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close this bookAfrican Agriculture: The Critical Choices (UNU, 1990, 227 pages)
close this folder9. Tunisia: The state, the peasantry and food dependence
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe state and the peasantry
View the documentConsequences of state agricultural policy

(introductory text...)

Mahmoud ben Romdhane

The purpose of this chapter is to analyse state policy towards agriculture over the last two decades and its impact on the peasantry and agricultural production. The essential conclusions that emerge and will be developed, are that, with the exception of the market gardening and fruit sub-sector, in which the state made major investments and where the beneficiaries of investment in irrigation gained substantial advantages. Tunisian agriculture has been used as a reservoir from which to extract an increasingly large surplus to the benefit of extra-agricultural capital. As a result of the continuous depreciation of the main agricultural products' prices the peasantry has been unable to save enough to finance productive investment, and capital. 'the bearer of capitalist rationality' has simply fled agriculture whose share of investment has diminished drastically period by period. Consequently, agricultural production has improved only extremely slowly and, from being an agricultural surplus country. Tunisia has gradually become a deficit country, particularly in strategic food products (cereals, milk, sugar for example).

This was the situation up to 1979. Since then, the food deficit has continued to worsen, but it seems that since 1980 there has been a turn-about in agricultural policy which is reflected both in a new emphasis on agricultural products and in the financial and institutional resources made available (or in the process of being made available) to farmers.

But this turn-around has not yet been taken up with the required determination. It remains in fact dependent. 1) on a domestic social situation in which urban actors' threat to reduce the margin of manoeuvre necessary for the implementation of a new agricultural policy is all the greater because the confrontation with them is occurring against a tense economic background; and. 2) on an international situation in which the downward fluctuations of international prices threaten to reduce the urgency of a policy of encouraging agriculture simply because the turn-around itself was dictated essentially by the sudden rise of the international prices of the leading agricultural products between 1979 and 1981.

But if this turn around were to succeed in establishing itself and giving way to a policy that did not exclude agriculture, is there not the risk of a deployment of capital in agriculture with all its attendant consequences - or alleged consequences: further concentration of landownership, development of the wage nexus and rejection of the peasantry? For if the policy, that for two or three decades has consisted in reducing the prices of the main agricultural products, has helped remove agriculture from the field of capitalist investment and keep it basically a world of peasants, a policy of encouraging agriculture may indeed lead to an improvement in the standard of living of the peasant masses and keeping them on their holdings, but it may also lead to an extension of the spatial and social area of capital within agriculture and the eviction of at least part of the peasantry.

That is the real issue in coming years: everything will depend on the concrete implementation of the new policy - if the turnaround does indeed prove to be permanent. In order to put an end to food dependence, two paths are practicable: one based on capital, out-and-out resort to mechanization and rejection of the peasantry, the other, on the promotion of the peasantry and the rural areas.

The state and the peasantry

With regard to agriculture in general and the peasantry in particular- in so far as four-fifths of agricultural production are provided by small and medium-sized holdings based on family labour- state policy has consisted, since the early 1960s, in systematically extorting a larger and larger surplus' except from farmers in the irrigated sub-sector. In fact, whereas farmers in the non-irrigated sub-sector have seen the prices of their products (cereals. Iivestock, olive oil) fixed by the state at a low level, farmers in the irrigated sector have received special treatment: in addition to enjoying sometimes very considerable higher land values, hitherto achieved at no cost to themselves, thanks to investments in irrigation carried out and financed by the state, the prices of their products (market gardening and fruits) are 'free' and have increased considerably.

Such a brief outline needs to be elaborated. First, farmers who have benefited from state investments in irrigation are a very small minority (some 20.000 out of a total of 355.000) and, among them, no more than 6.000 have plots larger than five hectares. Second, those who have undertaken irrigation works and installations at their own expense number some 30.000 and most of them have holdings of less than five hectares: the sole 'advantage' they derive from their situation is that they benefit from generally rewarding prices (in the sense that they include, in addition to the strict cost of production, a land rent and a 'normal' rate of profit). Finally, among farmers in the non-irrigated sector almost 4.500 have holdings larger than 100 hectares and, through the use of hired labour, they enjoy incomes several times higher than those of a medium-sized irrigated farm.

Holdings in the non-irrigated sector: state policy

State policy with regard to the 305,000 farmers in the non-irrigated sector in Tunisia (out of a total of 355,000) has consisted in continually reducing the prices of their products. In the early 1960s the state was already establishing specialized National Boards or Companies that monopolized the marketing and/or importation of agricultural products and thus provided itself with the institutional tools which were to enable it to carry on a policy of dictating the prices of the main agricultural products and extracting an increasing surplus from agriculture.

