The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
Technologies for Rural Food Security
Global Food Crisis (2008)
Oil Crunch: The Cuban Solution
Low Energy Futures: Cities and Countryside
Permaculture, Food Security and Development
Permaculture, Food Security & Development Projects
Unsustainable Food Production: Its Social Roots and Remedies
Flexible Strategies for Rural Development: Three Locations
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 1)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 2)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 3)
Lecture: How Environmental Problems in Developing Countries are caused by the Economic Structures of the Market Economy
Sustainable Agriculture: A Marketing Opportunity or Impossible in the Global Capitalist Economy?
Starter Kit for the Hunter Region: Permaculture Your House and Garden
Feral Permaculture for Hunter Backyards
Confessions of a Compost Maker
Sociological Utopias and Social Transformation: Permaculture and the Gift Economy
The Social Context of Permaculture
Food and The Environment
Food, Society and the Environment - 2003
Lecture: What is Permaculture - Where, When and How?
How Can Permaculture Maintain its Relevance in a Changing World?
Market Forces, Globalisation and Agriculture - the example of Sulawesi
Getting Beyond the Impasse in Bushfire Management
The Australian Public, Developing Countries and the Environment
Sustainable Agriculture: A Marketing Opportunity or Impossible in the Global Capitalist Economy?

At a recent national permaculture convergence in Australia a disturbing incident took place. Simon Fell, who is well known as a supporter of business involvement in permaculture projects, got up to speak to the group. He said that he had overheard someone saying that he talked about business all the time because he had no heart. He went on to argue for his pro-business perspective, saying that there was no point in people believing that nailing themselves to the cross, engaging in voluntary planet repair and living a simple lifestyle was actually going to make a bit of difference in stopping the environmental crisis. Instead, the decisions that would count would be made in the boardrooms and getting our voice into those boardrooms should be our most urgent project. He went on to say that billions of dollars had been made stuffing up the planet and there had to be billions of dollars to be made in fixing it. In a subsequent chatline discussion, I characterised the holders of this point of view as "business optimists".

In terms of authors who represent this point of view, Alan Atkisson’s Believing Cassandra (1999), is probably the most thorough exposition of the discourse in its pure form. He presents a compelling image of an airliner about to plunge into a mountain. One approach is to apply the brakes and try to slow down. The other is to actually accelerate and use that increased momentum to jump over the top of the mountain. The first is the approach favoured by environmentalists who think that voluntary simplicity in the rich world and aid to the developing world is the most sensible strategy. The other is the pro-business strategy of pointing out and promoting the profits to be made from converting to a sustainable mode of production in every country. Atkisson quotes extensively from works by Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken and Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker. These are the more academic edge of this perspective. Characterising the perspective of Factor Four(1997) and Natural Capitalism (1999) is a difficult matter. There is much in these works that does not fit very well with the pure form of the business optimist discourse — government intervention in the form of changes in the tax system is something that cannot be achieved in boardrooms alone; these books also welcome sustainable technology as a craze sweeping the business community regardless of calculations of profitability.

Nevertheless, there is much in both these books that fits well within the business optimist framework. In the first part of Factor Four (1997), the three authors present a comprehensive digest of environmental technologies that can actually be profitable for business. They argue that a saving of 75% of energy and/or raw material resources is possible for business without reductions in profits, which would in most cases actually increase. In the second part they begin by questioning the common assumption that sustainable methods of production would have already been implemented if they were profitable. This assumption appears to have been derived from economic theory. Competition between companies means that all available avenues for cutting costs and increasing profits will be adopted. As they point out, the examples of the first part of their book show that this is not the case. Available technologies could have saved companies massive amounts of money but these options have not been implemented. This is because the laws of economics make assumptions that do not actually apply in the real world. These are perfect knowledge and perfect competitiveness. In fact, owners and executives of companies do not have perfect knowledge of efficiency technologies that could save money while preserving the environment. Secondly, many aspects of the current economy work against environmental efficiency by preventing real competition. For example designers of building air conditioning are paid a proportion of the cost of the systems they recommend for installation. So the cheapest most environmentally friendly systems are not the ones they recommend. Car users are not charged proportionally for their use of roads, funding for this comes out of taxes regardless of the transport choices of taxpayers. So systems of transport are not competing on an even footing — car use is subsidized.

It is not just economists and simple life advocates who may have some doubts about the business optimist approach. Marxist critics also argue that the capitalist economic structure works against environmental sustainability through key features of its modus operandi. Andrew McLaughlin (1993) gives a compelling summary of these features.

  1. Social decisions about how to use non-human nature are fundamentally decided by markets.
  2. The future is discounted.
  3. Capitalism creates growth and depends on growth.

Taking these in turn, capitalism as an economic system, means that non-human nature can be privately owned. Decisions about how it will be used will be made in terms of whether certain actions are likely to be profitable given the state of the market. There can easily be a mismatch between what is profitable and what is sustainable. For example "soil conservation may not be economically justifiable for a farmer, but erosion beyond the rate of soil replacement cannot lead to sustainable agriculture" (McLaughlin 1993, 32). Another way to put this is to say that it can often be more profitable to cut corners than to pay attention to the requirements of sustainability. To believe the opposite is to assume that what is most profitable will also always be the most effective for sustainability. However evidence that this is not the case "is substantial and growing" (McLaughlin 1993, 32). The economic system makes it very difficult for owners and managers to implement sustainable strategies if these are less cost effective than other available strategies. Companies compete to attract investment by providing profits to shareholders. The costs of their operations must be cut as low as possible so as to provide money for modernizing production and paying out profits. They cannot increase the price of their goods substantially beyond that of their competitors because they will lose market share and ultimately lose profits that way.

McLaughlin does not hold out much hope for the political regulation of markets. The assumption of capitalism as a system is that owners of non-human nature will have full rights to use their property to make the maximum profit. Any impediment has to be fought for as a special case, usually after the worst effects of the environmental damage have become too obvious to ignore. The wealth of owners makes them a very powerful lobby group indeed within the political process.

The second feature discussed by McLaughlin is the discounting of the future. Within an economy where money can be invested to earn interest, there is a bias towards investments that will pay off in a short time period. For example, if I expect a 5% profit on an investment and I plant a tree that will sell for 5% more than the cost of its planting, this would be a rational decision if the tree was to grow to maturity in one year. However, if it would take 10 years I would make much more money by investing the money at 5% now - and realising my profit in ten years. Worse, it makes sense to discount the expected profit to be realized at the end of a long period of time. A host of unpredictable variables of the market, politics and nature can mean that the expected profit does not come to pass. An investment that will pay off in the more foreseeable near future makes more sense. So investors and their accountants regularly discount expected profit in the long term future.

The effect of both of these features of capitalism is that there is a mis-match between what makes sense economically — a short term pay off - and what makes sense in terms of the long time taken by natural processes. This operates in reverse in the sense that ecological damage done now which will not affect profitablity for a longish time period becomes economically rational if it can create a profit now. This is the explanation for the decisions of Queensland farmers to cut native vegetation to increase pasture now, even though it seems probable that this will reduce pasture through salinity in the longer period.

The third feature of capitalism that McLaughlin considers is the capitalist system’s tendency to growth. Competition between companies for profits and investment means that it makes sense to cut the costs of production by a constant refurbishing of production technology. The aim is to instal new technology that can produce more at a cheaper cost. Partly this is achieved by cutting labour input. The effect of all this is to constantly increase the number of products that can be produced for a given amount of labour or capital. To continue to make a profit in these circumstances, companies have to increase their markets — the number of consumers or the number of products sold to each consumer. The end result is a galloping increase in the use of raw materials and the output of wastes into the environment. Since the environment itself is a finite system the indefinite expansion of the economy is not possible.

McLaughlin also notes a political implication of this process. If growth does not continue, unemployment increases, leading to political instability. As well, to increase markets, capitalist firms promote consumption as the epitome of the good life, leading to cultural pressure to continue growth. Another factor that he does not mention is that labour is alienated within capitalist societies. To maintain their control over production and profitability, firms control work through hierarchical systems of authority. They also determine the distribution of products, in the sense that they are owned by the company and cannot be distributed by those who produce them. The effect is that decisions about work are taken out of the hands of ordinary people. Increased consumption offers itself as one of the few areas in which people can make choices and express themselves creatively (Cardan 1974; Roszak 1992).

This marxist perspective is dealt with by business optimists in a number of ways. The implication of much of Factor Four and Natural Capitalism is that there is in fact a harmony between what is profitable and what is sustainable. In other words, while this might be an accidental harmony, it could nevertheless be real. Endless examples are used to show that the choice of unsustainable technologies is the result of imperfect knowledge or imperfect competition. If environmentalists can supply the knowledge, and governments can reinstate the competition, capitalism will work to save the environment. Of course one problem with this approach is that any number of environmentalist writings can be used to give examples of ways in which sustainability has not been the most profitable approach and environmental degradation has been the sensible market strategy. It strains credibility to think that almost all these are cases of imperfect knowledge or competitiveness.

To strengthen their case, the authors devise various kinds of government intervention that will lead companies in the direction of sustainability. What these have in common is that they are interventions that are worked out to avoid the political resistance of the capitalist class. For example, if resources are taxed at an increasing rate year by year, environmental problems of disposal of wastes will be eliminated gradually as it makes less and less sense to waste them. This might seem like a capitalist’s worst nightmare. However the authors propose that these taxes will actually replace current taxes on income and capital and be "revenue neutral". So, it is implied, neither the capitalist class or consumers will have any reason to complain. The same amount of money is coming out of the private economy as before.

In terms of the issues of growth, unemployment and consumerism, it seems that the most basic argument of business optimist discourse is that real growth in the economy and consumer satisfaction can be achieved while material throughput is massively reduced. This is partly through the sale of non-material services but it is also through what is referred to as a "service economy" within the production of material goods. For example, the authors of Factor Four (1997) promote a leasing of consumer material goods by companies. Companies would make their money from long term consumer satisfaction rather than from the number of material goods they make and sell. So they would be motivated to keep their products operating as long as possible, or to recycle their parts and materials while updating services to consumers. Employment would increase because maintenance, re-manufacturing and recycling uses more labour than extracting raw materials and producing new products from the bottom up.

Whether these replies to the marxist position are convincing is debatable. Nevertheless, what they do indicate is that these questions cannot be solved in the abstract without looking at particular instances of the relationships between economic structures and environmental issues.

