Food system reform is missing a coherent asset transfer strategy
How will agroecological farmers acquire what they need to farm at scale?
In one sense, the purely technical problems with delivering a “sustainable agriculture we need” are now mundane. Decades of research into agroecology across all corners of the globe, in all forms of climates, soil regimes and socio-technical systems, demonstrate that an agriculture built on generations of local knowledge and consistent striving to reduce reliance on inputs is an approach that meets the challenge presented by climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the nutritional needs of the worlds hungry.
This is why agroecology emerges as a near consensus policy proscription for groups like the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food and the UN FAO who want to meet the triple challenge of transforming the globe’s agriculture into one that delivers quality, culturally-relevant nutrition, doesn’t degrade biodiversity, and responds to climatic pressures. Moreover, it’s clear that agroecology is distinctly promoted over and above other popular strategies like organic production, regenerative agriculture, precision farming, and climate smart farming because of its attention to social justice.
So, what’s the rub? If we have the tool need to get the job done, what are the “lock-ins” needed to shift meaningful acreage into production of agroecology an out of industrialised monocultures?
Here is a big reason I see as overlooked:
The individuals, businesses and institutions that have the capacity to practice agroecology, don’t control any of the stuff needed to research, produce, process, and distribute food at meaningful scales. The individuals, businesses and institutions that do own the means of producing and distributing food are deeply embedded in the logics of the industrial food system. Framed in this way, the important unanswered question about food system transition is not how to produce food differently, or even why, but how to transfer the assets needed to construct a fresh infrastructure to facilitate alternative production, consumption, governance and distribution of food.
Food reformers, or the individuals and groups committed to bringing forth more just and sustainable food systems, spend most of their time 1) demonstrating that alternative food systems are viable across many standards of evaluation and 2) justifying the ethical, environmental, and social reasons why alternatives are needed.
That’s important. Food movements need to contest tired productivist logics with empirical evidence of agricultural success stories as well as experiment with mobilising discourses that enroll a broader public into furthering their aims. Where food reformers and alternative farming organisations tend to fall short is in laying out a coherent theory for how they will achieve transition to their proven alternative production and consumption paradigms.
Whenever I read about a “new model” of agricultural innovation, framed as “the answer” for transforming agriculture for the better, I always question, in the case being presented, how did the characters in the story acquire the stuff they needed to make it work for them? How did they get the land, the seeds, the training, the networks, the markets, the equipment, or the lease?
The answers to these questions are important, most because they reveal the extent to which the model of alternative agriculture being presented has any relevance for a broader public of potential farmers. It reveals if the model has chance of reaching meaningful scales to move the needle, and if the benefits of this model can reach a diversity of players in the food system, especially traditionally marginalized farmers.
Take for example the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, where a couple moves from LA in order to try to make their dream of the pesticide free agrarian good life a reality. The film does a nice job of describing the agronomic techniques they employ, as they slowly build back the endemic agri-biodiversity required to boost productivity and wean the land from synthetic inputs, struggling all the while with many unexpected setbacks. Their labor ultimately manifests in Apricot Lane farm, an impressive looking biodynamic and organic certified direct to consumer operation.
Although the film offers sparse details about how the farmers acquired the land and materials needed for their operation (these details always take a back seat in popular accounts of food system alternatives), a few clues (for example, the split decision to spend their “savings” on a state of the art worm composting facility) reveal the answer. In this model, the agroecological farmers-to-be leveraged their built-up capital form previous wage-labor and combined that with their substantial social capital to acquire advantageous financing. Good for them. It’s now clear, however, that the “Apricot Lane model”, as a recipe for agroecological transformation, is one made possible through previous acquisition of significant capital.
Both trendy and deeply-studied alternative food solutions are a dime a dozen – Agri-hoods, farm incubators, “big team farms”, biodynamic, forest farms, silviculture, permaculture, sustainable agriculture investment trusts, joint ventures, vertical farming, regenerative agriculture, food accelerators—these are what capture the attention. But for any of these models proposed as food system reform strategies I encourage asking:
How are they going to get the stuff that they need to farm? How are they going to get the land? Not why or if—How. On this front, alternative visions of food production tend to fall flat.
