President’s corner August 2012 Geoffrey Lawrence


Address to the General Assembly of IRSA from In-coming President, Professor Geoffrey Lawrence, Friday 3 August 2012

I’ve entitled my short statement this afternoon: ‘Think Global, Act Rural’. It is not an original title. It is the title of a 2010 film by award-winning French director Coline Serreau. The film argues that industrial agriculture is degrading resources, poisoning the world’s fresh water supply, causing cruelty to animals and destroying farming systems that have fed the world sustainably for millennia. This film is about the emergence and consolidation of a corporate-endorsed farming system that pollutes the land, compromises human health, and undermines the well-being of millions of small-scale producers worldwide. While the film is not without faults, Serreau makes a basic and important point: if you want to change the global, you need to understand – and change – the rural.

It puts ‘rural’ back in the spotlight as the site of contest and the site of eventual economic, social and environmental rejuvenation. And, while it doesn’t do so explicitly, it puts rural sociology back in the picture as the academic discipline most likely to comprehend the changes that are taking place, to theorise them, and to provide innovative options for the future.

Serreau is not alone in her assertion that there is something wrong with the current rural-based food and farming trajectory. On Sunday we heard from Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. De Schutter was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008. In his role, he acts independently of governments, business organisations and lobby groups.

So, what does De Schutter think about the current direction the world is taking? He endorses the Rio + 20 Outcome Document which acknowledges the importance of the right to food and of the need to pursue sustainable development. He believes that improving global governance for sustainable development will be a key to addressing hunger and food insecurity. With 20 other UN human rights experts he wrote an open letter to governments at Rio + 20 arguing that they must be accountable for actions supporting sustainability and preventing land-grabbing and the continued exploitation of natural resources. Last year he is on record as saying:

Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just….

He endorsed agro-ecology because it will

help small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.

At the IRSA food security symposium at this conference on Monday we heard from a range of speakers about the need for alternatives to industrial agriculture and the current system of global food procurement and distribution. It was argued that

  • Small farmers in the global South were paying the price of continuing producer protection in the North
  • Women, smallholders and indigenous peoples – some of the most vulnerable in society – face serious constraints in improving their livelihoods
  • There is little current evidence that industrial farming will become more productive via the latest push for ‘sustainable intensification’ – in fact, the term seems something of an oxymoron
  • The real-cost of environmental damage is being underestimated and costs ‘externalised’: the environment is simply not being valued in a way which will give a true value to the ecosystem services and other services it provides
  • Despite oppositional and alternative ways of understanding human/nature interrelations, the reductionist view of agricultural modernization still remains prominent in science and government circles, and
  • Current food policy is failing to provide the necessary integration between human health, the economy and the environment. The outcome is a fractured, fragmented, approach to policy which gives power to supermarkets and corporate agribusiness and which helps to promulgate in society the polar opposites of starvation and obesity.

Speakers called for:

  • Reform of the World Trade Organisation to reduce food import dependency in the global south
  • A rejection of those neoliberal ideologies and policies that praise the last ‘green revolution’ and which promote the next one – this time based upon new technologies such as GMOs
  • Global measures to address climate change and
  • The replacement of the dominant food paradigm of the ‘bio-economy’ with that of the ‘eco-economy’ which sees food security embedded in multi-scalar networks of actors who have embraced agro-ecological principles as the basis for sustainable farming.

These are challenges, indeed, and they need to be embraced. Terry Marsden has written in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food that rural sociology should become a ‘crusading force in wider interdisciplinary environmental and sustainability science debates’. In other words, this is the time for rural sociologists to accept the challenge of both interpreting the world AND helping to change it.

To do so means shedding older conceptions of ‘rural’. In some circles, rural has been – and continues to be – used as a pejorative, or negative, term. It is sometimes associated with backwardness, with antiquated social relations, with outmoded ways of thinking, and with the past. Out with Gemeinschaft and in with Gesellschaft.

But as the many talks and many sessions at this conference have demonstrated, the key issues faced by an increasingly global society are rural in nature. The new editor of the Journal of Rural Studies, Professor Mike Woods of Aberystwyth, wrote an editorial at the start of this year in which he identified a number of key areas for research by rural social scientists.

  • The first is about the sustainable use of resources – including critiques of discourses about food security and corporate farming, along with an exploration of alternatives such as food sovereignty and consumer-supported agriculture
  • The second relates to the resilience of rural communities to environmental uncertainties – along with the ability of communities to move to environmental sustainability
  • The third is the reconfiguration and intensification of patterns of global mobility as people move to, from and across rural space. This includes the dynamics of counter-urbanisation
  • The fourth is new rural economic development strategies – particularly those aligned to the sustainable management of natural resources. Governance of resources is important here as are issues relating to the commoditization of nature
  • The fifth and final area is that of the contours of state intervention: how are state interventions being redrawn? What regulatory instruments are now being used for environmental protection? What is the role of market-based, private, regulation?

Alongside these areas are wider – potentially more complex – areas for research, areas in which many of us are intimately engaged.

In regards to food security we know that there are worrying signs on the horizon. The price of food reached a high point in 2008 causing riots and political instability throughout the world. In 2009 approximately 1 billion people were chronically hungry. The food price index is currently lower than it was in 2008 but many commentators have predicted that this will change as the US experiences its worst drought in 50 years. Corn and soybean prices are already above the levels they reached during the 2007-8 food crisis and wheat prices have increased by 50% over the last month. The effect of rising grain prices is particularly pronounced in poor countries and political instability is again being predicted. While it would seem people in rural areas – those growing food – might escape the next price bubble, this is not the case. Rural people have been forced from their land as governments have legislated for increased production of biofuels and as severe weather events have reduced production levels. Declining productivity is another factor, as is speculation in agricultural commodities. All contribute to ‘depeasantisation’ which undermines food sovereignty.