Jules Pretty's Account of the Prospects of Sustainable Agriculture

Jules Pretty’s Regenerating Agriculture (1999) is a thorough and comprehensive review of the prospects of sustainable agriculture, the current impediments to implementing sustainable agriculture and the policies that could be put in place to encourage widespread adoption of sustainable agriculture. Much of what Pretty says seems to fit within the business optimist discourse. Sustainable agriculture can be "economically, environmentally and socially viable" (1999, 267). The economic viability of sustainable agriculture is a key part of his argument and his book provides some good evidence for this. Within the marxist framework such a position seems puzzling. It would be expected that the economic imperatives of the capitalist marketplace have forced farmers to adopt unsustainable farming practices. While Pretty writes within the business optimist discourse in many of his programmatic statements, there is much in the book which qualifies this position and calls for various kinds of intervention which go well beyond the business as usual of the global food marketplace. Re-examining some of his examples and case studies in detail, a different theoretical analysis can see sustainable agriculture as coming about through a hybridization of the capitalist mode of production with the new kind of economic structures being brought into being through the actions of the social movements.

Programmatic Statements

Statements that appear to fall within the discourse of business optimism are most evident in Regenerating Agriculture when Pretty issues general claims about his findings and their implications. A key moment is in his definition of "sustainable agriculture" itself. While many points in this definition relate to environmental and even social matters, one point includes economic success. Sustainable agriculture is "profitable and efficient production" (1999, 9). So it might seem that non-commodity forms of agriculture - such as backyard and hobby farming in the first world and subsistence farming in the third world - cannot be sustainable since no profit is being made. Yet in fact, examples of subsistence farming are often included in the book as sustainable agriculture. Another implication is that agriculture which is subsidized by the state or by voluntary donation on the part of NGOs is not truly sustainable. It is not "profitable" as a purely capitalist enterprise; it could not balance its books without some extra-market input. Again, this implication is never carried through in the rest of the book and examples of subsidized agriculture are included as "sustainable".

Perhaps Pretty does not mean us to take "profitability" so literally as I have here. Perhaps he means only that any system which maintains itself in the particular niche it occupies in the current global economy becomes profitable and economically successful by definition - because it works. Is this all that Pretty means? In this interpretation this statement acts merely to reassure the pro-capitalist reader that sustainable agriculture can work well within the framework of the capitalist economy.

A key argument of the book is the review of three types of agriculture in terms of the economic viability of sustainable production. Summarizing the evidence for the three regions he writes that sustainable agriculture "can be achieved" in all regions:

  • in the diverse, complex and ‘resource-poor’ lands of the Third World, farmers adopting regenerative technologies have doubled or trebled crop yields, often with little or no use of external inputs.

  • in the high input and generally irrigated lands, farmers adopting regenerative technologies have maintained yields while substantially reducing inputs;

  • in the industrialized agricultural systems, a transition to sustainable agriculture could mean a fall in per hectare yields of 10-20 per cent in the short term, but with better levels of financial returns to farmers. (1999, 19)

So in the first region, sustainable farming is economically viable because yields are multiplied without the use of expensive inputs. In the second region — the ‘Green Revolution’ lands - yields stay the same but farmers are paying less for inputs, meaning that sustainable agriculture should be more profitable. In the last case, it is stated that even though yields may fall, financial returns are as good as with high input unsustainable agriculture. These general conclusions are repeated several times in the book to summarize Pretty’s findings as a whole.

There are also more particularized statements with the same implications. A 1989 study of 11 farms in the United states "demonstrated … that the economic performance of regenerative agriculture could regularly match or better neighbouring conventional farms" (Pretty 1999, 206). Sometimes, Pretty explains how this paradoxical economic vitality of sustainable farming might have come about. For developing countries, at any rate, he argues that the economic context of farming has changed radically in the last few decades. Falling prices of agricultural commodities on world markets mean there is less money to purchase external inputs to agriculture. International debt and structural adjustment packages prevent governments from subsidizing inputs with state funds. Currency devaluations make inputs more costly. The result is that the economic viability of low-input agriculture is enhanced as the cost of inputs goes up relative to the sale price of farm goods.

The centre piece of Pretty’s evidence for these claims are five tables presented to summarize the evidence from studies of agriculture in all three regions. These tables are presented in the form of a list of examples and some cells in the tables are unable to be filled in. To present these findings in a way that is more accessible, I have decided to reproduce a summary of these tables to illustrate the kind of evidence that is being considered. My summaries have selected four or five typical examples from between 7 and 27 examples in each of the tables themselves. I have chosen cases that are representative of the range of more and less successful farms, as well as being complete in all cells.

I will consider each table in turn and discuss the extent to which the evidence backs up the claim that sustainable agriculture is "economically viable". This is a somewhat detailed and lengthy discussion so you may want to jump to the conclusion to this section: The Evidence of the Tables as a Whole.

Sustainable Agriculture - USA from 7.1


Environmental technologies

Yield - % of local average

Input Use - pesticides

Input use - fertilizers

Ohio (1 farm)

Mixed organic with rotations, legumes, manures

Mz: 132%

Soy: 140%

Wt: 105%



Virginia (1 farm)

Mixed farm, rotations, weeds harvested, multiple cropping

Mz: 128%



55k/ ha


(1 farm)

Mixed farm, crop rotations, multiple cropping, chicken manures, legumes

Mz: 127%

Soy 121%



Iowa and other states — 20 farms

Crop rotations, legumes, reduced tillage

Mz: 92%

Soy: 95%

Wt: 57%



In this table the main evidence for the claim of economic viability is the figure for yield as a percentage of the local average yield — that is the yield for conventional farms with high external input and unsustainable agriculture. In the first three examples the yields are extremely good, with the only poor showing being for the wheat crop in Iowa and other states — 57%. We can also see that the use of external inputs has been drastically reduced with a corresponding reduction in some costs of farming. In two cases, the use of zero inputs would allow farmers to market their produce as organic and get a premium price which would also increase viability.

However, what the table is not really able to tell us is the profitability of these enterprises in comparison with conventional farms. The tables show us that some inputs are reduced, but they do not show whether the financial benefits of this reduction are offset by other costs of sustainable agriculture - the labour, skill and managerial inputs required to operate the environmental technologies referred to in the table. In other places in the book, Pretty has quite a lot to say about these issues - he argues that there is a considerable added cost of labour and management in sustainable farming. So what we must conclude is that this table does not in itself provide convincing evidence that these farms are as profitable as conventional farms when all input costs are taken into account.

In so far as capitalist agriculture is based in competitive private ownership of farming land, these farms may not be economically viable in the sense of attracting investment and ownership to this kind of farming enterprise in preference to conventional farming.

Sustainable Cropping and Profits - UK and Europe from 7.2  

Environmental technologies and location

Crop yields

Pesticide use

Fertiliser use

Gross margins

Rotations of cereals and legumes — West England





Integrated farm - Netherlands





Organic and semi — organic wheat - UK

53 — 114 %




200 whole mixed farms - Germany

Wt: 66%

Rye: 67%

Pot: 61%




 This table is much more convincing in representing the profitability of sustainable agriculture. It is notable that the table shows us that yields per hectare can fall quite drastically when artificial inputs are reduced to close to zero — the requirements for agriculture to be declared "organic". In such cases yields can go down to as low as 53% of that of conventional farms although 65% seems a fairly typical outcome. For yields of 90% and over, the table suggests, inputs of artificial fertilisers and pesticides are still substantial - between 26% and 81% of the amount used on conventional farms. These are levels of use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers that many environmentalists would not regard as "sustainable" but as Pretty says, this is a hard term to pin down absolutely. Pretty also notes that the lower yields achieved by sustainable agriculture are not necessarily a survival problem for countries of the North — since overproduction and food mountains are a much more common cause of concern.

Turning to the economic issues, almost all these farms seem to do better than conventional farms in terms of profitability. This cannot be because of an organic premium except for the third row. The reasons for such good returns would have to be a combination of lower costs for external inputs and good or excellent yields per hectare.

However, an issue which is not addressed in the table is the labour input of the family who own the farm. Since this labour is not hired it may not appear on balance sheets as a cost. In many small European farms, this family labour is a major input. We might expect this uncosted family labour to increase on sustaina ble farms, with the extra work of keeping animals, manuring, composting, mulching, planting and cutting green manure and legume crops and so on.

So what economic reality really lies behind the statistics presented in this table? Perhaps some European owners of small family farms have decided to sacrifice their time in order to participate in a more ethically defensible form of agriculture. The question of whether this decision shows the profitability of sustainable agriculture is hard to answer in a general way. Looking at the table row by row may help.

In the first row, uses of artificial fertilisers and pesticides are less than usual, although still very high by the standards that most environmentalists would set. The extra work and management skills that are entailed may not be counted in the gross margins. It may be that a slight increase in profits has been bought by substituting labour and management (not costed) for inputs which have to be paid for in cash. This could be economically rational but the conventional alternative might save a lot of hard work! At any rate the results are not a dramatic advertisement for sustainability.

In the second row profits have gone up a lot and the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides has gone down substantially, to an extent that environmentalists would have to regard as significant. Again, it may be that an economically rational decision has been made to substitute unpaid labour for costed inputs. Or it may be that the farmers in question have made a choice to give extra labour to farming in order to participate in a more sustainable form of production. In other words, an uneconomic choice that is rational for ethical reasons - what I will describe later as a "hybrid" between capitalism and a future utopian mode of production. What this row conceals is the economic implications of the situation for the farm as a whole. As an integrated farm, livestock is being kept and the manure applied to the crop. This saves on the cost of fertiliser but there is of course an increase in labour input in terms of managing animals. If we turn to the next table we find that organic production of animals is rarely economic in terms of profits per hectare. So it may be that this uneconomic activity is subsidizing the profits of the cropping regime.

In the third row the results for what is clearly sustainable agriculture are mixed. The profitability goes between 57% and 138% of conventional farms. For cases where the gross margins are less than 100%, farmers are behaving in a way that may be ethically rational while it is not economically rational. For cases where margins are over 100% there are two factors that could undermine the claim for economic viability: the costs of unpaid labour input from the owners of the farms; the premium price paid for organic produce. Consumers of organic produce who are prepared to pay premium prices are a small niche market of consumers in the rich countries and it would be very optimistic to think that this market will just steadily grow and take over the whole agricultural industry in the near future. At the same time, this market is certainly growing and there is room for new producers. If the case for the economic viability of sustainable agriculture was to rest on this niche market alone, the best we could say is that it is economically viable to have a certain percentage of the agricultural industry in organics.

