Monday, April 02, 2018

Toward new models for the scale and practice of agriculture

Over the course of a month or two (perhaps longer), I’m going to occasionally post snippets from a handful of Rob Wallace’s rhetorically pungent, intellectually incisive, and politically powerful collection of essays in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatchers on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (Monthly Review Press, 2016). Early last year I posted notice of an article in New Left Review, 102 (Nov/Dec 2016): “Ebola’s Ecologies: Agro-Economics and Epidemiology in West Africa,” co-authored by Rob Wallace and Rodrick Wallace, appending a list of suggested reading that included Big Farms. I will post bits and pieces from the book sans the notes and with slight editing (e.g., in the interest of length, I’ve left out some of the many examples that illuminate the arguments), although I may provide some embedded links (some of which may be in the book’s notes). As this work—with notes—is well over 400 pages, the material I’m sharing is best viewed as providing but the slightest taste of its contents, although I hope it is sufficiently representative and enticing enough to stimulate your desire to read it in toto.
Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist, is currently an advisor for the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) and a visiting lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Global Studies. He blogs at Farming Pathogens.
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“For the past three decades, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have made loans to poorer countries conditioned on removing supports for domestic food markets. Small farmers cannot compete with cheaper corporate imports subsidized by the Global North. Many farmers either give up for a life on peri-urban margins or are forced to contract out their services—their land, their labor—to livestock multinationals now free to move in. The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Investment Measures permit foreign companies, aiming to reduce production costs, to purchase and consolidate small producers in poorer countries. [….]
Clearly agribusiness, structural adjustment, global finance, environmental destruction, climate change, and the emergence of pathogenic influenzas are more tightly integrated than previously thought. The nest of dependencies requires fuller investigation. [….]
While the argument has been made that corporate food supplies the cheap protein many of the poorest need, the millions of small farmers who fed themselves (and many millions more) would never have needed such a supply if they had not been pushed off their lands in the first place. A reversal need not involve ending global trade or an anachronistic turn to the small family farm, but might include domestically protected farming at multiple scales. Farm ownership, infrastructure, working conditions, and animal health are inextricably linked. Once workers have a stake in both input and output—the latter by outright ownership, profit sharing, or the food itself—production can be structured in such a way that respects human welfare, and, as a consequence, animal health. With locale-specific farming, genetic monocultures of domesticated animals which promote the evolution of virulence can be diversified back into heirloom varieties that can serve as immunological firebreaks. The economic losses influenza imposes upon global livestock can be tempered: fewer interruptions, eradication campaigns, price jolts, emergency vaccinations, and wholesale repopulations. Rather than jury-rigged with each outbreak, the capacity for restricting livestock movement is built naturally into the regional farm model. [….]
Rather than to the expectations of an abstract neoclassical model of production, the scale and practice of agriculture can be flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social, and epidemiological landscapes on the ground. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that under such arrangements not all parcels will be routinely profitable. As [Richard] Levins points out, whatever reductions in income farms accrue in protecting the rest of the region must be offset by regular redistributive mechanisms.” [….]
From the article, “The Political Virology of Offshore Farming,” first published in Antipode, November 2009 (Big Farms …: 50-84). 

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