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The FAO mask slips further

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Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme ‘Innovation in family farming’ (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.

Are roads good for farmers or is research best? FAO’s annual measures both apples and oranges

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The FAO’s annual State of Food Agriculture in 2012 is called ‘investing in agriculture for a better future’. As the FAO’s premier ‘flagship’ report for the year, it is dense, is heavy with agri-oriented macro-economics, and is equally heavy with data and unabridged explanations of the roles of public investment and measures of agricultural productivity.

This is only a very fleeting sampling of the content of this year’s SOFA (as it is rather irreverently abbreviated into, both within FAO and outside it) and here I have picked out some thought-provoking material from the chapter on ‘channelling public investment towards higher returns’. [The State of Food and Agriculture main page is here. For those in a hurry there is an executive summary. The full report [pdf] can be found here.]

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

Country studies in several regions have found – said SOFA 2012 – positive relationships between government expenditure on agriculture and growth in agricultural and total GDP, while confirming that the type of expenditure matters. “In Rwanda,” said SOFA, “1 dollar of additional government expenditures on agricultural research increases agricultural GDP by 3 dollars, but the effects were larger for staples such as maize, cassava, pulses and poultry than for export crops. In India, expenditures aimed at improving productivity in livestock had greater returns and were more effective in mitigating poverty than general public investment in agriculture.”

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The FAO report quotes from and refers to substantial literature on public investment in agricultural research and development, which SOFA 2012 shows has been one of the most effective forms of public investment over the past 40 years. The FAO’s prescription (or should it be direction?) is that because R&D drives technical change and productivity growth in agriculture, it raises farm incomes and reduces prices for consumers. I do think bits like this (which do tend to litter recent SOFAs) ought to be balanced by other views from FAO’s abundant research on ‘technical change’ and ‘productivity growth’, concepts that for the majority of small cultivators and for the majority of poor consumers of food mean more varieties of processed food from a shrinking variety of cereals being made available at higher prices.

Regrettably, the FAO burbles on about how “the benefits multiply throughout the economy as the extra income is used to purchase other goods and services, which in turn create incomes for their providers”, and about how “the welfare effects are large and diffuse, benefiting many people who are far removed from agriculture, so they are not always recognised as stemming directly from agricultural research”.

Surely, a tome as magisterial as the SOFA is meant to be needn’t grasp at such emblematic straws? For most smallholder cultivating households, the portion of agricultural income in total household income varies widely, and varies within a year between seasons. It is in my view therefore quite impossible to speak of benefits multiplying throughout the economy and of immeasurable but present welfare effects. How and for who, a SOFA should tell us, but this one does not.

The SOFA 2012 has added that “after agricultural R&D, the ranking of returns to other investment areas differs by country, suggesting that public investment priorities depend on local conditions, but rural infrastructure and road development are often ranked among the top sources of overall economic growth in rural areas”. Yes indeed they are, and I can say from experience in India that a better road (not a ‘good’ road, which is hard to find especially once a couple of monsoon months have had their way with roads) does local ‘mandis’ (farmers’ markets) much good.

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

“In Ethiopia, said the SOFA, access to all-weather roads reduced poverty by 6.9 percent and increased consumption growth by 16.3 percent. Returns to public investment in road infrastructure in Ethiopia were by far the highest of all categories. In Uganda, the marginal returns to public spending on feeder roads on agriculture output and poverty reduction was three to four times larger than the returns to public spending on larger roads.”

Well, yes and no is my view. Roads are used for non-agricultural purposes too, and tend more often than not to ‘open up’ (for better or worse) land use options along their length. If the incomes of agriculturally-dependent households became more varied because of family members being able to use new roads to find new wage opportunities (not necessarily agriculture-related) then how is one to apportion the additional benefit between being able to cart crop produce with less trouble than earlier, and between making use of a new informal labour transportation option that brings in extra wage earnings?

“Public goods in rural areas also tend to be complementary,” said SOFA 2012. In general yes, I agree. But then the SOFA cues the industrial-speak. “For example, in Bangladesh, villages with better infrastructure benefited more from agricultural research than villages with poorer infrastructure; they used more irrigation, improved seed and fertiliser, paid lower fertiliser prices, earned higher wages and had significantly higher production increases”.