In the fourth row, gross margins are up to 105%. The comments listed for the second row also apply here. These are integrated mixed farms and it may be that the profitability of this sector on the farms is being subsidized by an unprofitable livestock sector. Uncosted labour inputs are also a possibility.

Sustainable Livestock - UK and Europe from 7.3

Environmental technologies and location

Yields(kg of milk or meat per animal)

Variable costs per head

Gross margins per animal

Gross margins per ha

Organic milk — 20% lower stocking rate — UK



111% *


89% *


Beef — organic, clover — 24% lower stocking rate - Scotland



131% *


101% *


Organic dairy - Switzerland



98% *


90% *

Alternative dairy - Germany





An asterisk means that a premium organic price has been paid.

This table is not very encouraging - sustainable meat and milk production is a somewhat unprofitable enterprise. As Pretty notes, the main reason for 10% to 20% lower profits per hectare is that lower stocking rates become necessary in pastures that are based in clover. In comparison conventional farming depends on applications of artificial fertilisers to grass - allowing a more dense stocking of pastures. So this difference explains the lower stocking rates of sustainable livestock production. As well, sustainable livestock also yield less per animal in milk or meat.

Gross margin or profitability as such, is dealt with in two separate columns. Gross margins are better per animal than per hectare. Ignoring premium organic prices, margins per animal are listed as 98%, 100% and 86% with no data for the third row, which must at any rate be lower if 98% is the margin when a premium is added. For gross margins per hectare, the figures are even lower — 79%, 76-100%, 75% with the third row again unclear, although it must be lower than 90%.

Since the competitive economic success of farms is ultimately related to land prices, I am inclined to take margins per hectare as being a very significant indicator of economic viability. What is implied is that inputs and profits for any individual animal are much the same, but conventional farmers can run more animals and make significantly more money on the same area of land. In terms of this indicator, sustainable production of meat and milk is not a profitable enterprise in comparison with conventional farming.

Again, what seems to be missing from this table is any economic account of the extra time, skill and responsibility required of sustainable livestock producers, in situations where these inputs are not monetized but are provided by the owners of the farm.

When a premium organic price has been paid, the profitability of sustainable livestock production per hectare is the same as conventional farming - or somewhat less (89%; 101% and 90%). As argued above, good profit results in the organics market cannot be taken to prove the economic viability of sustainable animal farming as such, since the organic market is a niche - prices are paid that cannot be generalized to the industry as a whole.

Sustainable Agriculture - Green Revolution Lands from 7.4


Sustainable Technologies


Input use



IPM — farmer field schools


37- 48%



Wasps, manures, organic sprays

tomatoes *




Azolla - fish


50% N



Green manures, organic pesticides, wasps

cotton *




Green manures, compost, earthworks, agroforestry, resistant varieties

tea *




Agroforestry, multiple cropping, green manures, legumes, animal manure




25% N




    Asterisk shows that the crop was grown for the international organic market

For the three crops that are grown for the international organics market, there are no inputs of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. In two of these three cases, yields per hectare are substantially lower than on conventional farms - although the cost of inputs is not cutting into profits. Whether these farms would be profitable if they had to sell their produce on the open market is not clear, but they are certainly viable in the organic niche market. In the five cases where yields are over 100%, there seems to be no doubt of the financial viability of this agriculture since it is achieved with fewer costly inputs. However again, what the table does not do is cost the contribution of extra labour and skills necessary to achieve these sustainable technologies. In all cases, this would be considerable, whether provided by hired employees or family workers. At the same time, with the cost of labour so depressed in the Third World and the cost of external inputs so high, it may be that these sustainable farms are more profitable than conventional agriculture. To examine what is actually going on in these examples, I will later look at some of Pretty’s case studies in detail.

Sustainable Agriculture - Marginal Diverse Lands from 7.5


Sustainable Technologies






Burkina Faso

Compost - manures





285 - 300%



Green manures — soil conservation





Grass strips — contour bunding



0.33 — 0.46

0.72 — 0.93




Composts, contour planting, terracing





Agroforestry, legume trees, contour bunds, intercropping, compost



Sweet potato







In this final table, Pretty examines the evidence for marginal agricultural lands. In these lands, most agriculture is for subsistence or for local food markets, not for the national or international commodity market. This is a situation where money for expensive inputs has not been available and yet agriculture is not exploiting the full range of low cost sustainable technologies. As Pretty points out, the only way to produce the impressive changes in yields shown in the table is by combining outside support and assistance with genuine participation and control by local farmers.

Again, what has to be said about the table is that it does not actually tell us whether these changes are profitable in terms of a market economy. They involve considerable inputs of local labour, most of which is by small peasant owners. These projects also depend on organisational and financial assistance from external agencies, at least in the initial phases. Such aid is hardly a capitalist profit- making enterprise! Often the outputs as well as the inputs are not monetized but consumed directly in subsistence.

Is such farming "profitable"; does it match or better the "economic performance" of conventional agriculture? These are situations in which market agriculture is often completely unprofitable in the first place. If anything at all is sold there is an improvement in profitability. A combination of increased food security with a modest surplus for sale makes these examples of sustainable agriculture profitable - but not relative to a high input conventional system, since such a system never existed in these locations and could not be profitable there.

The Evidence of the Tables as a Whole 

I have pointed to some of the problems with reading the tables as evidence for the profitability of sustainable agriculture.

  • For tables where the gross margin has not been indicated, the tables do not actually prove profitability. Indirectly they provide evidence of economic viability by showing good yields - often equal to or better than conventional agriculture. The tables also show a sizeable reduction in external inputs. Yet this cannot be simply read as proving the profitability of sustainable alternatives. It seems possible that the costs of external inputs of chemicals have been equalled or exceeded by the new costs in labour and management that go with sustainable agriculture. While yields may be equal, such tables do not allow us to say what is the most profitable agricultural strategy.
  • When the tables do indicate profit margins, what may not have been costed are extra inputs of labour, skills and management by the farmers themselves. I suspect these inputs are not costed unless they are monetized in the form of hired labour. Additional uncosted labour seems particularly likely for small family farms. So we could regard these sustainable farms as comparatively profitable only by ignoring increases in uncosted labour inputs.
  • In the case of developing countries, comparisons of yield do not acknowledge the fact that non-market inputs of assistance from governments and NGOs have been the basis for changes in yield. These non-market inputs undermine any attempt to paint these situations simply as "more profitable" on the basis of yields alone. All the more so when the agriculture in question is often non-market subsistence farming.
  • The economic viability of the farms in question sometimes depends on the niche market of organic agriculture or NGO fair trade schemes. While these cases show that organic agriculture can be economically viable in some market situations, they do not show that sustainable agriculture can be profitably extended to the whole of the agricultural economy.
  • Finally, some readers would be dismayed to find that sustainable agriculture is defined by Pretty to include some fairly hefty inputs of agricultural chemicals in the form of fertilisers and toxic pesticides.

Outside the Tables

There are at least two other issues which undermine the argument that sustainable agriculture is profitable within the capitalist economy. The tables do not consider what happens to agricultural produce after it leaves the farm gate. In his discussion of the environmental consequences of modern agriculture, Pretty notes the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gases, through the use of fossil fuel energy. Sustainable agriculture can reduce this on the farm, but most is consumed by processes which take place off the farm. For example in Britain, a loaf of bread consumes 20.7MJ of energy, of which 80% is consumed by milling, baking, transport and retailing (Pretty 1999, 63). What makes sense economically for food companies is a system of marketing food products that depends on considerable use of energy. Competition between companies for consumer interest and the rationalisation of marketing across vast areas entails energy costs in transport, processing and packaging. In some of Pretty’s examples of successful sustainable agriculture, these costs are quite manifest; for example in cases where organic agriculture is carried out in developing countries to provide a luxury market of tea, coffee and tomatoes for rich countries. The sustainable alternative to this is local marketing of products in season or a radical and massively unprofitable shift to sustainable energy use - ships powered by sails and solar energy; solar powered trains and airships and so on.

Another slightly different off-farm issue is the profitability of the seed, fertiliser and pesticide industries that sustainable agriculture removes. Let us assume that sustainable agriculture breaks even for a particular farmer. In other words, yields are similar or just a bit lower. The cost of external inputs drops drastically but extra inputs of labour and skills make up this difference. However, to generalise this strategy across a whole industry is to virtually cut out three profitable avenues for capitalist production - the production of hybrid and modern variety seeds; the production of chemical fertilisers and the production of chemical pesticides. The question becomes - profitable for whom? Morally, of course there is no question which option is preferable in view of the environmental and health costs of high input agriculture. But if we are asking which operation of agriculture allows the maximum number of profitable activities we would have to nominate conventional agriculture. We could also note that big companies with economic clout are likely to favour, promote and economically coerce governments and farmers into supporting operations which support their profits. Such processes of influence are the normal operation of the capitalist economy as a political and economic structure. How much money is to be made by training local farmers to use their own labour to free themselves from the need for expensive external inputs?

This analysis can be illustrated with the example of the introduction of ‘green revolution’ or ‘high yielding varieties’ of rice in the Phillipines, as described by Pelegrina (1995). These varieties were developed at the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos in the Phillipines in the early 60s. From 1971 to 1981 the World Bank lent about US$1 billion for agricultural aid to support the introduction of the high yielding varieties to the Phillipines. The Marcos government orchestrated a credit scheme for farmers to make use of this loan, lending the money on to farmers. One of the central reasons for extending this credit was that early introduction of the seeds had only resulted in yields of 2.2 ton/ha compared with an expected yield of 5.5 tons. This was partly because farmers could not afford the inputs that would make the seeds perform as planned. By 1976 the country was a net exporter of rice so the scheme seemed to have worked to increase yields.

It is clear that this World Bank loan was well and truly repaid by the profits that went to US and other multinationals from the operation. Seeds were devised by IRRI but farmers had to buy them from multinational seed companies, such as Shell Oil which also produced fertilisers and pesticides. While seeds of traditional varieties had been gathered by farmers each year, seeds of these varieties had to be bought at least every three years to maintain yields and more often to meet the government’s certification system. The high yields of these new varieties were dependent on increased inputs of chemicals. Making use of government loans, farmers purchased more and more from the mid sixties. From 1976 to 1989 fertiliser imports to the Phillipines increased from $21 million to $87 million. Most were produced by US companies. Pesticides and herbicides were also part of the package, with overseas companies such as Shell and Bayer dominating the market.

As far as farmers themselves were concerned, the scheme was not particularly profitable:

Lured by the prospect of increasing production by loans for inputs, they soon found themselves in perpetual bondage to the banks and usurers. Although there was an increase in biological yield, there was no subseqent increase in economic returns to farmers. Subtracting the costs of production (which includes debt servicing) leaves the farmer with little income. The farmer has to deduct from the harvest the costs of fertiliser, pesticides, labour, seeds and land rent. (Pelegrina 1995, 17).

