Growing Trend of Farmers Quitting Agriculture?
Agriculture, especially food production, is facing a structural crisis globally. World food demand is growing in absolute terms. For instance, world's population is increasing rapidly at a rate of 1.05% per year, i.e., 81 million people per year reaching up to 9.7 billion by 2050, as noted by World Bank (according to UN population projection, it could reach only 9.15 billion by 2050). Hence, taking the insufficient availability food at present into consideration, a minimum 70 percent increase in global food production (along with its doubling in poor countries) within 30 years is required to meet the emerging demand. However, as of now, almost one-third of the food produced globally is either lost or wasted, which is more than enough to feed world’s 690 million (8.9 percent of world population) most poor and starving people, while nutritious and healthy diets are still unaffordable to more than 3 billion people.
While farming and food demand are growing in general, world is also confronting an existential question as to who (and how) will produce the food for people’s sustenance. For, according to global and country-specific studies, large number of farmers are quitting agriculture even as the new generation is increasingly becoming disinterested in farming. Or, as the elder generation is to retire from cultivation, it is not being replaced by the next generation, and the stark reality at a global level is that even rural youth is reluctant to resort to farming as a profession. Even where agriculture is the dominant means of livelihood, for majority of the youth there, it is only a default source of livelihood simply by inheritance. Consequently, agricultural population across the world is ageing without an adequate replacement by the next generation. For instance, in Japan, within a decade, around 40 percent of farmers will quit agriculture without being replaced, and the average age of farmers there is 67 now; in Europe it is 65 and 58 in US. In view of this grave situation, imperialist governments like Japan have reportedly embarked on a massive plan including the provision of a series of material incentives to encourage people below 45 years of age to remain in farming or become farmers.
India is widely held as an agricultural country as almost half of the population is still depending on agriculture and allied activities. The average age of operational land landholders in the country is around 55. Though majority of India’s youth have rural/agricultural background and still live in rural areas, they also, in accordance with the general global trend, are not interested to pursue agriculture as their principal means of livelihood. At the same time, based on available data, rural India is also becoming less and less ‘agrarian’ in terms of income. For instance, while around three-fourths of rural households’ income came from farm sources in 1970, today, after half-a century, it is much below one-third, and major part of rural earnings now comes from non-farm sources. And the average income of a farmer is estimated at around one-fifth of that with people having non-farm sources of livelihood. Obviously, today agriculture’s share in India’s GDP is reaching around 15 percent (compared to an average 4 percent in western imperialist countries) compared to 43 percent in 1970. In US and EU, on an average, only less than 2 percent of the population works in agriculture, On the other hand, with around 50 percent of the population still clinging on to agriculture, the dependency load on agriculture is probably the heaviest for India. However, India is no exception to the general trend towards large number of people leaving agriculture. According the last Census (2011), with the dawn of the 21st century, the number of Indian farmers giving up agriculture has been 2000 per day, in addition to tens of thousands of peasants forced to end their life every year.
Corporatisation as the Neoliberal Panacea
Taking note of this emerging trend of large number of farmers leaving agriculture, corporate think-tanks and neoliberal ruling classes along with agencies like World Bank and WTO have proposed replacement of peasant/farmer farming with corporate farming as an alternative. In the process, capitalist farmers who may withstand in agriculture will be transformed as junior partners of agribusiness MNCs. The idea is to convert agriculture as a multi-million profit-oriented business and to replace the entire conventional farming with high tech agriculture ranging from “smart farms” to “digital food activism” involving investors and high-tech youths. Up-scaling conventional farming to digital platforms, extending digital solutions to farming practices and use of specific crop models, collection and exchange of farm data that cover a host of multidimensional tasks such as prediction on crop health, soil quality and water availability, provision of aerial imaging data on weather conditions even using drones, information on market linkages, and online/digital trading, banking and financial services and so on, which are frequently lauded by neo-colonial-neoliberal institutions such as World Bank and WTO, are the striking features of emerging corporate agriculture. “Agri startups” with cross-border links akin to that in industrial/service sectors have also started on a flourishing basis.
