Cotton and Scarcity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jan 18 07:19:23 MST 2003

Charles J:
>First, when Marx and Engels wrote of an agrarian
>revolution, they wrote at a time when even the
>most industrially advanced countries still had a
>huge population living and working in the rural
>areas (analogous, perhaps, to current China,
>though China has such a huge population, the only
>thing now analogous to it is the Indian
>subcontinent). I think the turning point in US
>history was at around 1900 when just less than
>50% of the population worked in the rural

But the problems that Liebig and Marx were grappling with are the same we
face today, namely a rift in the metabolism of living creatures and their
food sources. If your observation above was meant to suggest that we no
longer have the same sort of issues, let me lay out briefly what we are up

1. Exhaustion of water supplies because of irrigation.
2. Destruction of sea food and fish because of an inability to control
seepage of chemical fertilizer. (Mississippi/Gulf of Mexico).
3. Cancer and other illnesses caused by pesticides. (See Sandra
Stringraber's "Living Downstream").
4. Disappearance of wildlife because of loss of habitat (eg., turning
Borneo rainforest into palm plantations.)
5. Water pollution from run-off (pigs in North Carolina; chicken in Arkansas.)
6. Need to introduce questionable technology to overcome problems caused by
industrial farming itself (GM crops are 'designed' to resist pests, but
eventually develop a resistance. There is no guarantee that the genetic
alteration might seep into weeds and create a super-strain.)
7. Livestock become prone to all sorts of disease because of industrial
system used to raise them (e-coli, mad cow, etc.)

I can think of more, but this is what came off the top of my head in just 5

>Next, it should be pointed out that the
>influential message Liebig delivered was
>essentially Malthusian about soil renewal. He
>attacked the humus theory of soil replenishment
>but he also felt that there wasn't enough guano
>in the world to restore soils. Liebig in his own
>field is known as the father of chemical
>fertilizer, though unfortunately for his
>reputation, his particular formulation didn't

I think it is possible to misuse the term "Malthusian". Since Marx embraced
Liebig's analysis, this would imply that Marx was a Malthusian himself.
Liebig's importance to Marx was less about the technical issues of guano
availability, etc than it was about the city-countryside divide.

>I think we can say to quite an extent that soil
>is a conservable and renewable resource,
>especially in countries that have a lot of space.

But only if the entire system of agricultural production is revamped, which
necessitates a reorganization of society.

>Also, I'm from So. Central Pennsylvania and can
>tell you that, although the Amish methods of
>farming can be better than the very modern
>agriculture, they also have their problems.

A much better example for what we need is contemporary Cuba:

Cuba: A Successful Case Study of Sustainable Agriculture


Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and
Development Policy <>. He has a Ph.D. in
agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.

Our global food system is in the midst of a multifaceted crisis, with
ecological, economic, and social dimensions. To overcome that crisis,
political and social changes are needed to allow the widespread development
of alternatives.

The current food system is productive--there should be no doubt about
that--as per capita food produced in the world has increased by 15 percent
over the past thirty-five years. But as that production is in ever fewer
hands, and costs ever more in economic and ecological terms, it becomes
harder and harder to address the basic problems of hunger and food access
in the short term, let alone in a sustainable fashion. In the last twenty
years the number of hungry people in the world--excluding China--has risen
by 60 million (by contrast, in China the number of hungry people has fallen

Ecologically, there are impacts of industrial-style farming on groundwater
through pesticide and fertilizer runoff, on biodiversity through the spread
of monoculture and a narrowing genetic base, and on the very capacity of
agroecosystems to be productive into the future.

Economically, production costs rise as farmers are forced to use ever more
expensive machines and farm chemicals, while crop prices continue a
several-decade-long downward trend, causing a cost-price squeeze which has
led to the loss of untold tens of millions of farmers worldwide to
bankruptcies. Socially, we have the concentration of farmland in fewer and
fewer hands as low crop prices make farming on a small scale unprofitable
(despite higher per acre total productivity of small farms), and
agribusiness corporations extend their control over more and more basic

Clearly the dominant corporate food system is not capable of adequately
addressing the needs of people or of the environment. Yet there are
substantial obstacles to the widespread adoption of alternatives. The
greatest obstacles are presented by political-corporate power and vested
interests, yet at times the psychological barrier to believing that the
alternatives can work seems almost as difficult to overcome. The
oft-repeated challenge is: "Could organic farming (or agroecology, local
production, small farms, farming without pesticides) ever really feed the
entire population of a country?" Recent Cuban history--the overcoming of a
food crisis through self-reliance, small farms and agroecological
technology--shows us that the alternatives can indeed feed a nation, and
thus provides a crucial case study for the ongoing debate.

