Is the Debate about Agriculture Really About Values?
Sometimes, it's less about what we think is true, and more about what we think is good
In the last instalment, we dove into the research about smallholder farmers and their contribution to global food security. It showed us that—at the very least—we ought to take seriously the idea that industrial agriculture is not the only way to feed a growing population. It seemed, at first glance, to be a conversation about data—which method could reliably produce enough food to feed everyone. Upon closer examination, however, the real debate here is not about the research. There’s a lot more going on.
In that piece, I referenced a blog post by Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data (OWID). In it, she breaks down the research by Vincent Ricciardi and his team that claims the percentage of food smallholders produce is 30 percent, “less than half of what many headlines claim.” The entire post centres on the numbers—after all, OWID is a data-driven research organisation. But the last two lines of her blog post struck me. They read:
“We should avoid the romanticization of a future where most still spend their time working the fields for small returns. That would be a future where hundreds of millions continue to live in poverty.”
It struck me just how clearly the first sentence is a value judgement about agriculture, rather than a comment on the research. (The second sentence, although I disagree with its claim wholeheartedly, could theoretically be answered through research.) Nothing in the blog post or the research cited previously made any claims about small-scale agriculture being desirable. It came out of nowhere, a glimpse into the author’s true beliefs about where agriculture ought to fit within society.
It shows how deeply our world views—our ideologies—differ when it comes to agriculture. Ritchie doesn’t simply find the research by Ricciardi, Lowder, and their teams convincing; she finds the original 70 percent claim dangerous for its implications that small-scale agriculture is in any way desirable. Judging by the quote, Ritchie believes a couple of things that many people working in the more technocratic side of agriculture take to be truth: (1) that small-scale agriculture and poverty are two sides of the same coin—the implication being that this destitution is something inherent to agriculture, rather than something that is due to the unjust conditions that are keeping agricultural communities impoverished, and (2) that small-scale farming is synonymous with small returns (we have research to show this isn’t true, at least by measurement of yield).
As a result, Ritchie—and the many others who share her views—don’t simply believe that industrialised methods are necessary; they believe that they are good. There is a wide camp that sees agriculture, fundamentally, as difficult, dangerous, undesirable work that human beings should be liberated from through technology (a word often invoked is “drudgery”). To people with this view, advocating for small-scale agriculture necessarily means trapping millions in poverty, because small-scale agriculture requires labour, and they believe that agricultural labour is not something people do by choice, but overwhelmingly out of necessity. As a result, small-scale agriculture is an extremely bad outcome. The pathway forward, therefore, is “sustainable intensification,” using more “green technologies” to free people from small-scale agriculture and place them in other industries while hopefully minimising the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
This view of agriculture is deeply embedded into our society—organisations like OWID show in their research how “prosperous” economies are those that have the fewest people working in agriculture. This leads us to the conventional wisdom that largely agricultural countries are unproductive and impoverished in part because so many people are employed in the sector, and that the way forward is to lower the share of people working in agriculture towards more “productive” ones like manufacturing or technology. (That idea would take a newsletter on its own to unpack.)
This divide is something I’m surprised we don’t speak about more in the food movement. As we explored in the instalment about Foucault, Western science is the dominant way that we determine what is true and what is false. As a result, it’s no wonder that we clamour, on one side, trying to prove the potential of methods like agroecology in the research, while on the other, millions of dollars are poured into proving that agriculture can “intensify” sustainability. But lurking underneath these attempts at revealing the truth, there are almost always ideologies.
I don’t think that it’s a neutral, differing opinion, “agree to disagree” type of situation, either. I believe (as many of you reading probably do as well) that there is—amidst all of the complexity—a right answer and a wrong one. I believe that industrial agriculture, even with the technological fixes designed to curb emissions, is unfit for the challenges facing agriculture this century. I believe that small-scale agriculture—when adequately invested in, incentivised, and supported—is more than sufficient to feed a growing population (as well as has countless environmental benefits, safeguards biodiversity, and can adequately support agricultural communities). And perhaps most crucially, I believe that a sizeable number of people do want to practice agriculture, but under better and fairer conditions.
Truthfully, however, I struggle with how to move forward beyond this realisation for a couple of reasons. The first is just that there’s something demoralising about realising that data isn’t enough to convince people of your position. We saw this play out in climate change when a scientific consensus emerged that humans were causing the warming of the planet and the response from industry was to manufacture doubt, creating so much confusion that any coordinated action was delayed or abandoned for years. When they couldn’t do that anymore, it just became an “us vs. them,” dynamic between those who continue to deny the science and those who do not—a political stance, rather than one based on fact. There was no paper, study, or meta-analysis on the planet that could change the minds of those in the former category because it wasn’t about the lack of convincing evidence in the first place. It was about the implications of accepting that humans are causing this destruction—about what kind of world they want to live in, what reality they can come to terms with, and what accepting that truth would mean.
