The Case for Small Farms
An Interview with Peter Rosset

Peter M. Rosset, Ph.D. is executive director of the Oakland, California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy -- better known as Food First -- a  nonprofit "people's" think tank and education-for-action center whose work highlights root causes and value-based solutions to hunger and poverty around the world, with a commitment to establishing food as a fundamental human right. He is author of a number of briefing papers, including "The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations," and is co-author of World Hunger: Twelve Myths.

Multinational Monitor: Large farms are commonly viewed as more productive than small farms. What's the evidence that suggests that in fact small farms are more productive?
Peter Rosset:
Here at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, we've reviewed the data from every country for which it's available, comparing the productivity of smaller farms versus larger farms. By productivity, I mean the total output of agricultural products per unit area -- per acre or hectare.

For every country for which data is available, smaller farms are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 percent more productive per unit area.

The myth of the greater productivity of larger farms stems in part from the confusing use of the term "yield" to measure productivity. Yield is how much of a single crop you can get per unit area -- for example, bushels of soy beans per acre.

That's a measure that's only relevant to monocultures. A monoculture is when a single crop is grown in a field, rather than the kind of mixtures of crops and animals that small farmers have.

When you grow one crop all by itself, you may get a lot of that one crop, but you're not using the ecological space -- the land and water very efficiently.

In monocultures, you have rows of one crop with bare dirt between them. In ecological terms, that bare dirt is empty niche space. It's going to be invaded and taken advantage of by some species in the ecosystem, and generally we call those species weeds. So if that bare dirt is invaded, the farmer has to invest labor or spray herbicides or pull a tractor through to deal with those weeds. Large farmers generally have monocultures because they are easier to fully mechanize.

Smaller farmers tend to have crop mixtures. Between the rows of one crop there will be another crop, or several other crops, so that ecological niche space -- that potential -- is producing something of use to the farmer rather than requiring an investment of more labor, money or herbicides. What that means is that the smaller farm with the more complex farming system gets more total production per unit area, because they're using more of the available niche space.

It might look like the large farm is more productive because you're getting more, say, soybeans per acre. But you're not getting the other five, six, ten or twelve products that the smaller farmer is getting. And when you add all of those together, they come to a much greater total agricultural output per unit area than the larger farms are getting.

MM: Is that the essential difference that the small farms use a more complex cropping arrangement?
There are a lot of reasons why smaller farms produce more per unit area than larger farmers. One is because of the more complex systems, as I explained.

Small farmers also benefit by integrating crops and livestock. By rotating pasture and planted fields, animal manure is used as fertilizer, and then the part of the crop that is not consumed by humans -- let's say the stalks of a corn plant -- is food for the animals. So there's recycling of nutrients and biomass within the system. That also makes it more efficient and productive.

Small farmers tend to invest more labor in their land. That too makes it more productive.

And the quality of the labor is much better. When it's a farm family whose future depends upon maintaining the productivity of that soil and that piece of land, they naturally take better care of it.

When it's a huge corporate farm with relatively alienated wage labor doing the work, the employees do not have the kind of tie to the future of that piece of land that they would if they were family farmers.

MM: It seems as if some of these benefits are not necessarily inherent in size but just in the different styles of farming. Could you have, for example, more complex kinds of farming on large farms?
You can, but what tends to be limiting is mechanization. As farms get very large, labor costs and logistics become prohibitive, so farmers switch to machinery, and machinery requires simpler systems. With machines, you can't achieve the same level of complexity and therefore the level of productivity that you can with a smaller size.

So some of the factors do depend on size and others depend on styles of management and relationships between human beings and the land.

MM: Do the general points you're making apply equally to farms in the United States and other rich countries as well as farms in the developing world?
Amazing as it may sound, we find the same general pattern. Some of the causes may be different, and what we consider a small farm versus a large farm may be different, but smaller farms in the U.S. produce more than 10 times more value of output per unit area than large farms. Part of that is because smaller farmers in the U.S. tend to produce higher value crops, but part of it also has to do with the same factors that explain greater productivity of smaller farms in the Third World.

MM: If all this is so, then how come the conventional wisdom is just the opposite?
For one thing, there are vested interests behind the conventional wisdom. Obviously we have a huge corporate-owned agribusiness system in this country that has a vested interest in making the American public believe that what they're doing is productive and efficient and good for us. So there's a little bit of intentional myth creation going on.

There's also the fact that smaller farms don't appear to be economically viable. Despite what I've said about productivity, they're being driven out of business in incredible numbers. At the end of World War II, we had more than six million farms in the United States; today we have less than two million, and it's mostly the smaller farms that have been driven out of business.

We have to look at why that is. My belief is that it's because we have a system here that rewards inefficiency, low productivity and destruction of soil -- 90 percent of the topsoil in the United States is being lost faster than it can be replaced.

