Skip to main content

Good News: Globalization Crushing Family Farms

Nationalists would rather have less to eat at greater cost than import goods.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


Family farms are better than corporate farms. That's not an assessment an economist would make. As the numbers of the agriculturally employed plummeted, production skyrocketed. Given the economies of scale, family farms couldn't compete. Enter Farm Aid:

It was around this time that legendary singer Willie Nelson met up with his golfing buddy, then-Illinois Governor Jim Thompson at the Illinois State Fair. Nelson says stories of struggling farmers got him thinking about putting together a benefit concert to raise awareness about the plight of the American farmer.

The American farmer, nay, the yeoman farmer is a cornerstone of nationalist mythology. That's an assessment a geographer would make. The agrarian ideal informs a kind of food sovereignty that disrupts the allocation of crops and, quite frankly, helps to cause poverty and famine. Jihad versus McWorld:

José Bové, a sheep farmer/activist in Aveyron in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, is a modern day Astérix, a mythical Gaul who drubbed foreign intruders centuries ago. In Bové's case, the intruder was McDonald's, the American fast food chain (referred to in a satirical way by Bové and his supporters as "McDo"). On 12 August 1999 Bové and his confrères from the Confédération paysanne, the second largest farmers' union in France, "dismantled" a McDonald's under construction in Millau, a town of approximately 20,000 inhabitants on the wind swept Larzac plateau. Earlier in January 1988 he and his comrades destroyed genetically modified maize in a grain silo in Nérac in the department of Lot-et-Garonne. While he received an eight month suspended sentence for the Nérac incident, the action in Millau brought Bové, the spokesperson for the Confédération paysanne, several weeks in jail but also national and international publicity. At his trial, an estimated 40,000 people from France and around the world showed up to support Bové and his cause.

What triggered Bové's attack on McDonald's in Millau was a dispute between the United States and its World Trade Organization (WTO) supporters on one side and Europe on the other. When the WTO backed the right of the U.S. to export hormone induced beef to Europe and the Europeans resisted, the U.S. imposed heavy duties on certain luxury products as a retaliatory measure. One of the items targeted by the U.S. was Roquefort cheese - the same cheese that Bové produced on his sheep farm. According to the Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein, Bové's actions in Millau represented an attack "against an agricultural model that sees food purely as an industrial commodity rather than the centerpiece of national culture and family life." Bové's counter-attack made him not only a hero in France, but one of the "celebrities" at the massive Seattle, Washington, protest in December 1999, which saw more than 50,000 people demonstrating against the WTO.

Emphasis added. What about food as a centerpiece for staying alive? Nationalists would rather have less to eat at greater cost than import goods. A National Public Radio story from today about Japan weighing membership in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP):

But rice farmer and local activist Takeshi Ogura says entering into the TPP would be a bad deal for Japan.

"Japanese agriculture is pretty costly," Ogura says, "so we don't want the government to treat food as a commercial business. We want it to protect our food sovereignty."

To be sure, the issue of Japanese agriculture carries some weighty symbolism. ...

... "The farmland and rice farming is at the core of our culture," he says. "They are linked to this culture through community festivals like this one. But if we stop cultivating the rice, this culture will be destroyed."

The solidly-built, more than 60-year-old Ogura is a pretty typical specimen of Japanese yeomanry. He farms less than 25 acres of land and has to do sideline jobs to make ends meet. His children are not very enthusiastic about following in his line of work.

This connection of farming with national identity lends itself to the common misunderstanding of the links between cuisine and terroir. The cooking, like the citizen, springs up out of the earth. The people were meant to be there and do things a certain way. Populists suck at geography:

The Yangtze delta in China is considered to be the original source for the practice of rice cultivation in Japan. Continuous waves of migrants bearing knowledge of the technique reached Japan from the continent around 2,400 years ago via two major routes. One was through the Korean peninsula and the other was a direct sea route from China. Rice production techniques were accompanied by the use of metal tools, which provided high productivity and a stable supply. Population increased rapidly, and localized communities appeared in the following Yayoi era (1,700 to 2,400 years ago). Paddy-field rice cultivation was then under way except in the northern Ainu-dominated region of Hokkaido and in the southern Okinawa islands, an island chain between Kyu¯mshu¯ (the southernmost main island of Japan) and Taiwan.

The fervor José Bové and Takeshi Ogura have is based on a fiction that supports the idea of a nation state. The globalization of rice cultivation technologies made a strong and thriving Japan possible. What was so useful 2,400 years ago is just as good today. The food we eat is a product of migration and trade. Globalization, not the nation state, defines culture.