In a collection of agrarian essays entitled The Art of the Commonplace, the American farmer, essayist and poet Wendell Berry wrote that “the care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
From his farm in Kentucky, Mr Berry has spent decades railing against the expansion, homogenisation and industrialisation of American farms. Rapacious economic imperatives, he argues, are leading to the gradual but inexorable destruction of the land. The ethos of stewardship has been replaced by a remote form of ownership that views fields, rivers and forests solely through the lens of extraction. Local smallholders who, as he puts it, inhabited the land “on its terms, not ours”, have either been forced out or co-opted.
As a major study published on Tuesday makes clear, such concerns are now of pressing global relevance. Research led by the International Land Coalition has estimated that a tiny 1% of the world’s 600m or so farms operate 70% of its crop fields, ranches and orchards. A concentration of ownership in recent decades, combined with the rise of indirect control through contract farming, has reduced vast swathes of territory to mere assets on a distant company balance sheet.
Smallholders, family farms and indigenous communities have been chivvied, bullied and bribed into retreating to ever smaller patches of land, or abandoning it altogether. More than 80% of the smallholdings in the world now comprise less than two hectares (five acres) and lie outside global food chains. In Brazil, where the often violent dispossession of traditional Amazonian communities has made international headlines, 1,833 cases of conflict related to land and water were recorded last year.
The territory freed up is being remorselessly pillaged in the short-term interests of corporate agribusiness and opaque western investment funds. Many investors work on 10-year cycles, maximising returns at significant environmental cost, before moving on to pastures new. Monocultures and overintensive methods have led to the accelerating decline of soil quality, depletion of water resources and deforestation. Those responsible for this environmental vandalism, which puts cheap food on our tables, are seldom held to account. The report’s authors note: “Complex corporate and financial structures and cross-shareholdings mean that clear lines of responsibility for land use are becoming harder to discern, just as they are becoming more important.”
Over the course of generations, on every continent, communities have learned how to cherish, cultivate and preserve the richness of their land. As the world faces an environmental emergency, a logic of short-term accumulation has led to the loss of this expertise. If the global direction of travel is to be reversed, governments must demand greater transparency on landholdings and explicit commitments to existing principles of sustainable investment. But most importantly, a way should be sought to reassert the rights and virtues of smallholders and family farmers. As one of the report’s authors says: “It’s not just about return on investment; it’s about culture, identity and leaving something for the next generation.”