May 12, 2008

Loose Ends

A follow up comment by Martin Wolf in the previously mentioned conversation over at the Financial Times.  A quick quibble on this bit:
Mr Cobham’s basic plea seems to be that we should make the poor better subsistence farmers. I don’t really believe this can be the long-run future, though it must be a part of the short-run future.
I think this is a mischaracterization of Cobham's comments and more broadly of the aims of groups like Christian Aid, and it seems to be a common one.  Short of modern homesteaders, who like many of us have the luxury of making impractical lifestyle choices housed in the rhetoric of ethics/values, there aren't a whole lot of folks out there who want to be subsistence farmers.  There are, however, a number of people - you could make the case for as many as one billion of them - who need to be subsistence farmers if they are going to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.  Subsistence isn't the final goal of agricultural development for individuals like Cobham, or organizations like Christian Aid but it is often a necessary and much desired stop-off when moving from hunger to development.  Necessary in that it creates space for further progress, desired in that the alternative is starvation.  Collier is correct in saying that there is a tendency to romanticize the pastoral ideal but both he and Wolf are wrong if they think it is a tendency which those who actually work with subsistence farmers are prone towards.  They are equally wrong, and I think in the long run harmfully so, in thinking that the only two viable visions of global food production are subsistence farming or Monsanto.     

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