is very difficult to report precisely the phenomenon of land grabbing in the country: civil society organizations estimate that it may have already affected about 1 to 4 million hectares of Romanian farmland. A local peasants’ association, Eco Ruralis, has carried out several studies on the issue, identifying just a small part of these acquisitions, accounting for a total of around 550.000 hectares. The biggest investments, in terms of hectares owned by a single company, come from large American corporations, such as Cargill (250.000 hectares)3. Romanian investors are also involved in these practices: SC Transavia Grup SRL, an industrial poultry company, is currently cultivating 12,000 hectares of maize in the Cluj district “.

    Over a million of these people ended up in Italy – peasant cleansing ?

    1. deplorado

      Same in Bulgaria. Besides small owners (1-10 hectares) losing their land, there are claims of huge financial crimes and organized crime interest into acquiring forested and ag land – including claims that the Italian mafia is also involved.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    I don’t disagree with the post, but “peasants”? Puh-leeze.

    Admittedly I’m biased because I come from a small farming family, but it just me that finds that word a little too 14th century? Wouldn’t “small farmers” have a less negative connotation and grant modern-day farmers a shred of dignity?

    On the other hand, with capitalism turning to neo-feudalism, perhaps “peasants” is appropriate. Everything old is new again!

    1. Eustachedesaintpierre

      Yes it is a derogatory term but fits the bill according to the Cambridge dictionary but only applies for poor countries, so as yet I think, US smallholders should be safe from that degrading label. Russian Serfs were given their freedom about the middle of the 19th century & later got extremely uppity which might have been noticed by elites who are it seems in the process of rolling back that tide.

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      yah…my dad called me a Peasant, once…
      so my middle finger self decided to frelling own it.
      i prefer Yeoman Farmer.
      this even has purchase in the minds of many of my Righty neighbors…because they’ve apparently been reading Jefferson here lately(shudder).

      the lessons from this article:
      1. avoid debt, if at all possible.
      2. avoid debt, if at all possible.
      3. avoid debt, if at all possible.
      4. do as much for yerself as possible.

      of course, ultimately, it comes down to how well you can physically defend…if a sand mining concern wants my place, what can i really do about it?
      i can make life difficult for them, of course…but only in relatively minor ways…and they’ll have access to the services of whatever the modern pinkertons are called.

      i want our place in a trust of some kind…but i’ll likely hafta wait for mom to pass before i can even begin to wrangle that,,,

      1. Tom Pfotzerf

        Bears repeating:

        1. avoid debt, if at all possible.
        2. avoid debt, if at all possible.
        3. avoid debt, if at all possible.
        4. do as much for yerself as possible.

        This is great advice number 1.
        See #2 below.

  4. Susan the other

    Just plugging this info into our dark perfect storm: if India and world agriculture sees a need for large mechanized farming to meet nutritional needs/exports it should allocate and set aside farmland for that purpose as well as protect small farmers whose market is local, etc. The most important reason for protecting small farmers is the energy required to run big ag. The energy required to produce convenience. Not to mention pollution and the depletion of the soil and overuse of water resources. There is probably some need for large mechanized farms to produce basic food commodities like grains and soybeans. There is not a need to produce nuts and seeds, fruits, veggies, herbs and spices; artisanal foods like breads and cheeses; breweries and distilleries. Drying and salting and other forms of food preservation is better done at the local level as well. And certainly there is no true nutritional need for enormous beef and pork production; all those horrendous chicken barns – those operations should be everywhere small and local. Farming without herbicides and pesticides, but using organic methods should be required to both protect the soil and human health. And transportation costs and refrigeration costs should be tracked and rationed. Low-cost, decentralized agriculture please. Bring back draft animals and free-range chickens.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The more people willing and able to pay the higher prices needed to keep small and tiny farmers in viable business, the more people can go into small and tiny farm agriculture. It would keep a parallel infra-culture-structure of small and tiny producers alive till some outside event crushed, collapsed and exterminated the megafarms. Perhaps by then there would be enough small and tiny farmers to teach new bunches of people how to small and tiny farm, so as to take over the abandoned megafarm land if/when the megafarms collapse.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Here’s “good advice” number 2:

        “The more people willing and able to pay the higher prices needed to keep small and tiny farmers in viable business, the more people can go into small and tiny farm agriculture.”

        This is key. In order for the artisan-farmers (aka independent thinkers that can convert aspirations to reality) to make it, they’re going to need the runway necessary to evolve enough to be survivable.

        Conventional ag has had a good 150-year head start, and every conceivable advantage lavished on it (capital, state-funded research, political influence, etc.).

        Outfitting small farms with the wherewithal to compete – skills, markets, appropriately-scaled tools, etc. isn’t going to happen overnight.

        An enormous amount of progress has been made in the last few decades, and a lot of that success has been due to the support these farmers get at the farm-market.

        Equipment mfg’rs are starting to pay attention, to make the tools and supplies these small-scale farmers need. But it takes time, and it takes a revenue stream to continue attracting investment.

        So when you buy from a small farmer, you’re making an investment in the development of an alternative economy that might come in very handy in the years to come. An artisan-farmer lifestyle has a lot to offer. It fixes the planet while it makes the artisan a living. That’s a pretty good deal all around.

    2. Eustachedesaintpierre

      I don’t recall the details but I think I am correct that Lambert once posted an article on some sort of US Agriculture department that hung a poster on a wall, stating something to the effect that we would all be totally screwed without 12 inches of good topsoil – 2 spits as my Dad would say.

  5. Paula

    People in agriculture argue that regen/organic agriculture can feed the world and that we are being lied to. See “100,000 Beating Hearts” on one man’s struggle to transition his 6th generation farm to regenerative practices, a 15 minute documentary that won awards and can be found at carbon Rodale did a study which showed healthy soils had up to a 40% greater yield during drought conditions than did conventional agriculture. That is because healthy soils hold more moisture. This is important to a warming climate and increasing drought conditions.

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