Sustainable Agriculture -- For Whom?

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 June 1996


The UK government has publicly renounced industrialised, chemical-based agriculture in favour of “sustainable agriculture”. Under Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development signed at the Rio Earth Summit (UNCED) in 1992, it is committed to Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development or SARD, drawn up by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Yet SARD’s understanding of people’s participation, land reform, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection are quite different from that of many people’s movements. For SARD, participation is about engineering consent and getting people to participate in implementing decisions that have already been taken by someone else. SARD calls for land reform to promote is agribusiness’ access to land, not people’s control over it. And despite the rhetoric, SARD is about agricultural intensification. Overall, the policy is the same, but the language has changed.


Full text

After years of promoting industrialised, chemical-based agriculture, the UK government, along with international bodies such the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, have renounced the past in favour of a new future. "Sustainable agriculture" has become the rage. It is an renouncement which, though welcome, nonetheless produces a deeply sceptical itch at the back of my neck that says, "something's not quite right here". And I very much get that itch when I hear talk of SARD - Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development - to which the UK government is now committed under Agenda 21, the "Action Plan" for sustainable development that was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Ditto when I hear uncritical talk about the European Union's Agri-Environment programme.


I want to explain my unease and I'll start with SARD. SARD began life as a policy document, drawn up by the FAO as part of its bid to be a major player at the Earth Summit. The document put forward an agenda for action on agriculture, which, in large part, was then adopted by governments at Rio. Knowing where the idea came from - and what motivated it - is important, particularly when the institution that gave birth to the idea is not known for its commitment to sustainable anything. In fact, the FAO's single over-riding agenda for the past 40 years has been to modernise Third World agriculture - by which it has meant forcing farmers to adopt mechanised, chemical farming.

But SARD apparently signalled a volte face in FAO policies:

  • Instead of uncritically promoting pesticides and western technology, the document is candid about the destruction caused by modern agriculture:
  • It acknowledges that "intensification has often been accompanied by large demands on non-renewable resources, environmental pollution, an accelerated rural exodus and the development of unsustainable production processes";
  • It has good words to say about organic agriculture and "highly recommends" "greater recourse to biological processes";
  • It argues for a "holistic approach" to agriculture and acknowledges that many of the features of sustainable agriculture "can be found among traditional practices";
  • It bemoans "technical fixes that have proved unable to provide lasting solutions";
  • it criticises "lifestyles in the North that place excessive claims on global resources";
  • It berates "unfettered free market economics" for destroying the environment.
  • And it calls for "the active involvement and participation of rural people ... in the development of integrated farm management systems compatible with maintaining essential biological processes".

This then is the public face of SARD. Eco-friendly. People-friendly. But 22 years of working on these issues have made me wary of Pauline Conversations, particularly when the Paul is an institution. More often than not, my experience is that the powerful are all too adept at co-opting the language of opposition in an attempt to defuse the demands that lie behind that language. So before I take words and paper commitments at their face value, I like to dig around a bit. To ask questions about the intentions that lie behind the words.

And when you look closely at the documents which lay down the detailed policies for SARD, it quickly becomes clear that SARD is not what it seems.

Even the title is a public relations exercise: it was to have been called Sustainable Agriculture and Development, but someone pointed out that the acronym - SAD - was unfortunate, so "rural" was added, without any real commitment to a truly rural policy.

Here it is worth quoting from a letter I received from a sympathetic insider within FAO who was involved in drafting the SARD programme. This is what he has to say: "The passages on participation, traditional systems, the holistic approach and biological agriculture were added by me. I was surprised that even these got through the censorship. Despite some Titanic encounters in committees, it was impossible for me to win a one-man battle to introduce real changes in the face of the entrenched bureaucratic experts opposed to me. Besides, changing the philosophy would have meant demolishing the very basis of FAO as currently conceived by its lords and masters."

In fact, when one reads between the lines, it is clear that far from being a programme for sustainable agriculture, SARD is actually a programme for coopting opposition to the modernisation of agriculture, for better managing the process of modernisation, for more of the same.

Let me give a few examples of what I mean. And let me do so, by contrasting the demands of popular organizations in the Third World with the policies put forward by SARD, in order to bring out how FAO has not only distorted those demands but has, very subtly, used them to push its own agenda - an agenda which is completely different.

  • "Participation"

    Peoples organizations are demanding that communities have a decisive, democratic say in the decisions that affect their lives. But SARD uses participation in a very different sense: for SARD, participation is about engineering consent. It is about getting people to participate in implementing decisions that have already been taken by someone else. It is about using NGOs as a new tier of government.

  • Land Reform

    Peoples organizations have long been demanding land reform in order to establish democratic control over the resources on which local people rely for their livelihoods.

    SARD calls for land reform. But for very different reasons. What it seeks to promote is access to land, not control over it. And there is a reason for that: increasingly agribusiness is moving away from owning land and instead turning to contract farming, with peasants taking the risks of production. Land reform that gave peasants control over their land would also give them control over what crops they grew. Land reform that ensures access to land still allows agribusiness to have the final say in what is produced and for whom. The peasants get land, but only if they farm under contract to the companies.

  • Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Protection

    Despite the rhetoric, SARD isn't about protecting the environment or promoting biological farming. It is about intensification. In fact, the background documents to the programme state categorically: "Intensification is the only option". The only difference between SARD and previous FAO policy statements is that, for the first time, environmental protection is cited as a prime reason for encouraging intensification.

