Living in the Twentieth Century

flying car

Pambazuka News has published another winner, this time from William Aal, Lucy Jarosz and Carol Thompson. It’s a response to a particularly bad Foreign Affairs article in which Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, suggests that what we need to combat hunger is to throw the peasant off the land, bring machinery to bear on agriculture, and plant GM crops.

It is, as Aal et al note, a full-speed backward vision of agriculture, filled with wild fantasies of infinite production and zero environmental or social consequences. Frankly, it’s a Stalinist vision, one that owes more to the dreams and delusions of the 1950s than anything else. In the next issue of Foreign Affairs, Paul Collier presents his solution to the transportation crisis: nuclear-powered flying cars.

Open letter to Paul Collier, director of Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies

William Aal, Lucy Jarosz and Carol Thompson (2009-02-05)


Paul Collier advocates ‘slaying three giants’ to end the food crisis: peasant agriculture, the fear of scientific agriculture, and the myth of biofuels from grain to overcome US oil dependence. His analysis is, however, very much grounded in the agriculture of the last century.

Collier continues to make the 20th century-long argument that increased yields is what can feed the hungry, a point that seems self-evident. But much research now documents that the hungry remain with us, not because of a lack of food but rather because of distribution and the inability of the poor to access food that is available, often only a few miles away. Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics (1998) for demonstrating not only the theory, but the empirical reality, of famines occurring in the midst of plenty. Moreover, research on commercial agriculture demonstrates its negative effects on the environment, public health, and farming families (Magdoff et al. 2000; Nestle 2002). Commercial farming is highly dependent upon fossil fuels for production, processing, and transport, and is a major contributor to climate change (IPPC 2007).

Collier is correct to lament the high price of food in 2008, causing food riots in about 80 countries. However, he places blame for ‘the root cause’ on the increasing consumption of the Asian (i.e., Chinese and Indian) middle-classes. The statistics tell a different story. As stated by a senior economist at the International Grains Council, Amy Reynolds, ‘At the start of the decade, a small amount of grain—18 million tons—was used for industrial purposes. This year 100 million tons will go towards biofuels and other industrial purposes. Can anyone really tell me that hasn’t had an impact on what we pay for food?’ (Chakrabortty 2008, p. 4).

There is never one root cause, and using grain to feed American cars, instead of people, is just a single factor, but one we can change quickly. We fully agree with Collier that Americans must end their addiction to oil, by refusing to put, as he states, one-third of our grain production into gas-guzzling vehicles. A longer term issue, but relevant to increasing demand, is that more than half the US grain and nearly 40 per cent of world grain is being fed to livestock, rather than being consumed directly by humans (Pimentel 1997).

Other contributing factors include the increasing costs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and increasing speculation on commodities markets (Stewart and Waldie 2008). These factors demonstrate, contra Collier, that the root causes of the global food crisis are related to the political economy of commercial agriculture itself, and not simply a matter of supply and demand.

We disagree quite strongly with Collier’s derisive depiction of ‘peasant agriculture’. He attacks the populism that ‘Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.. This overly general categorisation seems to include the very diversified category of small-scale family farming, a category which comprises the majority of farm operations throughout the world. These smallholders (often female farmers) are highly entrepreneurial and innovative. They are even more efficient than commercial agriculture, if one uses the measure of capital expenditure per bushel or tonne of yield.

Many scientists now provide statistics that ‘Africa can feed itself’ and that ‘organic farming can feed the world’ (Halberg et al 2007; Norstad 2007). Organic food production and localised forms of small-scale food production are among the fastest growing areas in agriculture today as the health and environmental effects of commercial agriculture are increasingly rejected and as people move to more healthful plant-based diets. Small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.

Commercial agriculture, according to Collier, may increase yields by 10 to 20 per cent. Yet long term analyses from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) demonstrate, across the globe, that ‘best practices’ of smallholder agriculture will double yields. ‘Best practices’ include the sharing of seeds (farmers’ rights), research following farmers’ requests, available and affordable credit and yes, agricultural extension. Collier is very wrong in saying that the latter has ‘largely broken down’, for many sources across the African continent document that removing the government from agriculture was a systematic policy of the World Bank (Berg report) and USAID from 1981. If agricultural credit, extension and markets do not work in Africa, the explicit policy of removing ‘government interference’ from agriculture is a major cause.

Another way Collier reveals he is caught in the last century is that he considers ‘scientific’ thinking as coming from those with white coats in elaborate laboratories. The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not ‘scientific’, even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years. These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing. Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 per cent of our current medicines. Americans, for example, need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans. In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits. As the FAO concluded (1996, p. 13–14), ‘The chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern commercial agriculture.’

A major point which Collier avoids is that genetically modified seeds rely on the patenting of life forms, which most all the world rejects, with the exception of the US government and the global biotechnology industry. Much of the genetically modified research currently involved in the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations) relies on freely taking seeds and experimenting them with them in the laboratory; if an innovative trait is produced (e.g., pesticide resistance), the plant is patented, with zero recognition to other breeders of the variety over thousands of years. By adding one gene, the corporation patents the whole plant, and often, the whole specie. Africans call this act ‘biopiracy’, or the theft and privatisation of genetic wealth which had previously been available to all (Mushita and Thompson 2007). We agree with farmers that the sharing of biodiversity is both the past, and the future, of human sustenance.

Food is a human right, not a corporate commodity for speculation. Mother Nature does not operate on a boardroom quarterly profit margin. But food production can be very profitable, sustainable and feed all of us. It is just not capable of feeding the ‘giants’ of Wall Street or the City of London; it is those giants’ interference with food production that needs slaying, because food produced mainly to feed corporate profit will merely lead to more food crises, not fewer.

* William Aal is with the Community Alliance for Global Justice, Seattle. Lucy Jarosz is a professor of geography at the University of Washington. Carol Thompson is a professor of political economy at Northern Arizona University.
* Please send comments to or comment online at


Chakrabortty, Aditya. 2008. ‘Fields of gold,’ The Guardian (London), 16 April, p. 4.
Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations. 1996. Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, Leipzig, June17-23, Rome: FAO.
Halberg, N., et. al. 2007. Global Development of Organic Agriculture: Challenges and Prospects. London: CABI Publishing.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations. 2007. Climate Change 2007.
Magdoff, Fred, et al., 2000. Hungry for Profit. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Mushita, Andrew and Carol Thompson. 2007. Biopiracy of Biodiversity – International Exchange as Enclosure. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Nestle, Marion. 2002. Food Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Norstad, Aksel, ed. 2007. Africa Can Feed Itself. Oslo: The Development Fund.
Articles from a June 2007
Pimental, David. 1997. ”U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat,’ Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.’ Cornell University Science News.
Stewart, Sinclair and Paul Waldie. 2008. ‘Who is responsible for the global food crisis?’ Globe and Mail, 31 May.

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