Big Ag and Small Farms: Why We Need Both


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GUEST AUTHOR: Graham Strouts | Graham holds an MSc in Agroforestry from Bangor University, Wales. He taught permaculture in Ireland for more than 10 years. | @CaptainGStrouts | theculturalwilderness

This piece first appeared on Skepteco 06-10-14. It appears here by permission of the author.

[3000 words – 15 minute read]

Colin Tudge has an article for the recent Oxford Real Farming conference. Unfortunately, he provides little evidence for many of his assertions, repeats many long-debunked myths and seems intent on promoting a black-and-white world or Goodies (small farms) vs Baddies (Big Ag and GMOs) to have a go at his pet hate of “neo-liberalism”.

Tudge begins:

The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.


Tudge’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the back-to-the-land small- is- beautiful tradition beloved of Organic farmers, locavores and romantic pasturalists. The line-up for the Oxford Conference promises more of the same, including offerings from Schumacher College.

We last met Tudge on the pages of Skepteco back in 2012:

Colin Tudge, in his 2003 book So Shall We Reap is another prominent critic of modern farming, and while convinced that its “unsustainability” could be our downfall, nevertheless addresses many of the very shortcomings of organics raised by Lynas and Singh, specifically the need for extra land:

Organic farming has much to recommend it, of course, but could it in conscience be recommended to all the world? I find it hard to see how…Manure can be polluting…could organic farmers really double their input of nitrogen, as they would need to do to maintain present agricultural output if artificials were banned? Could they double it again in the next fifty years as world population doubles? Nobody knows but the odds are surely against.

…if yield is lower farming must then occupy more space, spreading into wilderness and into marginal land that should not be cultivated at all.

Tudge correctly concludes that artificial fertiliser need not destroy soil structure or lead to polluting run-off if properly applied- thus “good farming” is always the key- and even points out that we will not run out of natural gas for manufacturing artificial fertliser- he cites a figure of only 1% of fossil fuels currently being required for this- “a small price to pay for half of agriculture’s fertility”- and that it could be easily made from solar power or biofuels(?) if needed. Although Tudge is opposed to GMOs, even he accepts that

GMOs are currently deployed for dubious economic and political purposes but the science that has given rise to them should not be banished out of hand.

Here though, he reduces the problems of agriculture to three “lies”:

The world’s global strategy of food and farming is founded on three great untruths – lies, in effect — which between them are threatening to kill us all, and in practice are well on the way to doing so.

Lie no. 1 is that the world needs 50% more food by 2050, and will need 100% more by 2100. This provides the excuse for the agrochemical/ biotech companies to focus ever more energetically on productivity.

In truth, the world already produces twice as much food as the world needs and – since the world population should level out by 2100 if not before – produces 50% more than the world will ever need. We should be focusing on food quality, social justice, sustainability, and environmental protection. But the pursuit of quality and justice would not be profitable to the corporates, so that is not the prime target if indeed it is seriously on the agenda at all.

His reference for this assessment comes from Hans Herren, co-chair of the 2009 IAASTD report Agriculture at a Crossroads

Farmers at present grow enough edible crops to provide every person alive with a daily diet of 4,600 calories. Since this is enough to feed 14bn people, twice the current world population, it would appear that agricultural production is not the root cause of hunger. But a closer look at the figures paints a very different picture. Of these 4,600 calories, 600 are lost between harvesting and processing and another 1,200 are fed to animals. Distribution losses and general waste account for a further 800 calories, leaving about 2,000 calories to be eaten by people.

These figures are averages, of course. Harvests fluctuate with the weather, while the actual breakdown of waste varies from continent to continent. But overall the pattern is clear; in both developed and developing countries, the story of farming and food production is one of loss and inefficiency. What we need is a new paradigm for food and strong new policies on sustainable production and consumption.

So the argument here is that it is not more food or further increases in agricultural productivity that is required, but better roads, infrastructure, less waste etc- the common claim that we already produce enough food, it is distribution that is the problem. This in turn is used by Tudge to bash GMOs and Big Ag, in favour of the small farmer who currently still produces most of the world’s food.

A far more nuanced look at these complex issues is provided by Nathanael Johnson in a ground-breaking series for Grist called Hungry Hungry Humans.

In the third essay in the series, Johnson frames the question like this:

When I started this hungry-hungry-humans project…, people began preemptively warning me that I was probably headed in the wrong direction. They feared that I would start by asking: How are we gonna feed 10 billion people without wrecking the planet? And then answer it by saying, well technology X can increase farm yields by this much, and technology Y can bump it up a little more …

Instead of focusing on agricultural productivity, these people said, we should be working on access to food. We currently have plenty of food, and yet we still have hunger, even in the U.S. So how will increasing yields further help?

