Anthony Pahnke and Jim Goodman
Rising food prices — as the USDA has forecast for 2022 — may seem like a good thing for farmers.
After all, who wouldn’t like to see some more cash? Farmers, like everyone else, have been through a lot lately. Years of stagnant or falling farm income in many ways paralleled the stagnant wages of so many Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through our supply chain, crashing farm prices and disrupting markets.
But the story is not so simple.
Inputs – that’s where the problem lies. Whether it’s fertilizer, seed, machinery or fuel, farmers are having to pay more to grow our nation’s food. The war in Ukraine has led to fuel and fertilizer shortages, another component of the soaring input costs.
Clearly, corporations are also price gouging. With every aspect of agriculture being highly consolidated, it’s easy for companies to do as they wish, as just four firms control over 60% of our seed, another four determine what happens with 75% of fertilizer in the U.S., and still four others set the terms for over 75% of grain sales. Meanwhile, some corporations, instead of allowing farmers to repair their own machinery, require them to seek out pricey company-authorized technicians when things break down.
Corporate agribusiness controls the food system, racking up profits while farmers and consumers dance to their tune.
So, what’s the answer, who should we look to in times like these?
Peasants, that’s who. Peasants actually produce food for their families and communities, not commodities for the global economy.
Most American farmers probably think it laughable to see peasant farming as a model. American farmers are told that they feed the world, while peasants work small acreages and think in terms of food diversity and food sovereignty, not mono-cultures and global markets.
Yet peasants have the potential to thrive, as well as helping to address our climate change crisis by practicing low-input farming. Meanwhile American farmers are shackled with debt as they struggle to eke out a living under a system dominated by corporations.
For those with doubts as to why peasant agriculture has promise, they should consult the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Peasants (UNDROP). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2018, 121 countries voted in favor of passing the UNDROP, with 54 choosing to abstain and 8 voting against it (yes, the United States was a nay vote, joined by Australia, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom).
Like other resolutions that the General Assembly passes, the UNDROP does not exist as a law that states must adopt. Still, the UNDROP has power, particularly for laying out why peasant agriculture is an aspirational ideal for our food and farm system.
To begin, the UNDROP tells us that a peasant engages in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, relies significantly on family or household labor, and has a special dependency on and attachment to the land (article 1).
One word may jump out from this definition – “subsistence.”
According to the declaration, subsistence production is not only for one’s own consumption but can include selling into the marketplace. This also means a dignified life, producing enough to afford the things farmers need, as opposed to the U.S. system where few seem to care if the people who grow our food go into bankruptcy.
Does this sound so bad, orienting food production around the needs of one’s family, perhaps their community and region? For countries like the U.S. where farmers are regularly pressured into overproduction and receive low prices, it was enough to oppose signing the declaration.
The U.S. also opposes the UNDROP because the declaration calls on states to partner with peasant associations to craft public policies that advance the right to adequate, nutritious food (article 15).
To declare food as a human right shifts agriculture away from the corporate drive for profit. Supporting the UNDROP in this way would push our government to keep small farmers in business, in part, by assuring fair prices for what they sell. Consumers also stand to benefit, as the U.N. declaration assures them access to adequate, nutritious food. Additionally, the agreement holds that farmer/peasant associations should partner with the government to make policy, guaranteeing the people who are directly involved in growing our food a seat at the table, not corporate elites.
Overall, peasant agriculture goes against the very idea of “get big or get out” because it promotes policies that intend to create more small farms, not fewer. To make this a reality, we will need to work on land access policies to young farmers and women, as well as for migrant workers who now do most of the work in every corner of America.
If anything, as farmers grapple with rising input costs, trying to be more self-subsistent sounds pretty good these days. Instead of having to buy fertilizer, why not diversify our operations with livestock so that manure comes from the farm and animals again can graze rather than live in confinement? Rather than purchasing patented corporately owned seeds, we can grow, at least some of them, ourselves.
Growing food should not be thought of only in terms of large or small farms. Anyone can be a peasant. In Wisconsin, some of our local food traditions could be encouraged further as part of promoting peasant agriculture. Planting a garden, in your backyard or as part of a community garden, is one example. For seeds, distributors who work with Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa, or the Open Source Seed Initiative, an organization that formed with links to the University of Wisconsin-Madison both challenge the corporate control of seeds. Wisconsin’s Pickle Bill allows people to sell their produce at certain public events and canning and freezing your excess produce lets you eat local and seasonal all year.
Unfortunately, this is not what the U.S. wants to see happen. We must ask the question, does our government want us to feed our families and build our rural economies, or continue to cater to Wall Street?
While American farmers may not see themselves as peasants, maybe they should. Granted, it won’t be easy to create local and regional food systems that are based on environmentally responsible, small-scale operations that grow nutritious, fairly priced food. Yet dismissing peasant agriculture also diminishes our chances to control our food system. If what appears in the UNDROP makes sense, then being a peasant is something to aspire to, a goal that all of us who care about agriculture should work towards.
This story was written by Anthony Pahnke, a political science professor at San Fransisco State University, and Jim Goodman, a retired organic dairy farmer, where this story first appeared.