This system is heavily based on direct payment subsidies tied to the amount of land that a farmer has. American taxpayers paid a record $22 billion in direct farm payments last year. Sixty-one percent of those payments went to the largest 10 percent of American farmers.

Although those subsidies have been presented to us as helping keep family farmers on the land, they do just the opposite.

Because large farms in the U.S. get such a large subsidy, they can stay in business even if they're selling what they produce below the cost of production. The subsidies are tied to area and allow prices to drop below the cost of production. That prevents small farmers from competing because: one, crop prices have dropped so low and two, they don't have enough land to get enough subsidies to live on.

The system drives inefficiency and destruction of resources, because the large farms are the ones that strip rural America of trees, destroy the soil, dump so many pesticides, and compact the soil with machines.

It's basically a transfer of money from the pockets of U.S. taxpayers to large corporate farmers, so that they can stay in business despite low prices, and to the ones who benefit the most -- the Cargills and ADMs of the world who have all this grain that they're buying at giveaway prices and using to capture markets around the world and drive small farmers out of business in Mexico, India, Africa, Asia and South America.

MM: Is export dumping the primary cause of farmers in the Third World being driven off the land?
There are many ways that policies are biased against small farmers in the Third World. In any particular Third World country, you'll find that the local landed oligarchy tends to have captured the political system and distorted rural policies in their favor, whether it's agricultural credit, prices, marketing, input supply or trade policy.

But all those biases together pale in comparison with the impact of this kind of export dumping and the taking over of local markets by multinational grain companies. Because of the perverse way that farm subsidies work in both the United States and European Economic Community, the U.S. and Europe are dumping agricultural commodities on Third World economies at prices often below the cost of production. Local farmers can't compete.

MM: To what extent in developing countries does the Green Revolution change the equation? Don't Green Revolution efficiencies require big farms?
What's happened with the Green Revolution is sort of a microcosm of what's happened in the United States in this century, where agricultural production has gone up tremendously, but at the cost of driving people out of the countryside and into the cities, where the economy cannot absorb the excess labor. The Green Revolution promoted seeds that required chemicals, irrigation and other expensive investments that could only be adopted by larger, wealthier farmers, but not by smaller, poorer farmers. This allowed the larger, wealthier farmers to expand at the expense of the smaller farmers.

During the boom years of the Green Revolution, from 1970 to 1990, world food production did go up dramatically. Unfortunately, hunger increased in most parts of the Third World as well. The Green Revolution creates what we call the paradox of plenty, or hunger amidst abundance. Production goes up, but that production is in the hands of larger farmers, who expand at the expense of smaller farmers. These smaller farmers eventually lose their land, move to the cities, don't find jobs, and can't afford to buy the additional food that's produced. So the Green Revolution gives you more food and more hunger.

If we ever really want to get at hunger in the future, we have to find a different kind of agricultural model that can have additional production come from the hands of the poor themselves. The small farm model is really the only model that will allow us to have more food and less hunger, instead of repeating the mistakes of the Green Revolution era when we had more food and more hunger.

MM: What happens when you add the World Trade Organization and proposals for agricultural liberalization into the story?
I think the proposed agreements on agriculture in the WTO are the gravest threat to rural communities, small farmers and rural ecologies around the world, perhaps the gravest threat in history.

I've already described a system that's pretty bad, but despite all odds, small farmers and peasants have clung to the land in incredible numbers all around the world. But the WTO agreement on agriculture threatens to remove virtually any ability on the part of individual countries to protect their agricultural sectors, to stop the flooding of their local markets with cheap imports from Northern countries or other large grain-exporting companies. It would take away the ability of countries to have programs that promote or support small farmers or family farmers.

Organizations representing small farmers, medium-sized farmers, farmworkers and the landless from all over the world were in Seattle last November protesting the WTO. We had the National Family Farm Coalition from the United States, the National Farmers Union from Canada, Mexican farmworker unions, the landless workers union (MST) from Brazil, farmworker unions from Africa, farmers' organizations from Africa, farmers' organizations from Thailand, the United Farm Workers union from the United States -- an incredible international coalition of rural organizations all saying that the proposed WTO rules for agriculture would be a death sentence for rural communities and rural areas around the world.

The upside of the WTO proposals is that they have helped a new global food movement coalesce. It's got all of those rural actors -- farmers, farmworkers and the landless -- as well as environmentalists concerned about pesticides and genetically altered crops and consumers concerned about food safety, working together against the WTO.

To me this is very exciting, because counting all the people negatively affected by the global food system as we know it, we are really the majority of the people in the world.

