The persistence of the peasantry: further notes on the inverse productivity relationship

Look, I’m really, really sorry. I said I wasn’t going to write another blog post about ecomodernism but – no, no, please don’t go! This post strikes to the heart of what Small Farm Future is all about, and raises some interesting agricultural issues – the fact that it also engages with the ecomodernism debate is almost incidental, really. And I promise some other stuff next up. Just bear with me one last time.

So first a brief summary of my ecomodernism wars to date: the ‘ecomodernists’ brought out their Manifesto in April; I wrote a critique of it that was published on the Dark Mountain website in July; Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute wrote a critique of my critique on Twitter, to which I responded with a follow up essay; to Mike’s hot denial, I described ‘ecomodernism’ as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’; Mike came to Britain to help Mark Lynas launch ecomodernism over here, but somehow the veneer slipped off on its journey across the Atlantic, and the two of them found themselves sharing a platform with those well-known environmentalists Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley, much to Mark Lynas’s later regret. Meanwhile, George Monbiot wrote a critical article in The Guardian about ecomodernism, to which Ted Nordhaus, Mike Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist wrote a critical response. And Mark Lynas exchanged a couple of remarkably polite comments with me. Few dead yet.

But let us now home in on the issues raised by George Monbiot in his Guardian article with which Nordhaus et al (henceforth NSB) take issue, concerning small farm productivity and agrarian development. Monbiot made three main points:

  1. The ecomodernists claim that small-scale farming in poor countries is unproductive, but while its labour productivity is low its productivity per unit area is often higher than larger scale farming
  2. The ecomodernists favour engrossment of small farms and the redeployment of their labour into urban industrial employments, but where those employments are scarce the result is insecurity and underemployment. The advantage of low labour productivity is that where work is scarce and people are many, it can help distribute available income more equitably.
  3. The emerging dominance of Asian economies such as China was achieved by first building up a strong, surplus-producing peasant economy, not by destroying that economy in favour of top-down industrialisation.

The counter-critique by NSB focused largely on point 1, touched a little on point 2, and ignored point 3 altogether. I’ll come back to this. For now, let me quote their counter-critique directly, albeit with some elisions:

“…the relevant comparison is not between small farms and slightly larger ones in poor countries. It is between smallholder farms in developing nations and farms of any size in developed nations….

Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound. US farmers harvest five times more per hectare than African farmers in maize and more than three times in rice.

….In poor nations, the lack of access to alternative livelihoods for large rural populations is the reason that labor is cheap and relatively high yields can be achieved on very small farms….But any nature and land-sparing vision predicated on this model of agriculture would require maintaining large rural populations throughout the developing world in a state of deep agrarian poverty, with no alternative livelihoods to speak of….This seems to us to be neither a particularly plausible way to reduce human impacts on the environment nor an acceptable future for the billion people today living on less than a dollar a day.”

It’s worth noting in passing the rhetorical sleight of hand in that last sentence, with its implication that everyone living on <$1/day is a small farmer. In fact, a quarter of a billion of them are urban dwellers1, urban hunger is growing along with growing urbanisation2, and research suggests that the $1/day metric underestimates poverty in urban areas where living costs are higher3. But let’s put that down to honest error and move on to the weightier issues raised by NSB’s contention that comparing farm productivities within poor countries is less relevant than comparing them between rich and poor countries.

