You never have to trawl far through the writings of the likes of Oxfam, Save the Children and the rest to find them extolling “smallholder farming.” What they actually mean is that a couple of billion people should be condemned to live as peasants for all eternity. For that’s what smallholder actually means, someone trying to scrape a living out of a half hectare of maize. It’s possible, it must be for a couple of billion do it, but it ain’t pleasant.
There’s also no way out of peasant farming producing a peasant lifestyle. Anyone’s income has an upper bound, which is the value they’re creating through their labour. Unless you’re a politician or fed by tax revenues of course. So, the consumption possibilities of someone farming a half hectare of maize are, at that upper bound, the value of the output of a half hectare of maize. That being a lot of corn on the cob and pretty much damn all else. To insist that peasant agriculture should continue is to insist that billions live on corn on the cob.
Ah, but, comes back the response, peasant agriculture has greater productivity! Which is those dangly bits again. For what they mean is greater productivity in land use, not in resource use. They very carefully elide around the amount of back breaking labour that has to be used to gain that pile of corn. Actually, some of them are even more stupid than that. They claim that peasant agriculture is more productive at the same time they laud its ability to create jobs. Which, you know, if it creates more jobs then it uses more labour therefore it’s less productive, right? That’s even before we get to the fact that it’s the productivity of human labour which determines human lifestyles.
But even after that we’ve still got this next part. Which is that it isn’t more productive in terms of land usage either:
Why is agricultural productivity so low in poor countries relative to the rest of the world? Is it due to geography or constrained economic choices? We assess the quantitative role of geography and land quality for agricultural productivity differences across countries using high-resolution micro-geography data and a spatial accounting framework. Our rich spatial data provide in each cell of land covering the entire globe actual yields of cultivated crops and potential yields for 18 crops, which measure the maximum attainable output for each crop given soil quality, climate conditions, terrain topography, and a level of cultivation inputs. While there is considerable heterogeneity in land quality across space, even within narrow geographic regions, we find that low agricultural productivity in poor countries is not due to poor land endowments. If countries produced current crops in each cell according to potential yields, the rich-poor agricultural yield gap would virtually disappear, from more than 200 percent to less than 5 percent. We also find evidence of additional productivity gains attainable through the spatial reallocation of production and changes in crop choices.
That not peasant farming that we do seems to have more than twice the output of that peasant agriculture. And sure, our own farmers continually complain over how hard done by they are but they’re certainly not living off a half hectare of maize a year, are they?
That is, killing off peasant agriculture would reduce poverty through the useful trick of making all richer. Which is why it’s just so damn odd to have all those anti-poverty charities insisting that peasant agriculture must persist. My own view is that they’re job saving – their own. For who would need to channel money to the Jacindas through charitable contributions if we actually did wipe out peasant farming and thus the destitution of the resultant peasant lifestyle?