Another key issue faced by rural producers – and by humanity generally – is that of the environment. Industrial farming systems have been implicated in environmental damage. So-called productivist farming methods rely on monocultures that reduce biodiversity. They foster pest resistance, which often requires the application of higher levels of potent agrichemicals. The adoption of chemical/seed packages aimed at making farmers more productive creates a dependency on corporate agribusiness. But corporate farming is based upon a fossil-fuel based economy, and fossil fuels are rising in price as ‘peak oil’ emerges as a serious issue.

More recently ‘peak phosphorus’ and ‘peak land’ have been added to the list. While some new lands can be brought into production from forest clearing, the environmental impacts of the removal of forests can be profound – including salinization, acidification and desertification – and the release of greenhouse gases. Land clearing and poor farming practices mean that agriculture is the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution. According to the UN, one quarter of the world’s surface is threatened by desertification, with the livelihoods of some 135 million people being directly impacted, and another one billion threatened. Some 12 million hectares of agricultural land each year are lost to land degradation. Desertification takes land out of production at a time when there is pressure to improve farming productivity to feed a growing world population.

Then there is great concern about the future availability of fresh water. It is estimated that by 2050 some 3 billion of the world’s 9 billion people will be living with chronic water scarcity. Freshwater ecosystems are in decline, worldwide, and every year up to 25 million people die each year because the water they consume is contaminated. Over 30 nations have been in what has been described as ‘water wars’ – disputes over the rights to water in shared river basins.

One question for rural sociologists is: how will it be possible to feed a growing world population from a constantly depleting resource base? A better question is how can we actually improve the resource base so that more food can be grown – and in a more socially- and environmentally-beneficial manner?

What will exacerbate the problem of feeding future generations is climate change – another research challenge for rural sociology. Over the last fifty years the world has undergone warming caused by human activity. It is predicted that global temperatures will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees between now and 2100. The most recent thinking is that temperatures might be closer to the upper range, than the lower. In June this year, the US National Research Council calculated that the sea level would rise two to three times higher over the next century then was previously estimated. Ice caps will melt at a faster rate than today, and low-lying and productive farming regions will be inundated. It is predicted that climate change refugees from low-lying farming areas might total as many as 200 million. Where do these people go? How are they fed?

There is some good news: one prediction is that between now and 2080 global warming will increase cereal production between 3 and 9 percent in the developed countries. But there’s a down side: climate change will reduce cereal production by 3 and 7 percent in developing nations – making the poor countries even more food dependent upon the wealthy. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that agricultural production in many African countries will be severely compromised by climate change. At present, some 25% of Africa’s agricultural land is seriously degraded and drought, brought on by climate change, will make matters considerably worse. The Stern report predicted that if the global temperature increases by 2% Celsius crop yields in Africa will decline by up to 10%, leading to the deaths, from malnutrition, of an additional 3 million people.

The situation we face today is – in the words of my colleagues Chris Rosen, Paul Stock and Hugh Campbell – nothing short of a ‘global food systems failure’. It is a system responsible for creating greater food insecurity, rather than finding the means for its alleviation.

As Tim Lang and his co-workers cogently argued in their book Food Policy, food security can only mean sustainability. It will only be achieved when:

  • The core goal is to feed everyone sustainably, equitably and healthily
  • We embrace culturally-appropriate goals of suitability, availability and accessibility of food
  • The food system is ecologically sound and resilient in the face of environmental volatility
  • Farming enhances, rather than depletes, the productive capacity of the land.

This is the time for rural sociology to embrace and actively engage with many of the challenges outlined above. The International Rural Sociology Association, IRSA, was established in 1976 to:

  • Foster the development of rural sociology
  • Provide a mechanism for rural sociologists to interact and exchange ideas.
  • Apply sociological enquiry and insights to improve the quality of rural life.

We will fail in the last duty – improving the quality of rural life – if we do not bring our critical skills and academic knowledge to the fore in understanding how global trends impact on rural space and the people living in that space.

As I said at the start, this is the time – the decade, if not the century – for rural sociology. It is time for some critical, clear, thinking about the major issues we face: food security, the environment, third world poverty, climate change and a host of other rural, ‘place-based’, issues. We have the conceptual and theoretical approaches that can help us understand economic advantage and disadvantage, power relations, and can allow us to deconstruct discourses that continue to marginalize the powerless. We have the methodologies to provide rigour and validity in our research, and we have the intellectual capacity and legitimacy as professional researchers to have our findings make their way into policy decisions of governments.

I am particularly pleased to be accepting the Presidency of IRSA at a time which cries out for clear-thinking about rural society and which demands action on our part to help solve some of the ‘big’ problems facing the world. I want to thank past president, Professor Reidar Almas, and the out-going Council for placing their faith in me to lead IRSA over the next four years.

During this time I will – along with the Executive Committee, the incoming Council, the Past Presidents and the affiliated member organisations – make every possible effort to strengthen the efforts of IRSA in promoting rural sociology and ensuring that rural sociology continues to make a positive contribution to the lives and livelihoods of rural people around the globe.
Thank you.

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