Actually, there are theories of asset acquisition that characterise alternative food visions, but they are often implicit assumptions that have to be deciphered instead of being laid out explicitly by their proponents. While hidden, they can be deduced by analysing the rhetoric and actions that alternative models imply.
In the US, I see four dominant asset acquisition strategies that bubble up out of most food reformist ideology. I’m not convinced any are sufficient alone to meet the challenge of deep meaningful food system reform.
The behaviour change hypothesis
The first strategy spins on the idea that actors embedded in the industrial food system will they themselves transform into agroecological farmers. Given the right information delivery and argumentation, the idea goes, these farmers will change their habits, their ideals, their production pathways, and market relationships. What is appealing about this strategy is that it gets around the asset acquisition problem, because, in theory, these farmers already control the land, the training, and the distribution contacts. Instead of needing to get these things, and in a hurry, they simply need to change the technical aspects of their operation, which as I’ve mentioned, is the relatively easy part. Sometimes, this strategy is accompanied by a call to regulate the “problematic” elements of farming which adds a punitive lever for change in behavior, but not change in the player.
There is something compelling, especially in academic domains, about presenting clearly worded arguments about the benefits of agroecology and the harms of busines as usual farming and then imagining industrial farmers turning off their GPS-guided pesticide delivery systems and start planting polycrops and transitioning to organic.
For example, see the highly lauded Prairie Strips project or the story of Montana farmers who introduce polycropping into their monoculture operations.
There are two problems with this strategy as a stand-alone effort. The first is that it effectively rewards the current asset holders –who have arguably been practicing the exploitative agriculture that got us here in the first place—with the research, innovation, and state support to improve the value of their assets. Even if this strategy were to succeed beyond our wildest dreams, the result is a change in the ecosystem health of agri-systems, but no change in terms of how the benefits of holding agricultural assets are distributed. Secondly, to succeed, the behavior change theory relies on pitting the morality of landed farmers against the many well-oiled systems that prop up the status quo. The incentives are constantly mal-aligned.
The entrepreneurism hypothesis
In this strategy, new agroecological farm businesses, out-compete the corporate food regime, winning over customers because of superior products (health or quality), and their moral superiority. Because of their success, these businesses acquire wealth and with this capital they expand their businesses into the lands of bankrupt farms bloated from subsidy, export reliance and political handouts. These new agri-businesses are leaner, smarter and more in-tune with consumer needs than the lazy commodity producers. It’s Silicon Valley but with farming.
To be fair, this model has driven the expansion of the eat local-Chez-Panisse-farmers market expansion-organic sales-Whole Foods-Erewhon Market-craft butcher, into a sizable and durable niche. But what vote what your fork has provided in the left hand, the right has delivered the perils of consumer capitalism.
The niche is well, a niche. Farmers compete to “get in” to farmers markets, spending considerable gas money to glad hand elite (white) consumers who pick over their products. The distributors, grocery conglomerates, and corporatized farms saw the ground shifting and were quick to introduce their own organic and local lines with race-to-the bottom standards, what Miguel Altieri calls “input substitution.” This is evident in that while organic sales in the US increases steadily, the lions share of the increase is from industrial-style organic operations with annual sales of $500,000 or more. Similar to the benefits of organic being co-opted by larger industrial like enterprises, an appeal to certifications and food labelling is taken to rather deepen a reliance on market forces to achieve social change.
More troubling, is Henry Bernstein’s quite annoying argument that points out how regardless of the form of agriculture being practiced, as long as the assets are subject to a capitalist logic of exchange, these “good” farmers must end up exploiting labor in order to reproduce their livelihoods. Show me a “good farmer” Bernstein’s arguments says, and I’ll show how they are really just a “petty commodity producer.”
For a food movement that has strong roots in anti-capitalist sentiment, it seems strange to rely solely on the unbridled market for deep transformation. It rings strongly of neoliberal subjectivity with predictable results.