What this example shows is the ways in which large multinational companies, working with the World Bank, can dominate agricultural production in developing countries to ensure profits for their companies whether or not local farmers make profits. As Pelegrina implies, the Green Revolution strategy in the Phillipines acted as a scam to persuade farmers to borrow to purchase the inputs necessary to increase yields with new varieties. Yields were temporarily increased, which suited the political purposes of the Phillipines government. Profits were undoubtedly made, but not by local farmers. As Pretty also notes in discussing this example, land reform in the Phillipines was promised to poor peasants by this government but was only actually granted to those who were prepared to farm the new high yielding varieties and take out loans to pay for the inputs. This ended up by being a manipulation of the desires of peasants for land reform to the eventual benefit of large foreign companies.

Unsustainable agriculture is at the heart of this manouevre. Without the promise of the High Yielding Varieties, none of these profits could have been achieved. Yet it is these varieties and their heavy use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which create environmental damage. As usual with capitalism, this is an accidental connection. IRRI researchers were not looking for a variety that would cause environmental problems. But it is nevertheless a typical accident of a system driven by the incentive for profit. It shows us that conventional agriculture can make profits in ways that cannot be included on a table that only assesses the profitability for farmers.

Complications and Cavea

It may seem to those who have read Regenerating Agriculture that I have been a bit unfair to Pretty in the discussion above. He actually talks at some length about the issues I have raised — the costs of sustainable agriculture in terms of labour, management and external inputs from governments or NGOs. We can regard these as inputs which are necessary to make sustainable agriculture possible. Pretty actually considers a number of such inputs. Does the cost of these inputs undermine profitability? Do the changes he recommends challenge the capitalist system in some other way? If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, the business optimist discourse is in trouble.

A Note on Capitalism

When we think of the capitalist system, we tend to think of it in terms of a set of legal rules and regulations. Property in the means of production is owned privately. Labour power is a commodity and can be bought and sold. These phrases describe a legal structure and seem to define capitalism adequately. Yet in reality, it is the spirit in which these legal forms are implemented which actually defines capitalism as a social structure. As Foucault has argued, the power of a hegemony does not derive from some sovereign point, be that a legal system or the capitalist class as a conspiratorial clique. It is created through a multiplicity of everyday actions in which people think and behave in a predictable way.

To illustrate my point, imagine a world in which the apparent legal forms I have described are maintained but their operation is completely different. The capitalist owners of the means of production invest their shares only in ethical investment companies. The policy of these ethical companies is only to invest when businesses give democratic control to workers. In turn the workers in these businesses have decided that workplaces should be set up so that coming to work is enjoyable and fun. They have also decided that products will be sold at different prices to different sections of the global community depending on need, access to cash and so on. They have also determined that environmental sustainability is required in all work processes and in the ongoing distribution and use of products. In people’s domestic lives, products are widely shared according to need and often used in common — e.g. lawnmowers, washing machines, backyards. Is this capitalism? I have described nothing which is actually illegal in a capitalist society, so long as the owners of property are prepared to make this scenario happen. But actually, capitalism as a system has vanished.

This is an extreme example but my point is very relevant to the business optimist discourse. Adherents to the business optimist discourse often declare that their proposals are totally in keeping with the capitalist system, with profitability and efficiency. Yet what is usually being proposed in any particular instance is what I will call a "hybrid". This is a social institution which mixes aspects of the capitalist economy and structure with aspects of a completely different ordering of society. As a result a hybrid both works within capitalism and also challenges it deeply. When a hybrid is not merely proposed but actually takes place in reality, it can always be said that it is "economically viable" and can sometimes be even claimed to be "profitable". We could all heave a big sigh of relief, join the business optimists and aver that capitalism can be reformed. Or we could note that yet another hybrid is undermining the social fabric of capitalism.

A: Labour, Skills and Management

One of Pretty’s strongest statements on the importance of farmers’ work in sustainable agriculture is quite early in the book.

But farmers do not get more output from less input. They have to substitute knowledge, labour and management skills to make up for the forgone added value of external inputs. (Pretty 1999, 19).

In the course of the book he includes most of the following added requirements of sustainable agriculture as against conventional farming. Farmers must experiment more and incur the expense of making mistakes. There are also initial outlays in labour in constructing soil and water conservation measures, in planting trees and other perennials, in extra fencing to move animals and keep them out of certain areas. These structures have to be maintained. There is extra work in composting, managing animals and their manure, preparing organic pest control mixtures, hand weeding, planting to encourage predator species, growing and cutting green manures, alternating crops with different requirements. There is the development of the skills and knowledge of how to manage all these different aspects of sustainable farming.

At other places in the book he acknowledges the ways in which these requirements for extra labour can impede the transition to sustainable agriculture. He notes that in Cuba, after the collapse of Soviet-supported modern agriculture, Cuba has made a decision to move to a more sustainable model of low-input agriculture. Planners have consequently had to encourage urban people to move to the country "as labour needs for alternative agriculture are now a constraint" (Pretty 1999, 265). Discussing this issue generally he begins by admitting that labour requirements are greater for sustainable agriculture and goes on to point to the problems posed in the industrialized countries by this switch to more labour use:

Most farmers in industrialized countries balk at the notion of increased costs incurred by employing more staff. They have come to believe that the best way of increasing efficiency is to cut labour. (Pretty 1999, 275).

To get round this problem he recommends that governments provide incentive schemes in the form of additional financial support to farmers. The fact is that this belief on the part of farmers is conditioned by the high cost of labour in industrialized countries and the fact that mechanized agriculture and chemical inputs have been cheaper than labour. All of this makes it difficult to believe that sustainable agriculture can indeed be as profitable as conventional agriculture, without various kinds of government assistance - which I will discuss later.

As stated above, on small farms, these added inputs are not paid for - the labour is provided by the farmers and their families. However in terms of accounting relative profitability, it must be considered to be a cost and given a cash equivalent. What I want to suggest here is that the added work of farmers on sustainable farms can be regarded as a gift of labour, for the sake of the environment, for the future of the farm, to create a more enjoyable and ethically satisfying working environment. It is not necessarily the most rational action from the point of view of capitalist economics, though it may nevertheless be viable within the capitalist economy.

In cases where there is a premium organic price, this extra input of labour may become economically rational. What is taking place here is that consumers are themselves departing from their typical role in the capitalist economy. Instead of viewing products solely from the narrow perspective of their utility to themselves as individuals, they are taking action to alter the methods by which consumer goods are produced. They are gaining some small measure of control over the means of production. They are giving some of their income for the sake of the environment or to create more just trade between rich and poor countries or more healthy environments for farm workers. These points are particularly relevant when premium prices are paid for "fair trade" commodities within arrangements worked out by global NGOs. They are also particularly relevant in cases of Community Supported Agriculture, where consumers come to arrangements with farmers to reliably purchase sustainably grown farm goods.

B: Community Coordination and Local Democratic Control

Pretty insists that sustainable agriculture cannot readily be carried out on just one individual farm, while other farms go their own way. This is particularly the case in developing countries where farm sizes are often small. For example, insecticide can kill off predator species in a whole region and prevent individual farmers from encouraging predator species to control pests on their own farms. Tree clearing in a watershed can cause salination or alter groundwater conditions on other farms. Fertiliser run off can spoil water resources for farmers downstream. What is required is a coordination of the actions of farmers in a region. Since Pretty also believes that sustainable agriculture depends on participatory control and learning, this coordination must be organised democratically. All farmers must feel that they have a say in the common project of sustainable agriculture if it is in fact going to take off. If there is any group which feels marginalised by the process, their resistance and non participation will in fact destroy the process as a whole. Pretty illustrates this point with a number of telling examples, some of which are from rich countries - such as the Landcare movement in Australia - but most of which are from developing countries.

A good example of his argument is his discussion of the Gadkar irrigation system in Nepal. In 1979, a 105 hectare irrigation scheme was constructed with World Bank finance. A water user’s committee had been established but "because the members were district officials and large farmers, the allocation of water was inequitable" (1999, 150). The chairman and vice chairman looked after their own interests at the expense of other farmers. By the late 80s, the irrigation system was not functioning well and had started to fall into disrepair and inefficiency. To rectify this situation a delegation of 20 farmers and 20 officials were taken to visit three other irrigation systems that were being efficiently managed by committees of farmers. They were impressed with what could be done if farmers worked together. On their return they held a community meeting and threw out the old committee, electing a new one controlled by all the farmers. Water theft declined, the committee was able to allocate water fairly and set rules, such as only growing maize - and not rice - in the pre-monsoon season. Water guards were appointed by the committee. Farmers began to commit substantial amounts of work to maintain the irrigation structures (1999, 150).

This story illustrates a number of points typical of Pretty’s analysis. Where a minority of elite farmers dominate common projects, they are not successful. The only mechanism which will allow effective coordination of the measures necessary for sustainable agriculture is democratic participatory control by all, without regard to differences of wealth. The most effective education is to see projects organised by other groups of people in a similar situation - lateral communication rather than hierarchical top-down instruction. In another passage, Pretty discusses the findings of a very successful farmers’ organisation in Sri Lanka. Their metaphor for growth in group effectiveness is phases of the moon:

Three-quarter moon groups implement common decisions; have common property and use it for the benefit of all members, e.g. a sprayer that is rented out to members at lower than market rate. The group takes over a member’s share of common work when she or he is unable to do it for some valid reason; and share benefits among members, e.g. watered land for vegetable cultivation, in disregard of ownership. Full moon groups help poorer members with loans from the group fund, e.g. for buying the decided variety of seed paddy; help redeem the mortgaged land of members; and have the strength to face external forces. (Pretty 1999, 145).

While there is nothing in any of this which is against the legal framework of capitalism, it is misleading to read this in terms of a business optimist discourse in which sustainable agriculture is merely a profitable option within capitalism. Instead, what we see here is a typical hybrid organisation. The capitalist side of what is taking place is that farmers own land as commodities or rent land. Agricultural products are sold on a market as well as being consumed as subsistence. There are variations in wealth between farmers who participate in these common projects. On the other hand, aspects of this organisation which challenge capitalism and point to another mode of production are many. There is some collective control of the means of production through democratic processes. There is some sharing of wealth according to need rather than the ruthless competition of private owners and economic rivals. Some profitable market activities are undermined by being replaced by non-profit sharing of resources. If these are the social mechanisms that are necessary to coordinate sustainability and implement it, then much about sustainable agriculture is inimical to the normal functioning of the capitalist economy.

