City Capitalists or Agrarian Peasants: Where Does the Future Lie?

Chris Smaje, smallholder and former academic, is prompted by a meeting of statisticians to explore a range of possible futures for humanity and the world. He favours “the new ruralism” – but, he says, “… it doesn’t necessarily follow that I agree with myself”’…

The world is undergoing an unprecedented urban transition. In 1970, 64% of its 3.7 billion people lived in rural areas, whereas by 2050 UN projections suggest that 70% of its 9.2 billion people will be living in urban areas, with something around a quarter of the total population in large cities of over 750,000 inhabitants1. Is this a problem? Not if you believe most of the speakers at a recent conference entitled ‘Food Security for Cities’ hosted by the Royal Statistical Society in London (13 September 2011), for the general mood was one of cautious optimism that the ensuing problems are solvable and that urbanisation holds out the prospect of greater prosperity and equity. But at least one dissenting voice suggested that the legacy of urbanisation may prove more problematic.

Now, having been to quite a number of environmentally-themed conferences over the years, I’m struck by the frequency with which speakers outline the grave challenges lying ahead, but express cautious optimism that they can be surmounted, leading ultimately to greater prosperity and justice for all. Indeed, as a rhetorical strategy it sometimes seems almost de rigueur. So one reason that I was drawn to the dissenting view is that it dared to challenge this script – how illicitly refreshing it was to hear that great challenges lie ahead, that they may well be insurmountable, and that there’s a good chance we’re all screwed.

Another reason I was drawn to the dissenting view is that it was mine. For I must confess that it was I who expressed it in my own presentation, ‘Out of the city: the case for a new ruralism’. But I should add a proviso here, for although I was drawn to my own view, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I agree with myself. As someone who switched mid-career from academia to farming, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the profound differences between those two occupations, but also to notice something they have in common: the tendency to combine bluff outward certainty with a gnawing inner doubt that one has got the whole thing fundamentally wrong. Many of us in the alternative farming movement tend to consider ourselves lonely prophets, misunderstood in our own countries, presciently calling time on a food system that we, almost alone, can see to be fundamentally unsustainable. But I’m acutely aware of the fact that those history now judges to have been misunderstood geniuses are greatly outnumbered by those who considered themselves so but turned out to be just plain wrong.

In the light of that, I think what I can most usefully do in this review is briefly set out the case for and the case against so as to illuminate what the key issues of divergence are, whilst highlighting a few interesting points raised by the conference participants along the way. In doing so, I’m going to adopt the following referencing convention: anything that was stated by one of the conference participants is referenced with their name in brackets, anything that I’ve drawn from published literature is referenced with a numerical citation to the relevant text, and anything else is best viewed as an unsubstantiated assertion of my own and so should probably be treated with an appropriate degree of scepticism.

So let’s start with reasons to be cheerful. Rural-urban migration is driven largely by urban ‘pull’ factors that draw people from the countryside to urban centres with more dynamic economies, creating a virtuous circle which raises demand from now wealthier urban consumers for rural and agricultural products, thereby helping to develop the countryside (David Satterthwaite, of IIED, ‘What do those who suffer hunger in cities prioritize?’). Impoverished city-dwellers face prodigious problems –they’re not necessarily better off than their rural counterparts, and 500 million globally go hungry each day – but urban residence gives them the opportunity to organise politically (Satterthwaite). Many of the factors affecting food security for the urban poor are not supply-side issues to do with the availability of food itself, but issues of urban infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation to limit gastric illness, security of tenure and the rule of law in the neighbourhoods where they live, and income security so that they can buy food (Satterthwaite). Most of these issues are being addressed by the urban poor themselves through political organisation in the form of federated savings groups, pressure on municipal authorities and so on (Satterthwaite).

At the same time, although urban and regional planners worldwide have been curiously neglectful of food issues historically, a growing number of city authorities in both the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ world are beginning to take food issues seriously. They’re creating food policy councils, fostering urban community food production initiatives, establishing public sector food procurement policies which engage thoughtfully with both local and non-local food production, developing alliances with community food activists and so on (Kevin Morgan, ‘The urban foodscape’).

