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Vergil, Golden Age and Agribusiness

Jo Cadilhon is Senior Agricultural Economist, at the Policy, Trade and Value Chains Program, in the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). His research interests focus on value chain and agro-industries development, linking smallholder farmers to dynamics markets, impact assessment of innovation platforms, and processes to support policy evaluation and capacity building of market stakeholders. 

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel of Young Leaders to provide my perspective on developing talent for efficient and inclusive African agrifood systems at the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association World Forum, from 16 to 19 June 2014 in Cape Town. Everything was going fine presenting my work as a senior agricultural economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) when, out of the blue, the moderator Mary Shelman, from Harvard Business School, enthusiastically asked us: “So, tell us why you’ve gone into agriculture and agribusiness!”

While the other panelists were speaking, I quickly went  through the following thoughts: “I didn’t have good enough marks to study physics, so that’s why I started biology which leads to agriculture… Hmm: not sexy enough. Dad was always telling us this Latin quote on farmers when I was a child… How was it  already? Oops, my turn to speak now.” So I muddled through this story of happy farmers from Latin antiquity as my inspiration to pursue agriculture as my career. However,  I immediately realized  that was not a very convincing line.

Vergil, the responsible of my immersion in the agricultural sector

Now that I have had the chance to think more about it, here is why I have gone into agriculture and agribusiness. On the one hand, the pragmatic reason to have engaged in agriculture was that my high school marks were not good enough to study physics and chemistry as a full boarding student at one of the best preparatory schools for post-graduate exams in Paris: the Lycée Saint Louis. On the other hand, I was accepted as a full boarding student in that institution in biology, chemistry, physics and geology.

This curriculum led me to prepare the entrance exams for French post-graduate schools and this is how I eventually ended up studying Agricultural Sciences, the economics of agricultural production systems and public rural administration at AgroParisTech. I then continued my studies with a PhD in Food Marketing at the Imperial College London (Wye Campus).

But the more fundamental reason as to why I went into agriculture and agribusiness is really philosophical and goes back to the following quote by Vergil (Georgics, book II, verses 458-459):

O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,
Agricolas!

My father and the Golden Age

My father always used to quote this verse when I was a child. It is famous to Latinists because it holds two grammatical examples in one line. Basically, it is the myth of the Golden Age condensed into one sentence: Oh, how fortunate would farmers be, if only they knew their boons! In this myth, farmers are the living repository of the happy and prosperous way of life of the Golden Age of lore. This myth of happy farmers has been transmitted through Western classical literature and arts: think of Arcadia, Robinson Crusoe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau… As a child, I lived in many tropical countries all over Southeast Asia. Every summer, my family would come back to France for two full months to stay in a country house in rural Southwest France. Thus, the colourful landscapes of lush green rice fields in Asia and golden fields of maize in France, together with shadowy rubber or pine tree plantations, were the idealized landscapes of my youth.

I nonetheless knew that all was not so golden and rosy for the real world’s farmers. My father used to tell me stories about  how he would go and visit the tenants farming the land of his rich landowning grandfather, seeing how hard they had to toil to crop enough so that they could pay their land rent in kind while keeping enough to eat themselves. Although he worked in international trade, my father would always remind me how important French laws passed in the 1940s had been as they secured access to land leases enabling smallholder farmers to invest in and develop their farm enterprises.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”

My mother grew up herself in a kampong village in Singapore (now disappeared due to the intensive urbanization). The lesson she learned from her rural childhood and which she transmitted  to my brother and me was: “It’s all very fine picking fruits directly from the tree and collecting eggs from the hens, but money doesn’t grow on trees and hens don’t lay golden eggs so you have to earn a living if you want to buy all the tempting goods you see in the shops.” Thus, I understood early on that linkages to the market economy were important, even for farmers who could feed themselves from their own crops and livestock.

And finally, there was the food. With one side of my family French, and the other Singaporean Chinese, it is easy to understand that I was brought up understanding how very important it is to enjoy and share delicious food with family and friends. Both sides also were very strict about finishing up plates and reusing leftovers for the next meal’s recipe.

So I guess that is how I developed my own philosophy justifying the role of food and agribusiness in today’s world: help farmers grow quality produce and link to remunerative food markets; allow actors in the agrifood industry to reap the economic benefits of their participation so as to invest in better livelihoods; enjoy and share good food as a pillar of one’s social interactions. I am still convinced this is how I went through nine continuous years studying and nine further consecutive years working in agriculture and agribusiness, convinced and satisfied with the contribution I could make to help others reach a glimpse of the Golden Age.

Picture credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu