Why farmers should focus less on commercial farming

By Njahira Gitahi | Mar 05, 2024
Wairimu Keriri at her farm in Tigoni where she grows managu, spinach and cabbages which she supplies to commercial kitchens through Tawi Fresh. [File, Standard]

In the early 2000s, the government of India began to witness a strange phenomenon. Every year, the number of suicides of small-scale farmers was rapidly increasing. Environmental activists, speaking to these farmers, quickly came to the realisation that the reason for this was the widespread introduction in 2002 of Monsanto’s Bt cotton crop. This crop, marketed as promising a higher yield, repeatedly failed, prompting the farmers to take on more and more debt as they worked to sustain their crop. Soon, the debt became unmanageable for many, and some resorted to drinking pesticide provided by Monsanto, leading to their death. By around 2013, hundreds of thousands of farmers had died this way.

Fast forward to the present and Kenya finds itself on the cusp of a similar conundrum. Just last year, maize farmers in Baringo contracted by Bayer were shocked and disappointed when close to 200 acres of the crop, planted using seeds procured from the firm, failed to yield any produce. Bayer conducted its own investigations and attributed the crop failure to poor weather conditions and planting during the wrong window but that did not take away from the fact that farmers, who were relying on the crop both for sale and for feeding their families, had suffered a huge loss.

Conversations around the rejection of Genetically Modified crops by farmers often revolve around the same points: That farmers do not get to own their seeds, that seeds yield only one harvest and must be repurchased from the multinationals that have taken over agriculture, and that indigenous crop biodiversity is being lost. These are all huge, worrying problems for farmers as well as for food consumers. This past week, however, Kenyan peasant farmers took to the streets to protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) itself, bringing to the fore an actor whose actions in the agricultural sector are seldom criticised. Whilst the WTO held its 13th annual Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi, the farmers peacefully protested against the intrusion of the organisation in their farming affairs and for a good reason.

As it stands, agriculture has taken the globalisation model. Farming is encouraged as a source of income through planting crops that can be traded internationally, rather than as a source of food for subsistence. This model primarily favours large-scale farmers who can afford to plant a small variety of crops over a large acreage, and who have access to markets for international trade. Those who focus on small-scale, subsistence farming are caught up in the melee of agricultural development as they are forced to take on the models set in place for large-scale farmers, namely buying seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from multinationals perennially, and taking on unsustainable debt when they are incapable of meeting these demands that are set in law.

Additionally, large-scale farming contributes more to climate change than it does to food safety. Forty per cent of greenhouse gas emissions stem from agriculture, whilst over a billion people remain food insecure, thereby beating the purpose of industrialisation of food production. This conundrum speaks to our species’ obsession with growth, where modernisation, mechanisation and large-scaling are always viewed as good; as signs of development, progress and evolution. Often, however, technological advancements do not take into account the human toll that they bring. So long as some are benefitting from this growth, ‘let the weakest be damned’.

Agriculture, perhaps more than any other sector of society, could greatly benefit from taking on a degrowth model. Degrowth focuses itself on the environment and the livelihoods of everyone on the planet whilst deemphasising rabid production and consumption. A degrowth approach to agriculture would focus itself then on feeding the families that make up a society, rather than attaching itself to ideas of profit and mechanisation. More than anyone else, small-scale farmers are best placed to push us towards societal degrowth, as they understand best the struggle that goes into feeding our communities and themselves, rather than chasing endless profit. As agroecologist Vandana Shiva warns us, “When the focus of agriculture is the production of commodities for trade, instead of food for nourishment, hunger and malnutrition are the outcome.”

Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate

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