When you launch a big campaign like GROW, you generally get both good reviews and a few attacks, and since the advent of the blogosphere, those attacks have got more virulent. This time around, we must be doing something wrong, because the handful of diatribes I’ve seen (do tell me if I’ve missed some) are actually disappointingly thin. But in case you’re interested, here are a few reflections and responses.
The general tone is familiar from previous campaigns on economic issues – true believers in the untrammelled market trawl through Oxfam materials, welcome anything that promotes liberalization (end European and US farm subsidies, drop damaging targets for biofuels, stop patents blocking technology transfer) and lambast anything that advocates state intervention. It must be wonderfully reassuring to believe in such a simple market-good/ state-bad world, but really, can’t we think a bit harder? Dani Rodrik’s recent book is a fine demonstration that actually, you need both, and the right combination varies according to context – nature of the country, stage of development etc. Is that really so hard to grasp?
Sifting through what I’ve read to date, and sticking to the bigger picture rather than nit-picking, two accusations stand out: that Oxfam has become a bunch of beard-and-cardigan hippies, peasant romantics who think organic smallholders can feed the world, and second that we have jumped back 40 years to the kind of neo-malthusian doomstering epitomised by Paul Ehrlich and his dire ‘Population Bomb’ predictions.
First, the peasant question, raised in particular by Tim Worstall. Today, the world’s 500 million smallholder farms support around two billion people, almost one third of humanity, according to IFAD. But many of them are among the world’s poorest people and (ironically given their job) often go hungry.
People draw two diametrically opposed conclusions from that – one group, which includes Oxfam, concludes you should invest more in small farms, the other group (including Grow’s critics) says only big farms can feed the world, and the sooner the little guys leave the land, the better for them and everyone else.
I think the pro-smallholder position has history on its side. Countries generally need to get out of agriculture in order to grow and develop, but if you look at how take-off countries such as Vietnam have done that, as Ha-Joon Chang has done in a multi-country study for the FAO, they have generally done so by first investing in smallholders, which generates the surplus needed to industrialize. Smallscale agriculture can be a springboard to development, not a ball and chain. And as Vietnam’s experience showed compared to, say, China’s, investing in smallholders means you can grow without massively increasing inequality. The added bonus is that then people can choose to leave the grinding life on the land through choice, rather than migrate through desperation.
And what’s the alternative? The big farmists are pretty vague about where the 2 billion displaced people would end up. I once had a truly jaw-dropping conversation with a World Bank economist in Sri Lanka, who explained that the country’s rice farmers, comprising 60% of the population, were low productivity dinosaurs who should give up farming and hand over to the big guys. What were those 10 million people to do, I asked, given that they couldn’t all work in garment factories? ‘Ah, at the World Bank, we don’t pick winners’, came the prompt reply. But happy enough to pick losers it seems……
But needless to say life, and Oxfam’s thinking, is a good deal more complicated than just ‘back small farmers’. Industrial agriculture has a crucial role to play, both in producing food and generating jobs for the landless labourers who are often the poorest group in rural areas (though it must be reformed to make it sustainable from both a social and an environmental perspective). A crude polarized debate on smallholder versus industrial farming as “the solution” also obscures the potential of complementarities between them. In several countries, often working with companies like Accenture, Oxfam is helping smallholders improve their incomes by getting into value chains for everything from coffee to sesame seed to dried veg. So no, we aren’t anti business and no, we aren’t smallholder fundamentalists. Sorry.
As for the Reverend Malthus, it’s true that the last major bout of Cassandra-like predictions of a hungry future came around the last major food price spike in the early 1970s. So what happened? Answer, technological improvements in irrigated agriculture, collectively known as the Green Revolution, rode to the rescue, more than outpacing global population growth. That experience fuels a touching faith in the hearts of people like Matt Ridley or The Spectator, that technological magic bullets will always appear in time to deal with all future threats.
Technologies, both specific products and new approaches, do indeed have a crucial role to play (and need much more R&D investment in areas such as the low carbon transition), but it’s remarkably naive to just assume they can solve any problem, including food supply. As they say of share prices, the past is an unreliable guide to future performance. The Green Revolution boom is rapidly running out of steam, yield growth has slowed dramatically, and none of the new technologies seem to hold similar potential (including The Spectator’s beloved GM), especially for small farmers.
Other things have changed since the 1970s – global resource consumption has risen much faster than population, pushing and in some cases crossing the planetary boundaries in areas such as nitrogen and phosphorous use. Most notably, we are well past the limit of sustainable greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not population growth driving these things, but excessive consumption in the rich countries. Oh and if you’re thinking of accusing us of crying wolf, remember what happened to the boy in the story – he did indeed cry wolf, but eventually the wolf showed up and ate the sheep, and in some versions the boy.
Apart from these points, the critics either misread the report, or attacked what they expected to see, rather than what was actually there. Matt Ridley thinks we are anti-science (we’re not) and obsessed with organics (barely mentioned in the report). Tim Worstall gets completely the wrong end of the stick, concluding that we want to drive all businesses out of supply chains and inject the dreaded state instead. Nuanced it ain’t.
But in case you think this a bit too defensive, here’s one point that I think has, errm, a point. Tim Worstall says the figure that ‘three big multinational agricultural companies control nearly 90% of the grain trade’ is too crude. And indeed it is. Given the lack of public information on the stocks which agribusiness companies hold, it is extremely difficult to provide detailed numbers – estimates are all that is possible. Admittedly, we have taken one of the higher estimates – an alternative figure from the Australian Wheat Board, based on research from the Boston Consulting Group, was that the 4 largest firms controlled 73% of global grain trade in 2003.
This is an issue that would benefit from more research – and greater transparency from agribusiness companies would help (and would also support better global governance of food stocks if more data was available). The point, however, does remain – as Tim Worstall says – that it is these agribusinesses who actually hold the global food stocks, who control the grain elevators and the transport systems, and are involved in supplying seeds and fertiliser to farmers. This represents a powerful source of dominance over the global food system. One could argue that as long as the system works for all, this does not constitute a problem (though economists don’t like oligopolies). However, the system is currently failing for millions of producers and consumers.
So where does this leave us? Can’t say the critics have said much to change my mind, but then, I dare say they’ll feel much the same about this post. That’s blogging for you.
Oh, and the most memorable press coverage of the whole launch was not an attack, but a weird piece by the Telegraph’s share tipster, Garry White. Under the headline ‘Oxfam said yesterday that decades of steady progress in the fight against hunger is now being reversed as demand outpaces food production’ he advised ‘Genus is a buy.’ Genus, as he helpfully explained ‘provides farmers with high-quality bull and pig semen to use for breeding’ and should cash in as the world starves. You couldn’t make it up.