Now, why is that? Suppose I’m a policymaker in a central African country where more than half the population are small farmers, most of them very poor. Urbanism and industry are weakly developed, most of the country’s foreign exchange coming from mineral exports, cash crops like sugarcane and perhaps a bit of tourism. If I were of a statistically mischievous bent, I might ruefully admit to a visiting American dignitary that my country’s maize productivity was indeed woeful compared to hers and propose to restructure maize production along US lines, with much larger, more mechanized farms. Then I might add that US wheat yields per hectare are lower than China’s, where farm sizes average less than a hectare, and enquire whether she’s planning to subdivide US wheat farms accordingly. Oh, the fun you can have with statistics…

But seriously, why would I care what yields US farmers are achieving compared with those in my country, let alone to those in ‘Africa’? I can only think of two reasons. The first is if it were feasible to transfer the US technology so that my country could achieve similar yields. It isn’t. Soils, climate and hydrology are all different, and so are the possibilities for building the various infrastructures that permit a high input, high output, export-oriented grain agriculture. The very study that NSB cite as evidence for higher yield gaps in poor countries states that closing yield gaps using conventional farming techniques involves ecological trade-offs, which seems contrary to their position. It also involves economic trade-offs, which I’ll examine in a moment.

The second reason involves comparative advantage in the international division of labour. If the USA is better at producing maize and rice, then why not let it get on with that and provide staple grains to feed the world, while my country focuses on its own best economic suit, which wouldn’t be ‘subsistence’ production of grains. But there are multiple problems with this view. For one thing, as I’ve shown elsewhere, on the supply side the world is becoming increasingly reliant on the ecologically precarious semi-arid continental grasslands, such as the US’s breadbasket regions – putting more of our eggs globally into that basket doesn’t seem a good idea.

But, more importantly, the ecomodernists’ strictures against peasant farming as an impediment to economic development gets its causality back-to-front. It’s because of the lack of economic development that poor, small-scale farmers have to rely purely on ‘subsistence’ production. In some cases, the turn to peasant farming arose historically in the context of European colonialism, which broke precolonial states, extracted surpluses for its own economic purposes, and left a long-term legacy of peasantisation and ‘underdevelopment’4. More generally, economic potential is never uniformly distributed, a point the ecomodernists don’t seem to understand. True, it’s not a zero-sum game – it’s possible for every region to ‘develop’ simultaneously. But development is always uneven, always involves core regions and peripheral regions where the strength of the core is predicated on the weakness of the periphery. Typically, peasant farming is a strategy of the periphery, which emerges from those unequal economic relations. This leads to another important point: peasant or ‘subsistence’ farmers rarely produce their livelihoods independently of broader global economic relationships. Indeed, their households typically number people working as local wage labourers or migrant labourers nationally or internationally. In this sense, they provide a subsidy to the more ‘developed’ poles of the global economy. Take a moment-in-time snapshot of the world, and you see wealthy, urban, industrial, ‘developed’ economies set against impoverished, rural, peasant, ‘backward’ economies. Film it as a movie over decades, centuries, millennia, and these ‘developed’ and ‘backward’ economies are revealed as two sides of the same coin, with the impoverishment of the countryside/periphery typically a consequence of urban/core wealth.

Let us return to the choices facing our African policymaker. What do the ecomodernists suggest I do? Enact policies inimical to the interests of small-scale farmers (who, recall, form the majority of my population)? Note that urbanism is associated with wealth, and so promote urbanisation in the belief that it will enrich my population? Again, I’d be getting the direction of causality wrong. What would I do – set up a manufacturing industry to rival China, financial services to rival the UK, an aerospace programme to rival the US? Am I going to borrow money internationally to pump-prime this industrial take-off? That’s been tried before in my region, and it didn’t turn out well. Indeed, the region’s poverty-wracked peasants are the ones now paying the price for that mistake. Perhaps the ecomodernists are suggesting that small farms are better engrossed into corporately-controlled agribusiness enterprises with the erstwhile farmers re-employed as wage labourers? Indeed, the spectre of such ‘land grabbing’ haunts NSB’s text, and the ecomodernists’ writings on agriculture generally. But as Lorenzo Cotula has shown, though not entirely without benefits, corporate consolidation typically exacerbates local inequalities, substitutes local food production with provision of biofuels and other products furnishing non-local, non-food demands, and promotes migration from rural areas into insecure urban underemployment5.

Actually, I don’t think the ecomodernists really are suggesting these things. They’re not development specialists, and they don’t have much of a line on how to improve the lot of extant peasantries. Instead, they’re development theorists of a rather general kind. Their analysis is based on the questionable but vaguely plausible thesis that the modern world achieved net economic benefits through urban and industrial development that got people out of small-scale farming. In the case of the rise of ‘the west’ this was achieved through an immense amount of pain and dislocation, and in particular by transforming dependent European peasantries into independent farmers through mass migration to America and other parts of the world. The ecomodernists want to replicate this time-honoured development path in order to improve the lot of peasantries today, but of course there are no longer any Americas for today’s peasants to go to (or, to put it more strongly, the rise of the west occurred through uneven development enforced by the creation of colonial dependency, but colonialism isn’t or shouldn’t be an option today). In place of America the ecomodernists posit technological improvement, decoupling, narrowing yield gaps, GM crops, nuclear power and all the rest of it. As a strategy for tackling the twin aims of environmental sustainability and social justice I think it’s a long shot – on the first point because I’m doubtful that the favoured technologies will be able to achieve the necessary decoupling, and on the second because, as I’ve already mentioned, in an economic order where development depends upon underdevelopment, it’s difficult to achieve an acceptable universal development.

If not ecomodernism for delivering sustainability and social justice, then what? Well, NSB argue that labour is cheap in poor nations because of the lack of alternatives to agriculture, but it seems to me more plausible to say it’s because of these countries’ peripheral position vis-à-vis global economic cores, in which lack of access to livelihoods other than peasant farming is a symptom rather than a cause. After all, urban and/or industrial labour in these countries is also typified by its relative poverty and labour-intensity relative to the core. So given the improbability of turning themselves into economic cores any time soon, it’s not clear to me why NSB consider labour-intensive non-agricultural work so intrinsically preferable to labour-intensive agricultural work in these places. If I were that African policymaker, in a country where more than half of the people are small farmers, and with a weak urban-industrial orientation to the economic core, I’d be inclined to focus upon rural development and building my domestic market in agricultural products and rural industry. As Monbiot pointed out, this is how China and other Asian countries began the rise that’s now beginning to wrest global economic power from west back to east. It’s an absolutely critical point, and NSB’s neglect of it is a major weakness in their analysis. I’ll say more in a future post on the debates over ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ development paths and the implications of an Asian ‘industrious revolution’. But it seems to me that NSB and the ecomodernists have a rather unilinear view of economic development. The ‘western’ path they want to replicate was only one such route, and one not best suited to delivering the demands of sustainability and social justice in the contemporary world.

But let’s conclude by coming back to the inverse productivity relationship. It’s widely assumed by most parties to the debate that higher small-farm productivities arise from relatively greater per hectare labour inputs on small farms. Positions in the debate then turn on how to interpret the wider implications of that labour intensity. It seems to me that labour intensity is key, but as I’ve argued elsewhere it’s not the only issue. One study, for example, found smaller land parcels had higher per hectare productivity than larger ones cropped by the same households, which may be suggestive of agronomic rather than just economic causalities6. Such agronomic factors – things like intercropping, alley cropping, and non-linear returns to labour intensity spring to mind – haven’t been well investigated. Some of them may be scalable, others perhaps not. Perhaps the model we should hold in mind here is how we tend our gardens compared with how we tend our fields. There are many things the gardener can do to boost productivity, not all of them just scaled to labour input, that aren’t really feasible for the farmer. To increase field-scale productivity, the farmer has to place more reliance on agri-industrial technical innovation than on the homespun subtleties of the gardener’s art. So perhaps if we really want to emphasise land-sparing productivity we should aim to shift the balance from agriculture towards horticulture. Why isn’t that on the ecomodernists’ agenda?

