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13.9.03

Farms vs. wilderness

(You're getting four new posts all at once, because the previous posts were still in draft form when I wrote this one, so I coudn't publish until they were all ready.)

The Cancún Delusion

... The desire of many on the left to preserve traditional small-scale agriculture in the third world is also on a collision course with the goal of preserving the last remnants of global wilderness. High-tech agriculture wastes fossil fuels — but it spares land, by growing more food on less acreage. Genetically modified crops promise to do the same. Premodern third world agriculture doesn't rely on chemicals or genetically modified crops. But it takes far more land to grow the same crop by traditional methods than it does by means of industrial farming. The earth's remaining wilderness would be in even greater danger if the opening of northern markets were to create a financial incentive for developing nations to replace forests, savannas and wetlands with land-wasting peasant farms.

These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much third world wilderness will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage — at the expense of the environment.


The argument here rests on seeing "the environment" as synonymous with "wilderness." Lind (the author) portrays industrial farming as a buffalo commons sort of solution, with the impacts of human use concentrated in a smaller area of farms, leaving more space wild. Standard industrial agriculture, with its reliance on chemicals and monocropping, does create such environmental sacrifice zones. However, he overlooks the ecological value of traditional farming methods. Multiple-crop strategies (such as shade-grown coffee) allow farmland to be shared with organisms other than crops. Thus, the adverse environmental impact of traditional farming can be less than that of industrial farming, either per unit of land or per unit of output. I don't mean to suggest that traditional farmers are "angels in the ecosystem" -- they can mismanage their land, often in response to the pressure of outside political and economic forces. But you can't estimate environmental impact by simply looking at acreage.

Lind's point about subsidy reduction hurting small farmers by encouraging industrialization of agriculture is an important caution, though not one that I think totally undermines the case for subsidy reduction (neither does Lind, though others do). There's scope for a degree of trickle-down if industrialized agriculture boosts third world economies -- consider that the urban poor in the US are better off than their counterparts in the third world (which is what displaced small farmers would become) because of the combination of successful businesses to tax and democratic government to use those taxes wisely. More interestingly, Lind rightly makes the point that subsidies should be ended if for no other reason than that the first world shouldn't be subsidizing giant agribusiness companies, who are the recipients of most subsidies (not the small farmers that the subsidies purportedly help). It seems that an end to subsidies would reduce these corporations' power, thus weakening their hand vis-a-vis small third world farmers, allowing those farmers to strike better deals. Also, the main stumbling block to ending farm subsidies is the power of the agribusiness lobby. So subsidies would only be able to be ended in a climate of reduced political clout for these companies, which would in turn also reduce their power.

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