On Science, Agriculture and Progress, Part 3

On to the final part of my response–the role of science. Both comments advanced a view of science as the savior of poor African farmers. I beg to differ.

But let me first clarify. I’m not opposed to science. I understand that science has brought about important breakthroughs in agriculture. But I reject the view of science as a value-free zone that exists in a vacuum, separate from the rest of the world. Science is always for someone and for some purpose, to paraphrase Robert Cox.

And that social-embeddedness is crucial. Take the (in)famous green revolution in India. Yes, scientific research led to increases in yields and therefore increases in harvests. But it also introduced a dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Given the nature of property relations in India, that dependence increasingly forced small farmers off the land and increased the power of landowners. It left other farmers in debt that resulted in a wave of farmer suicides and families selling their daughters off into bondage.

You may say: “Yeah, but the more efficient producers won out, that’s the way of progress.” It turns out that the richer, more powerful producers won out. They are not the most efficient. Small farmers are almost always more efficient.

And the record of science is dubious in more ways than one. Take the fact that acres and acres of precious Midwestern top soil end up in the Mississippi rivers every year. That’s the result of farming according to scientific principles. Take GMOs. Yes, the produce larger harvests but they also leave farmers in bondage to the companies that engineered the seeds–never mind all the things we don’t even know about them yet. In terms of sustainability and social equality, agricultural science actually has a pretty spotty record.

Which finally brings me to producer prices. If we really want African cocoa farmers to produce cocoa in a sustainable way, producer prices must be included in the debate. They are as important to a sustainable cocoa economy as proper spacing and pruning. In the absence of decent producer prices the entire incentive structure is biased against sustainability.

Why should I,  as a cocoa farmer, plant trees farther apart when narrower spacing produces higher yields in the short term? Oh, right, in long term trees stay healthier and yield better. Well, since I can’t really predict the long term prices given the volatility on the global cocoa exchanges, I don’t really care about the long term.

Agronomists François Ruf and Honoré Zadi recently pointed out that a “high price paid to producers is essential to accelerate [the] innovations” necessary to shift the cocoa economy towards a more sustainable trajectory. But the WCF sustainability standards I wrote about in the original post have nothing to say about producer prices.  And that is the rub.

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