In recent years, there has been a trend involving large-scale investments in the agriculture sectors of developing countries. Typically, these have involved transnational corporations and foreign governments buying large tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of Latin America to cultivate cash crops en masse. This phenomenon has been endorsed repeatedly by US and international leaders as the panacea to the ills of developing countries. But a problem arose: it became apparent that these large-scale agriculture projects were wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and farmland.
That’s where sustainable investment comes in. In response to the alarming environmental impacts foreign investment was inflicting in these countries, the Inter-Agency Group, comprising United Nations and World Bank officials, devised a series of principles for investors and host governments that maximize the positive impacts of foreign investment, while minimizing the negative effects. While I don’t want to sound too aggressively cynical, Big Ag does not exactly have a reputation as a bastion for environmental (or social or any) responsibility. And to suggest that a series of principles that investors would voluntarily abide by, and governments voluntarily enforce, would be an effective means of mitigating the negative impacts of agriculture investment seems idealistic, if not profoundly na?ve.
So what do we do? A strong agriculture sector is essential to the success of most developing countries. Large-scale investment is far too heavy-handed to responsibly deal with a sector as complex and fragile as agriculture. Simply put, big business is not always the most suitable method for dealing with a problem. (I can already hear the chorus of “Blasphemy!” from die-hard capitalists). The law of comparative advantage, revered by Western economists and holding that countries trade in order to export what they produce efficiently and import what they don’t, is not necessarily effective in the context of sustainable agriculture. In a sector so prone to the whims of externalities such as (increasingly volatile) weather patterns, pests, and disease, specializing in the cultivation of only one crop is risky.
If we actually consider the well-being of the environment and peoples of these developing countries, we should be encouraging at least some level of diversification and sustainable cultivation techniques. Microfinancing should be used to support farmers who agree to incorporate these techniques into their work.
Telling poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to devote all of their resources to the production of a single crop, on a single plot of land, year in and year out, is just asking for disaster (especially when combined with the use of unsustainable cultivation methods usually employed by foreign investors).
The focus of agricultural development should be on training local farmers to use sustainable cultivation techniques. This training should be sensitive to the local methods already employed by farmers, and should seek to incorporate those techniques whenever possible. Diversification, crop rotation, and the use of cover crops should be emphasized to mitigate erosion and soil depletion. Sustainable cultivation does not need to be expensive; it just needs to be smart. These training initiatives should seek to incorporate women and ethnic minorities to the fullest extent possible. (Is it really an efficient business model to ignore more than half of your prospective labor force?) They also should encourage the transfer of knowledge and resources between local farmers.
Ultimately, I believe it is more effective and sustainable to invest in the people of these countries than in the agriculture sector itself. As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.” Encouraging investors to cultivate land in place of local farmers, only to export most of their yield, exacerbates food insecurity in regions where it already prevails, and is not conducive to poverty alleviation. It’s a shortsighted attempt to stick a Band-Aid on a gaping wound (with the added bonus that this Band-Aid boosts sales for Big Ag). Meanwhile, the wound continues to fester while we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Nicole Backhaus (CAS’16), an international relations major, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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