Sun, Jun 15, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Corporate farms hurting productivity

Peasants’ are detested by communists and capitalists, but the farms that they operate are unbeatable when it comes to output

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

I suggest you sit down before you read this. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is right. At the global food summit earlier this month he was the only leader to speak of “the importance of land in agricultural production and food security.” Countries should follow Zimbabwe’s lead, he said, in democratizing ownership.

Of course the old bastard has done just the opposite. He has evicted his opponents and given land to his supporters. He has failed to support the new settlements with credit or expertise, with the result that farming in Zimbabwe has collapsed. The country was in desperate need of land reform when Mugabe became president. It remains in desperate need of land reform today.

But he is right in theory. Though the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery. It was first made in 1962 by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, and has since been confirmed by dozens of studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount they produce. The smaller they are, the greater the yield.

In some cases, the difference is enormous. A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.

The finding would be surprising in any industry, as we have come to associate efficiency with scale. In farming it seems particularly odd, because small producers are less likely to own machinery, less likely to have capital or access to credit and less likely to know about the latest techniques.

There’s a good deal of controversy about why this relationship exists. Some researchers argued that it was the result of a statistical artifact: Fertile soils support higher populations than barren lands, so farm size could be a result of productivity, rather than the other way around.

But further studies have shown that the inverse relationship holds across an area of fertile land. Moreover, it works even in countries such as Brazil, where the biggest farmers have grabbed the best land.

The most plausible explanation is that small farmers use more labor per hectare than big farmers. Their workforce largely consists of members of their own families, which means that labor costs are lower than on large farms — they don’t have to spend money recruiting or supervising workers — while the quality of the work is higher. With more labor, farmers can cultivate their land more intensively; they spend more time terracing and building irrigation systems; they sow again immediately after the harvest; and they might grow several crops in the same field.

In the early days of the green revolution, this relationship seemed to go into reverse. The bigger farms, with access to credit, were able to invest in new varieties and boost their yields. But as the new varieties have spread to smaller farmers, the inverse relationship has reasserted itself.

If governments are serious about feeding the world, they should be breaking up large landholdings, redistributing them to the poor and concentrating their research and their funding on supporting small farms.

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