Losing the Farm: An interview with Anuradha Mittal
Multinational Monitor: What is the fundamental
issue at stake in ongoing World Trade Organization agricultural
Anuradha Mittal: The fundamental issue
at stake is our food sovereignty - defined by Via Campesina, the
world's largest farmers organization and which includes landless
workers and women farmers, as the human right of all peoples and
nations to grow food in ways that are culturally, ecologically
and economically appropriate for them.
Though agriculture was the carrot to lure
the Third World into the WTO and other trade agreements, it has
turned into the most contentious issue as the Third World is devastated
by the dumping of cheap and subsidized agricultural products from
the United States and the European Union.
The WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AOA)
requires that countries open their economies to agricultural products.
With American markets already saturated, the U.S. is aggressively
pushing to open up foreign markets-with great success. Already,
one out of three acres planted in the United States produces food
or fiber destined for export, and one quarter of American farm
sales are now exports.
While beefing up agribusiness with agricultural
subsidies (the U.S. and the EU subsidize their agriculture to
the combined tune of almost $1 billion a day) which are denied
to the poor farmers in the South, and lowering world prices, the
AOA has become a form of control of the food system that puts
power squarely in the hands of export producers, large businesses
and elites, at the expense of family farmers. For example, the
U.S. exports corn at prices 20 percent below the cost of production,
and wheat at 46 percent below cost.
MM: What has been the impact of those
Mittal: The impact has been severely felt
in the Third World. For example, as a result of the removal of
tariffs on agricultural products, Mexico, a country once self
sufficient in basic grains, today imports 95 percent of its soy,
58 percent of its rice, 49 percent of its wheat, and 40 percent
of its meat. This has resulted in Mexican corn farmers being put
out of business. More than 80 percent of Mexico's extreme poor
live in rural areas, and more than 2 million are corn farmers.
There is no way they can compete with subsidized American agribusiness.
Everyday, an estimated 600 peasant farmers are forced off their
Destruction of rural economies and communities
is occurring throughout the world. According to the Indian government,
over two million farmers are alienated from land each year.
The AOA has been the economic engine for
promoting industrial agriculture-replacing family farmers with
agribusiness, family farms with corporate farms, and biodiversity
MM: What is the core set of agricultural-related
conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World
Mittal: Both the IMF and the World Bank
helped pave the way for the liberalization of agriculture through
conditionalities. These conditions include mandates that borrowing
countries focus on cash crops, promote industrial agriculture
and remove subsidies for poor farmers. Dismantling of the safety
net, for example public distribution systems, has left poor communities
dependent on the vagaries of an open market.
MM: How have these affected farmers and
farm communities, including with regard to land and wealth concentration?
Mittal: Both industrial agriculture and
liberalization of agriculture have further concentrated land holdings
with the rich landlords, displacing small farmers around the world.
Displaced from their lands, farmers have been forced to eke a
miserable livelihood in cities where they form the core of cheap
labor for the sweatshops. In India, we have witnessed poor farmers
consuming pesticides to end their lives.
In the U.S., a comparison between the
1930s and today tells a similar grim tale. Then, 25 percent of
the population lived on the nation's 6 million farms; today, 2
million farms are home to 2 percent of the population. Small family
farms have been overwhelmingly replaced by large commercial farms,
with 8 percent of farms accounting for 72 percent of sales.
Family farmers in the U.S. face foreclosure,
the average age of a farmer is 55 years or older and the average
farming household earns only 13 percent of its income from farming.
Forty-nine out of the poorest 50 counties in the country are rural!
MM: What is the impact of agricultural
liberalization specifically on women?
Mittal: Women and children are the worst
affected. As they and their families are thrown off the land,
they form the labor pool for sweatshops. For example, since the
passage of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico is home to over 2,700 maquiladoras
(assembly sweatshops producing for export)-employing over 1.3
million Mexican workers, mostly young women, who are paid on average
50 cents an hour, have no job security or benefits, and are often
subject to sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions. Sex
trafficking has increased, finding a real home in the global economy.
MM: What happens to farmers who are displaced
by these policies?
Mittal: We can go through numbers of farmers
displaced from their land. But numbers numb us. Each one displaced
has an individual story-A farmer selling a kidney to make ends
meet in India. Or a family from Mexico, attempting to come to
the U.S. only to find death or incarceration at the border, a
job in a sweatshop, or slavery in the fields of California or
Florida. There are many stories. The end result is loss of livelihood,
centuries-old traditions, ancestral farms and human dignity.
MM: If developing countries were able
to protect their own markets from imports, would it make sense
for them also to emphasize agricultural exports?
Mittal: Via Campesina has emphasized that
farmers want markets, but they want domestic and regional markets.
Ninety percent of food is grown for domestic consumption. Only
10 percent is grown for export. Why would they sacrifice the 90
percent for a slim chance at increasing the 10 percent share?
Agriculture has to be about feeding our families and communities.
Or else it might turn into the situation in India, the third largest
producer of food in the world with its granaries overflowing with
40 to 80 million tons of excess food grains -and home to over
380 million starving people and recurrent starvation deaths.
