The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


'Methodist Recorder' Debate
(1983) Letters

Agriculture in the Third World

May I be allowed to extend the debate with Mr Peter Hall about Third World agriculture? I agree with Mr Hall that the 'Churches need to clarify their teaching about man's responsibility under God for our planet'   especially for its people, but to do this we need plenty of information.

So let me set the boundaries for the debate. I am not suggesting changes in the fundamental patterns of Western agriculture, which have been developed over a long period, are suited to temperature agriculture and fit the established patterns of Western diet. Little will be gained for the hungry of the Third World if we change from a diet based on animal protein to one based on vegetable protein. They cannot afford to buy our surpluses.

What we are discussing is whether the application of Western methods of agriculture in Third World countries could solve the problems of the hungry people in the world.

Western agriculture is highly efficient and has vastly increased production over the last 50 years. Why then should we not use these methods in under-developed countries to feed the hungry?

Let me give an example of how this has been tried. In the 1960s the term 'Green Revolution' was coined to describe the increase in crop yields which occurs when improved varieties of crop plants (mainly cereals) are grown, which give higher yields than traditional varieties. It was thought that these varieties would solve the problems of world hunger. So Western countries (especially USA) and the World Bank provided incentives and 'package deals' to encourage the growth of these cereals in under-developed countries. These 'package deals' offered not only seeds but also other necessary inputs of fertiliser, pesticides, etc. These were sold at easy terms with easy credit to the most progressive farmers in the best areas in certain countries (eg India).

Small farmers, especially in poor areas, were excluded because of their lack of resources and inability to raise the required capital.

If farmers were to grow the new high-yielding varieties they wanted some guarantee that market prices would not drop, so governments introduced support prices guaranteeing a minimum price. But this meant that the new cereals were expensive so though more food was produced the poor could not afford to buy it.

Because many of the wealthier farmers were also landlords whose tenants were too poor to afford the new system, they tended to take back their land to increase their own holdings. This created more landless poor. While initially these might be employed as labour, eventually the increased profits led to more mechanisation and lower labour requirement.

If farm machinery, fertilisers and agricultural chemicals were all manufactured in the Third World then there might be some employment for the displaced labour in these industries, but often these products are imported. There are not enough other forms of industry to take up the surplus labour.

In this example then, Western methods have increased inequality and not fed the hungry. There has been a transformation in some parts of India due to the use of irrigation, better seeds and fertilisers but the benefits have not been for the whole of the population. The poor are worse off.

'Experts' who go in and tell people what to do often do more harm than good.

Some experts advised the people in Africa to grow a higher yielding variety of their crop, in order to produce a surplus which they could sell. The villagers agreed, grew the crop, produced a surplus. Next year the advisers went back the villagers had gone back to their original variety. The advisers gave up, thinking them stupid and lazy.

Another group of people visited the village. They belonged to a group who believed in alternative technology and supported the 'Small is beautiful' ideas of E F Schumacher. Using a gentle approach, they found out from the villagers that any surplus produce had to be taken for four or five miles to the nearest market how? The women walked carrying the produce on their heads. The first year they did it then refused to do it again! Who can blame them! The second group showed them how to make a simple cart using the wheels from a wrecked car, other locally available material and traditional skills. The cart could be hitched to one of their plough oxen. The villagers were then quite willing to grow the new variety.

It behoves anyone who cares about the hungry in the Third World to be well informed on the subject. Sometimes Western methods can be adapted and used, but it is arrogant to assume that our methods are always the best. A useful book to read is "How the Other Half Dies" by Susan George (Penguin 1976).

Valerie Spouge (7/7/83)  

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