This role was entrusted to the Office des Céréales for cereal products; the Société Tunisienne des industries Laitières (STIL) for milk and dairy products: the Société ELLOUHOUM for meat; and (after 1967 Only) the Office de l'Huile for oil. Only the market gardening and fruit sector (to be examined later) was excluded from this process.

After the early 1960s, the state fixed producer prices for cereal and livestock (meat and milk) products at the beginning of each season and, after 1967, for olive oil. Since then the prices of these products have continuously declined.1

Cereal prices: Between 1961 and 1972, producer prices for hard wheat, soft wheat and barley were changed only once- in 1967- when they were raised between 12% and 24.5%. Successive adjustments after 1973 and up to 1980 increased prices on average 50% for wheat and 80% for barley, but compared to the general wholesale price index or the manufactured goods price index, the changes look rather regressive. Over 18 years (1961-79), the general wholesale price index recorded an increase of 171% and the manufactured goods price index 165%. By deflating the nominal prices of cereal products by these two indices the following figures emerge: in constant prices, hard wheat fell from 4.2 dinars per quintal in 1961 to approximately 2.850 dinars in 1979, a fall of over 47%, soft wheat from 3.450 dinars to approximately 2.6 dinars, a fall of over 31 %, and barley from approximately 2.5 dinars to 2.050 dinars, a fall of over 22%.

This uninterrupted price decline reached such a level that few holdings succeeded in producing while realizing the rent and a profit margin comparable to that of other branches of the Tunisian economy.

From a Ministry of Agriculture study2 relating to the production costs of cereals in 1975 - obtained from a sample of 262 holdings - we have prepared a table of the production costs of the three main cereal products: hard wheat, soft wheat and barley. Three types of holding varying in terms of their degree of mechanization were examined and compared with tranches by size of holdings -20 hectares. 20-100 hectares and + 100 hectares.

The results are summarized in Table 9.4 which distinguishes three production costs: 1) excluding rent and profit margin (estimated at 15%); in this case the farmer is treated similarly to a self-employed earner of the guaranteed minimum agricultural wage: 2) including profit margin, but excluding rent, which is treated as taken by urban capital but the profit margin is more or less the same as that realized in other branches of the economy (about 15%); 3) including rent and profit margin; in this case the cereal sector is not the object of any extraction of value, and landowners enjoy the fruits of their ownership in the form of rent passed on to the prices of agricultural products.

Table 9.1

Production costs of cereals

Ordinary hard wheat

Ordinary soft wheat


Type of holding

Not inc. profit

Inc. Profit but not rent

Inc. Profit and rent

Not inc. Profit

Inc. Profit but nor rent

Inc. Profit and rent

Not inc. Profit

Inc. Profit but not rent

Inc. Profit and rent


++100 ha










20-100 ha








4d 990


-20 ha











+100 ha










20-100 ha










-20 ha










Animal traction

+100 ha










20-100 ha










-20 ha










The results are not perfect.3 but they still reveal that: no type of holding, however mechanized and of whatever size, achieves, given the prices set by the state, a capitalist-type profitability (including land rent and 'normal' profit margin). Only some large holdings are able to extract a profit margin without however managing to secure the ground rent. The small and medium-sized farms fail to cover the production costs narrowly defined (except for the mechanized medium-sized holdings specializing in producing hard wheat), which means that the farmers and their family are earning less than the minimum guaranteed agricultural wage (SMAG).

Dairy livestock prices: As with cereals, the producer price of milk, fixed by the STIL, saw only 5 increases in 18 years. It rose from 48 millimes per litre in 1961 to 51 in 1966, 54 millimes in 1967.65 in 1973, and stabilized at 90 millimes per litre between 1976 and 1979. Its 'real' price (compared to the general wholesale, and manufactured goods price indices) fell, in constant 1961 millimes, from 48 millimes in 1961 to 31-32 in 1979, a decline of almost 50%.

According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture4 in 1976 - a year in which the milk producer price had just been set at 90 millimes as against 65 millimes in 1975 - the cost price of milk (not including any profit margin) varied between 91.4 millimes for an integrated stock farm and 114.7 for a semi-integrated stock-farm5 whereas at the same time the stock farmer was getting only 82 to 84 millimes per litre of milk delivered to the Centrale Laitière (Dairy Centre) in Tunis (90 millimes less six or eight to cover transport costs and various taxes).

