Blog – Agricultural transitions: commodification, social differentiation and value chains

Agricultural transitions are concerned with the modernisation of agriculture and the relations between production, accumulation and policies[1]. This includes the political economic  interests that drive changes in production and accumulation; the alliances and cleavages between classes that characterise agrarian struggles, the development of the productive forces (technology) in agricultural production, the changing nature of accumulation of surplus value and profits in agriculture, and the models of agricultural development that are fashioned and promoted. They consider the social relations between various categories of peasants or smallholders and labourers, between smallholders and large estates, and between smallholders, the state and agribusiness. This encompasses the commercial production of inputs for farmers to use in production, the characteristics of farm production, and the processing and marketing of agricultural produce.

Agrarian transitions are concerned with the nature of agrarian change and how change is represented.  The first problem in measuring change concerns the representation of change within the categories of actors of change. What significance is given to the reactions of the various classes, social categories and social identities involved in change and how are these  represented. The ways in which farmers are represented within models of agrarian development often relate to the framing of the model.  Various representations in the literature include progressive farmers as against laggards as in diffusion theory, a classification based on small and middle peasantries (Bernstein), classes of labour (Bernstein), an undifferentiated class of smallholders, differentiation by styles of farmers (Van der Ploeg), a class of commercial smallholders essentially representing the middle peasantry, semi-proletarians revolutionary peasantries (Moyo and Yeros), and in recent years a conception of medium-scale commercial farmers with over 5 hectares of land.  Beyond these are definitions based on notions of multiple livelihoods, mobility, gender and generational categories, and the casualisation of labour.  The responses of farmers may involve cultural resistance (Van der Ploeg) or organised social resistance (Moyo and Yeros, Bernstein).

These three sessions examine the changing frameworks of agricultural development and how these are related to changes in production and accumulation (Buttel, Latham). They examine agricultural modernization within its historical context and its inception within the postwar period and the emergence of US hegemony (Latham).  They examines how agricultural modernization has been shaped by US geopolitical interests, and a coalition of interests between US corporations and science and technology that came to define development strategies, input programmes and agribusiness (Latham, Kloppenburg and Kenny).  The commodification of agriculture is explored in relation to the emergence of agribusiness and input and processing companies, hybrid seed technologies and biotechnology (Lewontin, Kloppenburg and Kenney, Buttel), global food systems (McMichael), through the expansion of commodity chains (Bair), or through takeovers, mergers and monopoly control of markets and food governance (Amanor).  These sessions explore the different ways in which  political economy agrarian studies analyse the main developments within contemporary  agriculture, the impact of commodification on different categories of agricultural producers, and the responses of farmers to the commodification of agriculture.

[1] This blog is an introduction to the sessions on the “Agricultural transitions: commodification, social differentiation and value chains” delivered by Prof Kojo Amanor during the theory workshop on the “Character of the Agrarian Question in Contemporary Africa” Jointly organised by YARA and the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape on 13-17 May, 2019 for young African academics.