I fear that the same thing is happening in agriculture. There is so much promising evidence for agroecology and other small-scale, low-input farming models to aid in climate change efforts, improve rural economies and livelihoods, and produce adequate yields to feed communities. But we aren’t clamouring to implement agroecology, nor are we even trying to study it further. In the European Union, 80 percent of subsidies and 90 percent of research funding go to industrial agriculture. Only 10 percent of the research funding goes to anything else.
And so, we still charge ahead with slightly improved industrialised methods, even when the evidence begins to point otherwise. It’s an old story—there are powerful companies and industries who make billions of dollars from this system, and don’t want to change it. So they delay, they fund the research they want to see, and they push the narratives that will benefit them so that at least there is enough confusion to push things forward without too much controversy.
The other reason I struggle is that there is always just a small amount of lingering doubt about how correct my view of agriculture really is. What if the other side is right? What if the majority of small farmers would jump at the opportunity to work somewhere else? It is true that in pursuing small-scale farming, you cannot escape the necessity of labour. If most of the people engaged in farming do not want to be doing that labour—even if the conditions of injustice were removed—then advocating for such a labour-heavy future for agriculture would, indeed, be misguided.
Nobody has gone out and asked the one billion people who work in agriculture if they want to be working in agriculture, and if they would want to work in agriculture if it were under more just conditions, so we can’t answer that question empirically. But all of my experience working with small farmers who are part of the food sovereignty movement deeply contradicts the position held by Ritchie and those who share her views. First of all, there are over 200 million farmers who are part of the food sovereignty movement under the umbrella of La Via Campesina, which is a sizeable indication of many people at least wanting to remain in agriculture to improve its conditions, rather than just leave altogether. In places like the US, young people are beginning to re-enter agriculture when offered incentives like tuition-free agricultural education.
But on a more granular level, the farmers I have spoken to highly value agriculture—they recognise its embeddedness in their cultures and heritage, the value of the skill and knowledge they can pass down to future generations, and the importance of the connection it affords them to the earth. They would like it to be different, certainly. Nobody wants to pursue any vocation under unjust circumstances. But they see agriculture itself as something inherently valuable and worth pursuing.
This is the viewpoint that seems missing from the discussion amongst those who share Ritchie’s views. It seems presumptuous of those who favour industrial agriculture to assume that all small farmers are engaged in agriculture due to a lack of options and must be liberated from the toils of farming through technology. Many farmers do not feel this way at all. But it would be presumptuous of those sharing my position to assume that all small farmers do value agriculture and want to pursue it under fairer conditions. Some do not, and would like to move to other sectors but face barriers in doing so. Both sides have truth to them.
But regardless of the exact numbers on each side, the important thing is that farmers be presented with genuine choices about their livelihoods. And those on the technocratic side seem intent making that choice for them, believing that they, the experts, know what is best, while the other is fighting for a multitude of choices to be available to all farmers, in order for them to make their own decisions within their communities. This is why the framing of food sovereignty will ultimately lead to greater justice.
I have no grand words to complete this, only to leave us with a couple of things to consider. The first is that we should not be naive enough to think that data alone is enough to convince people of a pathway forward. Research, although valuable, is not immune to ideology, and does not present a straight line to corresponding policy interventions. Many of the underlying questions that permeate this process cannot be answered by data alone, because they are inherently moral in nature. They are questions that we must answer ourselves; as individuals, and as members of communities. What kind of agricultural future do we want? Where does farming fit within our vision of an ideal society, and why? Who will this future include? Who will it leave behind?
The second is to remind us why the stories we tell are crucial to the future of the food system. If we ignore our very human connection to food — the way it binds us to each other, to place, to our heritage, to ourselves — we run the risk of allowing others to define it for us. This is the time to ask ourselves these questions, to imagine what kind of system we want to live in. To tell new stories. To radically reimagine our relationship to food — and to each other.
This article from GRAIN titled “Funding industrial agriculture vs agroecology: Not a simple binary.” I found it after writing this instalment and I think it adds important nuance and extension to some of the points made here. As they write, “What’s concerning today is a tendency, on the side of movements and their allies, to try to leverage the same money and actors who are driving the problem as a platform or stepping stone to the solution.” It’s not as simple as switching research funding from one to the other—more systemic change is needed.
This article from Atmos offers much-needed nuance to the Inflation Reduction Act passed in the U.S. last week. Claimed to be a groundbreaking bill on climate action by many, this piece questions the Act's lack of reparations to frontline communities, its handouts to fossil fuel companies, and its failure to address legacies of injustice.
This article by Charles C. Mann (another AGC classic) which breaks down the origins of both of the different ideologies presented here. It gives a fascinating historical look at just how deeply rooted these two views are—and how difficult it is to have them intersect.
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This instalment of Offshoot was written by Thea Walmsley, with editing support from the team.