Progress in the Rainforest. On bigness, smallness, and the business of setting standards.

Wikicommons by FCRebelo CC 3.0

As noted in today’s Daily Essentials, the Pacific Standard brings news of significant progress in the struggle against deforestation of the Amazon. They also point out that progress on this front was enabled by the shift from smallholder producers to multinational corporations.

Stereotypically, environmentalists are known for opposing big business. Yet the growth of multinational corporations in the Amazon—including Walmart, Cargill, and large slaughterhouses, like JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva—was a secret boon for conservationists, giving them a target the public could rally against. It was hard to tell independent peasant farmers that they should give up their land, and their incomes, for the sake of plants and animals, but folks around the world were happy to pressure Nike and Walmart to stop buying leather and beef from ranches that operate illegally in the world’s most diverse biome. “In its strength, the multibillion-dollar Brazilian cattle industry developed an Achilles’ heel,” as Yale Environment 360 reported in 2009.

This is one of the reasons that I’m more interested in reforming the “industrial food system” than trying to replace it with a system built around small businesses and artisan production. Aside from the practical matter of whether scaling up the number of small producers is feasible, the question of setting standards looms just as large. And setting standards for small business is even harder than it is for big business.

  • Think we should have paid family leave? Small business can’t manage the logistics.
  • Higher minimum wage? Small business can’t afford it.
  • Think we should have better food safety laws? You’ll put small farms out of business.
  • Trying to save the rain forest? How are peasant farmers supposed to make a living?

The big guys may be footing the bill to fight reform, but it’s almost always the little guys that provide the excuses.It can make rooting for the little guy a little frustrating.


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