Rural Sociology

August 25, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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This week, my viewsletter takes you on a field trip to the World Congress of Rural Sociology, held at Ryerson University in Toronto in mid-August.

Here, I want to discuss why, to the best of my knowledge, no city staff or politicians attended this outstanding conference of global rural and food experts. I also want to discuss why it’s urgent for city and rural experts to use their common interest in food as a route for finding more reasons to meet up.

Have we become so isolated in our specialties that people interested in cities think that rural and farm issues have no relevance?

I think that’s a sad truth – sad because it’s akin to saying that modern city leaders don’t need to know about something as frivolous as where their food and food-related employment come from — or that cities are not interested in win-win mutual interests, complementarities or synergies with nearby rural areas.

For mutual interests to come to the fore, each city and each rural area surrounding a city needs to become intertwined and re-entangled.

Not to put too fine a point to it, it’s also worth remembering that improved city-rural understanding is an imperative because of a new trend in rationalizing regional governments. In my neck of the woods, such major Ontario cities as Hamilton, Ottawa, Kingston, Sudbury and Thunder Bay include rural areas and farmer residents. In other parts of the world, such as Turin in Italy, where I’ve recently done consulting work, cities and adjoining local governments are cooperating on a wide range of issues. So understanding local farmers and city residents is increasingly becoming the same thing.

At a time when local food is high on the local policy agenda for a variety of reasons, maintaining parallel universes of specialized echo chambers is simply obsolete. Aside from the obvious – such as all cities need some measure of local food security, and all rural areas need some base of steady, loyal and nearby customers for their agricultural products – there are many possible complementarities and synergies to brainstorm and explore.


Image RemovedA lovely poster near one Ryerson cafeteria, inspired by recent localista executive chef Rashna Maharaj, urged people to ‘”take the far out of farm.” While we’re at it, we should also take the far out of rural-urban understanding.

Right after the Ryerson conference, my daughter and I went for some quality time to a resort less than an hour’s drive from our home. With the city absenteeism issue of the conference fresh in my mind, I observed at least two food-related complementarities.

First, people in cities are often looking for pleasant places to enjoy a quiet countryside “staycation,” which should be encouraged because it’s such a convenient way to reduce transportation in an era of global warming. The matching complementarity is that this trend provides an opportunity for rural areas to up their game and employment in a wide range of peri-urban tourism services.  

Secondly, many rural areas suffer from rural depopulation, much of it related to what’s called “youth retention” — at a phase of life when the bright lights of the big city seem especially attractive, just before the phase when an affordable home beckons. There are more than enough reasons for people of all ages to stay close to families, favorite friends and special haunts to encourage a lot of intra-regional population shifts that allow rural areas to maintain the population levels they need to support and finance quality infrastructure.

Both rural and urban may soon become universal experiences at different phases of the lifecycle.

The all-round and comprehensive possibilities of win-wins are everywhere to be seen, as soon as we open our eyes.

That’s why urban officials should start coming to all manner of rural and food conferences, and rural officials should come to all manner of food and urban conferences, and why special streams should be set up for urban-rural dialogue at all conferences.

I’m happy to say that the program committee of the World Congress of Rural Sociology set the standard by organizing at least two program streams of this type.


I have a hunch that the form of specialization that keeps our eyes closed to regional city-rural mutual gains is not just the specialization of academic and professional disciplines.  It goes much deeper than that – to the specialization built into regional economies based on competitiveness, not complementarity.

In this era of the Internet-initiated “sharing economy,” we need to get over having so many degrees of specialization, just as, in this era of global warming, we need to get over having so many degrees of separation.

Intense regional specialization has become a dogma for all industrial policies, be they in cities or countrysides, for reasons best explained by the great economist John Maynard Keynes.  “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” he wrote famously. “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

A case in point is nineteenth-century economist David Ricardo, who developed the concept of comparative advantage. Every area should specialize in the one product they do best, he argued, so that everyone in every region could benefit from ultra-specialization by getting the best product for the best price – is the case he put.

It’s not fair to blame Ricardo for economic policy makers who didn’t update his thoughts on comparative advantage to take account of a few things  that have happened since Ricardo died, such as the discovery of greenhouses, the greenhouse effect, the multiplier effect in economics, resilience, and the rise of conscientious shoppers who boycott products that base their competitive advantage on exploited workers or degraded environments.

These kinds of epochal game-changers are especially powerful in the food sector, which has suffered most at the hands of policy based on dogmatic application of Ricardo’s concept.  

It’s time for food advocates to say that the dogma of each city doing the one thing it does best, while each rural area does the one thing it does best — and so “urban is urban, and rural is rural, and never the twain shall meet” – belongs in the museum of bad ideas.

As a result, cities are designed to make a small number of products that are sold globally, and the countryside around it is designed to make and grow a small number of products that can be sold globally, and the same pattern is repeated in every region of the world. The inevitable result is that city prosperity and well-being are not linked to their countryside, and vice-versa. Nearby farmers produce their specialties that are sold into an internationalized marketplace, while nearby warehouse workers offload trucks that were driven by out-of-region drivers carting foods packaged and grown out of the region.

This is the pattern we are now working to undo in the name of local employment, diversified economies and the global environment.

The process of undoing and redoing starts by each city caring about its nearby region, and vice-versa. We will need to replace the competitive value of comparative advantage with the sharing value of mutual advantage.