A Brief History

Economic development in Cuba was molded by two external forces between the
1959 revolution and the 1989-90 collapse of trading relations with the
Soviet bloc. One was the U.S. trade embargo, part of an effort to isolate
the island economically and politically. The other was Cuba's entry into
the Soviet bloc's international trade alliance with relatively favorable
terms of trade. The U.S. embargo essentially forced Cuba to turn to the
Soviet bloc, while the terms of trade offered by the latter opened the
possibility of more rapid development on the island than in the rest of
Latin America and the Caribbean.

Thus Cuba was able to achieve a more complete and rapid modernization than
most other developing countries. In the 1980s it ranked number one in the
region in the contribution of industry to its economy and it had a more
mechanized agricultural sector than any other Latin American country.
Nevertheless, some of the same contradictions that modernization produced
in other third world countries were apparent in Cuba, with Cuba's
development model proving ultimately to be of the dependent type.
Agriculture was defined by extensive monocrop production of export crops
and a heavy dependence on imported agrichemicals, hybrid seeds, machinery,
and petroleum. While industrialization was substantial by regional
standards, Cuban industry depended on many imported inputs.

The Cuban economy as a whole was thus characterized by the contradiction
between its relative modernity and its function in the Soviet bloc's
division of labor as a supplier of raw agricultural commodities and
minerals, and a net importer of both manufactured goods and foodstuffs. In
contrast to the situation faced by most third world countries, this
international division of labor actually brought significant benefits to
the Cuban people. Prior to the collapse of the socialist bloc, Cuba had
achieved high marks for per capita GNP, nutrition, life expectancy, and
women in higher education, and was ranked first in Latin America for the
availability of doctors, low infant mortality, housing, secondary school
enrollment, and attendance by the population at cultural events.

The Cuban achievements were made possible by a combination of the
government's commitment to social equity and the fact that Cuba received
far more favorable terms of trade for its exports than did the hemisphere's
other developing nations. During the 1980s Cuba received an average price
for its sugar exports to the Soviet Union that was 5.4 times higher than
the world price. Cuba also was able to obtain Soviet petroleum in return,
part of which was re-exported to earn convertible currency. Because of the
favorable terms of trade for sugar, its production far outweighed that of
food crops. About three times as much land was devoted to sugar in 1989 as
was used for food crops, contributing to a pattern of food dependency, with
as much as 57 percent of the total calories in the Cuban diet coming from

The revolutionary government had inherited an agricultural production
system strongly focused on export crops grown on highly concentrated land.
The first agrarian reform of 1959 converted most of the large cattle
ranches and sugarcane plantations into state farms. Under the second
agrarian reform in 1962, the state took control of 63 percent of all
cultivated land.

Even before the revolution, individual peasant producers were a small part
of the agricultural scene. The rural economy was dominated by export
plantations, and the population as a whole was highly urbanized. That
pattern intensified in subsequent years, and by the late 1980s fully 69
percent of the island's population lived in urban areas. As late as 1994
some 80 percent of the nation's agricultural land consisted of large state
farms, which roughly correspond to the expropriated plantation holdings of
the pre-revolutionary era. Only 20 percent of the agricultural land was in
the hands of small farmers, split almost equally among individual holders
and cooperatives, yet this 20 percent produced more than 40 percent of
domestic food production. The state farm sector and a substantial portion
of the cooperatives were highly modernized, with large areas of monocrops
worked under heavy mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide use, and
large-scale irrigation. This style of farming, originally copied from the
advanced capitalist countries by the Soviet Union, was highly dependent on
imports of machinery, petroleum, and chemicals. When trade collapsed with
the socialist bloc, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture
proved to be a major weakness of the revolution.


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