C. Participatory Learning

Genuine participation by locals is seen by Pretty as absolutely necessary if governments or NGOs want to initiate any permanent changes towards sustainable practices. As he points out, the developing countries are littered with dead schemes in which aid money was thrown at problems, locals were hired to create structures or given instructions and years later, all these efforts have left no trace. While "participation" has consequently become a byword of development strategists, Pretty argues that much of this is window dressing. Backing up his analysis, Pretty cites a 1993 study of 121 rural water supply projects. Most talked of community participation but only 21% scored high on a measure of "interactive participation" which Pretty defines as a situation in which "people’s ideas and knowledge are valued, and power is given to them to make decisions indpendently of external agencies" (1999, 172). It was this 21% of projects which were the most effective in generating real change.

As an example of this an Agro-Forestry project begun by Oxfam in Burkina Faso in 1979. This project began with the goal of growing trees in micro-catchments. However, local farmers were much more interested in growing food crops than trees and tree seedlings rarely survived as there was barely enough drinking water for people themselves. The NGO adjusted their project to respond to this local participatory input. They conducted experiments on farms with groups of farmers and found that upland rice and sorghum would grow well in these micro-catchments. They provided technical input by devising a cheap water tube level to trace the contour for setting up bunds. Through joint experiments with farmers, they adapted local versions of rock bunds and planted crops in mulch holes. Yields increased by 40% and local farmers saw the benefits in these increases and in food security.

Since then, more than 4500 farmers from 400 villages have been trained. The replication of these structures and techniques outside the project has shown that they fit a genuine local need and meant that there is effective education in sustainable agriculture taking place with local educational resources. Ironically, this success has led to an increased interest in planting trees and restraining livestock, feeding them in stalls to protect tree seedlings. While the project began by targeting individual farmers, it quickly became apparent that community consensus was necessary for the work necessary to construct bunds and to provide for protection and maintenance of the structures across contiguous farms (Pretty 1999, 218).

This is a good example of the ways in which local participation is necessary to actually achieve change. It also indicates a number of ways in which this change is at the expense of typical structures of the capitalist economy.

  • For a start, the participatory organisation of the project works against global relationships of power in which citizens of the rich countries and local elites dominate the poor in developing countries. Contributors to the NGO are consumers from rich countries. They are acting to compensate in some small way for global inequality through their gifts of aid. They are also using their consumer spending power to attempt to have some influence on the means of production in Burkina Faso - to ensure more effective use of these to relieve poverty and to create sustainable agriculture. So, the project has been supported by inputs that have not been introduced in order to make a profit.
  • Another departure from capitalism is that the outcome of the project is primarily subsistence agriculture, and not commodity agriculture. In other words, it is a form of agriculture which is mostly outside the capitalist economy of commodity production and wage labour.

  • Finally, the project has encouraged and set in place various mechanisms for community control of the local means of production which were not previously present. So, while the normal functioning of the capitalist economy gives control over the means of production to individual owners acting in competition, this project creates some aspects of collective control of the means of production.

D: Land Reform

One of Pretty’s most clearly anti-capitalist requirements for sustainable agriculture is "land reform" - the redistribution of land holdings away from large owners to poor peasant farmers. The reasons why this may aid sustainability are very obvious:

It is well established that lack of land tenure increases the risk of resource degradation. Landless or tenant farmers are more willing to take the risk of degradation as they know they may not have access to the land in the future. If there is no security of tenure, they are also less likely to invest in resource-conserving practices, such as tree planting, terracing, predator management or soil improvement. (Pretty 1999, 248).

This requirement for sustainable agriculture is clearly anti-capitalist in that the private owners of capital have their land appropriated by decree and given to poorer members of the community. However there is no long term challenge to the capitalist mode of production in so far as small farmers with land grants merely become other private proprietors of land. This is another hybrid, and as Pretty acknowledges usually comes about to forestall a socialist revolution or after a sweeping electoral victory by a socialist party. In other words, it is a product of anti-capitalist political pressure from below.

Another relevant fact about this situation is that the environmental problems of tenant farming and insecure tenure are merely an extreme version of the kinds of problems of capitalist ownership that McLaughlin and other marxists describe. The fact that land can be bought and sold as a commodity means that its ownership is always insecure and can be traded for a more profitable source of income if it ceases to be productive through over-exploitation. Alternatively, it may gain value through sustainable agriculture and the profit be realised in a sale to another owner. The second owner can pay back debts incurred in buying the property by realising accumulated natural capital through over-exploitation. Situations of debt or falling world commodity prices can drive farmers to over exploit their land to retain ownership or to maintain a standard of living. In a nutshell, the economically rational way to do farming is to make sure your investments in land, labour and inputs pay off at the standard rate of profit for a given economy, pulling out and investing elsewhere when they start to fall. So land reform may alleviate some of the extremes of land insecurity that drive environmental degradation. But it does not eliminate land insecurity as a persistent feature of capitalist economies.

Pretty mentions a number of countries that have put land reform legislation in place - Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Peru and the Phillipines. However, as he remarks, the letter of the law is never implemented. "Vested interests and political elites have been able to mobilize oppposition to resources that would have provided more equal access to resources" (Pretty 1999, 248). In other words, the existing power structures of the capitalist economy make this environmentally necessary reform difficult to implement in practice. We could also note that all of the named countries are ones where an actual and long running left wing insurgency has led to attempts at conciliation or where there is a realistic fear of such an insurgency of the very poor. Kerala, which has had a communist government for decades, seems to be the only case Pretty mentions where genuine land reform has been joined to programs of sustainable agriculture.

E: Ending Perverse Subsidies and Placing Tax Levies on Inputs

A common strategy of business optimism is to end "perverse subsidies" on unsustainable economic activities. This seems to be completely consistent with the logic of capitalism as a system. A subsidy, of whatever kind, diverts the wealth of ordinary consumers to prop up industries that would otherwise be unprofitable. When the subsidy ends those consumers can spend their income on other goods and services that can be produced profitably without government support. How could capitalism suffer? As Pretty points out, farming is undoubtedly given this kind of support and much of it goes to encourage unsustainable high input agriculture.

Another strategy often recommended by business optimists is revenue neutral tax levies on unsustainable practices. For farming the easiest way to do this would be to put taxes on inputs of fertilisers and pesticides so that their use was discouraged. In turn, the revenue from this taxation could fund sustainability programs or just replace ordinary tax revenue, benefiting consumers and taxpayers at large.

Pretty considers these measures and gives them some modest endorsement, though he also reveals some of the problems with these proposals. What I want to do here is to look at how these proposals might be seen to challenge capitalism or the power of the capitalist class; to question the business optimist assertion that these reforms are really consistent with capitalism and should not be opposed by capitalists and their friends.

Subsidies to agriculture can take a number of forms. They can be in the form of direct government grants. Or they can be quotas on cheap imports which allow local farmers to charge more for their products. They can be government supported pricing schemes which keep prices up. They can be subsidies on inputs such as fertililisers and pesticides. In all cases, the effect is to divert money from consumers to the agricultural industry.

Pretty estimates the impact of agricultural subsidies through the concept of a "producer subsidy equivalent", which totals different kinds of subsidy. For the rich countries there is a definite overall subsidy to farming which varies depending on the extent to which the country depends on agricultural exports for its economic good health. For instance, in New Zealand subsidies are only 3% of the value of total agricultural production, in Australia it is 12% and in the United States a whopping 28%, or $33.8 billion dollars. Interestingly, in such cases conventional farming is not in itself a successful capitalist enterprise, being subsidized by governments at the expense of the economy as a whole. Nevertheless it is profitable for farmers, given these subsidies, and for the many other industries that depend on farm produce — transport, packaging, retail, agricultural chemicals, seeds and so on.

In such cases, it might seem simpler to cut out farm subsidies, put farm workers on unemployment benefits and import cheap farm produce for the agricultural industries that do turn a profit - packaging, retail and so on. In terms of sustainability, the effect of removing farm subsidies could be just that food would be imported from low wage countries, where high input agriculture is also the norm. So it may not actually favour sustainability, taken as a global goal. However we can also ask why this removal of subsidies is so difficult to achieve. Politically, it may be that self sufficiency in agriculture is regarded as necessary for national security. More pressing is the fact that unemployment benefits are a stigmatized and low paid option for people who can instead be subsidized into the appearance of having a real job. The political problems of withdrawing subsidies become manifest every time this is attempted in the EU. Many on the land are not in fact wage labour but petty commodity producers, working independently for large agricultural companies that cream off the profits while the farmers themselves get a low price. These people are particularly volatile politically.

Pretty illustrates the ways in which subsidies can favour high input agriculture. For example, fixed high prices for cereal crops can mean that farmers favour these over crops that are better adapted to survive local conditions without costly inputs. A table is used to illustrate the situation in the United States (1999, 244). For example, in Pennsylvania, economists compared returns on continuous cropping of maize, as against rotations of a variety of crops. The former strategy required more fertilizer, caused more soil erosion and created more polluting runoff. However federal government "deficiency payments" made maize the economically rational choice with twice the direct government subsidy as non-maize crops. Without this subsidy the more sustainable mixed-crop rotation alernative would have been economically competitive. Pretty’s conclusion is that " a transition to resource-conserving rotations would clearly benefit both farmers and the national economy" (Pretty 1999, 244). So less maize would be grown while consumers would avoid being taxed for unnecessary subsidies.

While this may be a good argument in this case, it is unclear how many agricultural subsidies favour unsustainable practices in this way. In rich countries, they are mostly aimed at keeping out imports and securing prices. In themselves, such subsidies are neutral in terms of environmental goals.

While it is often obvious that farm subsidies may be supported by farmers, they are also supported by sections of the business classes. All farm subsidies support the agro-chemical industry, since its local national operations depend on farming being viable. The profitability of these industries supports the economy as a whole, even if the profitability of farming itself seems to be propped up by an uneconomic subsidy. Owners of these companies will pressure governments to maintain subsidies that allow high input agriculture or actively favour it.

The ability of big companies to pressure governments to subsidize their activities is in fact a feature of current capitalist economies. Sometimes, on this topic, business optimists seem to take up a position as defenders of real capitalism (laissez faire capitalism) as against uneconomic subsidies. For many left wing commentators, subsidies to large industries are hardly an accidental feature of capitalism in the current period. On one account they derive from the difficulty of finding any profitable avenues for investment when most markets are saturated in the rich countries (Shutt 1998). From another perspective, they are inevitable in a situation where countries are competing for investment in a global marketplace (Martin & Schumann 1997). Since they are funded from taxes or consumer spending on farm products, these subsidies act as a hidden form of further extraction of surplus value from wage labour, and are politically targeted to create employment, to buy off powerful cronies of right wing politicians and so forth.