By not attending, city officials missed the chance to participate in several important sessions, which I will tell them a bit about.

One was a keynote session on the impacts of deregulated trade resulting from NAFTA on rural areas in Canada, the US and Mexico.

Panelist Gerardo Otero talked about the maquiladoras developed first in Mexico but now extending across North America, where migrant farm, processing and slaughterhouse workers labor and live — sometimes illegally, but almost always without any government protection from exploitation and abuse. Coming soon to a rural area near you!

Panelist Jennifer Clapp reviewed how NAFTA sped up the destruction of small farms that once played a key role in maintaining the vitality of rural regions. The 1980s debate on NAFTA featured discussions on the possibility of companies fleeing from one jurisdiction to another in search of pollution havens, and that old debate has distracted people from the broader issue of intensified unsustainability of rural areas.

All of these impacts relate to cities, whether the issue be worker and animal abuse in increasingly nearby maquiladoras, the decline of processing jobs that once paid good wages throughout North America, or the unsustainable use of water and pesticides to support mass production of cheap food for export.  

We must broaden the list of indicators of efficiency in food production, Clapp argued, so that issues related to rural sustainability – both environmentally and socially – can be taken into account in debates about whether NAFTA-style deregulation has been “efficient.”

The headline panel of the conference included five leading global experts on peasants. Ben White, who limited himself to moderating the main event, made his own contributions in a follow-up informal session.

In White’s view, peasants and their families and communities, who still number 2 billion people around the world, remain important for the future. “There is no crop in the world that can’t be grown effectively by smallholders,” he said. And there is no reason why peasant or smallhold agriculture needs to be limited to families, he said. Smallhold farms can be run by friends and co-ops, as well as by families.  

The key to a vital and renewed peasantry, White said, is the “labor-income balance” of the peasant relationship to the land. Since peasants historically veered to self-sufficiency, they organized their time around optimizing savings and optimizing personal time, as well as optimizing sales and income – the holy grail of today.

In a modern society where transportation and communication are much more accessible, White implied that peasant farmers can adapt in the way that has been recommended by peasant supporters for generations – by being parts of a vertical chain where the suppliers of peasant production needs (fertilizers, mechanized equipment, knowledge, and so on), as well as the people who take food to customers (processors, distributors, bakers, butchers and candlemakers), are mostly independent artisans and members of community-based companies.

In other words, it is the food system, not the smallhold farmer, that can be inspired by the peasant model, and who can integrate peasant smallholders with scale efficiencies of production at higher volumes. This is how the term “re-peasantization” can be understood.

In White’s view, this perspective has great importance for the whole world, including cities, where artisan-inspired producers and retailers are likely to live. In a world where all white collar and blue collar workers are equally liable to be replaced by automation — and equally likely to become automatons in the absence of protective initiatives – smallscale farming and peasanting are the last bastions of mass employment.

Image Removed“Smallholders are the world’s biggest source of employment at decent wages,” White said.

If a future based on cities becoming holding tanks for the unemployed is to be avoided, rediscovery of such peasant-like options offers rays of hope.

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, whose book on Peasants and the Art of Farming is part of an argument for a new peasantry,” warns that this orientation to independent smallholders will require steadfast supporters. A number of eminent scholars have contributed to a publication by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization on the viability of smallhold agriculture, but publication has been blocked by the US government, he told the informal session.

Learning more about the smallholder option (which city people might adapt to include urban and peri-urban agriculture) deserves to be a global option for everyone — countryside and city dwellers alike.  At the very least, we all deserve to know why and how it is that one government, which claims to respect free speech and open discussion, is entitled to veto discussion of an idea.

An interesting topic for future conferences to discuss, in front of city and countryside officials alike. And rural sociologists should play a leading role, Brazilian scholar Sergio Schneider told people in one well-attended session. The countryside is becoming increasingly industrialized and used as a source of raw resources, from iron ore to soy, what Schneider called “the new extractivism and soyization.”

That means “rural sociology has to move to issues of food and health, as they affect both urban and rural.

“We need to create a radical and engaged social science,”  he said.

On the last day of the conference, I and my wife, Lori Stahlbrand, took Schneider and van der Ploeg to see the Evergreen Brickworks farmers market in the rewilding heart of Toronto’s Don Valley. Schneider was most impressed by the multiculturalism of the market, with vibrant stands offering Mexican and African cuisine — part of the city’s commitment to world foods, locally grown and prepared whenever possible. Van der Ploeg was thrilled with the children running around, dancing alongside the musical buskers and joining their families at picnic tables where the prepared foods featured at many stands are eaten. The multi-functionality of the farmers market is what really impressed him.

The day after the conference, I took one of the presenters, Hector Andres Bombiella Medina, a Columbian-born scholar who just completed a PhD on the Peruvian fishery at a university in Iowa (is the world looking more and more like it’s ready for fusion cuisine?) to see my neighborhood market in Leslieville. He loved seeing a farmers market in a community park, and loved talking to vendors who specialized in world foods – from the Caribbean, India, and Honduras.

Farmers markets are one meeting place for urban and rural residents from all over the world. But conferences must become another.   

Top photo credit: By Allie_Caulfield from Germany – 2011-07-06 07-08 Kanada, Ontario 024 St. Jacobs, Farmers Market.jpgUploaded by Mindmatrix, CC BY 2.0,

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, relocalization, urban food policy