Small Farms Are More Efficient & Sustainable

Multinational Monitor
July/August 2000, Volume 21, Number 7& 8

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 the book "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

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?

Rosset: 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

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?

Rosset: 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

Rosset: 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

Rosset: 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

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?

Rosset: 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?

Rosset: 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?

Rosset: 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?

Rosset: 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?

Rosset: 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?

Rosset: 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

Rosset: 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

MM: Given that kind framework, what makes for good land reform?

Rosset: 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.

Peter Rosset, Ph.D.
Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy
398 60th Street
Oakland, CA 94618 USA
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