How best to farm has always presented people with difficult and sometimes conflicting problems, and the potential trade-offs are only getting harder with today’s focus on equity, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity preservation alongside more traditional issues of land and labour productivity. I’d argue these complex problems aren’t usefully simplified into a binary choice of farming styles, as in NSB’s approach: either high-tech, high labour productivity farming, or low-tech, low labour productivity farming. An economist might produce a series of marginal labour productivity plots whose optimal solution would be quite different depending on how other inputs and outputs were priced – particularly outputs that currently have no price but really ought to, such as greenhouse gas production, nitrate pollution and the like. In Cotula’s words, “there is no one-size-fits-all model of agriculture that works best everywhere and at all times”7.

Indeed. No doubt once we’ve sorted out as best we can the agronomy of sustainable food production, the politics of equitable wealth distribution and the ecology of habitat preservation we could call in the economists with their marginal productivity plots to help us determine these issues of agricultural scale from place to place. The trouble is, there’s an occupational hazard in the dismal science: falling prey to the fairytale paradigms of neoclassical or neoliberal economics which claim to do the politics for us, and perhaps even the agronomy and the ecology too. Here, concepts such as Pareto optimality and the efficiency of gross product maximization create the mythical beast of the ‘perfect market’ which becomes ‘distorted’ by policies favouring farming styles that ‘the market’ would not (and, according to the paradigm, should not) select. This blog post by Jayson Lusk nicely illustrates the kind of tendentious reasoning that results, in which the jargon used to justify an apparently value-neutral technical estimation of farm scale doesn’t quite succeed in concealing the partisanship of the approach and the implicit political agenda in which gross financial product figures as the bottom line that matters most. It’s true, I think, that we advocates of small-scale farming can get a little too excited about the inverse productivity relationship, but I can’t help enjoying the spectacle in posts like Lusk’s of the neoclassical economists squirming as they try to reconcile real world circumstances with their paradigm. How many more times does it need stating that the model of reality doesn’t establish the reality of the model?

I see a parallel between the choices open to our African policymaker and rural policymakers here in Britain. Here too, although the economic cushion is much larger, farmers struggle to get by on the agrarian products of their farms alone and we’re enjoined to diversify into B&Bs, pheasant shoots, industrial lettings and the like. But not all UK farmers are well placed to diversify in these ways, just as not all peasants in poor countries are well placed to become ‘smallholder farmers’ earning hard money through cash cropping in a buoyant local or wider economy. Instead of just accepting today’s penurious global food prices and the concentration of landownership as economic facts of life, I believe the time is right for a thorough rethink of how we allocate rights to food and land globally.

There are no simple solutions, and NSB are right to pose the creation of a prosperous and sustainable agrarian economy as a problem. But their counterpoint of a prosperous and sustainable industrial economy is no more convincing, and it elides the problem of uneven development which constitutes one major reason why peasantries are still with us despite an imminent demise that’s been heralded by ‘modernisers’ of various persuasions for well over two centuries. The ‘western’ path to economic development has enriched many, but it’s impoverished many too in a non-random geographic pattern. It’s also led to ecological meltdown. So while almost everyone would no doubt agree that ‘development’ and ‘wealth creation’ are good things, I think we need a more subtle conversation than the ecomodernists seem prepared to entertain about what ‘development’ and ‘wealth’ might mean in the future. Whether we like it or not, for those of us in the overdeveloped west a future ‘development’ path may involve less wealth. Less wealth doesn’t necessarily have to mean less wellbeing – indeed, the contrary can be the case. But only if we go back to the agrarian economy and rethink it from the ground up.





4. Araghi, F. (2009). ‘The invisible hand and the visible foot: peasants, dispossession & globalization’ in Akram-Lodhi, A. & Kay, C. (Eds ) Peasants and Globalization, Routledge.

5. Cotula, L. (2013). The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, Zed.

6. Assunção, J. & Braido, L. (2007). ‘Testing household-specific explanations for the inverse productivity relationship’ American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89, 4: 880-90.

7. op cit. p.73-4.




