By François Houtart
The industrial model, as a new frontier for capital
The introduction of capital into agriculture is not a new problem. European industrialization meant already in the 19th century, a profound transformation of the sector. The industrial workforce that largely formed the new working class was recruited from the countryside. New agricultural technologies were developed to nurture cities. Deep crises affected the sector, as in Ireland. Already the accumulation process of mercantile capitalism had been built largely on the product of the sugar plantations.
However, in the last fifty years, and at an accelerated rate since the seventies, we have witnessed a growing concentration of the entire agricultural chain, from production to marketing, throughout the world. Monocultures spread over huge spaces. Thus, in Paraguay, for the 2013-2014 harvest, only for soybeans, an area of 3,300,000 hectares was used, when the land used for peasant agriculture was 1,243,475 hectares (Vera, June 2014: 17 ). On the other hand, “the number of operators was reduced, downstream and higher up the production processes. In other words, the opening and integration of markets have allowed the large firms of the agri-food complex (fertilizer producers, commercial intermediaries, the agri-food industry, large distribution chains and also to increase their control over the production and transformation chains). and marketing ”(Delcourt, 2010: 15). Companies such as ADM, Cargill, Monsanto, Nestlé, among others, are mentioned.
The result was twofold: on the one hand, a sharp decrease in agricultural exploitation units and, on the other, the dependence of the peasants on large companies, in various forms: inputs (especially seeds), market access, subcontracts and others. In Europe, between 2002 and 2010, three million farms closed (La Via Campesina, 2011) and in the southern continents, the process accelerated since the 1990s.
The logic of capital does not include “externalities” in its perspectives, that is, environmental and social damage. Only economic achievements are calculated: productivity, price evolution, the possibility of speculation; that is, what contributes to profit and accumulation. The other costs are not paid by capital but by nature, by communities, populations, individuals. These expenses come into consideration only when they affect the rate of profit. It is for this reason that, faced with the effects of environmental degradation, the concept of "Green Economy" was born just ten years ago.
Socially, the agro-industrial model kills employment and is at the origin of the large migrations to the cities. The number of displaced people is counted in the millions, especially in the southern continents, where the urban environment cannot offer human beings the possibility of employment, habitat or decent living conditions. The pressure of the Green Revolution of the 1980s in Asia led to the impoverishment of millions of peasants, like the suicide of hundreds of thousands of small producers in India, 3 to 4 a day in South Korea. In the north, a suicide every two days in France.
From an ecological point of view, the results are also deeply negative. Deforestation is growing: in Brazil, 240,000 square kilometers have been deforested between 2000 and 2010. Soil and water pollution multiplies. Biodiversity is destroyed. According to a statement by the FAO on the occasion of World Rainforest Day in March 2014, monocultures, combined with the extraction of oil and mining products, the legal and illegal exploitation of timber, hydroelectric dams, lead to the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest in forty years. Already in Indonesia and Malaysia, 80% of the original forest has been destroyed by monocultures of palm and eucalyptus. Furthermore, land becomes a commodity, introduced by this means into the logic of finance capital: in Brazil, 73 million hectares belong to foreign multinational companies.
Monoculture production has also led to the massive use of chemicals and the introduction of genetically modified organisms. All of this has been associated with a productivist model of agriculture, legitimized by growing needs, ignoring long-term effects, and actually driven by an economy based on profit. Private investment increased dramatically: from USD 600 million in the 1990s to around 3 million in 2005-2007 (Unctad, 2009).
In recent years, land grabbing resulting from the transformation of agriculture into a source of accumulation for capital, turned out to be a new frontier in times of crisis. This meant the expropriation, under various legal statutes, of between 30 and 40,000,000 ha —20,000,000 in Africa— (Delcourt, 2011). The liberalization of trade has caused an explosion in maritime transport (22,000 high tonnage ships cross the oceans every day) and air, large consumers of raw materials and emitters of poisoned gases. The immediate rationality of capital is transformed into a global economic irrationality.
The origin of this type of development is found in a philosophical approach: a linear conception of endless progress thanks to science and technology, on an inexhaustible planet. This, applied to agriculture, was called the Green Revolution. Peasant agriculture, within this vision of modernity, was particularly discredited. In this perspective, she appears backward, archaic, and unproductive. That is why over the last 40 years we have witnessed an acceleration of its destruction, in which many factors have intervened. The use of land for agricultural activities has declined due to rapid urbanization and industrialization. The process accelerates in the south, but remains important in the north. According to Eurostat, the statistics bureau of the European Union, between 2002 and 2010, in Europe, about 3 million agricultural units have disappeared, that is, 20% (Via Campesina, 2011).