Turning to the subsidy situation in the developing world, a radically different picture emerges. Pretty’s argument that subsidies favour high input agriculture is most clearly supported here. For example, 40 to 90 per cent of the costs of pesticides is paid by government subsidies in developing countries. Fertilisers are also subsidized. In 1990 the total expense of subsidizing inputs in India was 2.8% of GDP, most of which went to fertilisers. Yet at the same time, policies in the South actually discourage agriculture, when seen as a total package. Direct taxes on agriculture and low fixed prices for agricultural products means that agricultural income is siphoned off despite input susbidies. It is estimated that 46% of potential agricultural income was removed through such measures in a range of developing countries between 1960 and 1984 (Pretty 1999, 242-243).

Governments in developing countries construct these policies around a number of requirements. Agriculture is a key to export earnings and the balance of trade. It could not be heavily subsidized and continue to perform this economic function. To maximize production, governments subsidize inputs and often coercively link agricultural support to the adoption of high yielding varieties. In this framework, high input agriculture is backed up by two aspects of the global capitalist system. Emphasis in poor developing countries is on export to rich first world markets. Production is maximized by high input modern agriculture, despite its negative environmental consequences. At the same time, fixed low prices for cereal crops for local consumption are designed to ensure political stability. The pa radoxical effect is to discourage agriculture for local consumption. In Indonesia and other countries, this mismatch of policies has been resolved by prohibiting rice farmers from growing other crops.

Would it be consonant with the structure of capitalism and the interests of the global capitalist class to now remove subsidies on agrochemical inputs in developing countries? A number of factors have begun to come together to influence policy in this direction:

  • Lower yields as monocropping continues

  • Higher relative costs of inputs with falling prices for farm goods
  • Growing resistance to pesticides

So this is an arena where the arguments of business optimists may begin to make sense at the present time, owing to present constraints. I will consider the Indoneseian government’s move to Integrated Pest Management as a key example which is considered several times by Pretty to illustrate his position. In 1975, the Indonesian government introduced a subsidy on pesticides. Infestations of Brown Planthopper became widespread as natural predators were killed by insecticides. In 1977, for example, one million tons of rice were lost (Pretty 1999, 65). During the late 80s, pesticide subsidies were cut from 85% to zero. The country saved up to $160 million per year in subsidies. To control pests, farmers were trained in IPM farmer field schools. By 1993, 110,000 farmers had been trained. On average, yields for IPM-trained farmers increased by 0.5 ton/ ha. The average number of pesticide applications fell from 2.9 to 1.1 per year (1999, 264). The field schools were based in a participatory method of education and many continued to be active after their initial twelve weeks with government teachers. They meet to discuss farmers’ problems and organise joint responses — for example to deal with village rat infestations.

Within business optimist discourse, this would have to rate as an excellent example. Governments have cut spending on agriculture while supporting a move to more sustainable IPM. This is hard to deny but some comments are appropriate:

  • The switch was occasioned by a manifest and urgent environmental problem. This is an easy crisis for the capitalist economy to deal with since two options can be compared on the basis of current profitability. It is much more difficult to deal with problems - such as soil erosion and salinity - where damage builds up over the years but in any given year the most profitable response is to do nothing.
  • The change has not affected other aspects of Indonesian agriculture which are problematic. Toxic pesticides with long term effects are still used, though less heavily. Fertilisers are still used massively. High yielding varieties are still encouraged by government with a consequent loss in biodiversity in rice.

  • The change has seriously damaged at least one Indonesian industry — the pesticide industry.
  • Farmers have had to work harder to cultivate their crops while still being underpaid as a result of government price fixing. In other words, the equivalent profitability of IPM is being underwritten by unpaid labour.

  • The successes of the farmer field schools and their democratic participatory style may have contributed to the political problems faced by government and the capitalist economy in Indonesia. They have provided local peasant farmers with some real experiences of collective decision making and action.

Turning now to the second form of government economic intervention in agriculture, this is the pricing of agrochemical inputs through levies. These are intended to discourage purchase of inputs associated with environmental problems. While Pretty considers this for agriculture, similar policies are envisaged for a range of industries by business optimist writers. A common proposal is that these policies be "revenue-neutral" in the sense that they are not intended to increase overall levels of taxation. As income from environmental taxes increases, other taxes are abated and vice versa. As I have suggested, revenue-neutral environmental taxes are central to the business optimist strategy. This taxation policy is intended to buy the political support of the capitalist class and voters. Neither group is to be asked to increase government funding to pay for environmental reform.

Pretty argues that environmental input levies that have been installed so far have been too low to have much effect on use:

Studies in the USA, for example, comparing alternative agriculture farms with conventional neighbours conclude that a 25 per cent tax on fertilizers and herbicides would not be sufficient to encourage farmers to convert from conventional to sustainable systems. (Pretty 1999, 272)

Reviewing this option, Pretty suggests that if environmental levies are set at a low level, the result is just "a net flow of income from the agricultural sector, with consequent impacts on rural communities" (1999, 272). In other words, rural communities just pay the levy and still use the agricultural chemicals, suffering an overall decline in income while the urban community receives a bonus in lower capital and income taxes. If the levies are set high enough, use of fertilisers will decline, but so will yield. However this would not be a food problem for countries that currently produce a surplus. In this case, rural communities do not lose out since they are not paying the levies. But on the other hand, there is no tax bonus for the community as a whole.

We can explore these options in more detail through a set of imagined scenarios. I take it that many of the issues raised here are more generally relevant to the business optimist strategy of revenue-neutral tax levies. I am examining the situation with first world countries in mind.

  1. We could imagine that large levies on agricultural chemicals were imposed. To avoid the possibility of a flow of revenue from the rural sector, the payment of these levies would be offset against the taxes of those who normally purchase inputs — the farm owners or tenants. A simple response would be to purchase the inputs at their new inflated prices and pay for the difference with the money saved from taxes. So this method of maintaining the income of the rural sector would hamper any move to sustainability.
  2. Large levies are imposed. These are to be offset against the taxes of the rural community as a whole, not just those who make decisions about purchasing inputs. Farmers find it more rational to move to sustainable agriculture since the costs of purchasing inputs are unacceptably high.

The consequences of this scenario are that the government receives no levies for inputs since none are purchased. In other words there are in fact no new environmental taxes paid. So there is no diminution in the usual direct and indirect taxation of the rural community as a whole.

However the price of farming goes up, as farmers phase out chemicals and substitute labour, training and management, while yields also fall. The farm gate cost of food increases. In this scenario the political pressure groups who are put out are firstly the manufacturers of farm inputs, secondly the farmers who are paying more to produce a given amount and finally consumers who have to pay more for farm produce. To ensure that consumers do not switch to cheaper overseas produce, subsidies could cheapen local food or tariffs could exclude overseas competition. In either case, there is a hidden cost to consumers through taxes or higher prices in food. So while this exercise has maintained the ideal of revenue neutrality it has not eliminated the political problems of subsidizing sustainable practices.

We could imagine a third scenario in which some farmers continue to pay for agrochemical inputs despite the levy. In this scenario rural communities get some tax break to pay for this. The political effect of this is hardly any different from scenario (B). Farmers pay more to produce a given quantity of food. Consumers pay more to buy it. Producers of agricultural inputs are only a bit less unhappy as a large part of their market has gone - as many farmers switch to organic agriculture. Non-owner residents of rural communities are the happiest with this outcome, since they get tax relief. However they still lose jobs if consumers are allowed to purchase cheaper food from other countries.

I do not believe that any of the problems canvassed above go away if the money gained through these levies is diverted to government support for sustainable agriculture. The effect of this is to remove the tax relief carrot in the levy. Rural communities do not get tax relief though they may get government funding to increase rural employment. Everything else stays the same — owners, producers of agrochemicals and consumers in the nation as a whole are still unhappy.

None of this is meant to suggest that levies are a bad idea. My point is merely to refute the business optimist discourse that says that they can be imposed without any challenge to the ruling economic interests of capitalist society and to the political accomodations that make most people support the current economic order.

Although Pretty is generally pessimistic about the way subsidies and levies have been used up to date, he mentions a few cases where they have been effective in promoting sustainable agriculture. In Sweden, pesticide consumption has been cut by half between 1985 and 1990 and in Denmark by 18% between 1986 and 1991. In the Netherlands, the government is seeking a cut in pesticide use by 50% (Pretty 1999, 262). In all three cases, these results are being achieved by levies on the sale of pesticides.

What we could say about these cases is that consumers as voters have accepted a higher price on agricultural products in return for the benefits of environmental protection for their national rural land. This is not a choice based on narrowly defined consumer self interest. It can be regarded as an environmental gift by consumers to nature and future generations. It is an intervention in the capitalist market place through the political sphere - in which consumers act to control an aspect of the methods of production, to take over, even in a small way, some of the powers normally vested in owners and the market place. It can also be related to the long history of social democracy within these countries; in other words to a history of political interventions that moderate the influence of market forces. I am claiming it as another example of a hybrid strategy for sustainability; it is not the operation of capitalism without modification but an attempt to bend capitalist institutions to achieve other goals.

F: Inputs from NGOs and Governments

In yet another departure from the business optimist discourse Pretty encourages straightforward subsidies to sustainable agriculture from NGOs and Governments.

Summarising the important role of non government agencies in the South, Pretty points to the fact that there are between 10 and 20 thousand development agencies operating in the South (Pretty 1999, 253). While it makes sense for them to cooperate with governments, they have certain advantages over government. One is the flexibility to choose particular areas to work in which show real promise for change. Another is the ability to learn from mistakes and take a long time to come up with a successful solution. He points out that in the poorest countries they perform many of the functions of governments:

This includes not only relief, welfare, community development, and agricultural research and extension, but also advocacy and lobbying, development education, legal reform, training, alliance building, and national and international networking. (Pretty 1999, 253)

Throughout Pretty’s account, there are also numerous examples of government intervention in agriculture. In one of the clearest explanations of the need for such support above and beyond the normal operations of the market, Pretty notes that "resource-conserving technologies require more labour than their modern equivalents" (1999, 275). In industrialized countries, farmers "balk at the notion of increased costs incurred by employing more staff". They have "come to believe that the best way of increasing efficiency is to cut labour" (1999, 275). As argued above, this is not in fact an irrational culturally created prejudice, but makes good market sense. In the Third World, Pretty suggests, the problem of labour shortage is caused by young people who leave farms for the excitement of urban life. Again, I would doubt whether this process is as culturally based as Pretty seems to imagine. These migrants from the country are just as often the victims of a gradual process of commodification of agriculture and narrowing of farm ownership - people who have no employment because their services are not required within the framework of global market agriculture.

