A small farmer in Kenya's Mount Kenya region. (CIAT / Flickr)

Big Money, Small Farmers and the Stubborn Persistence of Hunger

We haven’t yet found the answer to the persistent problem of hunger around the world. Maybe we should ask radical peasants in the global south.

BY Max Ajl

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What is at stake is not actually whether smallholders matter. It is whether those smallholders ought to be the subject or object of development.

From the early 1990s onwards, it was possible for some to imagine that Green Revolution rises in rice and wheat yields and a continuous decline in world cereal prices had answered definitively what classical writers called “the agrarian question.” There would be no “population bomb,” no overpopulation, no famines. High-tech agriculture, a gently regulated market and rapid urbanization had resolved, or were about to resolve, the agrarian issues at the root of so many 20th century revolutions. For agriculture, the end of history had arrived.

Then 2008 hit. The prices of core consumption grains like wheat, corn, and rice doubled, trebled, quadrupled; food riots rippled across continents. Agriculture was back on the agenda, as a combination of sustained increases in commodity prices and political unrest, especially in North Africa and Southwest Asia, suggested that there were some issues in how the world grew and distributed food.

Enter David Rieff’s The Reproach of Hunger, the harvest of six years studying food and agricultural issues. Rieff argues that we can solve the problem of hunger, but we will need policies different than those of the large foundations and mainstream development institutions, which call for a focus on technology and property rights, and the endurance of current agrarian structures. We will also need, he says, to be a bit more sober than the utopians who bet on smallholder agriculture to feed the world.

Rieff first surveys international institutions like the World Bank’s and International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies. He shows how they damaged various countries’ rural sectors, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, by opening them up to competition with heavily subsidized European and U.S. agriculture, while removing state support.

Such policies hollowed out national agricultures, leaving poorer and especially rural consumers vulnerable to external price movements. And now, as Rieff argues, the bill is coming due. Food prices are now in a period of secular, or long-term, as opposed to cyclical, or temporary, increase. The drivers are elevated demand twinned with insufficient supply.

The result is that current elevated price levels will endure for the foreseeable future. The riots of 2008 brought the perils of price increases into sharp relief, which have demanded a response from civil society.

Rieff highlights two main responses. The first comes from the Gates Foundation and the Jeffrey Sachses of the world, who insist that “technological innovation and scientific discovery [are] all but guaranteeing that the world will continue to progress from poverty to prosperity.” Rieff argues that “to end extreme poverty by 2025 had become the received wisdom of the entire development world.”

Of the Gates Foundation’s staff as well as other mainstream development practitioners, Rieff repeatedly states that even if their prescriptions are problematic, “their commitment to reducing poverty is genuine and deep.” Although he does not delve deep into their actual programs, he highlights some of the inevitable problems of their practice. As he notes, “Bill Gates has had a key role in the increasing erasure of boundaries between government donors, development NGOs, multinational corporations, and philanthropies.” The consequence has been a rise of “social entrepreneurialism” now flourishing across the global South. The core catechism is that “only business can end poverty.”

This is a pro-market, pro-capitalist framework for resolving food and poverty issues. Rieff calls it “neoliberalism 2.0,” and notes that the expectation among the enlightened is that “it would be possible to combine the technoproductivist vision of agricultural reform with annealing doses of equity and justice.” It’s a vision of saving capitalism from itself. Indeed, oddly, those staffing and setting the agenda for big institutions think that capitalism is uniquely suited to this task. As Rieff notes, “for the first time in modern history, it has become the conventional wisdom that private business,” which he describes as the “the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world,” is actually “best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry.”

Foundation staff justify this vision by referring to the agricultural bounty of the first Green Revolution. Rieff is rightly dubious of its productive gains and recoils from the ecological damage which that revolution wrought, like the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide overuse on humans and soil. Still, he suggests that its success in increasing yields inspires those for whom high-technology can produce agricultural wonders. Such fixes are a key component of the broader food security paradigm.