This is an over-optimistic way of putting matters, and analogously, urban households that have access to a faster broadband service ‘benefit’ more from e-governance than households still using dial-up modems – but is there a demonstrable link to better or lower income? Moreover, ‘more’ and ‘better’ and ‘improved’ really is the language of industrial agriculture (and I can’t see lower fertiliser prices having been any more than a blip, certainly not a lasting condition).

The FAO’s SOFAs are always exceedingly valuable volumes, and provide much that sharpens our knowledge about food and agriculture, and they certainly widen our views about factors that can convincingly be linked with others which were hitherto ignored (or not attempted because of a lack of data). There is however to FAO first and to its many hundreds of thousands of ‘dependents’ (self included) next, the danger of following too enthusiastically (and uncritically) the ‘growth is good’ and hence more ‘growth is better’ train of advice. No doubt SOFA 2012 has passages that are likely more judicious, and we will examine these over the next few months.

Barefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India

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An interesting short video from FAO on water management and cultivating responses to indeterminate (or insufficient) water stocks. In southern India, the climate is becoming unpredictable and drought more common , says FAO – and this indeed is the case for peninsular India in general. Indiscriminate pumping from shallow aquifers shared by many farmers has caused abnormal drops in water levels, most notably in northern and north-west India, in the states of Punjab and Haryana which were the Green Revolution model states. When a well goes dry, a farmer loses his crop. In Andhra Pradesh, said FAO, 6,000 farmers have been trained in groundwater management by a project run by Indian NGOs and guided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have learned to monitor how much water is available underground at the start of the growing season. Then they only plant crops that need that much water.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

Here is some background on the legacy of irrigation in India, and the administrative functions that large irrigation projects provided the state, whether that state was colonial (as a dominion of Great Britain) or independent (Republic of India). “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India  was the ‘irrigation champion’ of the world. While the colonial government initially neglected the maintenance and upkeep of the numerous but mostly small irrigation structures, it soon spotted the potential for large-scale canal irrigation as an economic enterprise and took to canal building as a business on a massive scale. In those days, there was much dissatisfaction with irrigation management among observers and investors who expected much higher financial return on irrigation investments.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

This is written by By Tushaar Shah in the chapter, ‘Past, Present, and the Future of Canal Irrigation in India’, found in ‘India Infrastructure Report 2011 – Water: Policy and Performance for Sustainable Development’, (Oxford University Press 2011).

“Yet, in retrospect, around 1900, canal irrigation systems in India were arguably in a far better state than today in terms of their operation and maintenance (O&M), productivity impacts, and financial returns. If we look at the situation ten years ago, around 2000, while the new welfare state had kept alive the colonial tradition of big time canal construction, the management of canal irrigation had become pathetic in terms of all the criteria on which it excelled a century ago.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

“The dominant view about the way out is that farmer management through water user associations can restore canal irrigation to its old glory. However, this may not be the correct thinking. Shah has argued that the larger socio-technical fundamentals in which canal irrigation can thrive in a smallholder agrarian setting were all mostly present around 1900 and are all mostly absent today.”

The colonial irrigation management was a high input-high output affair, said Shah. A vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to the village level used forced labour to maintain canal network, managed water distribution, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

In the canal commands, the canal water ‘tax had to be paid regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year or whether or not there was a reliable supply from the canal’ (Hardiman 2002: 114). This, according to Hardiman, encouraged, even forced, farmers to grow valuable commercial crops to generate cash. It also resulted in much litigation from dissatisfied zamindars who put pressure on canal managers to ensure water delivery and maintain canals. The amounts provided for O&M were substantial so that deferred maintenance was minimal.

As a commercial venture, the performance of canal irrigation has decidedly declined over the past 100 years. D.R. Gadgil, the pioneer of Indian economic planning, had argued that, in a poor agrarian economy like India, public irrigation investments should be judged on their social and economic returns rather than their financial returns. Soon after Independence, irrigation charges were drastically reduced; and even these declined to a small fraction. Have public irrigation investments in free India delivered the irrigation—and the socio-economic returns they were designed for as Gadgil had hoped?  Unfortunately, the answer to the question is ‘No’; and there lies the heart of the problem. The financial rot was the harbinger of a much deeper crisis of stagnation and decline in public irrigation systems whose social and economic returns turned out to be far smaller than imagined.