On the food production side, agriculture will have to keep pace in the coming decades with a larger global population, and with the effects of climate change – including raised atmospheric CO2 and ozone levels, higher average temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation and more extreme weather events (Keith Jaggard, Rothamsted Resarch, ‘Will there be a contribution from increasing yields of crops?’). Recent historical yield increases of key crops are likely to slow, because step changes in yields effected by certain pest control and crop nutrition advances cannot be repeated, but there is potential for farmers to increase actual relative to potential yields if the appropriate economic incentives are there (Jaggard). Yield increases from additional atmospheric CO2 are likely in relation to C3 crops including most of the temperate cereals, legumes and – especially – potatoes, but are not likely with tropical C4 crops such as maize, sugar cane and sorghum (Jaggard). Perhaps this will be another example of the unhappy truth that those most responsible for climate change seem to suffer least from its consequences. However, potential yield increases may in any case be offset by yield decrease associated with raised ozone levels (Jaggard). Raised soil temperatures are also likely to make insect pests more problematic, though this is potentially fixable through crop breeding, including GM methods (Jaggard). Crop breeding is unlikely to address the problem of crop loss from extreme weather events, however, because there are no economic incentives to breed for relatively rare events (Jaggard) – an interesting observation that highlights how different the modern human economy is from the economy of evolutionary adaptation, which is always conditioned by regular extremes. Free market ideologues would doubtless say the difference stems from the human tendency to trade, thereby evening out the stress of extreme events2. The fact that one in seven people today go hungry perhaps suggests the limits of this strategy. Nevertheless, modelling of both future crop yields (Jaggard) and econometric modelling of overall future food-system performance to 2050 (Dirk Willenbockel, Institute of Development Studies, ‘A review of global long-run food system scenarios’) suggests that global agricultural yields will be able to keep pace with aggregate consumer food demand to that date, with the probable exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Willenbockel did, however, refer to ‘uncertainty about the evolution of exogenous drivers’, which I think is economist-speak for ‘our predictions could be wrong’.

But who will be producing the food? The possibilities for growing significant amounts of food in cities – particularly in poor slum areas of large ‘developing’ country cities – are slight (Smaje, ‘Out of the city’; Satterthwaite), but there are currently 2 billion small-scale farmers globally, and according to Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam UK (‘Winners and losers from the global food system’) they’re alive and kicking. Presumably, then, they ought to play a large part in feeding the future world. But will they? UN projections suggest that global population will be over 30% bigger in 2050 than it is now, but the rural population will be nearly 20% smaller3, and – willingly or unwillingly – many rural people who aren’t migrating to cities or abroad are still moving off their smallholdings to find non-farm rural work or agricultural work as wage labourers4. True, remittances from non-farm and urban work allow families to channel money back into small rural plots and keep family smallholdings alive, but this is unlikely to be anything other than a transitional phase5. If 70% of people will be living in urban centres by 2050, the chances are that they will depend overwhelmingly on food produced by capital and energy intensive industrial agriculture.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments here against industrial agriculture6, but the basis for the less sanguine view articulated in my own presentation is that individually or in aggregate across a number of dimensions – energy supply, water supply, greenhouse gas emissions, soil quality, wild and cultivated biodiversity and phosphate supply, among others – industrial agriculture is likely to fail the test of long-term sustainability, and this will lead to food crisis in a future urbanised world that has grown increasingly dependent upon it. Of course, nobody can predict the future and I may be wrong. It’s possible to perceive, albeit dimly, various technical and industrial-level agroecological solutions to the emerging problems of industrial agriculture; agricultural energy supplied via nuclear fusion and hydrogen fuel cells or algal biodiesel, soil quality preserved by zero tillage techniques and so on. But contemplating a future in which a larger and larger global population rely on a smaller and smaller corps of technocrats and agronomists to pull such technical rabbits out of hats in short order isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep. And it appears that those in charge of the world’s superpowers aren’t sleeping easy either, judging by current global resource grabs over phosphate deposits, land purchases in Africa, and the scramble for Arctic hydrocarbons7 . Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to perceive in all this the slow sharpening of knives for a future world resource war.

