Thursday, July 3, 2008

This is what we struggle for

I'm not a great fan of comparative advantages and of export-oriented agriculture. I am often surprised by how many "leftist" economists I encounter in Lebanon and in the Arab World are totally unaware of the problems surrounding the commodification of food and of export-oriented agriculture. For them, farming is important, regardless of the type of farming and who the beneficiaries are. In Lebanon for instance, most of those interested in agriculture (and well meaning) shower with praise the very modest successes of a couple of NGOs in exporting olive oil. This appears to be the main goal: exporting, preferably to the North. This is regardless of the fact that Lebanon is one of the Mediterranean countries where olive oil consumption is the lowest: 2.4 kg per person per year. Compare with Greece: 20.7 kg per person per year. Instead of trying to export olive oil and to import cheap GMO soy or corn oil, these organizations should promote the consumption of the healthier and tastier olive oil for all Lebanese, rich and poor.

There are tons of evidence that export-oriented agriculture does not work for the poor and that it cause more misery and exploitation. Daniel sent me this article about India:

"After the dry spell in the mid 1960s-early 1970s, making India self-sufficient in food became a rallying call. But instead of basing the methods for accomplishing this on land reform (along with really well informed, ecologically sound extension), the politically driven emphasis on mono-cropping, export for profit, and complex market chains led to an adoption of the U.S. model of agriculture based on a limited number of commodities. This approach relied on an extensive use of artificial petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, with a strong emphasis on the large and very large farmers (size defined in locally relevant terms). With the so-called "liberalization" of the economy in the last 10 years, there has been a large emphasis on export crops, based on the views of economists who believed that it would be good for trade if India were to import many of its basic grains, taking advantage of what economists call "economies of scale", a concept borrowed from industry which ignores the realities of rural/agricultural life."

Here is another one about Egyptian cotton, which I had blogged before, but I find is worth blogging twice. Please read it.

"According to Hamdi Wabid, a campaigner for the Land Centre for Human Rights, an NGO that fights for cotton farmers, the Egyptian cotton we sleep on in the west comes at the end of a chain of hardship and suffering. 'Counting seeds and fertiliser, the cost of starting each year's crop has jumped from zero to hundreds of pounds,' Wabid says. 'At the same time,
cotton prices have plunged, mainly because of oversupply but also because the US, the world's largest cotton producer, provides generous government subsidies to its farmers, allowing them to sell at a far lower cost. This has led many in Egypt to blame the Americans for creating the crisis,' says Wabid.
'Those who are suffering more are the children. You can be assured that any Egyptian cotton you buy in Britain has been picked or processed or tilled by children, some as young as five and six. They have no opportunities to thrive or grow, or even, as children, to have dreams and ambitions.'"

And another one, in French about banana growing in Cameroun:

"Le salaire n'est pas bon, confirme Elysée Mbelle, un autre jeune planteur. Ce n'est pas normal que ce soit la famine ici alors que nous faisons manger les Français." Depuis les émeutes, les salaires ont d'ailleurs reçu un net coup de pouce, le salaire minimum passant à 31 000 francs CFA (46,50 euros) sans les primes, qui le portent à 45 000 francs CFA (67,50 euros), selon la direction de SPM."

"Beaucoup d'employés se font virer parce qu'ils volent des bananes. La direction ne t'en donne pas. Seuls les rebuts sont vendus sur les marchés. Ces gens-là ont voulu se venger." Les conditions de travail (douze heures payées huit selon certains), la rémunération à la tâche, sans considération du temps passé, et la discipline de fer alimentent les frustrations. "Si tu demandes une pause à cause de la chaleur, le chef te dit : "Ou tu y retournes, ou je t'inscris en refus de travail"", rapporte un intérimaire.

Let me know if you need more. Farming is a way of life. Food and land and water are basic human rights. They are not optional. Let it be known: this is what we struggle for.


Anonymous said...

Re consumption of domestic olive vs. imported oils: Are the latter not cheaper? What can NGOs do about cheap subsidised imports? And aren't the Greek not richer than the Lebanese? And are their olive orchards not EU subsidised?

Do many Lebanese not also use two oils? One for cooking and one for salads or to mix with zaatar etc.? And are vegetable oils not better for some dishes because they have less of an own taste?

As for consumption in general, what about the sociology of food consumption? Mimicking what is considered more sophisticated? (i.e. brands like cadbury or nestle) And did Mazola not have a huge marketing campaign about it's oil a few years back?

Rami Zurayk said...

Ok let me take this one by one:

yes, imported oil is cheaper, this is the whole point! but not all oils are equal. olive oil is not equal to corn oil.

Who's asking NGOs to do anything about cheap subsidized cooking oil? but they can do advocacy of better eating, less fry-ups, improving olive oil productivity, improving marketing of olive oil, having campaigns about traditional Lebanese food, campaigning for olive subsidies, instead of the export subsidies. There is plenty they can do.

Greeks are richer and their oil is subsidized: this is the whole point. But so what? 7% of Lebanon is under olive, productivity is low, and people do not eat enough of it and the only thing they have in mind is exporting it. Improve olive and you improve the livelihoods of tens of thousands of small farmers. And the health of 100 thousands.

Olive oil, good olive oil is great in all dishes. I would draw the line at deep frying, which is itself very unhealthy.

Consumption and sociology. Yes, but if we want to emulate the north, then we should eat more, not less, olive oil. Maybe this is how it should be advertised.

And why should the Lebanese not have a huge marketing campaign in Lebanon about their olive oil? This is part of the subsidies.