Food obviously remains a basic necessity, and with more and more of us (9 billion by 2050), we will need to grow and produce more and more food. Or perhaps what we need is better and fairer distribution of what is grown and produced. The fact that distribution may be a grave problem is arguably reflected by the paradox that worldwide there are more and more starving children at the same time that there are more and more obese children. Some are getting too little, some are getting too much. Sounds like distribution.
A recent study by GRAIN, on Asia’s Agrarian Reform in Reverse: Laws Taking Land Out of Small Farmers’ Hands, offers up another, perhaps related, paradox. Asia has more small farmers that the rest of the world combined, at the same time two-thirds of Asia’s farmland is owned by 6% of its farm owners.
In the recent past, small farmers in Asia organised and fought for, and won, some protections from being forced out of their way of life, but the pressure to consolidate and concentrate share of markets is intense and getting more intense.
What is happening is no different from the retail sector where the big box stores, symbolized by Walmart, are driving out of business the small shops often owned by individuals or families.
In many instances, the governments are siding with the developers and large-scale corporate farming organizations, with legislation, regulation and sometimes even with military action. An instance is land grabbing where governments assist, sometimes through joint ventures, foreign corporations to acquire large tracts of land, formerly farmed by families and small communities. The corporations are allowed, even encouraged, to industrialise the farming and to export the products to foreign markets that pay more than local markets. At the same time, over 37% of EU subsidies go to the top 10% of farmers.
The local farmers are left without the land or the products from that land, or the money to buy food produced on their land. While in the 1960s we spoke of the adverse influence of the military-industrial complex, many societies in Asia, and elsewhere, are being manipulated by agri-corp government complexes.
In a similar vein, the push in Ireland for the government’s Harvest 2020 policy, in coordination with the large farming interests, is pressuring small landholders to grow in response to the lifting of the EU dairy quotas. Those that cannot expand, or adjust, will likely be forced out of farming. Most assuredly these will be the small, family-owned farms.
In classic free-market thinking, the large corporations, and governments, argue that small farmers, or peasants, actually want to abandon their farms and leave the countryside so they can work in cities; that large corporate farms are more efficient and competitive and create jobs; and, that liberal land markets create social stability and promote economic development. The reality is that small farmers are organising and protesting across Asia against being displaced from their farms and being forced, in effect, to move to cities to take low-paying industrial jobs that support the country’s export market. The jobs they want are as small-holding farmers in their own communities.
The GRAIN report also provides examples of these increasingly concentrated farming policies and practices in a variety of Asian countries. For example, China does not allow farmland to be bought or sold, but since the 1970s it has created land-use rights for farmers, a form of privitisation of agricultural lands. Recently the government has expanded this de-collectivisation by allowing farmers to transfer their land-use rights to large-scale farming operators or even to convert their rights to shares of the operators. One form of land-use transfers is called the “land circulation trust.” In such arrangements, the trust acquires the land-use rights from many farmers and then arranges for a large corporation or other entity to lease the lands. The trust effectively acts as a bank where land-use rights are deposited and lent our, with the small farmers receiving an annual payment.
The trusts have attracted some of the largest agribusiness corporations in China. Japan, and Thailand. In one instance the largest Chinese financial company joined with the German seed and pesticide company, Bayer Cropsciences, in a joint venture with Bayer’s products used on the land. The trusts have amassed huge tracts of land, and some 25 million hectares of arable land in China have been transferred from small farms, about 25% of all land subject to farmers land-use rights.
We have seen that when Alaska became a state, in the late 1950s, ownership of vast tracts of unspoiled and undeveloped land “belonged” to the Native American peoples, Eskimos or Inuit. They owned the land in common, much like commonage in Ireland. This form of ownership was converted, by Congress, into corporations with only the Native Americans alive at that time acquiring shares of stock in these newly formed corporations. One motive for Congress was to teach the Native Americans how to participate in a marker economy. The destruction of much of the sense of community and subsidence living did not seem to concern Congress.
After World War II, Japan redistributed more than 80% of land from landlords to former tenants, similar to the land reform that took place in the late 19th century in Ireland. The redistribution was pursuant to the “owner-cultivator principle,” under which the law recognized that farm land should be owned by those who cultivate it. By 2009 the large Japanese multinationals were able to push through a new policy that created “Food Production Base Areas” that covered 1.5 million hectares, or about 1/3 of land under cultivation. These areas are considered special economic zones that are exempt from the farm land law and “owner-cultivator principle.” At the same time the government required the “efficient” use of farmland (a mantra for agribusinesses) if one wanted to hold onto a right to the land.
Exacerbating these pressures for consolidation are the various global trade agreements that are all the rage at the moment. Under such agreements, such as the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), foreign corporations can attack legislation and regulation on agriculture that attempt to protect small farm holdings from large industrial agribusiness takeovers. Any barriers that impede foreign investors in agriculture are subject to attack under these trade agreements
Perhaps consolidation and concentration, like Walmart, is inevitable. Perhaps not. After all, some communities, including in New York City, have blocked Walmart from opening stores. And for every claim of better efficient operations, more jobs and more profit from consolidation and concentration, we need to remember that they come with a price. In Cambodia a large-scale sugar cane plantation, the result of a trade agreement with the EU, displaced 11,500 hectares of rice fields and orchards belonging to 2,000 families, and more than 1,000 women and children were left homeless. These people did not get jobs from the new sugar cane operation. Moreover, the industrial farming and increasing corporate control of distribution of food – changes supported by the new land laws — replace small sustainable farming with expensive inputs that degrade the land and biodiversity, and produce volatile price changes for food.
And, of course, the larger profits go to the larger corporations, not the individual farmers.
GRAIN calculates that legislative changes have resulted in the transfer of at least 43.5 million hectares (107.5 million acres) of farmland in Asia from small farmers to agribusiness companies. As a result, there are fewer farmers in smaller landholdings. They cannot continue to hold out without counter pressures to the consolidation and concentration by the agri Walmarts. That is the case in Asia, and in Ireland as well.
GRAIN, Asia’s Agrarian Reform in Reverse: Laws Taking Land Out of Small Farmers’ Hands (30 April 2015). www.grain.org/article/entries/5195-asia-s-agrarian-reform-in-reverse-laws-taking-land-out-of-small-farmers-hands
Interview with Michael Barry, Director of the Irish Daily Industries Association, in Podcast section of www.irishenvironment.com (February 2013).
Fintan O’Toole, “IFA stance will not benefit most farmers,” The Irish Times (9 Oct 2012). www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ifa-stance-will-not-benefit-most-farmers-1.549885
The Trojan Horse: Investor-State Dispute Settlements in the EU-US Proposed Trade Agreement (TTIP) in the Reports section of www.irishenvironment.com (February 2015). www.irishenvironment.com/reports/trojan-horse-investor-state-dispute-settlements-eu-us-proposed-trade-agreement-ttip/
Robert Emmet Hernan, “Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989” [ExxonValdez oil spill], in This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, Palgrave Macmillan (English, 2010), China Machine Press (Chinese, 2011).