REVIEW: Ploughing up the Farm
Neoliberalism and the Farm
A look at the links between global trade policy and agricultural profitability—or the lack thereof

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


Jerry Buckland

Ploughing up the Farm: Neoliberalism, Modern Technology and the State of the World’s Farmers

Zed Books, 2004; 240 pp
ISBN 1-55266-129-6/1-84277-367-4; $22.50

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March 17, 2005: In the opening pages of Ploughing up the Farm, Jerry Buckland says his book is concerned with the changing state of farmers, mostly over the last fifty years. But you need only thumb through the book to see that you will meet few, if any, farmers in the pages that follow. Instead you will encounter charts, graphs, tables, figures and enough notes at the end of each chapter to make you into a part-time economist or a full-time bibliophobe. Expect no angels to fly up out of the pages, harps in hand, singing you verse; but do expect a professor to step forth, unrolling a supply-and-demand graph, rolling up his sleeves, saying ‘You want to understand what’s happening to farmers? Then let’s talk about the facts.’

The core of Buckland’s book details how farming has changed under what has come by many to be called ‘neoliberalism’—a belief that the economy is better off in the (invisible) hands of the market than of governments. It is the driving philosophy behind the policies implemented by the major economic institutions of our time: the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO. Such policies seek to eliminate barriers to trade (hence the notion of free—or unobstructed—trade) and let the market determine prices and production levels. The claim is that free markets are efficient, by virtue of their competitive nature, and allow for the benefits of comparative advantage through specialized production (you grow what you’re good at, I’ll grow what I’m good at, and we’ll trade).

Without polemics or sarcasm, and in a cool academic manner (each chapter even has its own conclusion), Buckland offers evidence that farmers have not benefited as proponents of neoliberalism claimed they would. Transnational corporations have stepped into the policy-making void that states left behind them, now steering with increasingly visible hands the supposedly free and competitive markets. Through mergers and acquisitions, companies have gained monopolies or oligopolies that stifle competition. In some cases, as in U.S. poultry and livestock rearing, the same parent company can raise, slaughter and process animals under its subsidiaries so that “only the final product—chicken, pork or beef—is sold on the market” (p. 59). The gene revolution of the 1990s, while potentially benefiting farmers and consumers, so far only seems to be an effort by corporations to further control the market (plants are now engineered to produce sterile seeds, or to have weaker immune systems unless a chemical is applied to them). As for the free market, so often invoked with ecclesiastical solemnity, it is a curious fact that the U.S. and the E.U. decry the protectionist measures taken by poorer countries seeking to develop fledgling industries while they themselves continue to increase domestic farm subsidies each year.

In Chapter Four, the meatiest of the chapters, Buckland examines various aspects of farm trade, including the reasons for the replacement of GATT by the WTO in 1994, the debate over trade-related intellectual property rights, and the effects of NAFTA on farmers in Canada and Mexico. Along with his own analysis, he includes a potpourri of highlighted excerpts from other texts that are relevant to the discussion. For example, when describing export subsidies, he excerpts a Guardian article by Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank, about how Northern Hemisphere subsidies hurt Southern Hemisphere farmers by flooding their markets with cheap cotton and powdered milk. When describing NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), Buckland excerpts a 2002 article from the Union Farmer Monthly that gives figures on how Canadian farmers fared under the free trade agreements with the U.S.--Canadian agriculture and food exports almost tripled but wages went up only slightly, farm debt doubled, the price of wheat dropped while the price of bread increased, and the number of farmers declined.

Buckland envisions what he calls a ‘farmer-led food security approach,’ in which farmers, with the support of the state and the market, are at the heart of decision-making about farm development. He does not advocate a pure subsistence model, which would hurt the urban poor who depend on cheap food, but rather “a level of farm specialization that ensures food security for farm and city” (p. 204). Although he goes into some detail about how to do this and gives some recommendations on reforming economic institutions like the WTO, the strength of the book lies in its earlier analyses. Just brace yourself to encounter terms like price elasticity of supply, trade distortion, transfer pricing and—that darling euphemism of the IMF—structural adjustment. If you want to understand the reasons behind the state of the world’s farmers today, learning those terms is part of the required economic homework. Ploughing up the Farm may not be easy to get through but, like drinking cod liver oil or giving birth, the effort does not go unrewarded.

Constantine Markides lives on Monhegan Island, Maine. He can be reached at