The succession hypothesis
Next up is the succession hypothesis that argues that our bloated agri-gerontocracy will soon retire, and the land and other stuff on the market will pass on to a young energised generation of eco-farmers. This is plausible because one of the supposed reasons that the average age of farmers nears retirement age at a steady clip is because the farming heirs have no interest in following in the family business. With no heir, maybe these farms really will put up the “for sale” sign and the smarter-faster-greener generation will swoop in?
Thus, energy and activism are put into farmland finance education for young farmers, techniques raising capital with crowdfunding, and land matching services. After writing my entire dissertation basically questioning this one premise, I’ll say that I think laying food system reform hopes on retiring farmers is probably a red herring.
There is somewhat of a zombie statistic that floats around a lot of farm organizations that states 400 million acres (about half of America’s farmland) is due to “change hands” over the next 20 years. The stat, I believe, comes from extrapolating from a 2014 USDA survey of land owners about their current and predicted land tenure and ownership status, although they only asked about the next 5 years (2014-2019). Even still, landowners surveyed reported that by 2019 91.5 million acres were expected to transfer to new ownership.
But if you look just below that blockbuster stat that is still (in some form) plastered on a lot of farmland conservation organisation’s websites, 40% of that land was going to be put in a family trust, 13% sold to a relative, 12% gifted, leaving 20% planned to be sold to a non-relative.
Of that 20% then, is a competitive market that pits agroecological farmers with their business plans of organic tomatoes and heritage breeds against housing developers, institutional investors, and the neighboring farm looking to expand. Considering landowners nationwide who rented farmland received $31.2 billion in rent payments, farmland as an asset tightly held and sought after makes more sense to me than a commodity in flux.
Common sense (and Piketty) suggest that most of the capital embedded in agricultural land will be inherited.
The virtuous asset holder hypothesis
This is the most clearly formulated asset transfer strategy amongst food system reformers. In this hypothesis, the agroecological farmers of the future should worry about farming, while a non-profit or trust instrument buys the land and installs the farmers. The hypothesis recognises that there are deep problems in the rules of the game that govern land markets and thus see a need to intervene.
These trusts often place a conservation easement on the land, preventing it from being developed and in turn leverage certain tax breaks to reduce the value of the land. As an owner, the trust can exert (through lease contracts) various restrictions on farmers so that they meet environmental standards or social goals. Sometimes these are small regional trusts with goals of environmental protection and sometimes these are fully fledged investment vehicles with an eye towards delivering modest returns to their stakeholders via social investment in alternative food production. Elsewhere in the world, these trusts offer very friendly leases with subsidized rents and 99-year tenancies.
In one notable version of this hypothesis, instead of trying only to purchase the land outright, there are demands for reparations and restitutions, where assets were previously stolen or unjustly acquired. Here, approach to acquisition is that virtuous asset holders who hold the land should return the land via gifting.
Relying on virtuous asset holders produces a series of problems for deep agroecological transformation. First, when you squint at these models what really has happened is that the single landlord who previously held the land has now been swapped for a discerning organisation, with a board, who has just spent years of labor and financial capital in acquiring the asset. This scenario is hardly ripe for long term agroecological experimentation and sovereignty of the producer. Even though the land may be protected against certain land uses like urban development, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it encourages the autonomy of agroecologists needed to change the shape of the food system.
Second, there is a classic problem of wealth creation and wealth distribution when the land is owned by a trust instrument in perpetuity. Farmers who practice agroecology inevitably improve the value of the land, increasing the flows of ecosystem services, building up soil health, fine tuning the infrastructure to maximise production. Despite this labor, there is little recourse for the tenant or tenants to recoup the asset value in trust scenarios, because being able to sell—or at least leverage—farmland for loans is key to where the value in farming traditionally lies.
Third, this process is just slow and piecemeal. When a process works through the logic of private property to protect the commons, it must target parcel by parcel, submitting planning applications and competing against other buyers time and time again. Trusts celebrate victories farm by farm in fractured and uncoordinated approaches.