The policy is the same, but the language has changed. More to the point, the language of sustainability is used to justify increasing the hold of development agencies and the state over farmers. Thus, in order to protect the environment, SARD recommends that governments, in the First and Third Worlds, zone agricultural land. The best land - "high potential areas" in SARD's newspeak - should be used for intensive monocultures. SARD argues that in such areas, chemicals will have to be used "to protect the soil". The logic is Alice in Wonderland. In order to pay for the chemicals, says SARD, the crops will have to be exported -- and because the crops are exported, the biomass won't be available for recycling. Hence, the need for chemicals. The option of reclaiming such land for peasant agriculture, growing crops without chemicals for local consumption is not considered.

Only in outlying areas - areas which have not been opened up to development - does SARD recommend that peasants be allowed to grow their own food using biological agriculture.

Coupled to this zoning policy is the recommendation that governments should "evaluate the man/land (sic) ratio" of marginal areas. Where there are deemed to be "too many people", governments should move the "excess" people through transmigration programmes. In most instances, the only places that the "excess" will be able to go are the slums. So much for Rural Development.

Indeed, SARD's twin policies of zoning and transmigration are likely to lead to a singularly repressive regime of top-down agricultural management, in which people have no place and in which the environment is as exploited as ever. If implemented as FAO intends, SARD will set in stone the ruinous system of twin track agriculture -- with intensive farming on the best land and peasants eking out a living in marginal areas - that has brought environmental degradation and impoverishment to millions. Although SARD insists that its policy will promote "a myriad of production units", operating a wide diversity of systems of agriculture, it neglects to mention that those "myriad units" are unequal. Inevitably, those that have the greatest backing - in terms of patronage, power, resources and money - will dominate the others. And, with intensive monoculture getting the best land, it doesn't take much to work out which system will dominate.

Political Space but for Whom?

In making these points, I don't want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". Having SARD as part of Agenda 21 opens up a political space for pushing ecological agriculture - space that maybe wasn't there before Rio.

The point I want to make is that the other actors who are using that space may not have the same agenda as, say, I do or the organic movement does. For FAO, as we have seen, SARD is a vehicle for achieving very different ends to those I would seek to achieve. Whose agenda gets heard, and implemented, won't depend on rational debate but on the power enjoyed by those other actors. Participating in the SARD process, without being aware of the different agendas being pursued, is thus a potentially dangerous game - one that could end up marginalising those for whom political struggle is not just another campaign but a defence of livelihood.

Indeed, now that environmental concerns are mainstream, so the need to put the issue of power at the centre of the debate becomes increasingly critical. The World and her husband are all in favour of protecting the environment, but how to achieve this without introducing new forms of oppression? That is the question.

It is not only a matter of looking beyond the rhetoric of change - with SARD that is easy enough - it is also a question of what is the appropriate mechanism for achieving change.

The Agri-environment proposals

Consider the Agri-environment proposals, which, if implemented, would enable organic farmers to benefit from a new raft of grants. I am all in favour of these and have long supported them. But, again (perhaps only because I have the benefit of hindsight), I have that niggling feeling at the back of my neck.

My concern is this. The agri-environment payments have found favour with the powers that be primarily because they are subsidies that do not contravene the new GATT agreement. They are "decoupled" payments: that is, they are not linked to output. But they are subsidies none the less (although the US would claim that they are not) and they are subsidies which the Third World cannot afford: they will thus permit export dumping to continue from the First World, to the detriment of farmers in the Third World.

And ultimately such decoupled payments may prove to be to the detriment of farmers here too. Whether the payments continue will depend to a large extent on the whims of bureaucrats in the EC or in the US administration. If the bill gets too high, then you can bet your bottom dollar, they will be cut back - and farmers may not have the bargaining power, or the public support, to resist.

And who, ultimately, are the main beneficiaries of decoupled payments? It is not the farmers who receive them - in most cases, they merely get back their costs. It is the large grain companies who are able to buy below the costs of production. Indeed, the US system of delinked payments has been described as a "money-laundering scheme ... engineered by and for the grain trade, enabling traders to increase their profits by cutting returns to producers." Yet that is precisely the system that the EC is now moving towards.

New Alliances

I am sorry if all this sounds like I am pouring cold water on initiatives that many of you may find exciting. I don't want to diminish your enthusiasm. But I would urge a little scepticism, particularly where the route to change involves little challenge to the existing status quo and where the vehicles for achieving change are mainstream institutions - from FAO to the UK's Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to the supermarkets.

It may be that working with such institutions leads to less use of chemicals on the land. Good. But I believe there is more to the organic movement than that. There are social issues, issues of distribution and social justice that are not just of concern but which should be central to the struggle for change.

Ignore them and there is a danger not merely of the organic movement becoming marginal but even of it becoming a force for oppression. The slave plantations, after all, were farmed without chemicals.

But take on board the social issues - the issues of power, of who benefits who sets the agenda - and a whole new range of alliances and possibilities open up. The organic movement has already made great steps in this direction through the SAFE alliances - a UK grouping of farm, environment and consumer groups. But Where has the organic movement been on opposing the closure of village schools or pushing for better rural transport? Where was it on Twyford Down? In the GATT debate? What links has it tried to make with the women's institutes, with local rotary groups - groups that if they came together could pave the way for a truly radical rural lobby. The potential for links are there, but they won't come about without an active commitment to supporting other groups whose broad concerns are similar but whose specific areas of interest may appear different.

So my plea for environmental groups and the organic movement alike would be to break out of the ghetto. Start to forge new alliances - for localising the economy, for democratising control of resources by local communities, for meaningful work - in fact for all the objectives laid down in the charter of the organic movement's most representative international body, IFOAM. And be a bit more circumspect about the grand policy changes that SARD and the like represent.