There are many well-meaning economists, aid workers, and organizations who go around the world to poorer countries and regions, with the laudable aim, so they believe, of helping farmers increase their yields and thereby earn more money, which in turn will enable them to improve their standard of living. In many cases, because of the dominant agricultural practices in the countries where they come from, these individuals advocate the use of expensive chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, genetically-modified seeds, modern farming machines, and other high-tech, man-made products in place of the less costly, traditional, labour-intensive, and more sustainable methods of agriculture that were or are practised in these countries.
As most farmers who live in poor countries are not well-educated and know little or nothing about the esoteric study known as economics, I have compiled a list of six simple questions they can ask the well-meaning individuals who come to help them, or those who want to sell them industrial farming products, along with the honest answers which they may not provide:
Question #1: If many or all of the farmers in the place where I live plant the same crop for export, as you urge me to do, what will happen to its price?
It will go down.
Question #2: Who will benefit from this decrease in the crop’s price?
Primarily the large multinational companies that buy large amounts of the crop and use it to manufacture various food products and other things such as clothes, as well as the consumers living in wealthy countries who buy these things. The less these companies pay for their inputs, then the more profit they make for their no-responsibility shareholders, who neither know nor care about you and your family.
Question #3: Is there a limit to how low the price can fall?
No. It can even happen that the price will fall below the cost of producing the crop, according to the logic of the free market, so that you, the farmer, will make no money and will become indebted, from which debt many of you will never escape. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers worldwide who have committed suicide because of their debts or loss of livelihood.
Question #4: If this happens, will you, or anyone else, help me and my family to survive?
No. You will be left entirely on your own to suffer the consequences of other people’s greed or their foolish advice.
Question #5: You declare that using chemical fertilizers, buying expensive farming equipment, and spraying toxic herbicides and pesticides will increase my productivity, and hence my income. But what are the long-term effects of these unnatural practices, both on the land and on my family’s health?
They will destroy the soil’s natural fertility by killing all the life that it supports, thereby making you completely dependent on continuing this cycle of artificial and expensive production. Moreover, as pests and diseases become resistant to the poisons that are used to kill them, they will become less and less effective against them, meaning that your productivity will inevitably decline. The repeated exposure to these poisons will have serious effects on you and your family’s health, such as cancer, birth defects, chronic illnesses, and premature death.
Question #6: You tell the government of my country that it must stop giving aid to farmers in the belief that this will make us more efficient and productive. But do the governments of wealthy countries follow this advice?
Certainly not, for they give huge amounts of aid – amounting to many billions of dollars each year – to their farmers, enabling them to produce the same crops which they encourage you to grow at a much lower cost than you will ever be able to grow them. Moreover, they have stood by, idly and indifferently, while many thousands or millions of their farmers have gone bankrupt and lost their farms as a result of their inhuman, free-market economic system, which pursues profit and productivity at the expense of everything else, including people’s lives, dignity, health, and well-being.
The economist’s naive belief that supply and demand will adjust to produce a stable equilibrium, where all the participants benefit and no one is coerced, is not always true because they fail to consider the important fact that human beings imitate one another. Hence, it can happen that all the farmers in a country or region, seeing or hearing about one or more farmers who prosper by planting a certain kind of crop, do likewise, expecting that they too will prosper; but instead, the price drops so much as a result of overproduction that they make no money, or they become trapped in debt from which they cannot escape. Another important fact which these economists frequently ignore is that, apart from farming, many of these farmers have no other means of earning a livelihood, since farming is all they know how to do. In other words, their labour, skills, knowledge, and abilities are not interchangeable, as economists blithely assume in developing their mathematically elegant and seemingly coherent but completely unrealistic theories about people’s behaviour.
Clearly there is a selfish interest on the part of those who buy large quantities of certain agricultural products, whether these are coffee, cocoa, grains, cereals, cotton, fruit, and vegetables, to encourage more and more farmers to grow them in order to increase their supply and thus lower their price. But the poor farmers, most of whom have no understanding of basic economic principles, do not know this, and so they gullibly go towards their entrapment in the global system of capitalist servitude and serfdom, believing that this is the only way to lift themselves out of poverty, as they have been repeatedly told by many, and frequently well-intentioned, people. A great deception has been practiced on many gullible rural farmers by institutions like the World Bank, multinational agribusinesses, and even their own governments, since those who run these companies and institutions know that increasing the supply of something will lead to lower prices, which may be good for them, but is often ruinous for small farmers and leads to the mass indebtedness that exists in many poor countries today.
Contrary to the economists’ dogmatic insistence that the whole world should specialize, specialize, specialize – which means becoming completely dependent on other people for almost everything one needs to survive – the goal of all poor farmers should be, first and foremost, to grow enough food to feed their family. Second, once this primary objective has been achieved, to grow food that one can sell to others to make some money, if possible in local markets. One should be wary of selling to foreign markets, since these can be extremely fickle and indifferent, with prices changing from year to year, or even from month to month, due, in part, to the entry of new producers – changes which can wreak havoc on a small farmer who doesn’t have much to sell, or who is entirely dependent on these impersonal and uncaring markets for one’s livelihood.
Above all, one should not follow the advice of those foolish economists who tell you to specialize in growing only one or a few crops for export, for this will make you completely dependent on market forces over which you will have no control. Moreover, using expensive industrial farming techniques and machines will lead to the disappearance of small-scale farmers, as has happened in all industrial countries where this model has been adopted or imposed, where the average farm size has increased considerably over the course of the past century, while the number of farmers has declined dramatically. There are many other things that matter in the grand scheme of things besides maximizing agricultural or industrial productivity, while we consumers are constantly exhorted, encouraged, wheedled, and manipulated into increasing our consumption of almost everything in order to absorb this increased production, which alters, pollutes, defaces, contaminates, and deadens many parts of the planet on which we depend for our long-term survival.
As these six questions and answers show, the ignorant, miseducated fools known as economists will work your ruin if you are so foolish as to follow their false or self-interested advice. Instead, if they ever appear on your doorstep or in your village, what you must do is take a stick and chase these dangerous ignoramuses out of your village, while making it clear that they are not welcome on your land, and that you will not let them ruin your and your family’s lives with their foolish advice.
In the past, Europeans and others came to foreign lands and sought to expropriate the land or the natural resources that were found there for their own benefit, which included forcing the native peoples into slavery. There also came missionaries who sought to save the natives’ souls by preaching conversion to their religion as the only means of salvation from eternal damnation. Now there come well-meaning individuals and organizations who seek to help the natives, according to certain theories and beliefs which they have learned in schools and universities. These myopic individuals, who are blinded by the conventions and practices of the society in which they grew up, fail to see that the practices which they advocate all farmers to adopt are not at all suited to the great majority of poor or subsistence farmers.
In all these different cases, these foreigners, whether intentionally or not, sought or seek to impose their way of life – their beliefs, practices, traditions, and customs – on the native people, in the belief that this would indubitably make them better off. But unless these well-intentioned people take the time to understand the natives’ lifestyle, culture, and problems, there is little likelihood that these blanket solutions will do much for the people they want to help, while there is a significant chance that they will cause them much unintended harm.