The adoption of monoculture has caused an enormous concentration of land (Unctad, 2009), a true agrarian counter-reform, which has been accelerated in recent years by the new phenomenon of land appropriation, estimated at between 30 and 40,000,000 ha in the southern hemisphere continents, with 20,000,000 in Africa alone (Baxter, 2010: 18).
The second cause is the logic of the economic principles of capitalism. In this view, capital is the engine of the economy and development means the accumulation of capital. Starting from this, the central role of the profit index leads to speculation. Thus, finance capital has played a fundamental role in the food crisis of 2007 and 2008. The concentration of capital in the field of agriculture means monopolies. Agriculture really becomes a new frontier of capitalism, especially with the fall of the profitability of productive capital and the crisis of finance capital. This orientation was also the result of the policies promoted for twenty years by international financial institutions, proposing the extension of monoculture for export, with the complicity of neoliberal governments.
Obviously, all over the world there are peasant resistance movements against the domination of capitalist logic in agriculture. They also address other dimensions than just defense of the land. Peasants protest against deforestation, the dams that flood thousands of hectares of forest and farmland, the contamination of water by extractive or industrial activities, against the monopoly of seed production, against transgenics monopolized by the transnational agribusiness companies against the privatization of forests. Their struggles are so much more radical than it is about survival. Also, academic centers of agronomy and social sciences show a growing awareness of this problem and are proposing alternative solutions.
Why promote peasant agriculture?
It is not about a romantic return to the past, nor about transforming peasants and indigenous people into small capitalists. The goal is to rebuild a rural society. In terms of effectiveness, the promotion of Peasant Agriculture is central, which is recognized today at the international level. It has many functions, from self-consumption to feeding the urban population, through the conservation of biodiversity and the care of soils. However, efficient conditions must be created, that is, organizing access to land and irrigation, supporting the biological character of its production, improving its techniques and opening the circuits of its commercialization, improving rural roads, without forgetting many aspects of the social and cultural environment. They are the tasks of a comprehensive and popular agrarian reform.
The role of the State is central in the organization of the latter. He must in particular guarantee to the peasants the security of possession of the land against the hoarding and concentration of property. The State is also responsible for organizing the basic irrigation infrastructure, establishing electricity, regulating the market and giving the possibility of credits to the production of small farmers, developing collective infrastructures (health, education, libraries, training centers, for example, information technology), transport and communications ensure conditions of cultural life, especially for indigenous peoples.
Everyone can see that it is not possible to continue with agricultural policies built on the disappearance of the peasants. Even the World Bank published in 2008 a report recognizing the importance of the peasantry to protect nature and fight against climate change. This report advocates the modernization of peasant agriculture, through mechanization, biotechnologies, the use of genetically modified organisms, etc. It also proposes a collaboration between the private sector, civil society and peasant organizations. But all this remains within the same philosophy (Delcourt, 2010), that is, the reproduction of capital. This thought finally led to the Rio + 20 “green economy” proposal in 2012.
It is evident that peasant agriculture has to evolve in its production methods, its use of water, its ability to access the market. That is possible, but it requires investment. It is the great challenge of the southern states: choose productivist agriculture, increasing the average size of farms, or improve family and organic agriculture. Many experiences of agroecology, land redistribution, cooperatives prove the possibility of the second option.
We can conclude that the promotion of peasant agriculture, far from being a romantic dream or a return to the past, is a solution for the future. First, it is an alternative for world nutrition that will allow not only to accompany demographic evolution in the medium and long term, but also to transform the human diet, leaving the "macdonaldization".
Secondly, peasant agriculture can contribute to the preservation of “mother earth”, rebuilding its capacity for regeneration, and thirdly, it will contribute to a social and cultural balance in rural societies. Karl Marx had already said that one of the characteristics of capitalism was the breakdown of metabolism (exchange of matter) between human beings and nature, because the rate of reconstitution of capital is different from the rate of reproduction of nature and that only socialism could restore this balance. This constitutes the theoretical basis of what is now called “ecosocialism” and it must be a central object of any policy of search for a new post-capitalist paradigm. Promoting family, peasant and indigenous agriculture constitutes an essential part of this task on a global scale.
- François Houtart, Professor at the Institute of Higher National Studies in Quito, Ecuador.
World Bank (2008). Report on development in the World. Washington D.C.
Baxter, J. (2010). Ruée sur les terres africaines, le Monde diplomatique. January.
Delcourt, Laurent (2010). L’avenir des agricultures paysannes face aux nouvelles pressions sur la terre. Alternatives Sud, XVII (3).
La Via Campesina (2011). Harare Declaration.
Léon, Osvaldo (2014, June). The Year of Indigenous Peasant Family Farming. ALAI, (496).
Vera, Elsy (2014, June). Agrarian Conflict and Peasant Movement in Paraguay, ALAI, (496).