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Boiling stones, feeding cars

Stuffed and Starved has an article, written for the The Nation, that compares Bill Gates' Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA, better funded than many government programs) with the earlier post-second-world-war one. (Which was also a magnate-sponsored affair.) In a previous post I said:

The stark facts are difficult to surmount: the Green Revolution turned Mexico from a wheat-importing to an exporting country in 20 years.

Raj Patel's post makes clear why this doesn't say anything useful about whether that helped Mexicans to eat. It's a theme I keep on returning to, but I tell myself, "I can't model it so I need to forget about it for a while." But actually it's a) absolutely historically ubiquitous and b) pretty easy to model. You happen to have lived on that land for generations, giving a tithe to the lord? Well, it turns out, I can make more money if I replace you and your family with thirty sheep and sell the wool. Sling your 'ook. That's English enclosure and the Highland clearances. Its a simple case of competing interests played out through power and control of resources. Here's Raj, quoting AGRA on their planned approach:

"Over time, this [strategy] will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production." "Land mobility" is an Orwellian term meaning the land stays where it is but the people on it are driven off. The foundation stands behind this idea, saying that peasants will head to cities "because there are a lot of them who don't want to be farmers [and] people make their own choices."

As Patel notes, there is an element of truth to that - many don't want to stay in agriculture. It's a hard life. Here's a UK view of that, from the BBC's Britain from Above:

We used to employ, when I was a boy, 80 workers. They didn't have running water, they didn't have indoor toilets, they had terrible pay. The conditions they worked in were vile - cold, dust, hot, out in all weathers. Therefore, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the one single ambition of anybody who worked in agriculture - in the 'good old days' - was to get the hell out of agriculture - into any job, any factory job - because it was preferable to working on farms.

The economic choice there is entirely clear, and it seems only to corroborate that labour is indeed a very mobile factor of production. Patel merely notes that the current economic crisis has removed urban jobs and made the agricultural choice more appealling. Nothing to be done about that, is there? Economic conditions do change, and mobile factors flow with those changes. But, he points out, agricultural workers are cut out of the bigger, structural choices that may determine their fate. AGRA itself makes a lot of its participatory nature, but one farmer says:

You come. You buy the land. You make a plan. You build a house. Now you ask me, what color do I want to paint the kitchen? This is not participation!

Patel is an advocate of food sovereignty - which boils down to democratic control of your own food system, rather than (as the name implies) food self-sufficiency. For me - and here's where I try to bring it back to something modellable - it can be seen as a consequence of how interests and control interact. Or rather, it is useful to see it in that light. In the case of the Highland clearances, it was emphatically not in the interests of villagers to be forced to the coast to scratch a living from the sea while sheep took their land. But they had no control, no power. It seems almost stupid to say it, it's so obvious - but when we come to the present day, somehow this issue becomes murky. Why?

Partly because, simply, shades of grey are inescapably in the nature of economic decisions. As Krugman shows, many tiny choices can lead to divergent outcomes. (Though actually his Core Model only allows manufacturing workers to move - farm labourers are as immobile as the land they work.) But its also because some people have more power and control than others, and use it to further their interests. Again, stupidly obvious, but here's an example from We Feed the World to mull over.

The world's largest Soya producer is in Mato Grosso, Brazil: the Maggi Group. The owner? The governer of the state of Mato Grosso. Oh good God. Jungle is cleared solely to grow Soya - vast horizons of deforested land are seen in the film as a plane flies for miles over it. A local campaigner notes: "our soil is good, but it's no good for soya. We have to bring in all the nutrients and apply them artificially."

An asphalt road was built through one of the last original areas of jungle. The money is being provided by the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank. Where is all this soya going? "European livestock is eating up the rainforest of Amazonia and Mato Grosso" - it's feeding our meat industry. Increasingly, it's also producing biofuel - that is, feeding our cars.

We're shown some of the people who used to farm - these ones at least are not in better-paid urban jobs. People get sick from drinking water near heavily treated crops. Children are kept from starvation by milk from a goat. And Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur on the right to food at the time the film was made, tells us:

You don't see the day-to-day fear for the next day. In Brazil there's a custom, among the mothers in Northeastern Brazil in the shanty towns of the poverty-stricken states. When the children are crying with hunger in the evening, the mothers put a pan of water on the fire, put some stones in it and boil these stones. Then the mothers say: 'wait, wait, supper will be ready soon,' in the hope that their starving children will go to sleep, and stop crying in the meantime. That happens every day, repeated a thousand times.

That is, of course, exactly the sort of emotive story that might make one feel sick at the state of the global food system. I've quoted Krugman before on this point: "the lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through."

But its pretty clear that's nonsense: economics in a world where a few companies (and state governors) have most of the power leads to situations like this in Brazil. So it's now clear why saying "well they went from importing to exporting" doesn't mean anything, unless you know whether all the profits from that have gone to the governor of Matto Grosso, and what state the people are now in.

It's then obvious how all this plays out in a world where people compete with cars and cattle for food. If our consumption of car travel, beef and dairy is more profitable for someone who controls the resources, and you happen to work and live on that land, this will mean - as AGRA says - "a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production." Sling yer 'ook.

I'm not arguing that large equals bad - economies of scale will surely continue to play a huge role in the future. But that doesn't mean ignoring the blindingly obvious problems of power and control, and how that affects people's choices. Happily, that's quite easy to model too. (Famous last words...)


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