The other solution lies among those Rieff calls the “antiglobalization movement” like the peasant international Via Campesina (though he should have noticed that Via is a global peasants’ movement, and so hardly opposed to globalization) and the small-farmer service-oriented think-tank Food First!. Such groups fight for food sovereignty as part of a broader shift to a “postcapitalist political system.” Rieff agrees about the potential utility of smallholder agriculture. But he argues that with their call for a total shift in state agricultural systems and massive land distributions, they are locked in an absolutist moralism which sidesteps the messy morass of politics. In the short run, that realm is unavoidable if one’s concern is not just next year’s utopia but also next week’s bread.

Rieff does not claim that these activists are misled. He writes, “there does not seem to me to be anything excessive or unreasonable about advancing the proposition that peasants’ land rights should trump the rights of foreign investors to buy land, or that a seed system controlled by multinational corporations because of their control over the patents on these could well prove to be a poisoned chalice for poor smallholder farmers.” He shows some sympathy for the political positions of the defenders of the smallholding farmers like Via and its small coterie of associated intellectuals. Still, he does not give them much of a platform for their plans or proposals, such as land reform or state support for sustainable low-input agriculture.

Rieff suggests that what seems like a binary opposition between Gates and Via in fact hides points of departure. Namely, a false, or at least unproven, hope in the near-certainty of a better world, through either technology for the former, or radical changes in land distribution for the latter, and as he admits, “a shared emphasis … on the smallholder farmers and their families.” Furthermore, both camps are sure that their vision will win out, stances Rieff likens to theology.

That impasse suggests the need for this book. With the extremes of agricultural development staked out, Rieff’s ideas build up a constituency for a middle-ground, melioristic reformism of social democracy—through, for example, food programs for the poorest.

Such a platform would acknowledge the very real problems in the existing production and distribution of food and wealth, move towards a certain improvement—for example, banning speculation on food in commodity markets—and acknowledge that capitalism isn’t working out too well for small farmers throughout the global South, and that may well be nigh-unfixable. But here’s the world we have, Rieff says, so let’s just rely on the state to implement programs like Brazil’s Zero Hunger, through which it provides direct cash aid to families to purchase food.

The basic gesture is familiar. It is one of taking some distance from far-right and far-left alike from a left-liberal position that seems to represent, if not monopolize, a very American, pragmatic political good sense. In this case, the familiar tics—attacking ongoing revolutions, as in Cuba, a gratuitous and irrelevant smear of Noam Chomsky’s criticisms of U.S. foreign policy—are in this case leavened by a few interesting features.

The primary one is that he does not malign smallholder farming as a relic of the past, the fetish of metropolitan intellectuals, or the array of techniques which (other) metropolitan intellectuals use to dismiss any real engagement with the material conditions under which some 2 billion people produce and reproduce their lives. For Rieff, agricultural reforms don’t mean eliminating small farming—a slightly heterodox position in the current debates on this issue.

Or is it? Smallholders, especially in Africa, are not exactly the persona non grata that they were in the 1980s, when the ideologues of structural adjustment openly admitted that their programs were going to sharply reduce rural populations. Today, the Gates Foundation programs for a second Green Revolution are built around them.

What is at stake in the polemics between Via and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, focused on techno-fixes to lift small farmers out of poverty, is not actually whether smallholders matter. It is whether those smallholders ought to be the subject or object of development.

And here Rieff’s claims become increasingly unmoored. He claims, echoing Colin Leys’ comments on a previous generation of Marxist intellectuals, that “there were too few people in the Third World for whom the political and moral standpoint of their analysis made sense.” As Rieff writes, “Unfortunately, it seems to me that the withering critique Leys went on to level at those theorists is also just as applicable to today’s activists.”