It turns out it is a little more complicated. Assuming we are not anarcho-primitivists advocating a return to the good ol’ days of hunter gathering- when the a carrying capacity of the land would only have amounted to a handful of humans per acre- we all started out, historically, as farmers, and were, for the most part, poor subsistence farmers with next to no opportunity to improve our lot. The question is, how to get out of this trap? People are hungry because they do not produce enough food locally- or, as a result of this -since farming is their only source of income- they do not generate sufficient income to buy the food when it is available. How is a poor undeveloped community or nation to build roads and decrease food waste until there is a surplus of income to pay for it?

Johnson quotes Nobel economist Amartya Sen who points out that

no democratic country with a relatively free press has ever experienced a major famine (although some have managed prevention more efficiently than others). This generalization applies to poor democracies as well as to rich ones. A famine may wipe out millions of people, but it rarely reaches the rulers. If leaders must seek reelection and the press is free to report starvation and to criticize policies, then the rulers have an incentive to take preemptive action.

This does not mean we can just focus on building democracy and forget about productivity: it is not an either/or issue, and we might be a long time waiting for democracy while increases in crop yields could make a real difference right now to a farmer in this season. This is the problem with Tudge’s black-and-white approach that seeks more to bash the Big Ag Bogey-man than as get to the heart of the problem of global food security.

Johnson goes on to cite Mark Rosegrant, a director at the International Food Policy Research Institute:

Good agriculture can help with the project of achieving good politics. The primary reason to increase yields, Rosegrant said, is to combat poverty by providing more income to farmers. The fact that yields increase the food supply and lower prices for everyone is secondary.

But wait a second, I said: How can you have higher yield producing lower food prices and higher income for farmers at the same time?

Things generally balance out in favor of the farmer, Rosegrant said. Say you are a small rice farmer in India. Perhaps a government agronomist teaches you about new agricultural techniques, or new wells allow you to better control irrigation. The higher yields from your farm might increase your profits by 30 percent, while reducing food prices by 15 percent. That’s a fairly typical scenario, he said.

So people are absolutely right to say that — if you are concerned about hunger — farm yields are less important than politics and poverty. But it’s not an either-or proposition: A large body of evidence suggests that improving agriculture is a powerful way to reduce poverty.

Tudge continues with Lie No. 2:

Lie no. 2 is that to produce all this extra food (which in fact we don’t need) we need enormous inputs of agrochemistry, now abetted in particular by GMOs – which in large part are designed expressly to survive in a world drenched in agrochemistry. Small, mixed, traditional farms are an anachronism which must be done away with asap – or so we are told. Opposition to the agrochemical approach springs from superstition and ignorance which must be corrected by public education.

In truth, today’s industrial agriculture — basically now a field exercise in industrial chemistry — produces only 30% of the world’s food, even though is hoovers up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget. The small traditional farms that are so despised and routinely swept aside still produce 50% of the world’s food. The remaining 20% comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens.

He provides no citation for the claim that “so we are told” that small traditional farms must be “done away with”- and ignores the point again that, while no doubt true that small farms still produce 50% of the world’s food, this comes mainly from necessity than choice: without industrialization, we would pretty much all be subsistence farmers- poor, sometimes malnourished, periodically on the edge of famines with no safety net.

His reference to GMOs and agrochemistry is sloppy and misleading-while Roundup Ready crops in the US have increased use of Roundup, this has been at the cost of far more toxic chemicals that have been thus displaced; on the other hand, Bt crops in India- a quite different kind of trait- have helped greatly reduce pesticide use.

Tudge rails against what he sees as the domination of agriculture by the big biotech companies and supposed government stooges- but Johnson has another article in the series on the Bill Gates Foundation that calls this caricature into question also:

But if you want to know whether the Gates Foundation is now on the side of industrial agriculture or on the side of organics? Well, it’s not so simple. We spend a lot of time debating this choice in the abstract, but on the ground it isn’t an either-or divide. The foundation was always focused on supporting small farmers. Before, during, and after Dryden’s time, the foundation advocated using a mix of the most appropriate technologies.

“While Sam had a tremendous impact on the foundation, our agriculture program’s focus on the smallholder farmer preceded Sam,” wrote Chris Williams, a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation, in an email. “Our goal remains to reduce hunger and poverty for millions of poor farm families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by supporting sustainable productivity growth for the crops and livestock that matter most to them and integrated solutions to address their needs.”

Sam Dryden – until recently head of Gate’s agricultural development program- also claims to be far more in accord with the IAASTD approach than opposed to it.

