Farmers markets across the United States, such as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia shown here, support an old-new model of sustainable agriculture and agricultural employment. (Photo: Ramona / The Houndstooth Gourmet)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have the honor and privilege of informing you of the return of the family farmer.
For decades, conventional wisdom has accustomed us to thinking that agricultural activity had to be, as far as employment is concerned, residual: the increase in agricultural productivity, the urbanization of societies, the evolution to a services economy would make marginal that which had constituted the framework of civilizations for centuries. A page had supposedly been definitively turned.
Policies have been stubbornly organized around this idea, encouraging the expansion of farm size without concern for the constant reduction in the number of farmers, considering agricultural space a simple reserve for urban expansion, ignoring the environmental impacts of an ultra-productivist agriculture.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is my honor and privilege to break some good news to you: the ideas of one era may die; its dogmas may be overturned. Consequently, I have the immense pleasure of informing you that in these times of mental and political stagnation we can create a million jobs in Europe, five hundred thousand in France - family farmer jobs.
Please erase that hint of an ironic smile that's taking shape on your lips and listen. Between 1950 and 2007, agricultural labor productivity multiplied by 26: that means a farmer produces 26 times more today than sixty years ago. Can that continue? Obviously not. And still less so, when one considers that this calculation leaves out the "externalities" of that mind-boggling development: soil erosion, groundwater pollution, the drop in bio-diversity, the use of enormous quantities of pesticides and antibiotics.
In reality, it is becoming essential to reduce those externalities which involve a significant hidden cost to society. That means working the earth differently, devoting more care and fewer machines to that process; and, consequently, reducing the apparent productivity of agriculture; and, consequently, increasing farmer jobs.
A further point: do you really believe you're going to reduce the number of unemployed - now resuming its upward curve - by manufacturing still more cars, planes and packaging? To ask the question is to answer it.
We need to move our mental furniture around: agriculture is a sector of the future. In a text that you may read on the Internet, entitled, "Agriculture: a European Plan to Emerge from the Crises," associations call on citizens and political leaders. What they say is that it's possible to create a million new family farmers, as long as we change agricultural policy, favor the installation of young people, put the brakes on urban sprawl, control real estate speculation and support new ecological modes of production.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for your enthusiastic attention.
This article first appeared in the 17-18 May 2009 edition of Le Monde. The [French] text of "Agriculture: a European Plan to Emerge from the Crises," is posted here.