Thursday, July 17, 2003

Place us next to something profitable …

I recently visited a country here in the Americas where I flew over a valley that appeared very fertile—a vast, thick green carpet beautifully woven by plantations of African palm trees. I was enthusiastic, thinking that at last I had discovered development in action—that is, until I landed.

The contrast between the wonderful view from above and the misery below screamed out that the African palm, far from being a motor of development, could be the mother of all poverty traps. By contrast, take, for example, a coffee bean. It may be worth very little in the field, but at least it lets us dream of the chance of capturing a bit more of the value suggested by the fact that some people pay four dollars or more for a cup of it at Starbucks. But in the case of the African palm, no dreams seem possible. Just for a starter, its saturated fats are considered undesirable.

In this sense, the difficult cultivation of the African palm would seem to be doomed to mark the borderline of lowest overall marginal cost, that is, where the least is paid to farmers for their labor. Palm farming now has such a small margin of profit that it does not even cover the costs of registering a union, and so, Mr. Planner, just in case, don’t place us next to the palms, please place us next to something profitable.

When analyzing agricultural margins of profit, we must not forget that in most cases in which farmers’ margins allow them to maintain a decent standard of living, this is due to some kind of subsidy, protection, or market interference. So, of course, if we’re offered the chance to grow African palms in France, we might just consider it. 

It is one thing to be a marginal agricultural producer and it is another very different thing to be an agricultural margin capturer. In a supermarket in the United States I came across 11 kinds of eggs, ranging in price from 95 cents a dozen for caged, industrial production to $3.99 a dozen for eggs certified as coming from organically-fed free-range hens.

For countries whose hopes focus on Cancun and on agricultural opening, I hope that the above leads them to stop, think, and realize that opening in itself does not work miracles if farmers do not also receive other kinds of aid, such as those offered in many developed countries.

Friends, as I have said many times before, if we let globalization simply pursue the lowest marginal cost of labor, then Great Bad Deflation will inevitably come.

And as published in Voice and Noise of 2006