Faced with this situation, the technicians in the Ministry of Agriculture were already writing as early as 1974:

Given the official price of milk... milk production still remains marginal and the rate of profit zero. The only incomes currently being earned by some producers marketing their production at the official prices can only arise from payment for family labour or the use of buildings that have already been fully amortized.... This explains... the lack of enthusiasm or even disaffection on the part of some stock farmers and..., the ever-growing deficit in milk and dairy products.6

And more recently in the framework of the preparation of the Sixth Plan, the sub-commission's Report on prices and marketing stated:

This price rigidity has had negative repercussions not only on milk production but also on the development of the sector since there has been a total abandonment of dairy farming... This is all the more serious because our imports of dairy products have reached unacceptable levels, placing a heavy burden on our balance of trade.7

Beef and veal: Although officially approved, the producer price for beef and veal has not been reduced; in relation to the general wholesale or the manufactured goods price indices it has even undergone some upgrading. Between 1965 and 1979, the price of one kilogram of cattle on the hoof saw a nominal increase of 167 % (rising from 221 millimes to 564 millimes) whereas over the same period the general wholesale price index rose by only 11 % and the manufactured goods price index by 91%.

But this rise in prices does not indicate an improved situation for stock farmers- far from it, for there has been a dramatic change in the structures of production of both cattle and sheep farming. Whereas until recently, the bulk of cattle fed free, getting most of their food intake from natural vegetation - meadows' pastures- stock farmers are more and more constrained, as a result of the reduction of meadows and pasture and the increase in the number of cattle, to turn to the market to purchase necessary feed for their herds.8 This led an official of a beef and veal development project in northern Tunisia to state that:

It is currently asserted that intensification of production must be accompanied by a reduction of unit production costs: this assertion is false since it is obvious that a bull fattened along the roadside costs less than a bullock fed rationally in a purpose-built unit. In fact, it is well known that producer prices are higher in countries where stock farming is most intensive.9

Moreover, Ministry of Agriculture studies show that cattle raising is not a rewarding activity. A note from the Office de l'Elevage et des Pâturages reads:

In order to estimate the production cost of a kilogram of fattened bullock meat, the various studies allow us to suggest a cost price of 0.476 millimes per kg of meat. The sale price for a profit margin of 10% would be 0.524 per kg. However, given the dues paid to middlemen, the Tunis market price ought to be about 0.575 D per kg live weight.10

But in that year (1976), the wholesale price of 0.516 was maintained until May 1979, despite the not insignificant rise in production costs.

Sheepmeat: Like cattle meat, producer prices for sheepmeat have risen faster than the general wholesale and the manufactured goods price indices without this rise reflecting any improvement in sheep farmers' situation. The change in the structure of production explains this fact since during 1976 the wholesale price was 691 millimes per kg whereas the cost price (not including profit margin and transport costs) varied according to the type of farming between 583 millimes and 791 millimes.

Olive oil: The regulations governing the marketing of olive oil were reformed in November 1967. From that date, the collection and export of all olive oils on the local market were entrusted to the Union Centrale des Coopératives Oléicoles (Central Union of Oil-growing Cooperatives). Armed with this monopoly, the UCCO (which subsequently became the Office de l'Huile (Oil Bureau)) was now the sole authorized purchaser of olive oil from the producers on the basis of a 'season price' fixed in advance. Between 1967 and 1979, the producer price rose from 45 millimes per kg of oil olives to 83 millimes, a nominal increase of 84%, whereas between these two dates, the general wholesale price index recorded an increase of 95%.

A Ministry of Agriculture survey on the production costs of oil olives during the 1976-77 season11 on a sample of 363 farms reveals that the cost price of this product is much higher than producer prices.

On the basis of a cost including expenses for olive trees in production, young olive trees and the site value of the land (ground rent) but excluding both the financial expenses arising from loans incurred and a profit margin, the results reached by the survey were: expenses for olive trees in production, 36.8 million dinars: expenses for young olive trees. 9.5 million: for a total of 46.3 million dinars for a total production of 450.000 metric tons of olives, which represents an average cost of 109.2 D per metric ton. If a gross profit margin is taken into account (including financial expenses) comparable to that of the nonagricultural sectors, a minimum of 15%, the producer price for a metric ton of olives should be: 102.9 D x 1.15 = 118.3 D. That same year, however' oil-growers received only 66 D per metric ton.

In total, state policy towards farmers in the non-irrigated sector consisted in subjecting them to a brutal extortion of surplus labour, with the prices set only rarely covering production costs: not only are profit and rent not allowed for but the labour of the peasant and his family is paid below the SMAG. In this context. land ownership plays no more than an ideological role. It contributes to tying the peasant to his land and making him live a fiction, that of having the rent, which is in fact taken from him by urban capital. Deprived of rent and even of reward for his investments, the peasant is reduced to a role of underpaid home worker.

And the overall volume of the amount extorted from him by urban capital reaches immense proportions.