A recent CGIAR forum  agrees with Tudge that small farms are important, but shows that they are both mainly the ones suffering from hunger and that the way out of this includes both improving infrastructure as well as increasing productivity- these farms are also after all businesses:

Today nearly 450 million farmers work on less than 2 hectares of land. Collectively, these farmers and their families comprise about half the world’s undernourished people and more than half of people living in absolute poverty. Even amid rising global rates of urban migration, many countries are also experiencing rural population growth, and experts expect both trends to continue in the coming decades.

As the discussion progressed, it became clear that “business” means expanding commercial opportunities for the rural poor through fostering commercialization, promoting techniques that raise productivity, developing value chains, investing in infrastructure, and enabling the private sector to drive agricultural growth as much as possible. It also means analyzing current policies and practices and adapting them to remove barriers for poor farmers on their way to the market.

Nor is the answer necessarily to stay small, which Tudge all but fetishizes as if this is an end or preferable in itself:

Gerda Verburg, Chair of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), decried the position of some development professionals that smallholders should stay small. “Many organizations defend smallholders’ right to stay small. But if this means that they stay poor and hungry – this is wrong.” Fan later picked up on a related point, adding that smallholder farmers with the means to expand their agricultural production should be given the opportunity to “move up” and get bigger; those who don’t have the opportunity to expand, however, should have opportunities for “moving out” to other parts of the agricultural value chain or other non-farm employment.

Tudge’s third “lie” is also unsupported with any citation and seems confusing:

Lie no. 3 is that if we farmed for quality and in ways that keep the biosphere in good heart, then the resulting diet would be too boring to be tolerated. In particular, we are given to understand, we would have little or no meat.

I’m not sure who is claiming this- it hardly seems especially controversial that huge industrial farms alone cannot provide all the variety one might find from artisan producers on the farmers’ market. But if we go back to the original issue- world hunger- we will find that the subsistence farms he idealizes as producers of most of the world’s food may have less diversity simply as a result of their poverty and lack of technological options. Meanwhile, while it is undoubtedly true that biotech has been thus far largely focused on a few crops that lend themselves to very large farm operations in the US, the introduction of, for example Bt cotton in India is just as likely to be adopted by the small farmer. In addition, numerous initiatives of “biofortification”- to engineer nutrient supplements into staple crops – can help reduce malnutrition amongst small farmers. Tudge repeats the common but ignorant mistake of lumping all GMOs into one basket, when in fact each trait is different and the potential of genetics to benefit the small farmer is just as great as for the large. Thus, Tudge readily aligns himself with the anti-GMO movement which is holding up crop science development across Europe to the detriment of everyone.

The rest of Tudge’s piece is a trudge through a dirge of unsupported alarmist rhetoric about imminenent ecological Armageddon, used mainly as a stick with which to beat his bogey man of neo-liberalism:

One billion people worldwide now live in urban slums – about 30% of the total urban population; mostly because industrial farming that is run by foreign corporates with the blessing of governments like ours has displaced them from the land. Unemployment caused by the industrialization of agriculture is a prime cause of the global poverty that western governments pretend to abhor. At the same time half of all other species (perhaps around four million types) are conservatively estimated to be in imminent danger of extinction. Demonstrably, industrial farming is a prime cause of all these disaster – and since industrial farming is oil-based, it is a prime cause of global warming too. Oil is running out but the shale reserves seem endless and by the time the world has run through them we will be lucky if anything at all survives the resulting climate change with all the floods, droughts, and uncertainties.


Urban slums may seems desperate from a rich-world perspective but as Stewart Brand has shown, urbanisation is often the only way out of the drudgery and insecurity of subsistence agriculture on the land. No doubt, many have been forced to the city as a result of corporate land-grabs, but many more make their way there in search of a better life not available in the parochial traditional village. Again, Tudge ignores the fact that we all used to be poor- and have rather short lives. There may still be billions in poverty whom industrial agriculture has not yet served well, but there seems no historical precedent where this was not also the case. Not once does he mention the success of the Green Revolution which, through a combination of science, new plant varieties and infrastructure development, increased yields and saved hundreds of millions from starvation, all while leaving more land for nature.

Tudge’s attempt to switch from hunger to oil dependency to climate change, and lay all this at the feet of “industrialisation” is as clumsy as it is ignorant:

Industrialization has indisputably brought billions, including Tudge and his fellow retro-romantic Greens- out of a poverty they will hardly volunteer to return to.

His “solution” of what he calls “Enlightened Agriculture” looks like just the latest guise of Organic self-sufficiency which looks so appealing to those on the West who have choices, but for those in the developed world will just be a recipe for keeping the poor in their blissful poverty.

What is needed now is a second, greener revolution, that integrates a range of scientific and social innovations and developments tailor-made for the small farmer.

Biology Professor Nina Fedoroff sums it up well:

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