For instance, a 2019 report by the Delhi-based Maple Capital Advisors has estimated an investment worth $244.59 million in agri startups oriented towards smart-farm based premium quality fresh fruits and vegetables through efficient marketing and supply-chain management. These emerging but fast-growing initiatives are inalienable subsets of the multi-billion dollar empire of agricultural-corporatisation led by agri-business MNCs that embrace everything from farming to retail trade through specialised corporate structures controlling input factors like seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilisers and electricity cost, management of output and product pricing complex networks of both offline and online trading. Of course, this macro aspect connected with agricultural corporatisation as embodied in global agricultural policies, the manner in which corporate boardrooms are dictating policies, how corporate lobbyists work in government institutions and influence policies and direct agricultural research, etc., being widely discussed issues, are not taken up for discussion here. Obviously, corporate control over agricultural means of production (including land through contract farming) and chains of marketing and trade and tariff policies are already known to all concerned people.
This multi-dimensional high-tech, corporate-financed farming has already proved to be highly profitable and lucrative for investors. In the liberalised input-output market, it became easy for agribusiness giants to impose high input prices on farmers on the one hand, and to pressurise farmers to accept low prices for their products on the other. While corporate MNCs make super-profits from rising food prices, the farmers bearing all risks associated with cultivation are denied even reasonable prices, forcing many of them to ‘get out’ of agriculture at the earliest, while the poor are either being unable to buy adequate food or forced to set apart the whole of their earnings to purchase food. Meanwhile, the corporate agenda is to bring the entire agriculture under its firm grip as its appendage through such methods as ‘contract farming’ and finish off farmers as an independent category or class. As is obvious, and as already discussed, the three black Farm Laws promulgated in India are envisaged to fully accomplish this corporate task.
The concrete Indian situation needs to be evaluated amidst the emerging general global trend of replacing peasant agriculture by high-tech corporate farming. Though the general trend towards large number of farmers quitting agriculture is visible in India too, for the vast majority of Indian peasants, together with its role as the sole source of livelihood, on account of historical, social and cultural factors, agriculture is a way of life too. The most decisive role of agriculture in India’s sustenance has been brought to the fore during the pandemic. While all other sectors of the economy collapsed on account of the utter mismanagement of the ruling regime, agriculture with a ‘positive growth rate’ remained as the only saviour of the country and the last resort for the millions of migrant workers, amidst many adversities most important of which are the anti-farmer policies of Modi government. However, the social devastation and economic distress of the rural India including peasants that lay behind this positive macro-level agricultural data still remain unreported by official statistics. Despite being stamped as unproductive and inefficient by neoliberal ideologues, Indian peasants are still in a life-and-death struggle to cling to land even in the midst of superimposed neoliberal- corporatisation policies that have undercut the economic viability and sustainability of peasant farming. In this context, it would be in order to reiterate certain crucial issues relevant to peasant farming today with specific relevance to India which are applicable to other non-western societies too.
- Large scale shift of people from the primary (agricultural) sector to secondary sector composed of industry and to tertiary sector (even bypassing the secondary sector) or service sector is part of the mainstream conceptualisation on capitalist development that evolved mainly in the west. For instance, while the percent of population in western imperialist countries on average vary within 1-2 percent, in imperialist China, the economy of which is world’s largest in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, 35 percent of the population is still depending on agriculture. Hence the theory of an absolute ‘sectoral transition of population’ from agriculture to industry and then to services, and the consequent prediction on the demise of peasant farming as an indicator of economic advancement is a western notion having little relevance to non-western societies such as India.
- Another crucial question is linked with the much trumpeted efficiency and productivity of big farms. The criteria based on which productivity is measured with respect to mono-crop/ single crop farming as practiced in corporate agriculture are inapplicable to multi-crop, inter-crop or mixture-crop cultivation pursued by traditional farmers. Small and middle peasants unlike corporate farming follow an integrated system of farming with crop rotation, often combining cropping with livestock breeding, all of which serve replenishment of soil fertility, better quality air and water and overall maintenance of the eco-system. Hence, from the perspective of eco-friendly farming that makes efficient use of soil, inputs, and above all labour, peasant farming should be considered as more productive, and the quantified definition of efficiency and productivity as usually applied to mono-crop agriculture becomes totally irrelevant here.