Is there an alternative? Yes – small-scale agroecological farming. Again, I won’t rehearse all the arguments, but most of the evidence to date suggests that this style of farming can produce more output for less input, and do a better job of fitting the human economy to the available ecology, rather than piloting the economy over the precipice of an imaginary ecology8. But to create a truly agroecological society would involve reversing current patterns of urbanisation and fundamentally restructuring and relocalising the global economy in favour of small-scale farmers. I’m not optimistic that this will happen, not even cautiously. But I do believe that it would be relatively simple to do so, if only we had the political will and vision. Fleshing out what an agroecological world would look like, however, is a difficult task, not least because there are so few people currently doing so.

There are many different local paths to development, but our notion of ‘development’ itself is curiously monadic, essentially following the European model of an agrarian transition to capitalist agriculture, followed by urbanisation, industrialisation, and the emergence of an advanced class structure in which organised wage labour strikes a deal with the state to ensure a fair, or at least an adequate, piece of the pie.  The ‘pie’ in question increasingly follows western norms of consumer capitalism in which TVs, motor vehicles, stylish new clothes and the like come to be seen as essential items9. But when economic development stalls the most vulnerable face hunger, while the somewhat more secure face deteriorating buying power leading to general dissatisfaction or ‘pissed-offness’ (Green) – a factor associated with the heady events of the recent ‘Arab spring’…and perhaps also the rather less heady events of the ‘English summer’ riots.

The narrative of cautious optimism told at the conference replicated this familiar structure of economic development, even at the level of the individual – as for example in the story of the slum-dwelling woman once too conscious of her lowly status even so much as to look at visitors to her community, who later became a confident organiser for the rights of the urban poor. Of course this should be celebrated, and of course nobody can conscionably advocate the persistence of rank agrarian poverty as an alternative. And yet, and yet…how ultimately sustainable is the resource-hungry model of urban development (and how much of our approbation do we reserve for people who – in becoming pushy, upwardly mobile urbanites – tend to resemble our own self-image or values)? Instead of simply accepting that small farming is a dead-end, can we not find a different path towards a sustainable agrarian prosperity? Wendell Berry could have been speaking for more than just contemporary America when he wrote “we never yet have developed stable, sustainable, locally adapted land-based economies”10. Perhaps we never will. But we may pay a heavy price if we fail even to try, and in that respect I’m encouraged that Oxfam’s ‘Grow’ campaign emphasises the need for a new deal for small farmers (perhaps Duncan Green’s ‘alive and kicking’ comment was merely a case of institutionally-necessary cautious optimism-itis). Green rightly emphasised the need to rethink basic notions of fairness and prosperity if we are to create a brighter future, and it seems to me to be critical to incorporate small farmers as small farmers into this rethinking.

There are issues of timescale here. Industrial society and its particular model of economic development are barely more than 200 years old, and industrial farming not yet a hundred (perhaps we could date its birth to Harry Ferguson’s patent for the three-point linkage in 1928). Already they are exceeding resource and biospheric limits (Green). Eco-optimists are fond of pointing out that projected Malthusian crises have failed to materialise because technical innovation continually redraws productive possibilities, but a mere eighty years of industrial farming isn’t yet long enough for the owl of Minerva to take flight. There is little virtue in projecting forward beyond 2050 in technical modelling because even our projections to 2050 will almost certainly be wrong, but we somehow need to find a way of taking a longer perspective on our deepest assumptions. In that spirit, and not entirely seriously, I offer the following possible scenarios for the future course of urbanisation, food production and economic development.

I. The world urbanises, the urban and rural poor mostly stay poor, industrial agriculture partially overcomes resource problems through technical innovations that allow it to continue for the time being to produce cheap commodity crops that are still chronically maldistributed. Then any of scenarios II-VI ensue.

II. The world urbanises as part of a cycle of economic growth that is decoupled from resource drawdown. The poor of the global south are raised from poverty, and small-scale farming gives way to industrial farming, which solves all its resource limitations through technical innovation. Humanity moves on to the next phase of its journey, and agrarian romantics such as myself soon join the parade of quaint, baffling and extinct religious cults from bygone eras, such as Catharism or intelligent design.

III.Through enlightened planning, sociologically-smart agronomy and other acts of civilisational wisdom, a balance is struck between city, town and village in a society that is profoundly moored to its biological roots by smallholder-dominated agroecological farming. The poor of the global south are raised from poverty (whilst for the most part continuing to farm) and global culture is energised by endless healthy debate about the merits of town against country, profit against civic engagement, and technological progress against the spiritual virtues.