But the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), for example, counts some 1 million members and is one of dozens of organizations in the Via Campesina. The issue tends to be one of not enough intellectual support for smallholder agriculture and their movements, rather than the reverse. Rieff simply erases these massive social movements from reality. This dismissiveness towards really-existing peasant movements serves as an alibi for Rieff’s refusal to take their ideas seriously.

Consider one of them: the concept of energy returned on energy invested (EROI). The idea is that capital-intense agriculture uses up more energy than it produces in the form of food calories. As Via Campesina states, much modern farming is a petroleum-fueled process “transforming agriculture from an energy producer into an energy consumer.” As the ecological economist Joan Martinez-Alier notes, “in 2009, Via Campesina sought additional academic support for this assertion, and asked sympathetic think tanks and academic researchers to provide further evidence on the decreasing energy efficiency of modern agriculture.”

This culminated in a report which stated, “It has been estimated that this industrial food system expends 10–15 energy calories to produce 1 calorie of food, an effective reversal of what had been the reason to develop agriculture in the first place.” Rieff’s argument about the essential relationship between movements like Via Campesina and intellectuals like those linked with Food First! is not sustainable.

The erasure of politics, while not quite as marked as in the “There Is No Alternative” theologies of the Gates Foundation and their End of History mentality, runs throughout Rieff’s book. The decision to omit the voices of peasants or their organic intellectuals—his only engagement is with the slightly idiosyncratic thought of Vandana Shiva—is in fact a political decision to silence them.

His caricature of Via’s positions is another such silencing technique. Rieff writes of “the food activists’ skepticism about technology in general,” conjoining that comment with the notion that Via wishes to “return to the agriculture their ancestors practiced.” Yet this characterization sidesteps the fact that agriculture itself is a technology. So is “agro-ecology,” an approach to agriculture which views agriculture as an ecological process embedded in its environment—in contrast to the industrial approach, which treats agriculture as if it is just another industry, with attention only paid to ecological constraints in order to overcome them.

Miguel Altieri, perhaps agroecology’s most prominent defender, describes its principles and writes of the contrast between “top-down transfer of technology model” and the model of “participatory technology development and farmer centered research and extension.” The issue is not technology or not, but the kind of technology. And this pattern is not embedded by pure happenstance in a broader transitional program. Agro-ecology, and indeed all agriculture, needs supportive state policies to survive as a holistic system. The question is not one of state support but of its nature, and whom it helps and who it hurts.

A final trope which Rieff engages in is a variation of There Is No Alternative. Call it “There Is An Alternative, But Not The One You Like.” He transposes his own quiet hopelessness about radical change into the political sphere. To Rieff, Brazil’s social democratic Worker’s Party (PT) is the icon of “the strengthening of the state and in the promise and the burden of democratic politics.” The irony of this stance is that the MST is both one of the primary forces on the PT’s left, as well as one of the few forces which defends even the mild gains of the PT from insistent attempts from the Right to impeach the PT leadership. This is a frequent historical pattern: that social democracy even in its weak Brazilian form—even political democracy itself—is the gift of the radicals for which Rieff has so little time and so much contempt.

Indeed, those radicals are fighting for systemic change in agrarian structures and state policies right now. In September, Via was in the United Nations calling for an interventional convention on peasants rights. One article of that document states, “Peasants (women and men) have the right to actively participate in policy design, decision making, implementation, and mentoring of any project, program or policy affecting their territories.” Is that not democracy? Another article calls for the “right to information and agriculture technology.” Is that a call for a return to Neolithic farming?

Why such ideas and the voices which bear them are absent from Rieff’s vision of politics is a question for him to answer. He certainly offers next to nothing in their stead. But to decide that such voices do not matter, that they do not count, that they’re too radical, have no constituency, or are the province of urban intellectuals and disconnected and fevered activist types—to establish this by fiat, sleight of hand and misrepresentation, does not strike me as very democratic at all.

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Max Ajl is a doctoral student in development sociology at Cornell University and an editor at Jadaliyyah.

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