15 thoughts on “The persistence of the peasantry: further notes on the inverse productivity relationship

  1. It would be fascinating to get a proper response to this from some of the high-profile ecomodernists. You’re highlighting many of my own issues. What they present appears simplistics and ignores many of the complexities associated with development. It paints a nice simple picture, but it doesn’t appear to be realistic; other than in a broadly general sense. I don’t know if you saw Michael Shellenberger’s recent TED talk. It was polished and clear, but one of his arguments was that we save nature by no longer needing it. His prime example was saving the whales by discovering oil and no longer needing whale oil. Not only does this appear to ignore that the reason the whales needing saving was because we were in the process of wiping them out, but it also appears not to be true. Alternatives to whale oil dominated the market even in the mid-1800s, and yet the peak of whaling appears to have been in the mid-1900s. If it was indeed the discovery of oil that saved the whales, it seems to have taken a long time to actually have any effect.

    • Indeed – ecomodernism offers a seductive but simplistic narrative, a crude modernization theory. I agree with you about the whale example, a complete canard if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animals, which I wrote about at As you say, 20th century whale hunting – only possible through oil – dwarfed the 19th century catch. Oil didn’t save the whales, it nearly killed them, and maybe still will, and their ‘salvation’ was largely contingent.

      • Oil didn’t save the whales, it nearly killed them, and maybe still will, and their ‘salvation’ was largely contingent.

        I hadn’t even thought of it that way. I was simply thinking along the lines that if the discovery of oil made whales redundant, it seems to have been a very delayed process. However – as you indicate – the example may be even more egregious than I had thought; the discovery of oil allowed us to expand whaling, rather than halting it because whales were no longer needed. As you point out in your post you highlight above, when it comes to Blue Whales

        …modern humans obliterated them to the point of extinction but didn’t quite finish them off entirely.

        • Yeah – truth is there were hardly any blue whales caught in the 19th century cos they swam too fast. They could only be caught with modern boats using fossil fuel engines. I haven’t looked in detail at Mike’s claims that whaling only ended when substitutes were found…I’m not sure it’s too relevant anyway. Though I understand that it was only a few countries with a strong history of whaling and whale product use that held out against the various hunting bans, and these countries are still arguing that hunting for some species should be resumed, so on the face of it I’m not convinced. I wrote some more about it at

  2. Great post, as usual! I’d add a few points.

    First, that the crops contemplated here are the ones that make industrial agriculture look a lot more favorable. Tree fruit, for instance, may not work as well as grain qua a fungible commodity. They won’t necessarily ripen all at the same time, meaning that industrial harvesting will be largely frustrated. But these crops would work well for healthily feeding lots of people living nearby.

    It’s worth remembering that humans don’t only need plants for food. The ecomodernist view of concentrating humans in cities and banishing agriculture to the hinterlands ignores the fact that plants provide many other human needs than just food: pollution control, water filtration and runoff management, temperature regulation, etc. These benefits are not merely incidental, but in fact solve the very problems that most vex urban populations.

    I thought your point about the ecomodernist view militating for capitalist relationships was very smart. I think this point can be expanded to the relationship between people and the plants on which they rely: Grains are much more tradable and fungible than other crops, to the point that they drove the creation of huge commodity markets and further entrenched the role of globalized markets over our food systems. But some fruit crops don’t travel all that well, making their value to local communities very high, while their value to globalized commercial systems is relatively low. This means that these crops are less desirable from the point of view of those who favor totalistic Anglo-American land systems. Fruit crops are unique among the components of the human diet, because they’re the only foods we eat that WANT to be eaten. The neo-Enclosure of growing income inequality and the attendant “intensification” of agricultural activity thus doesn’t just cause us to be more alienated from symbiotic human relationships, but also more alienated from harmonious relationships with the plants that sustain us.