IV.Either of (II) or (III) above, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, which experiences the hellish worst of climate change, agricultural involution and political meltdown.

V. Scenarios (I) or (II) unfold for some time – perhaps a few years, perhaps a few centuries – but then something goes wrong. Perhaps it starts when a resistant strain of bollworm devastates the global GM cotton crop. Enraged at the sudden price hikes in designer casuals the massed consumers of the world riot in a spontaneous outbreak of pissed-offness, toppling governments everywhere. At the same time, scientists announce that the planned replacement of antiquated fossil fuel power stations by fusion reactors has been shelved and fusion will not be feasible ‘for another generation’. In the resulting brownouts, agronomists’ fridges warm up and humidify their contents, thereby wiping out at one stroke the entire 10,000 year history of agricultural biodiversity. Starvation and chaos ensue.

I want to close by floating the possibility of one final scenario – an outcome of (IV) and (V) in combination – which appeals to my taste for long-range prospects and the turning of historical wheels. In his stimulating survey of human evolution, ecologist Clive Finlayson distinguishes between ‘conservative’ and ‘innovator’ species, which hand on the torch of stasis and invention successively through evolutionary time11. The conservatives are the niche-hogging dominants who become set in their ways precisely because, being dominant, they have no reason to change. The innovators are the scrawny losers, crowded out by the conservatives, and forced into adaptive innovation in marginal habitats. Amongst Miocene apes, the conservatives were the fruit-eaters who dominated the great expanse of African rainforest for several million years, while the innovators were certain unpromising genera of bipedal ape forced by the fruit-eaters into the grasslands to find their sustenance. Then, as the climate dried and the forest thinned, the fruit-eaters were gradually beaten back into a few relict populations of gorillas and chimpanzees, while the descendents of the grassland apes began the restless human journey, arriving finally at their own complacently conservative capitalist dominance of the contemporary world.

We customarily think of peasants or subsistence cultivators as ‘conservatives’ and of capitalists as ‘innovators’. But over longer timescales perhaps we should give more honour to the peasant’s tenacious cultural and ecological adaptiveness, and rather less to the anaemic money-grubbing of the state-dependent capitalist. Perhaps one day the fructifying urban power of capitalist economic development will have run its course, and out of the fierce crucible of an abandoned Africa will emerge once again another type of human ready to colonise the world.


1 United Nations (2008). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision Database,

2 Ridley, M. (2010) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, London: Fourth Estate.

3 United Nations (2008), op cit.

4 See, for example, Bello, W. (2009). The Food Wars London: Verso; Rigg, J. (2001). More Than The Soil: Rural Change In Southeast Asia, Harlow: Pearson; Bryceson, D. et al (2000). Disappearing Peasantries, Bourton Dunsmore: ITDG.

5 See Rigg More Than The Soil, op cit.

6 Readable overviews are provided by Lawrence, F. (2008) Eat Your Heart Out, London: Penguin; Roberts, P. (2008) The End of Food, London: Bloomsbury; Patel, R. (2007). Stuffed & Starved, London: Portobello; Tudge, C. (2003). So Shall We Reap, London: Penguin.

7 See, for example, Soil Association (2010) A Rock & A Hard Place? Peak Phosphorous & the Threat to our Food Security Bristol: Soil Association; Vidal, J. (2010). ‘How food and water are driving a 21st century African land grab’ The Observer 7 March; Borgerson, S. (2008) ‘Arctic meltdown’ Foreign Affairs March/April

8 See, for example, Smaje, C. (2011) ‘Industrial or agroecological farming: performance indicators in the UK’; Altieri, M. (1987) Agroecology, Bourton Dunsmore: ITDG.

9 Rigg, J. More Than The Soil, op cit. pp.42-5.

10 Berry, W. (2002). ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in Kimbrell, A. (ed.) The Fatal Harvest Reader, Washington: Island Press, p.46.

11 Finlayson, C. (2009). The Humans Who Went Extinct, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

One thought on “City Capitalists or Agrarian Peasants: Where Does the Future Lie?

  1. Not eyervone thinks of urban agriculture as an option for consumers! Very interested, and another great way to add to food supply.+1

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