The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Samir Amin, free trade in agriculture and the impossibility of developmental catch-up.

Free trade in agriculture has increasingly become a focus for discussions about a potential path of development for countries in the Global South as well as a solution to the problem of how to feed the ever expanding global population. Drawing on the contribution by Samir Amin to the workshop ‘Trade unions, free trade and the problem of transnational solidarity’, held at Nottingham University on 2 and 3 December 2011, I will critically engage with this argument.  

Over recent decades, the WTO has played a crucial role in pushing the debate on free trade in agriculture. The argument is that free trade and deregulated markets will ensure the highest possible levels of production as well as guarantee that food reaches those areas quickly, where it is needed most. A speech by the then Director-General of the WTO Supachai Panitchpakdi in 2005 reflects well this understanding of the important relationship between food security and free trade. ‘It is widely accepted’, he argued, ‘that a further reduction of trade barriers and trade-distorting subsidies will help boost the economic performance of developing country agricultural producers’ (Panitchpakdi 2005). The emphasis on the unregulated, free market is key to this understanding. ‘By allowing world food markets to fix their own prices, we will be inducing more production globally, including from net food importing developing countries’ (Panitchpakdi 2005).

Indeed, the introduction of modern technology in agriculture would significantly increase food production. Supporters of such a strategy of submitting agriculture and food production to market mechanisms point to the way capitalism took off first in England and then in Europe more generally. When new social property relations emerged in European agriculture around a landlord/capitalist tenant/wage-labourer structure and both the landlord and tenant depended on the market for their social reproduction, constant technological innovation and increasing specialisation of production methods and higher yields were the result.

As Amin makes clear, however, this is not a model developing countries can follow today. Agricultural capitalism in Europe implied an increasing focus on larger farms and new technology engendering a process, in which thousands of peasants lost their land and were set ‘free’. It was a unique historical situation with two key factors, which ensured that the model took off successfully then, but cannot be repeated today. First, industrial production in 18th and 19th century was highly labour intensive and could absorb the peasants driven off their land. By contrast, developing countries attempting to compete on the world market today would need to adopt modern technology, which requires fewer workers. ‘The second is that Europe benefited during that long transition from the possibility of massive out migration of their “surplus” population to the Americas’  (Amin 2011: 17). Any peasants, unable to find industrial employment in the expanding European cities in the 19th century, had the opportunity of emigrating to America in the search for a new livelihood.

Capitalist agriculture in Europe, Amin contests, ‘was sustainable only through the safety valve allowed by the mass emigration to the Americas. It would be absolutely impossible for the countries of the periphery today – who make up 80% of the world’s people, of which almost half are rural – to reproduce this model. They would need 5 or 6 Americas to be able to “catch up” in the same way. “Catching up” is therefore an illusion and any progress in this direction can only result in an impasse’ (Amin 2011: 12).

Submitting agriculture to capitalist market forces today would imply that the vast majority of the 3 billion people depending on subsistence farming lose access to their land with nowhere to go beyond the growing slums surrounding the ever expanding cities in the Global South. ‘Admitting the general principle of competition for agricultural products and foodstuffs, as imposed by WTO, means accepting that billions of “non-competitive” producers be eliminated within the short historic time of a few decades. What will become of these billions of humans beings …?’ (Amin 2011: 16-17). Clearly, introducing capitalist agriculture across the world would not overcome uneven development between highly productive capitalist agriculture and much less productive subsistence agriculture. Nor would it lead to developmental catch-up. Instead, it would deepen existing divisions and put the already precarious conditions of billions of people further at risk.

Hence, only a strategy of delinking from the global economy in general and the global agricultural market in particular can facilitate sustainable development in the Global South. At the national level, such an alternative development path ‘implies macro-policies protecting peasant food production from the unequal competition of modernised agriculturalists – agro-business local and international. With a view to guaranteeing acceptable internal food prices eventually disconnected from the so called international market prices (in fact also markets biased by subsidies of the wealthy North-USA/Canada/Europe)’ (Amin 2011: 18). 

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:
13 August 2012

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