An absent coherent, unifying asset transfer strategy
I argue that none of the above agroecological asset acquisition strategies are sufficient for a meaningful food systems transformation. The effect of working through a logic of entrepreneurship and property entitlements mean they end up replicating the agrarian structure and entrenching inequality. Regardless of their rationale (the arguments amongst Land Back and farmland reparations movements are rather water-tight) they are missing a clear process to make land transitions happen.
What is required, then, is a bespoke asset transfer mechanism (or set of mechanisms) for agroecological transition.
Importantly, a creative robust agricultural asset transfer strategy doesn’t erase the progress or discourses of the above models, it only makes them 1) more likely to succeed and 2) more equitable.
I think its great if there is a retired tech industry employee who uses their savings and their networks to acquire land and start up a beautiful vertically integrated operation. But with a unifying asset transfer mechanism, more farmers will be able to join them, especially those without their educational pedigree or landed familial relations. Land trusts, instead of fighting a parcel to parcel battle can look at a watershed level agricultural transformation objective. Training young farmers in horticultural skills actually makes sense if there is a legitimate pathway for them to get onto the land. A reparations or indigenous land return movement could identify the lands owed and go to work reclaiming those parcels without relying on the morality of current owners.
To achieve these possibilities, I see a need for a much bolder and broader imagination towards agroecological asset acquisition. This is the work of breaking down commonly held assumptions about property and propriety and digging into the mundane structures that construct land use regimes. Importantly, I see a certain need to involve the state, which has the police powers of zoning, tax law, and existing legal tools to redistribute property in the name of the public interest.
A bespoke asset transfer and acquisition mechanism
A unifying agroecological farmland asset acquisition mechanism should adhere to four principles to be transformative. A bespoke asset transfer mechanism should: involve the power of the state through existing tools or new legislative acts, rebalance power over decision making between farmland owners and non-owners, be accessible to all aspiring agroecological farmers but favour traditionally marginalised farmers, and incentivize transition from private “fee simple” forms of property to alternative models that encourage commoning or collectivization.
I don’t think there are good models of farmland asset transfer that exist in the US, so inspiration must come from other geographies and domains outside of agriculture.
The first place to turn is to the “housing rights” movement. When the availability of affordable housing becomes near impossible, advocates notably avoid market-based mechanisms, but engage in direct appeals to the state. The demand is clear, the state has a duty to uphold a basic human right to housing. These demands includes appeals to the state apparatus to: reform zoning laws to allow for mid density housing, remove building restrictions that tend to prop up exclusionary high value suburbs, enforce the responsibility of landlords to maintain structures that provide safe environments, use tax revenue to supply new units, and protect vulnerable tenants from eviction.
On the legislative front, there has been an emergence of tenant/community opportunity to purchase acts (T/COPA) that transfers decision making power over housing assets to the tenants by installing a pre-emptive right. If the unit does come up for sale, the tenants have the first chance of purchasing their unit. Food system reforms dabble with forms of the “right-to-buy” provisions, but they are at this point voluntary measures installed into some leases.
The second place to turn is to other geographies with strong commitments to private property, that are nonetheless attempting to rebalance the private vs public goods dynamics of land. For that, I see Scotland’s suite of land reform acts as instructive. The Acts, laid into force over about a decade 1) install a universal access right (right to roam) 2) establish new powers for community acquisition of assets 3) apply this “community right to buy” to pretty much all of Scotland’s assets 4) establish a land fund (via the national lottery) to support community acquisitions and 5) establish a Land Commission to study the environmental, social, economic and health impacts of asset transfer.
This type of thinking towards how to rework the flow and purpose of assets is sorely needed in the US, which otherwise has a robust and active food movement. A strong asset acquisition strategy is waiting to be expressed, one that gives teeth to the many inspiring models of agroecological production.
Without a coherent and by nature, radical, strategy to acquire the assets for alternative production systems, the current asset owning actors will happily seize the terrain of sustainability, solidifying legitimacy of control and stewardship. This is already happening and it concerns food system reformers who would see the chance of meaningful redistributive reform fall by the wayside of a nebulous sustainability trends that only entrench long running patterns of asset seizure and control.