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The Other Side of Agriculture

January 30, 2013

I recently read Food, Farming and Freedom, a book which offers an interesting perspective on the link between food sovereignty, trade and politics by taking the agricultural policies in Lebanon and the Middle East as case studies. Here are my takeaways.

Dynamic Comparative Advantages. Lebanon imports most of the food consumed in the country. It focuses on the production of few crops which can be exported whereas the rest is imported from other countries which do a better job at producing food. This idea is underpinned by the comparative advantages mantra which, according to the interpretation of many politicians, postulates that Lebanon should focus on what it is naturally best at doing i.e. trading . The spinoff of such mantra is that Lebanon today imports most of its food from United States, the Netherlands and France. There is however very little natural about the fact that those countries have today  a comparative advantage over Lebanon in food production: they gained this position because of subsidies their governments allocated to farmers; their position of preeminence was therefore manufactured and was not given. If a country import most of the food it consumes has very little to do with geography and  it is to a large extent the outcome of a political choice.

Subsidies (source cartoonstock.com)

Agribusiness vs. Small Farmers. An export-oriented agriculture has one corollary: it favors the formation of large agribusiness which can meet the knowledge, capital and asset requirement for exports. When Lebanon enters in reciprocal trade agreements with European countries very few of the small holders are able to take advantages of this opportunity: small farmers are not able to meet the EU quality standard. As agribusiness take over the agricultural sector, few of the small farmers become underpaid farm workers with very little social security while other are forced to migrate. Many argue that this is part of the that process called development whereby the majority the population is displaced from low productivity jobs in agricultural to high productivity jobs in the industrial sector: the challenge is one of creating jobs in the industrial, urban-based sector. From this angle the future of agriculture is one based on agribusiness. Whether agriculture is the business of agribusinesses or of small holders is however a choice every country is called to make, yet many times it is not the object of any debate.

An Economic Disaster and A Political Success. Agricultural policies can be economic disasters and political successes at the same time. Israel has made farming one of the cornerstones of its project to occupy land: farming roots people in the land they till. It invested heavily  in settlements like kibbutz and in agriculture to an extent that the sector became one of the least economically efficient: many economists call for an end of subsidies to agriculture which make access to water, packing and transportation for Israeli farmers so convenient. Yet the Israeli government continues to subsidize agriculture because what it is an economic disaster is also a political success. Israeli kibbutz produce the bulk of the radical forces in Israel and the technology used in the settlements has been used to showcase the Israel entrepreneurship to the West thus gaining its consensus.  Agriculture in other words is not only about economics is also about politics. This is true on the other side of the border in south Lebanon.

Many farmers in the south of Lebanon are farmers and their main crop is tobacco. The choice of tobacco is not accidental as the government subsidizes a body which purchases tobacco from farmers at prices higher than international ones. The environment would allow the farming of other crops yet farmers stick to tobacco given their limited access to water and lack of infrastructure: the Lebanese government does not invest in irrigation, packing facilities or transportation in the same way of its Israeli counterpart. At the same time many governments in Lebanon have voiced their preference to lift the subsidies to the tobacco cultivation. This might make sense from an economic point of view yet it does not from a political one. The South of Lebanon has been occupied by Israel until recently yet farmers have remained on their land: tilling rooted people in the land insofar as farming sustained their livelihoods. This steadfastness is by many seen as a resistance towards a neighbor which has for so long occupied their land. Those who therefore label subsidies on tobacco an economic drain on the country miss a part of the story: an economic disaster can be a political success, and Israel shows just that. A single-minded focus on economic efficiency and agricultural productivity misses an important part of the story.

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