I keep coming across the notion currently that ‘ideological’ support for small-scale farming is problematic and that no particular level of farm scale can be regarded as optimal – ideas which are obviously at the heart of this blog. I’m inclined to respond with the thought that there is no such thing as an ‘unideological’ position – it’s a cardinal error to assume that the mainstream way of doing things must somehow involve less political baggage. And if indeed it’s true that no particular level of farm scale is optimal, then surely the time has come for a massive investment in small-scale farming, since it’s historically been so starved of funding and influence compared to its industrial-scale counterpart.
Matthew Fielding of the Stockholm Environment Institute recently blogged about the superiority of larger-scale commercial farms over small peasant farms in dealing with the problem of climate change in low income countries. He was kind enough to respond to me when I challenged him over the evidence for some of these claims, suggesting that you can’t compare low tech smallholder farming with high tech commercial farming – in which case I’d argue that he shouldn’t have done precisely that in his original post!
It’s true that such comparisons can be tricky (especially because the multiple and sometimes intangible benefits of small-scale farming are often harder to demonstrate than the benefits of larger scale farming) but there is a need for them, because otherwise it’s too easy for the ‘unideological’ proponents of the industrial farming status quo to dismiss small-scale farming as an irrelevance – as for example in the shocking refusal of Mid Devon council to entertain the Ecological Land Coop’s planning application for smallholdings at Greenham Reach on the basis of claims such as smallholdings are not ‘serious farming’.
An interesting paper written by Peter Rosset over ten years ago now suggests the following benefits of small farms compared to their larger scale counterparts:
- environmental benefits
- empowerment and community responsibility
- places for families
- personal connection to food
- economic foundations
- better overall output and factor productivity
According to Rosset, small farms in both high income and low income countries can bring greater social and environmental benefits, as well as turning out more product and more money per hectare than larger farms (by the way, I use the word ‘can’ in that sentence with no compunction, in just the way that ‘unideological’ mainstream commentators often say things like “produce grown abroad and shipped here can be less ecologically damaging than homegrown produce”).
I’d be interested in any comments on Rosset’s list – any things to add, any things to take away or qualify? For me the three overarching categories of local food cultures, local or human-scale economies, and output are key, as indeed are future energy and climate change scenarios. What would a large-scale farm in a situation of major energy constraint look like? Two obvious historical precedents are the medieval manor and the slave plantation – neither of which, I’d suggest, are inspiring models for the agrarian future. In any case, I’ll try to fill out some of the points on Rosset’s list with both further reflections and further research results in future posts.