MM: Why are commodity prices low, and
what has this meant for developing countries?
Mittal: Countries like the United States
have subsidized big farmers to capture world markets, depressing
the global commodity prices of crops that developing countries
count on while wiping out even more poor farmers. The result is
a reverse Robin Hood effect-robbing the world's poor to enrich
An example of this effect is trade in
cotton, a principle commodity crop. New subsidies mean that many
U.S. cotton growers-whose average net worth is $800,000-will receive
half of their income in subsidies from the government this year.
This is even though only a relatively small share of the farm
population, just 25,000 of America's 2 million farmers, actually
While subsidies will protect cotton growers
in America from falling world prices, they will further depress
prices by encouraging continued production, and thus cripple growers
in Third World countries with no subsidies. U.S. farmers last
year harvested a record crop of 9.74 billion pounds of cotton,
aggravating a U.S. glut and pushing prices far below the break-even
price of most growers around the world. This costs African countries
$250 million each year, according to a World Bank study published
last February. The report estimates that the removal of U.S. subsidies
would produce a drop in U.S. production that would lead to a short-term
rise in the world price of cotton and in turn would increase revenue
to West and Central African countries by about $250 million.
These skewed economics are evident in
the gap between cotton growers in the U.S.'s Mississippi Delta
and in Africa's Niger Delta. America is the world's largest exporter
of cotton-even though it is an inefficient and high-cost producer-and
West Africa is the third largest, with both subject to market
forces that have slashed prices by 66 percent since 1995, to 35
to 40 cents a pound. Armed with roughly $3.4 billion in subsidy
checks that make up for any shortfall in the market, U.S. cotton
farmers reap about 70 to 75 cents a pound.
MM: If focusing on self-sufficiency is
an alternative, what are the policy measures necessary to move
in this direction? Mittal: Countries should ensure food sovereignty
through the following policies:
1. Prioritize local, regional and national
needs, based on agriculture that consists of small farmers, indigenous
peoples, fisherfolk and other local communities.
Protect local and national markets of
basic food stuffs to give priority to the products of local farmers.
3. Promote and enforce farmers' rights,
including access to land, water and seed.
4. Promote sustainable peasant agriculture,
which is more productive and protects our biodiversity. Our research
shows that small farmers are more productive and more efficient,
and contribute more to broad-based regional development than do
large corporate farms. Small farmers are better stewards of land
and other natural resources, protecting long-term productivity
of their soils and conserving functional biodiversity.
5. Promote a direct, shared and decentralized
relationship between food producers and consumers.
6. Genuine land reform to ensure redistribution
of land. We have the example of what the MST has accomplished
in Brazil, which is redistributing land by winning actual titles
to over 15 million acres of farmland that serve nearly 250,000
families. A successful land reform program will ensure that: grants
of land are debt free; women have full rights of title and use;
good quality land is used; a supportive environment with access
to credit and markets is maintained; the power of rural elites
is broken so they cannot distort policies in their favor; and
reforms apply to the majority of rural poor so their sufficient
numbers make them politically effective. Most important, a new
farm economy should be the centerpiece of the country's entire
economic development model. If land reform is viewed as charity
or welfare, it is bound to fail.
To make food sovereignty a reality for
farmers around the world, we have to follow through on the demands
of farmers movements like Via Campesina who say: the WTO, NAFTA,
and the Free Trade Area of the Americas and other trade agreements
must get out of agriculture; there must be a complete moratorium
on genetically engineered crops; and there must be no patents
MM: Can small producers compete with large
plantations, from a productivity and efficiency standpoint?
Mittal: We have often heard that large
farms are more productive than small farms, and that we need to
consolidate land holdings to take advantage of that greater productivity
and efficiency. The actual data shows the opposite-small farms
produce far more per acre or hectare than large farms.
One reason for the low levels of production
on large farms is that they tend to be monocultures. The highest
yield of a single crop is often obtained by planting it alone
on a field. But while that may produce a lot of one crop, it generates
nothing else of use to the farmer. In fact, the bare ground between
crop rows invites weed infestation. The weeds then require an
investment of labor in weeding or money in herbicides.
Large farmers tend to plant monocultures
because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery.
Small farmers, especially in the Third World, are much more likely
to plant crop mixtures-intercropping-where the empty space between
the rows is occupied by other crops. They usually combine or rotate
crops and livestock, with manure serving to replenish soil fertility.
Such integrated farming systems produce
far more per unit area than do monocultures. Though the yield
per unit area of one crop- corn, for example-may be lower on a
small farm than on a large monoculture farm, the total production
per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various
animal products, can be far higher.
This holds true whether we are talking
about an industrial country like the United States, or any country
in the Third World.
In all cases, relatively smaller farm
sizes are much more productive per unit area-200 to 1,000 percent
more productive-than are larger ones. In the United States, the
smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than 10 times
greater dollar output per acre than larger farms. While in the
U.S. this is largely because smaller farms tend to specialize
in high value crops like vegetables and flowers, it also reflects
relatively more attention devoted to the farm, and more diverse
The views expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.