At any rate, what Pretty concludes is that this irrational aversion to employing more staff must be overcome by government interventions:

What are needed are incentive schemes to encourage the employment of local people on farms. This may require additional financial support, either directly to farmers or indirectly for rural services to improve the rural environment and economy. (Pretty 1999, 275).

To examine the ways in which these proposed interventions by NGOs and governments depart from market agriculture I will consider two examples given by Pretty in detail.

The Union of Indian Communities

In the section of Regenerating Agriculture which is devoted to case studies, Pretty describes the strategies of the Union of Indian Communities of Oaxaca State in Mexico (1999, 232). This union was first organised by Indian communities in 1982. In these communities the main cash crop is coffee, which is grown on the slopes, while maize and vegetables are grown on flatter land. A key problem for the farmers growing the coffee was the role of intermediaries. These entrepreneurs marketed the coffee, controlled credit and supplied the community with basic necessities. As in many developing countries, most of the profits from the cash crop were appropriated by these middle men. The basic aim of the Union was to deal with this problem by marketing the coffee directly, cutting out these intermediaries. In 1985 the Union decided to move to organic production of coffee. Partly, this was to avoid the outlay on costly chemical inputs, paid for on credit. Partly, it was hoped to increase coffee yields. A key element in the decision was the fact that international ‘fair trade’ organisations supported this move to organics and were prepared to pay a premium price for coffee grown in this way. By 1995, 3000 families in 37 communities had become members of the Union.

Pretty explains that the new organic methods of coffee production require more management supervision and labour input from farmers. In compensation there has been a 30% to 50% improvement in yields. While their current yields are high compared with previous levels for these communities, they are still less than the yields of large coffee estates, using high input agriculture. The methods used are to grow coffee in the secondary forest, leaving an overstory of leguminous trees that help to protect and fertilise the coffee as well as stabilizing the soil. The coffee is planted on the contour, with slashed weeds and pruned branches being laid on the contour. This creates a bund which traps water and halts soil erosion down the slope. Each coffee tree is planted in its own half moon (fish scale) terrace - another practice which traps water and organic matter and halts soil erosion. Each tree is mulched rather than the soil being swept bare. The pulp left over after coffee beans are removed from the fruit is now kept and composted, while previously it had been discarded in the waterways. This retention of organic matter aids soil fertility and prevents water pollution. Other organic additives to the soil are lime, green waste and animal manure. All these practices create a sustainable coffee plantation in the sense that the long term fertility of the soil is enhanced rather than diminished. As well, the environmental problems of the input industry and the transport of agricultural inputs are avoided.

The union has created its own organisation for transport, storage, processing and export of the coffee, meaning that all these aspects of the production process are subject to some kind of control by the farmers themselves. Some of the profits from the coffee are used by the union for social projects. They have put the money into local schooling, a public transport system that services mountainous areas, a medical insurance system and several shops which market goods at reasonable prices for local people. These are all community building activities, paid for out of the cash income derived from coffee. The money for these activities is not going to the farmers themselves as private entrepreneurs. It is not going to their cooperative to pay for infrastructure for coffee marketing. It is not going to a private capitalist intermediary, as in the past. Instead it is being given to the community and controlled by the community.

This scenario is typical of what I have called a "hybrid" form of social organisation. There are aspects of a pure capitalist market economy combined with aspects which challenge elements of capitalism as a system.

The capitalist elements

At one level the cooperative is simply a privately owned consortium of growers who are maximizing their income by a strategy which cuts out rapacious intermediaries. The coffee is being sold on the world market to rich consumers who are paying a cheap price for a product which has cost much labour to produce. They are paying a premium price because the product has some quality which they prefer. It is a niche market within the capitalist economy. Much of the social infrastructure of the cooperative is run according to the logic of the capitalist economy. Services such as the bus service, the medical insurance system, are paid for by consumers as commodities. So are the items sold in the community shops. The money to pay for these services and consumer goods comes from work growing a cash crop - coffee. Essentially this work is a form of alienated labour - it is unlikely that it would continue if the farmers had some easier way to access the products that their cash can buy.

Environmentally, the coffee farming has some features in common with other examples of capitalist agriculture. Original rainforest is being replaced by a forest dominated by one commercial species at the expense of orginal biodiversity. The power of consumers from wealthy countries creates this biological destruction at a distance - in a situation where unequal power relationships mean that access to industrial goods has to be bought in this way by poor landowners in a developing country. This ecological problem is compounded by the use of fossil fuels to transport this agricultural product across the globe. This is just the cheapest/most profitable form of transport available - despite its problematic ecological consequences. The coffee could be moved on solar powered trains and carried acros s water in wind powered ships.

The anti-capitalist elements

There is also much about this enterprise which challenges capitalism. The Union has been created by members of an ethnically discriminated group in Mexico - the indigenous Indians. It is a form of social and political empowerment for this group that business-as-usual has impoverished. The Union is actually or potentially a democratic organisation in which a cooperative of people of roughly equal economic status have joined together to make decisions to the benefit of them all. Instead of being isolated as private competitive commodity producers, they have decided to join forces. The usual framework of market capitalism would mean that cash incomes from the sale of farm products would be appropriated privately and spent by individual families. Here, many of the fruits of the economic activity are being shared by the community as a whole and in fact given by the farmers’ cooperative in the form of a subsidy for community services - education, health, transport. This strategy can also be seen as a partial appropriation of the means of production by a community group. While farms themselves are still in the ownership of individual families, the process of marketing and distribution has come under collective control and is being managed for collective benefits, not just for the private profits of individual farmers.

What makes this situation a hybrid is also the role of the fair trade organisation and its alliance of consumers and members. The organisation itself is committed to redress the imbalance of power between wealthy consumers in the rich countries and poor in the developing countries. Its strategy is to pay a higher price to the farmers directly so that the profits of farming go to them rather than to the owners of shares in multinational food companies. This activity is a form of gift from wealthy consumers and the organisers and members of the fair trade organisation. The gift might ultimately be a monetary gift paid through premium prices. Or it might be a gift of labour as consumers make an extra effort in shopping for ethical products. Or it could be a gift of voluntary labour in organising or fund raising for the free trade NGO. In each case it marks a decision to shift resources to those who need them rather than to appropriate as much as possible for one’s private personal satisfaction. In this sense it is a departure from the rationality of self interest which is the hegemonic culture of capitalism - a hegemonic culture required to make capitalism work as a system.

The decision to encourage free trade partners to grow organic is another hybrid aspect of this strategy. At the very least it is a form of intervention by consumers in the process of production - an attempt by consumers to have some influence over how production takes place. In this sense it is a departure from the systematic tendency of capitalism to put all such decisions in the hands of shareholders and their managers acting rationally to increase profits. This in itself makes it a hybrid. The strategy has another hybrid aspect if consumers are preferring organics because they are concerned about the environment. We could look at this preference in two different ways. On the one hand, we could assume that free trade consumers are motivated to prefer organic food for purely private selfish reasons - to save their health. This might suggest that their choice is just a consumer preference and has no radical significance in itself. Alternatively, and more probably, consumers are also trying to improve the health of the planet. This would make it another form of gift - a gift to nature and to future generations of humans.

Another example - The move towards sustainability in Kerala

In the 1970s the communist government of the Indian state of Kerala introduced land reform. As a result 70% of farm owners were on holdings of less than 2 hectares - an amount of land that is usually considered too small to be farmed at a profit. And so it proved. As costs of inputs of fertiliser and pesticides climbed, the area of Kerala producing rice fell - from 810,000 ha in 1975 to 570,000 ha in 1988. Small farmers could not afford the cost of agricultural inputs. The government responded to this situation by setting up a new progamme in 1989 - a joint project of Kerala Agricultural University and the State Department of Agriculture (Pretty 1999, 263). The aim of the programme was to reduce the cost of farming by organising farmers as groups.

Pretty describes this strategy as follows:

Agricultural offices were opened in every panchayat, each with two to three local extensionists. Local committees comprising all rice farmers were formed and these chart out a detailed plan of farming. In this group activities, such as for water management and labour operations, are jointly agreed. Costs are reduced through community nursery raising of rice; fertiliser applications on the basis of soil testing; the introduction of IPM and minimum use of pesticides; and the formation of plant protection squads. The average cost reduction to farmers has been Rs 1000 per ha and rice yields have improved by 500 kg/ha. (Pretty 1999, 263).

Looking at the capitalist elements of this hybrid, we could note the fact that individual peasant farmers are private owners of their land and are selling at least some of their product on the market as a commodity. After all, one of the reasons for this programme must have been to increase food production, in a situation where it had become less and less profitable to grow food. The programme could also be represented as a rational capitalist response to a change in the cost of agricultural inputs. As the prices went up on the global market, it became rational to subsitute organic agriculture techniques. As noted above, the reality of this is that the labour and management contribution of farmers increased. Since they could no longer afford the inputs, this could be seen as a rational economic decision to increase labour input to stay in the industry. I could also note that what is being described is not organic agriculture as such, but only a reduction in chemical inputs, a move towards sustainability.

The non-capitalist elements of this scenario are equally obvious. The failure of market agriculture in Kerala dates to the anti-capitalist decision to reform land ownership and provide the poor with land. The problems experienced after this are related to the difficulties faced by such farmers in taking advantages of the economies of scale. The capitalist solution to this problem ( a scenario repeated in many countries) would have been to allow the small farmers to be driven by debt and poverty to sell their farms to richer farmers who would consolidate holdings and make profits by employing cheap labour, making use of the economies of scale and the industrial technologies that would have been economically possible on larger holdings. The role of the university would have been to advise these rich farmers on the best method to make a profit There would have been a corresponding rhetoric from government about the benefits to the poor of the trickle down effect.

