Raj Patel: This Land is Our Land?

Source: Civil Eats

Imagine a country where ideologues bent on land reform turn agriculture into the plaything of the world’s richest investors, and poor local farmers are locked out of millions of acres prime agricultural land. Then stop imagining some African country run by a despot and his friends and start picturing the United States. Rural America is on the cusp of one of the greatest transfers of land in its history and no one’s talking about it.

At its worst, land reform lets plutocrats kick poor people off their ancestral land. But land reform is not only the tool of dictators. At its best, sensible policies about how land is used, transferred, and owned can make it possible for young people to farm with dignity, a living wage, and a future. It can help poor people stop being poor. It can let young farmers who want to farm break through the barriers to entry. It can provide a secure retirement for America’s older farmers. It can happen and should happen in countries as democratic and as rich as the United States.

In fact, radical reform has been discussed in the U.S. and recently. But not in the current agricultural policy centerpiece: The Farm Bill. If you knew nothing about it, you might think that the Farm Bill would be a sensible place for talking about farms and bills. But big, structural problems like land use, transfer, ownership, and preservation are too big a threat to the status quo to mention–so no one risks talking about them.

Certainly, land reform is a ticklish subject. In its cartoon version, land reform is what communists do after a revolution. Few in Congress want to be associated with it. That’s a shame, because historical American-facilitated land reforms have often been very successful. The prosperity of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan owe much to the reforms imposed on them by the U.S. after WWII in order to preempt the spread of communism.

Land reform isn’t of mere historical interest–it remains important within America. Just as in the Global South, poor people in the U.S. still want and try to make a living off the land. While some farmers’ children want to head to the cities, many others are being kicked off the farm. No matter how enthusiastic and able they are, they can’t afford to stay, the farm can’t feed another mouth.

To the ranks of these unwilling urbanites, add a generation of young city-dwellers raring to get their hands dirty. The food movement has rekindled young Americans’ romance with agriculture. Thousands graduate from dozens of new food and sustainable agriculture programs. They’re hardly naïve about the work involved in living off the land. Yet their ambition will be fruitless, because unless they come from families of good fortune, they won’t be able to afford the land, they will be priced out of the market by institutional investors and large-scale farm operations.

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