Glamorous excess is a staple of the mainstream media, even in its economic reporting. Stories about soaring corporate profits, exorbitant CEO salaries, improbably high stock prices, and the billions made by obscure dot-com start-ups so dominate the news that one could easily believe the globalised economy is making everyone (else) rich. But high-flying winners are the exception in today’s economic casino, and no-one is losing out more than small farmers.
In country after country, farmers are said to be in ‘crisis’, a word that only hinalts at the devastation besetting rural communities. In Europe 200,000 farmers and 600,000 beef producers gave up agriculture in 1999. UK farm income has dropped by as much as 75 percent over the past two years, driving more than 20,000 farmers from the land. British farmgate prices for virtually every commodity — including beef, lamb, milk, pork, chicken, eggs, oilseed rape, fruit and vegetables — are so low that farmers are getting less for them than they cost to produce.
American farmers are doing no better. Farm income declined by nearly half between 1996 and 1999, with farmgate prices so low at the end of 1998 that pork was selling for barely one-quarter of the farmer’s break-even price. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that this year’s price for major commodities like cotton and soybeans will be the lowest in more than 25 years. With elections looming, even politicians are taking notice: Vice President Al Gore admits it’s “the worst crisis our farmers have ever experienced…. The whole farm sector of our economy is on the verge of absolute bankruptcy.” This economic disaster is translating directly into human suffering: suicide is now the leading cause of death among American farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher than in the general population.
Since farmers and farm workers are the economic linchpins of their communities, entire rural economies are in decline. In the UK, for instance, 90 percent of rural businesses were forced to lay off staff last year. Rural economies in the US also depend heavily on farmers: when 235,000 farms failed during America’s mid-1980s farm crisis, 60,000 other rural businesses went down with them.
Statistics like these represent an acceleration of trends that have been underway for generations. In the North, where rural populations have been declining since the end of World War II, villages and small towns are being sapped of vitality, and many of their social and economic institutions are simply disappearing. Today, four out of ten parishes in rural England have no shop or post office, six out of ten no primary school, and three-quarters no bus service or health clinic. In the US, where only 1.5 percent of the population still lives on farms or ranches, it is not unusual to find places like McPherson County in Nebraska, which has lost two-thirds of its population — as well as 19 post offices, 58 school districts, and three entire towns — since 1920.
If rural communities in the industrialised world are under siege, their counterparts in the South may be even worse off. In China, for example, the modernisation of agriculture has already led to the uprooting of more than half the rural population in the last two decades. In the coming years, economic forces will pull so many Chinese from their villages that 600 new cities will be required to handle the rural exodus, according to China’s Vice Minister of Construction.
The global economy has been equally ruthless with farmers in other parts of the South. Pastoralists in West Africa have been displaced by cheap meat imports from Europe, while Indian farmers that grow traditional oilseeds like sesame, linseed, and mustard are being driven under by soya imported from America. Mexican beef producers are losing ground to US producers, whose inroads into Mexico’s markets have tripled since NAFTA was ratified. In Ladakh, a region in which 90 percent of the population is in agriculture, traditional barley staples are being displaced by Punjabi wheat and rice trucked over the Himalayas. One Ladakhi farmer wondered “what will happen in the future, now things are changing so much? Will we need farmers or won’t we?”
It is not surprising that farmers, connected as they are to an immobile landscape, suffer in a globalised economy that subsidises mobility and rewards those with no allegiance to place. Today’s economic ‘winners’ include investors who scour the planet for the highest return, moving capital from country to country at electronic speeds; corporate middlemen who make use of subsidies, currency swings, and ‘free trade’ agreements to profit by transporting everyday needs — including food — many thousands of miles; and transnational corporations that locate wherever they are offered tax breaks, cheap labour, and lax environmental and workplace rules — and then move on when a better deal is offered elsewhere.
Originally published in the June 2000 issue of The Ecologist magazine. To read the full article, please visit the International Society of Ecology & Culture website at: http://www.localfutures.org/publications/online-articles/the-farm-crisis