Instead, for partly ideological reasons, the communist Kerala government responded to this crisis by intensifying the radical aspects of their original policy of land re-distribution. This was by creating participatory and local collective management of rice farming so that the advantages of scale could be combined with egalitarian ownership of small holdings. We could also note that this strategy is not a typical bureaucratic Stalinist solution to agricultural problems - it is not the "form" of a "collective" and the reality of wage labour with a bureaucratic management structure. Instead its success was premised on reassuring farmers of their continued ownership of the means of production within the legal form of petty commodity production. At the same time genuine participatory cooperation between farmers was intensified. The role of the university specialists is equally a departure from standard capitalist practice. The success of this programme depended upon them turning their hands to the practical education of farmers, as well as to an educational mode that required participation and listening. They inspired farmers to organise themselves while providing necessary technical education in an accessible way. The sustainable agriculture solution required farmers to increase their understanding of agricultural science and to become more educated and competent, as well as to work harder and put in more hours of practical management.

As in the case of the Scandinavian social democracies, the outcome in Kerala is partly determined by a majority voting population who are prepared to ensure that taxes are raised that are sufficient to enable programmes for social justice and, in this case, agricultural reform. In this they are making a gift of their private wealth as employees to interventions which are designed to ameliorate the inequalities and environmental problems caused by the normal effects of the market place.

Is there any link in this scenario between the aspects of a non-capitalist social organisation and the environmental reform that took place? This is a difficult question to answer. At least we can say that the example provides no evidence for the business optimist position, since there was so much going on that does not fit with the normal operation of capitalism.

Hybrids of the Gift Economy

So far in this paper I have attempted to undermine the application of the business optimist discourse to agriculture. I have cast doubt on the business optimist claims made by Pretty through a close examination of Pretty’s own data and analysis.

Partly, I have argued that claims that sustainable agriculture can be economically profitable are exaggerated. Pretty’s tables of evidence are often about yields rather than about profits. It seems likely that some inputs to sustainable agriculture are not actually costed in these tables and the economic disincentives are hidden. Sometimes the economic success of sustainable agriculture is premised on premium prices being paid - a niche market that cannot as yet be extended to the whole sphere of agriculture. The profitable activities that are associated with conventional agriculture cannot be included in any study of farming that stops at the farm gate - unsustainable transport, packaging and input industries.

In a different kind of argument I have attempted to show what is anti-capitalist or merely costly about the kinds of conditions which Pretty argues are favourable to sustainable agriculture; for example participatory learning, community coordination, labour and management by farmers, land reform, government tax disincentives to conventional agriculture, subsidies to sustainable agriculture by governments or NGOs.

Doing all this I have suggested a different way to look at the social context of sustainable agriculture.

There are of course some cases where, for a variety of market reasons, sustainable agriculture becomes the most economically rational course of action. The business optimists can well claim these examples for their argument. The case of IPM in Indonesia is the clearest case reviewed here. This should come as no surprise to a marxist. Capitalism is not set up to destroy the environment in the way that Nazism tried to eliminate the Jews. It is merely that key structures of the capitalist economy have a tendency to ignore environmental considerations with a predictable chain of calamities ensuing.

However in many other cases, and in almost all the cases that Pretty cites in detail, there are reasons to view the social context of sustainable agriculture as anti-capitalist to some degree. Yet, these are not cases where capitalism has been overthrown decisively or where there is a small island of commendable anti-capitalist practice isolated from the global economy. Instead I have called these examples "hybrids", situations in which aspects of capitalist economic, political and social structures are mixed with aspects of a different kind of social and economic structure. So what is this other structure that coexists within such hybrid social forms? In its pure form it is called "the gift economy" and its basic social and economic structure clears the way for sustainable practice.

The Gift Economy and why it is environmentally friendly

A gift economy is one in which there is no money and no wage labour. Instead people produce things for their own consumption or as gifts for other people. An economy like this would be a vast extension of the kinds of voluntary work now done by citizen groups such as Lions' Clubs or Cleanup Australia. It would not be a return to some earlier pre-industrial tribal society. Clubs and associations would still produce technologically complex goods and services. But these would be produced as gifts, not with the expectation of financial returns. People would be motivated to give by desires for social status and the social pleasure of giving. The standard of living would be the effect of multiple gift networks (Vaneigem 1983; Pefanis 1991; Leahy 1994).

There are various reasons why such an economic and social structure could lead to benign outcomes for the environment. Taking farming as a key example for this paper we can make the following points that would equally apply to other aspects of the economy. Producers would see no advantage in overusing their land. Instead they would seek to conserve their agricultural and environmental resources; to ensure their ability to live well in the future and to continue to be able to gain status by giving farm produce to others. In a capitalist economy it makes sense for entrepreneurs to market anything that can be sold, regardless of the effect on the environment. It also makes sense for consumers to purchase these goods, since they are already tied into a life of forced labour. These factors cause overproduction and overuse of land and other resources. In a gift economy people's efforts in production would be tempered by the desire to enjoy a leisured existence and a beautiful and healthy environment. Their own material wealth would depend on the desires of others to give; no amount of productive effort on their part would make the slightest difference.

Creativity and choice, which now only find an outlet in leisure, would be here turned to creating a productive process which was also environmentally benign. In terms of farming, a sustainable agriculture based on polycultures (permaculture) is the ideal complement to such an economic system. Creating and harvesting a stable polyculture is an enjoyable appreciation of the bounties of nature as well as a sustainable mode of agricultural production (Mollison & Holmgren 1978).

In terms of ethics, the gift economy operates with an ethic of generosity and egalitarianism. Pleasure is taken from giving to those who are in need. This ethic is not just extended to the human species but also applies to the natural world, with other species being regarded as having ethical value and appreciating gifts of care and concern.

[For more on this, see my article - On the Edge of Utopia: Letter to the Green Parties]

Aspects of the Gift Economy in Hybrids

With this model of the gift economy in mind we can observe various aspects of the hybrids described above which move farming towards the gift economy.

  • Many of the hybrids embody some degree of control of production - of agriculture -by either the producers themselves or by the community at large. This is reflected in participatory planning of sustainable farming strategies, land reform and the redistribution of ownership away from large landowners, participatory and democratic education, consumer unions that attempt to influence farming practices, voter alliances that support controls over agriculture for the sake of the environment.

  • Many hybrids embody some degree of gift as a mode of distribution of products - in other words, forms of distribution that are designed to benefit particular people rather than to make the highest possible market profit. This is reflected in community control of the products or profits of agriculture, distribution of agricultural products as subsistence or by the community rather than as commodities, gifts of wealth to poor producers from richer consumers.
  • Many hybrids are an expression of care and concern for the natural world or for the future humans of the planet. They are gifts to the planet. This applies in the case of voters who support taxes that will benefit the environment, consumers who decide to pay a higher price for products which are more environmentally friendly, farmers and marketers who are attracted to sustainable farming as an expression of their love for the natural world, volunteers who engage in non-market sustainable farming in community gardens or alternative lifestyle farms.

  • Hybrids can tap into people’s need for meaningful creative work. This is most obviously the case for those whose labour is voluntary. But also in cases where people are performing labour for money, it seems likely that they are choosing work in sustainable agriculture to express themselves creatively. For example the organic farmers whose extra unpaid work may not appear in a balance sheet are also people who are passionate about organic farming. They are choosing a "right livelihood" that they can enjoy, even if it is not always the most economically rational choice of occupation.

  • Hybrids can prefigure the alliances and networks of participatory democratic structures that will organise production and distribution in a gift economy. For example, in the links often mentioned by Pretty between NGOs in the rich countries and community organisations of poor farmers in the developing world. Or also in the agricultural educators of some universities in developing countries and the peasant farmers who are learning to apply organic farming techniques. Or the consumers of organic produce and the marketers and farmers who produce it.

Hybrids and the Future

I have explained why I think it is that capitalism has a particular tendency to environmental damage and I have talked about the way the gift economy could be compatible with a different outcome and ethic. At the present time, sustainable agriculture is a marketing opportunity in some situations but it is a hybrid of capitalism with the gift economy in other situations. We who are keen on sustainable agriculture have to keep both these possibilities in mind at the present time, advancing sustainability as a profitable market option wherever possible - as well as supporting any kind of hybrid that might help sustainable agriculture now or help us to move to a more useful economic structure for sustainability in the future.

Hybrids are just one kind of anti-capitalist strategy at the present time. Others are educating people about the need for a new mode of production, direct action in terms of confronting the powers that be, setting up enclaves of alternative political structures (autonomous zones) such as that of the Zapatistas in Mexico. I am not recommending that we discard any of these other strategies. My elaboration of the strategy of hybdrids is more an attempt to alert people to what is going on. The discourse of business optimism can lead to the false conclusion that there is no real problem with capitalist structures. We can fail to see how hybrids both use capitalist structures and subvert capitalism as a system. We can be unprepared for the kinds of resistance which these hybrids can provoke - odd, if they are seen merely in terms of their capitalist side. We can pay too much attention to trying to persuade business to invest and ignore useful hybrid strategies.

We should not be surprised that hybrids have not demolished capitalism yet. The percentage of the population of rich countries who support environmental goals strongly is still less than 15%, if voting for Green parties is any indication. Hybrids are often temporary alternatives, slipping back into more recognisable capitalist structures as situations change. As with the theory of temporary autonomous zones, the best strategy to support hybrids is to be flexible and if necessary move on to whatever opportunities seem most promising - frustrating and self denying effort is no way to bring about a gift economy based in creative pleasure.

As suggested above, there is one part of the business optimist strategy with which I have no quarrel. That is to promote sustainable agriculture as a profitable market enterprise. If we can convince capitalist entrepreneurs to engage in sustainable agriculture, so much the better. This leads to certain interesting paradoxes. Those engaged in this promotion are doing so because of their love of the environment - neither Jules Pretty nor Simon Fell nor Amory Lovins are personally motivated by a desire to make the most profit possible, regardless of other considerations. More than this, they are addressing their comments to an audience of readers or permaculturalists who are also motivated by love of the environment. This means that the activity of promoting sustainable agriculture as profitable is in itself a hybrid - those who are doing it are doing it for the sake of the environment. However, if they are successful in their strategy, business entrepreneurs will at some point take up sustainable agriculture - thinking it is a good market decision - and maybe for no other reason.

Clearly, I have argued that claims for the profitability of sustainable agriculture are exaggerated; ultimately business might not be persuaded. However this leads to another paradox. It may be that business optimists will successfully lie about sustainable agriculture, talk it up as a market opportunity and get entrepreneurs to invest - against their economic interests. Is this a problem? In such a scenario leftist critics are Jeremiahs who are dissuading business from pro-environment investment. On the other hand, the problem with the business optimist discourse is that it can divert the attention of environmentalists from useful hybrid strategies. So perhaps we need two concurrent and contradictory strategies. Promote hybrids to environmentalists and promote business optimism to business!



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