What if the international focus on creating decent employment in agriculture was in fact hindering effective policies for structural change and jobs?
That was the deliberatively provocative question Professor Bruno Losch posed in his keynote presentation to the 2nd International Symposium on Work in Agriculture (ISWA) on 30 March 2021.
Organised by the France-based International Association on Work in Agriculture and hosted by France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), the symposium was again focused on the challenges facing the estimated 1.3 billion people working in agriculture, together representing 25% of the world’s total employed.
One such challenge is that 93% of that 1.3 billion live today in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, regions that will account for about 75% of the world’s population growth over the next 30 years. It goes without saying that creating decent employment in a sector renowned for its often-indecent employment conditions is an “unquestionable objective”, said Losch, principal investigator at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security and professor at the University of Western Cape (UWC), as well as lead political economist at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).
But decent employment is merely – drawing on what he called an “iceberg syndrome” – the small part of the iceberg visible above the waterline, added Losch. Below the water lies a mass of other issues which are the roots of indecent employment. These include massive productivity gaps between types of farms (between OECD countries and the rest, and within countries), as well as huge asymmetries in terms of market access, economic and institutional environment, and policy support.
Currently, the global “policy package” for agriculture continues to focus on a “modernisation paradigm” designed over the last century, argued Losch. This assumes a continuous increase in productivity based on greater mechanisation, modified seeds and chemical inputs. It also goes hand in hand with a progressive specialisation that would transform multi-tasking peasants into ‘agripreneurs’ who can easily slot into the broader market system.
In richer countries this modernisation came courtesy of “massive state support” to the sector after World War 2, which continues today in the likes of EU or Japan, said Losch. But that model is not sustainable – and therefore not replicable – because it is based on non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, mineral fertilisers) and results in “negative externalities” such as pollution and climate change. It also leads to sweeping marginalisation and exclusion of farmers who cannot compete with the most productive and supported. And together with labour productivity increase, it contributes to jobs destruction at a time when more jobs are needed in many countries, particularly in Asia and Africa.
The only way out of this quandary is to explore other agricultural development models adapted to the current times, urged Losch. “Agriculture is not only about production; it is also about health, natural resources management, employment creation and local development – as a way to improve livelihoods,” he noted. “Therefore a new paradigm – not based on productivity only – needs to be progressively shaped.”
This would include the development of agroecology practices, the promotion of local markets and shorter value chains, and more food sovereignty.
“The agenda for decent employment in agriculture is indisputable but it cannot stand alone,” Losch said. “It is embedded in the future of the sector which cannot be addressed in isolation.”