- Thus, if we take all the various factors, both tangible and intangible, that involve in agricultural production, then the ‘total factor productivity’ in small farms could be seen as larger than the corporate-controlled mono-crop farms where everything is mechanised. Labelling of small peasant-farms as inefficient/unproductive and as obstacle to development has no scientific basis. On the other hand, for sustaining the livelihood of large sections of the population as well as for the production of staple food crops and for serving community food needs, peasant farming plays a central role in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries. One of the immediate consequences of the penetration of corporate capital into agriculture at a global has been the sky-rocketing prices of food. Hence, prediction on the imminent demise of small and family farms in dependent countries is part of a propaganda blitzkrieg intended to lay red carpet for the corporate penetration into their agriculture.
- According to recent farm studies by well-meaning scholars, small/ family farms are the safest route for sustainable agriculture avoiding loss of biodiversity. Equally important is its importance in respect of broad-based economic development and community empowerment that are well-nigh impossible in the case of corporate-style agriculture. The common/public gain from peasant farming in terms social and institutional factors are not generally discussed in mainstream development discourse. For instance, an immediate outcome of corporate onslaught on agriculture is the growth of absentee land ownership, loss of employment for rural population, the draining off of income and wealth to urban centres, neglect of rural towns, wiping out of local trading shops, and all civic amenities such as rural roads, water supply, etc., leading to large-scale migration to urban centres, growth of slums and consequent social tensions.
- The ultimate of outcome these and other trends will be horrific concentration of land and rural assets in the hands of a few corporate agribusiness companies and their local junior partners. It will result in hitherto unknown levels of pauperisation of the peasantry, rapid rise in the number of unorganised/informal workers and slave labour and above all an unprecedented growth in unemployment and underemployment throughout the country.
The Political task
The historic farmers’ struggle in India against the three Farm Laws becomes significant in this context. While an all-out offensive to repeal these pro-corporate laws is the immediate need of the hour, in view of the emerging agricultural trends and consequent strengthening of both market and political power of corporates with far reaching consequences, progressive-democratic forces should go beyond that and should have an objective evaluation of the emerging scenario based on which a pro-active political approach against agricultural corporatisation should be put forward. That’s there are so many covert moves for surrendering agriculture to agribusiness which is the dominant trend today. What requires is a comprehensive initiative for sustaining peasant farming, focussing on the most challenging task of production of adequate food, protection of environment and ensuring quality of people’s lives.
To be precise, moving away from text-book oriented formulations and stereo-typed perspectives on agriculture on the one hand, and avoiding both establishmentarian and sectarian solutions on the other, the task is to develop a political alternative based on a comprehensive evaluation of the corporate threats that are multifarious and complex that cannot be resolved at the individual-farmer level. The core of such a people’s alternative is public/community intervention resolutely isolating the pro-corporate sections who are the logical enemies of a pro-people, pro-nature and sustainable agriculture. Instead, a scientific approach to peasant farming, focussing on the most challenging task of production of adequate food, protection of environment and ensuring of quality of people’s lives is to be evolved as part of a program of democratisation of the society. Discarding the mainstream model of development, a program of generating adequate employment in agriculture and allied sectors, including ‘professionalisation’ of agriculture for attracting youth, is to be put forward
Essential component of such a public intervention is removing the reactionary pro-corporate sections from land-ownership and assign it to landless peasant farmers whose principal means of livelihood is agriculture, along with the use of such land as ‘model farms’ under state supervision according to the concrete situation. Appropriate credit facilities and required input-output marketing linkages so as to eliminate exploitative are also required. In the present context where corporate-market forces are dominant, instead of leaving everything to individual farmers, they may be organised under cooperatives/peasant committees backed by the technical and financial support from the state which should also ensure adequate and appropriate agricultural-scientific research. Along with this urgent political intervention should be initiated to thwart superimposition of all World Bank and WTO dictated neoliberal agricultural policies that out-rightly serves corporate-agribusiness MNCs.
In brief, taking in to account these and related fast-moving developments in agriculture (of course, intertwined with other sectors), it is necessary to appropriately update and refresh the agrarian program.