Losing the Farm

How Corporate GIobalization Pushes Millions Off the Land
and Into Desperation

An interview with Anuradha Mittal

Multinational Monitor magazine, July / August 2003


[Anuradha Mittal, a native of India, is the co-director of Food First / The Institute for Food and Development Policy. Prior to becoming co-director, she was the Institute's policy director and coordinated Economic Human Rights: The Time Has Come!, a national campaign in the United States on growing hunger and poverty and the loss of family farms in the United States. Mittal is the co-editor of America Needs Human Rights (Food First Books, 1999). Prior coming to the United States, Mittal worked with Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a major development group in India.]


Multinational Monitor: What is the fundamental issue at stake in ongoing World Trade Organization agricultural agreement negotiations?

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 provisions?

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 land.

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 with monocropping.

MM: What is the core set of agricultural-related conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank?

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 American agribusiness.

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 raise cotton.

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 on life.

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 farming systems.

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