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GLOBAL AGRICULTURE : The Face of Farming: Bounty and Poverty : Harvest of Prosperity Bypasses Third World

August 30, 1994|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A swift tour through the world of agriculture reveals a myriad of faces and problems.

The Kenyan farmer in a tattered fedora, his frown etched with reluctance, ponders a British expert's suggestion that he switch to a new cash crop. An Indian scours the skies of Haryana state for signs of the gray clouds that carry the monsoon rains to his parched land. A Japanese grower contemplates an uneasy future because he is one of only six rice farmers left in the hamlet of Tominaga Higashi as the young flee their remote villages for township jobs. A comandante in Las Marias, wearing unkempt green fatigues and sporting a thick mustache and a few days' growth on his chin, insists that the Salvadoran government turn over land to him and fellow guerrillas now that peace has come.

Farmers this diverse create a world of agriculture weighed down by puzzling contradictions:

* Enough crops are now produced to feed everyone on Earth. Yet 700 million people face starvation every year, and most of them are poor farmers.

* Almost all experts agree that Third World development has been crippled by political bias against the small, impoverished farmer. National leaders ignore the needs of the rural areas while--out of fear of urban food riots--catering to the demands of city dwellers. Yet experts are unsure how to turn things around and give the farmers a fair deal.

* The temptation to ignore agriculture remains strong even in countries outside the Third World. Agronomists, for example, look on Ukraine as a granary of enormous potential. Yet the Ukrainian government seems more concerned about the problems of nuclear weapons than food; foreign aid donors are more concerned about democratization than cultivation.

* Thirty thousand U.S. farms vanish every year, devoured by the maw of agribusiness. Some of the spirit of America seeps away with these farms. Yet most analysts insist that the loss strengthens U.S. agriculture and, in the long run, helps the world.

* For years, almost everyone except rich landlords agreed that land reform was the key to Latin American economic development. The great latifundios , or grand estates, had to be shattered and the pieces turned over to land-poor peasants. Yet only El Salvador and Nicaragua have major land-reform programs, and they embrace change only because peace agreements, hammered out under international pressure, oblige them to parcel out land to soldiers who have laid down their arms.

Amid all these contradictions, however, two truths persist:

First of all, countries cannot successfully industrialize if their farmers are too poor to buy manufactured goods. The United States became an industrial nation only after its farmers prospered. This truth is often ignored.

"We were once a society where most people were farmers," pointed out Merle Jensen, a professor of plant science at the University of Arizona. "Now only 2% of the population are on the farms. If you ask people where you get milk, they say you get it from a Safeway. They don't know that it comes from a cow. But what made our country strong was our strong land base. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington--they were all farmers."

Keys to Success

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the Danish agronomist who is executive director of the prestigious International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, paints a natural progression in development throughout the world. Farmers with income can buy manufactured goods. This fosters industrialization, which, in turn, leads to larger farms, and these eventually give way to the corporate farms of agribusiness.

That is the history of agriculture in the United States and, to some extent, Europe. For successful development, said Pinstrup-Andersen, the first steps, the economic empowerment of farmers, cannot be skipped.

Pinstrup-Andersen notes that the newly industrialized countries of Asia--countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia--invested first in the rural areas, financing infrastructure, agricultural research, land reform, irrigation and savings and credit institutions.

"They started in agriculture," he said. "That was the locomotive that made the train go."

Second among the truths of agriculture is the human side to farming, a cultural bridge, that is not always easy to cross.

Three decades ago, David Hapgood, an Africa specialist who worked as a consultant to the Peace Corps, wrote in a prescient book, "To achieve a better material life, African farmers must adopt a whole set of new techniques, and for this to happen, millions of peopleliving in isolation from the urban centers must decide they want to make revolutionary changes in their lives."

Hapgood was not talking about inundating farmers with tractors and chemical fertilizer. He was talking about the need to change a way of thinking and looking at the world.

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