On Science, Agriculture and Progress, Part 1

My recent post on the silences of the Sustainability Principles announced by the World Cocoa Foundation elicited two comments from some rather high-powered sources. First came a comment from someone at the Sustainable Tree Crops Program which is actively engaged in training cocoa farmers through its farmer field schools and which receives some of its funding from the WCF. This was followed by a comment from Jim Gockowski, who’s with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a multinational/multidisciplinary organization promoting science as a means to reduce poverty and malnutrition around the world. I guess I ought to be gratified that my blog has caught the attention of folks at those levels. So here’s a reply.

Both comments critique my description of the fundamental contradiction between the desire of the chocolate industry to guarantee abundant, long-term supplies of cocoa beans through increased production and productivity and the farmers’ desire to maximize income. I was accused of suggesting that farmers would be better off not improving their productivity and of being ignorant of the micro, meso and macro effects of science-led progress.

untitled-imageSo let’s look at the critique in more detail. At the core of both comments is the “ceteris paribus, (everything else being equal)” assumption. X will lead to Y, everything else being equal. The point, though, is that everything else is never equal. Yes, improved productivity yields better income if we only look at individual farmers who are, of course,  eager to improve their productivity. But if everyone does it, that goal won’t be achieved. The collective impact of improved productivity for cocoa will be lower prices. The data of the ICCO for the past ten years are quite clear, the higher the stocks to grindings ratio (an indicator of the amount of cocoa available in the world), the lower the world market price and vice-versa.

But wait a moment, say both critics. The point of making farmers more productive is to weed out those farmers who don’t innovate, are lazy or otherwise don’t get with the program. They can’t handle the lower prices and will drop out of the cocoa economy. The remaining farmers–all innovators–are more productive and, on average, make more money. Each round of innovation will push more farmers out leaving only the most productive who will enjoy high incomes.

And what happens to  those drop-out farmers? They move to the cities to work in manufacturing at low wages because productive agriculture has made low food prices possible (never mind that cocoa is for export and thus has little impact on food prices).

Wow, I suddenly feel transported back into the 1950s, reading Rostow’s “The Stages of Economic Growth.” I find it hard to believe that in 2009 there are still organizations that approach to agricultural development with a model that assumes  West African countries will follow the development path of the U.S. or Western Europe–agriculture becomes more productive and those farmers driven off the land become workers in the manufacturing sector.

But this is what “ceteris paribus” thinking does. It ignores all the other forces at work. Let me just mention one: since the late 1970s, the structural adjustment programs of the international financial institutions have eviscerated whatever manufacturing capacity had been built up in West Africa. That sector is rather unlikely to absorb all those farmers left by the way side.

Yes, the erstwhile farmers will move to the cities. They have been doing this in droves for while now. But not to work in factories. I suggest reading Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums for a harrowing account of where the farmers will likely end up.

To be continued …

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