    • Yes, good points. Not quite sure how much I sign up to the underlying assumptions of your last point about eating fruit because it wants to be eaten, especially when we plant huge orchard monocultures, but then again when I see tomato plants growing around sewage works it always makes me smile…

    • I’m with Chris here – wondering if you might go into a bit more detail about fruits which WANT to be eaten. There are good examples of berries that do better when passed through a bird’s gut (and this serves as a means of dispersal as well). But apple seeds are poisonous – as too many of the stone fruit seeds. The levels of poison per seed are not extremely high, but one wonders why the cyanide would be there at all if the fruits actually ‘wanted’ to be eaten. And if one considers the desirable-to-humans parts of these fruits then a closer look at the ancestral (pre-domestication) types also leaves me scratching my head in regard to ‘wanting’ to be eaten.

      • You’re right to point out that I was being a little glib there: although all fruits want to be eaten, they don’t necessarily want to be eaten by humans. Hence capsaicin, the stuff that makes chilis spicy, only affecting the nervous system of mammals, because their seeds can only pass through avian digestive tracts, and chili consumption by mammals upsets their dispersal strategy.

        But I think broadly the point still applies. Apple seeds are poisonous and bitter because apple trees don’t want apple-eaters to munch on the seeds. But you can eat the entire rest of the apple just fine — and you can even take apple seeds into your gut with no harm, as long as don’t chew them first. The whole reason the tree makes the juicy apple is so you spread their seeds for them. I think that making use of this kind of relationship is a great idea for feeding people, because in the process, we’re fighting alongside the interests of the plants instead of against them, and so can expect to have an easier time about it.

  3. Resilience just published a gushing, PC piece about the hordes pouring into Europe. I looked up the author, one Jerome Roos, and surprise! He is thick with the Eco-modernist crowd, and a fellow of the Breakthrough Institute.

    The gist of the piece seems to be: Resistance is futile. Europe will be SO much better off with these people in it!

  4. Well, I am mad. So I hasten to tell you. WSJ published today a review of a book by Carlo Levi, called Christ stopped at Eboli. Apparently, Mussolini, in the prewar years, when catching people plotting for his overthrow, had a nasty form of punishment for them: he banished them to the horrors of …. brace yourselves… the peasant villages of southern Italy. Oh the inhumanity!

    Well, one of these plotters was young Levi, raised as an educated urbanist, who ended up in the province of Lucania and lived there, perhaps for a year. He was shocked by what he found. I have to quote the article:

    This “backwater” was nothing but “backward and impoverished.” The “peasants’ disdain for authority” Levi tried to justify as though it were something undesirable after he himself was busted for disdain of Rome’s authorities… “Authority had no real hold on them” — nice, no? Apparently not. He interpreted it as “eternal fascism in each persons’ soul”.

    “The Lucanian peasants surrendered their individuality by believing in magic and mystical powers, lived outside of time in an animal-like collectivity, immersed in tribal rites….”

    There indeed was poverty… but we know that Rome was rich by plundering the hinterlands. Like other cities. Did it occur to Levi that his privilege was secured at a cost? Wasn’t perhaps the parasitic mayor whom he criticizes connected to Rome and its giant sucking sound?

    I think I’ll get the book. There may be something positive about it, as it evokes a time long vanished, though not so long ago after all. Now the area is festooned with fancy hotels and restaurants, which, opines the reviewer, makes the book almost irrelevant, but not quite. ARGH!

    • Thanks for that, Vera…I share your pain. But an interesting story lurks within that peasant ‘disdain for authority’, no? Perhaps one we need to discuss here at SFF in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, the failure of peasantries to play ball with the idea that they should all have disappeared long ago gives me something to smile about…

      • Indeed. That reminds me of reading somewhere that when Germany was at the height of its infatuation with Hitler, the peasants were the only ones, as a large group within the populace, who remained largely immune, and were not afraid to spit contemptuously when Nazis went marching by.

  5. Pingback: Quick post: Not-so-deep thoughts on ecosystem services (and their possible folly) | AgroEcoPeople

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