MM: What would the WTO agricultural proposals do and how does that differ or go beyond the already-existing restrictions on Third World governments?
Many Third World countries have already been hurt by structural adjustment agreements. In exchange for renegotiating the debt, the IMF and World Bank forced them to open their borders to imports, among many other things. That meant opening their borders to the dumping of Northern food surpluses and cheap food and undercutting their local farmers.

What the WTO rules would do is raise those agreements to the level of treaty law, making it a violation of international law for a country to impose any kind of protection on its agricultural sector. I believe that every country, in order to have national security, has to have the most important dietary elements for its population produced within its borders. But under the WTO rules you would not be able to maintain policies to guarantee that. It would also require that Third World countries reduce any remaining tariffs much more dramatically than northern countries would have to reduce theirs.

Basically what happens with free trade or the integration of economies is that you go from a relatively small-sized national economy to a larger economy. If you have a small economy that's too small to support a Cargill or an ADM, and you have protection so that it's hard for those companies to get in, then you have a situation where smaller producers and smaller companies can flourish. When you open up into a larger economy, you create the conditions where the giant conglomerates now have large enough market conditions to support themselves, and then they can undercut everyone else and drive everyone else out of business. So as we go from smaller economies to larger economies, we create the conditions where the largest multinationals can use their power in the marketplace to drive everyone else out of business, with devastating social consequences.

MM: What is multifunctionality?
Multifunctionality is a way of characterizing agriculture that would set it apart from other kinds of economic activity, like industry. The notion is that farming isn't just producing corn the way that, for instance, a shoe factory produces shoes, because agriculture also involves the management of natural resources. Agriculture has impacts on culture and ways of life, and farmers are the custodians of those cultures.

The concept of multifunctionality was developed by the European Union as a way of arguing that agriculture should receive special treatment in the WTO and shouldn't be opened to free trade the way that industry has been.

Unfortunately, that notion didn't have a lot of success in terms of trying to stop the U.S.-driven juggernaut towards free trade in agriculture.

The United States was able to point out quite rightly that Western Europe was being hypocritical in saying that they wanted protection for agriculture in order to preserve its multiple functions, given the way European export subsidies are destroying farming in the Third World. Of course the United States was also being hypocritical, since U.S. export dumping is also destroying agriculture throughout the Third World. As a result of the U.S. maneuvering, this very interesting and I think potentially very useful concept fell by the wayside.

MM: How would you like to see it incorporated into trade agreements?
It should be the basis for excluding agriculture from the WTO altogether. I think that agriculture does serve these multiple functions. It is very special and important, and it shouldn't be subjected to arbitrary and exaggerated free trade policies.

If agriculture were excluded from the WTO, then countries would be able to develop policies towards their rural sectors that were tailored towards their own rural needs, their own realities and their own cultures, something that's not permitted under the WTO. Multifunctionality does give at least a theoretical argument for why you should exclude agriculture.

MM: How does land reform work to promote the kinds of goals that you're talking about? In areas where there has been a heavy liberalization and destruction of the rural sector, does land reform help revitalize these areas?
First of all, I believe that a small farm model is the only way to achieve broad-based economic development, where poor people themselves are the source of production within an economy. I also believe that small farmers are better stewards of natural resources, and that a small farm system offers much more sustainability in the long run. Without land reform to create a small farm system in many countries of the world, truly sustainable development is not possible.

However, redistributing land is not enough. If we redistribute land but allow trade liberalization to move ahead, then we're giving people land under economic circumstances under which it's impossible to survive on that land. Land reform is a key policy for rural development, but it must go hand-in-hand with stepping back from the free trade agenda in agriculture and also with reversing some of the anti-small farmer and anti-peasant biases in agriculture and agricultural policies around the world.

MM: Given that kind framework, what makes for good land reform?
Good land reform redistributes good quality land to truly needy families and gives that land to them in a macroeconomic environment in which small farm agricultural production is viable. It gives them the support services like access to market, credits and good technical assistance about sustainable or organic kinds of production practices that provide them an opportunity to succeed.

If land reform gives people very poor land in remote areas with no access to markets and a macroeconomic environment in which agricultural production itself is not viable, then we're setting people up for failure.

When we look at the history of land reforms in the post-war period around the world, we find a range from very successful land reforms which led to very successful broad-based economic development -- in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the People's Republic of China and Cuba -- to countries where land reform was an abysmal failure and people eventually moved deeper and deeper into poverty -- countries like Mexico, the Philippines, El Salvador, etc.

So land reform has to be a real land reform in which people get good quality land and in which market conditions favor their production, and in which they have a supportive state for small-farm production. Otherwise, it's doomed to be a failure.

But we do have these great success stories that show that under the right circumstances and with the right set of policies it really can be the key to turning the corner towards broad-based economic development with economic benefits for all.