Farming is production at its most fundamental. Today it is often claimed that the agricultural revolution was humanity’s most transformative innovation. And whether you see the first seed sown as our original sin or as the beginning of civilization there is little debate over one fact: farming irreversibly influenced the fate of humanity. It was the prerequisite for the growth of cities, the division of labor, and for so much subsequent history.
Farming is also human agency at its most unadulterated. The knowledge acquired by the world’s agriculturalists—how to harness the powers of nature for our nourishment, how to select and save the best seed for the following year, how to foster fertile soil and channel life-giving water to crops—all this became vital and empowering. With the development of farming, humans became active agents on this earth in new, more powerful ways than ever before.
Historically, food production has been the source of most subsequent forms of production: without farming there would be no freedom from the incessant search for food; there would little art or architecture, no surplus to feed doctors, politicians, and teachers. Even today, with a diminishing portion of the world’s population involved in farming, most within the development community agree that a robust farming sector is almost always necessary for sustained economic growth.
And yet many of the same politicians and development economists who acknowledge the importance of a sustainable agricultural sector also treat farming merely as a means to industrial ends. Agriculture becomes the slave of industry, exploited to feed the voracious appetite of urban factories with raw materials, financial capital, and displaced farmers themselves. In this model, it is often forgotten that farming is the source of nourishment for each and every human body; it is the essence of production and not merely a tool for capital accumulation.
It is strange then that modern farmers—the archetypal producers—have been reduced by the economic and technological hegemony of agribusiness to the status of consumers. The past century has witnessed a steady penetration of farming by capital—formerly self-reliant farmers coaxed and pressured into purchasing expensive inputs such as fertilizer and seed held by an increasingly small number of transnational corporations. This capital-intensive agriculture leads to a vicious cycle of debt and dependency from which it is difficult to escape. Today, food producers at all points along the spectrum, from large poultry farmers in America to small potato farmers in the Andes, have been significantly disempowered by corporate heavyweights.
Agribusiness has long sought to consolidate corporate power over agriculture, gaining ground with hybrid seeds and chemical inputs manufactured during the mid 20th century. The most recent way in which these companies reduce food producers to consumers is through genetically engineered (GE) seed. As the promoters of this technology are eager to point out, humans have been manipulating seed for millennia, selecting desired characteristics and bringing these forward for the next generation. However, these corporations fail to acknowledge that there is a crucial difference with GE: this seed manipulation takes place not by farmers on the land but instead by scientists in the lab. These companies, moreover, appropriate seed developed by farmers over thousands of years and then ‘improve’, patent, and sell it back to the same farmers as an original product, claiming sole authorship. Labeled biopiracy by critics of GE, it is an action that clearly illustrates the dynamic between seed corporations and farmers.
Philanthropies and their private sector partners are also seizing on the growing hunger and climate crisis to push GE on small farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa. This ostensibly well-meaning effort to foster development is based on several questionable practices and assumptions including a failure to acknowledge the deleterious history of farmer debt and dispossession, environmental degradation, and social stratification that has long accompanied this capital-intensive agricultural paradigm.
The word ‘farm’ comes from the Proto-Germanic word ferhwo meaning ‘life force’ or ‘being’ and is related to the Old English feorh meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘life.’ Etymologically this reflects the vital place of farming as a source of human productivity. Yet today, in a global economy geared towards limitless growth, consumption is king and even farmers, the original producers, are rendered sterile, manipulated into becoming consumers on their own fertile lands.