Farming under capitalism
We begin a three-part series on farming as it is under capitalism and how it could be in a post-capitalist, socialist society.
As agriculture globally is already able to produce enough to comfortably feed the entire world then the exhortation to increase the productivity of (mainly small-scale) farmers, particularly in the Global South, through the adoption of modern commercialised methods of farming would, on the face of it, appear redundant. Why would we need to go down that road?
True, the individual farmer might benefit by increasing their output but it does not necessarily follow that farmers in general would. We should avoid committing the fallacy of composition. What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole. A different dynamic applies at the macro-level vis-à-vis the micro-level. A single farmer growing more potatoes might benefit from the increased revenue it brings in. However, an increase in output among potato farmers in general to the point where the market for potatoes is glutted only results in generalised economic distress.
In a competitive market economy one economic agent not infrequently tends to gain at the expense of another. Indeed, this principle is enshrined in the very heart of a market-based mindset itself. It is enthusiastically endorsed as an example of the ‘creative destruction’ that the market process thrives upon. Technological innovation and modernisation under capitalism, it is argued, depends upon this. It is only by cutting out the deadwood that the green shoots of economic growth can be encouraged to appear.
A rising tide does not necessarily lift all the boats; some will sink. In this metaphorical vein, we will now turn to consider the make and model of those that remain afloat and assess their comparative durability in the choppy waters of the high seas. In other words, the different farming regimes that make up our global system of agricultural production.
The type of farming some of us would probably be more familiar with is the modern industrialised capitalist agriculture that tends to be found in the more economically advanced parts of the world. This farming model is increasingly, and stereotypically, one dominated by often very large-sized farms, practising monoculture – growing a single cash crop or specialising in rearing one or other kind of livestock – and employing very few workers, the entire production process being highly capital intensive from start to finish. These different features tend to go together. For instance, you cannot effectively operate a large farm with just a mere handful of workers unless you have heavy machinery at your disposal. Similarly, in order to justify the purchase of such machinery you need to have a pretty sizeable farm and a substantial cash flow in the first place. The one thing sort of presupposes – or necessitates – the other.
In terms of output per agricultural worker, large-scale industrial farming is certainly highly productive but as a yardstick with which to measure ‘efficiency’, this can be quite misleading. A single worker operating a giant combine harvester (which might cost half a million US dollars or more) can harvest a field of wheat at a rate that would have taken probably scores of farm labourers a century or two ago to match. However, it is not simply the labour of this single operator that we have to take into account in making comparisons. We have also to take into account the labour involved in producing this highly sophisticated piece of machinery, in mining the ores that will later be fashioned into its component parts, in maintaining and servicing the harvester and ensuring that it is in a state of readiness come harvest time and so on. From that point of view, the great bulk of the workforce implicated in one or other way in what is called the ‘farming industry’ are, strictly speaking, ‘off-farm’ workers employed in factories.
In any case, output per worker is not the only criterion with which to judge ‘productivity’; output per hectare is another and this latter criterion is bound to count for more in a world that is more heavily populated (and where, consequently, land is less abundant). From this point of view large-scale commercial farms do not score as highly as might be imagined. In the Global South especially – though less so in the developed countries – these perform poorly by comparison with more traditional, labour intensive, small-scale farmers adopting what might be called a more organic approach.
In developed countries, too, there is some evidence to favour an organic approach over a conventional chemical-based approach to farming. The problem lies in transitioning from the latter to the former when a loss in yields can be expected in this transitional period. In today’s highly commercialised environment where the emphasis is on short term results, this may be too great a hurdle to surmount; for a struggling farmer it could be just too financially risky. How do you cope with the unavoidable temporary decline in yields, and therefore revenue, and still cover your financial costs?
We tend to associate conventional farming with big industrial farms. Their big size almost calls for a capital-intensive and, along with that, a heavily chemical-based approach to farming. This is precisely what makes it rather difficult for them to switch over to a more organic approach.
The problem for small farmers is that, despite being more productive per hectare and being able to fetch higher prices for their produce by cutting out the middlemen, they can barely survive on such a low overall income whereas the big farmers with so much more land at their disposal can manage to get by with a comparatively much lower return per hectare. In the capitalist market, it is those who survive who will drive out those who cannot. Hence the tendency for agricultural land to become more concentrated in fewer hands.
A recent example was the Sri Lankan government’s (over)hasty decision to ban the importation of agro-chemicals from April 2021. Ostensibly, this decision was made to save $300-$400 million in foreign exchange. But the farming community there had not been sufficiently prepared for the changeover and supplies of organic fertiliser were woefully inadequate. As a consequence the government had to backtrack on that decision later that same year. (‘Lessons from Sri Lanka’s agrochemical ban fiasco’, 25 November 2021, Grain.org – bit.ly/3JKTevI).
This is precisely the kind of problem that will cease to exist in a post-capitalist society. Individual farming units will no longer be faced with the need to ensure their own economic survival in a harsh and unforgiving commercial environment. They will no longer be competing with each other in the market to realise a profit through the sale of their produce. So there will be no penalty or handicap in transitioning to a more organically based form of farming if this was desired. That makes for a much more flexible approach to food production altogether.
Next month: farming in a post-capitalist society.