Small Farmers and World Nutrition


       All over the world small scale farmers are going bankrupt; some are committing suicide.   Even in areas where millions of men, women, and children are dying of starvation, obesity and its health problems are multiplying dramatically in other segments of the population.  This is due to increased consumption of more concentrated manufactured food and decreased physical activity because of mechanization.  In 1996 the UN (United Nations) declared that they would strive to cut the number of hungry people in half by 2015,  But, instead of falling, the number of hungry people has increased by 3% in 10 years.  Fewer and fewer multinational corporations are supplying more and more of our food and transporting it longer and longer distances.  Crop subsidies originally intended to help family farms in the developed world are now mostly paid to big producers.  Consumption of locally grown foods, even fruits and vegetables, is steadily falling.  Fresh foods contain nutrients that, while not essential (you don’t  die  promptly  without  them),  do  enhance  health.   (See  also  “Bioflavinoids”  on  under  the category Staying Healthy.)

       Last month I spent 3 weeks on Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, as a volunteer mostly tutoring junior high and high school students.  While exploring the rural areas, the crops noted were taro, a starchy root crop and a Polynesian favorite, Papaya, many pigs, chickens, and nono trees, the fruit an herbal remedy for cancer, the juice of which fetches about a dollar an ounce (considered inactive by stateside hospice).  There were some small household gardens with various vegetables, and a few larger plots of tomatoes and one very large orange grove that was neglected.

       I happened to sit next to a local economist at a graduation ceremony and asked him about local commercial agriculture.  His explanations follow.  Almost all Rarotongan food is now imported because of falling prices on the world market.  The oranges were formerly exported as juice—most if not all orange varieties are not very orange naturally and must be treated with ethylene gas to make them look ripe (ethylene gas is actually a natural plant ripening hormone and is harmless).  So only a small fraction of the crop is now harvested for local use—again mostly as juice because of the cost of (unnecessary) ethylene treatment.  The grove will not be replanted.

       All over the world small landholders are beginning to be heard.  Restoring traditional local production will not only help the farmers, but will improve nutrition of the entire population as mentioned above.  In many areas of the Unites States some truck farmers are selling annual shares of their production for $200 to $300 to be delivered regularly throughout the growing season.  Some of the best restaurants are buying these shares. 

       The benefits of more fresh food from local sources are more than nutritional.  For example, smaller, more diversified agriculture results in less need for pesticides.  I have observed this on isolated abandoned apple trees on former homesteads in state parks in terms of many fewer wormy apples.  Even worms seem to go for the economies of scale.

       The needed reforms include revising farm subsidies to accomplish the original intent, which was to keep small farms in business.  These subsidies in rich countries are even more harmful to farmers in the developing world who cannot compete with the artificial low price.  Alternatively, import duties for imports that are  subsidized  in their country of origin should be recommended  by WTO (the World Trade Organization). Incidentally, the most vociferous voices demanding retention of subsidies are not in our country but in Europe, especially France. A beneficial side effect of smaller scale farming will be less deforestation and less point source pollution as from large animal feeding installations.  Keeping the animals closer to the land that needs fertilizer makes perfect sense and requires less fuel to accomplish.  Besides many of us eat more meat than is nutritionally ideal in terms of a  balanced diet-- especially true for those of us with a sedentary life style. It would also be good to limit promotion of  “junk food” especially to children—the obesity epidemic is affecting all ages. 

       Overfeeding most of humanity and starving some of the rest of us is too great a price to pay for the profitability of agribusiness.  Corporations are chartered by government for the benefit of the population as a whole not primarily for the benefit of stockholders.  These charters do not have to be renewed.

John A. Frantz, MD

December 22, 2006