Amount extorted from agriculture: In order to estimate the amount extorted from agriculture, the year 1975 will be taken as a benchmark. Production costs - as determined by the UNA - will be compared to producer prices. Taking account of the UNA's production costs has the following advantages: 1) without exception, they all refer to a single year (1975) whereas the Ministry of Agriculture's costs refer to 1975 for cereals, to 1977 for olives and to 1976 for livestock: 2) for each product they provide a single cost whereas the Ministry of Agriculture provides multiple costs (four for milk, six to nine for cereals, four for sheepmeat): 3) they include the farmer's remuneration (profit) whereas the Ministry's costs do not take it into account.

It should also be stressed that, while the costs determined by the UNA generally appear to be higher than the Ministry of Agriculture's, this is essentially because they include profit and financial expenses whereas the Ministry does not. The production norms, quantity and unit price of inputs scarcely vary from one source to the other.12

Table 9.2 shows the production cost in dinars per metric ton of products for 1975, the production prices observed that year and the volume of the amount extorted per metric ton.

Table 9.2

Production costs and producer prices, by agricultural product (1975)


Production costs (dinars per mt)

Production price (dinars per mt)

Amount extorted(dinars per mt)

Hard wheat




Soft wheat








Oil olives




Beef and veal












Taking account of total production for each of these commodities in 1975, the total amount extracted from agriculture that emerges, in 1975, is 54.815 thousand dinars. In the same year: agricultural production reached 340.7 million dinars and the value of the amount extorted to 194.1 million dinars: gross fixed capital formation reached 467 million dinars, amortizations 98.3 million dinars (21% of CCF) and net capital formation 368.7 million dinars. Gross fixed capital formation in agriculture reached 51.3 million dinars, which, assuming an amortization rate of 21.3%, gives a net capital formation of 40.5 million dinars, while in the manufacturing industry it reached 83.3 million dinars, which, assuming an amortization rate of 21.3% gives a net capital formation of 65.8 million dinars. In public utilities (education and training, public utilities, health and urban water supply) gross fixed capital formation reached 45.8 million dinars, which, assuming an amortization rate of 21.3%, gives a net capital formation of 36.2 million dinars.

With reference to these figures, the amount extracted from agriculture represents: 16.1% of total agricultural production and 28.2% of the value of cereal, stock farming and oil olives production: 14.9% of the country's total net investment: l 135,3% of net agricultural investment: 83.3% of net investment in manufacturing industries: 151,4% of net investment in public utilities. That gives an order of magnitude of the transfer of value that Tunisian agriculture bears each year.

Holdings in the irrigated sector state policy

State policy towards the 50.000 farmers in the irrigated sector has been quite different from that pursued in the non-irrigated sector. Not only have prices of fruits and vegetables risen continuously, but some 20.000 current farmers are. Owing to state investments in irrigation, enjoying an often considerable increase in land values and a water supply at prices at least a quarter of their costs

Rise in fruit and vegetable prices: Unlike other products whose prices have been fixed officially, the products of the irrigated sector (fruit and vegetables essentially) have been subject to a 'free prices' regime. And, unlike cereals, livestock products and oil olives, their prices have undergone marked increases higher even than those recorded for other non-agricultural products.

Over 14 years (196513 to 1980) the fruit price index was above the general wholesale and the manufactured goods price indices and, compared to the base year 1965, fruit prices rose 3.08 times whereas those of manufactured goods and other products rise by a factor of two.

Prices of market garden crops have undergone a generally similar movement: between 1965 and 1979, they went up 2.44 times, but during the four years 1966.1968,1971 and 1972, their level was below that of the prices of other products, essentially due to large harvests.

Unlike the products of the non-irrigated sector, comparison of production costs and producer prices of fruit and vegetables shows that market gardening crops and fruit represent a rewarding activity in general, although from year to year, the prices of this or that product may collapse, either from the effect of a relative 'over-production' I especially for tomatoes and pimentos) or from the effect of massive imports (this is sometimes the case with potatoes and winter fruits).

A comparison of the costs14 and prices of the 13 principal fruit and vegetables (which represent three-quarters of the total production of these products) shows that while for potatoes, pimentos, oranges and apples the production cost is higher than prices, for onions, melons, watermelons, clementines, lemons, pears, peaches and grapes, the producer price is higher than the production cost and the profit margin varies between 6% and 167%.

Weighting the prices and costs by the quantities produced in 1975 shows that total producer prices were 55.2X0.200 dinars, total production costs 47.493.800 dinars, thus producing a profit of 7.786.400 dinars. The average profit margin after realization of the rent - for this was included in the production cost - is 16.4%.

Apart from 'freedom of pricing' which has enabled farmers in the irrigated sector to avoid suffering a transfer of surplus labour, the state has enabled some 20.000 of them to enjoy increased land values, sometimes on a very considerable scale. Of the 227.600 irrigable hectares in Tunisian agriculture in 1982. 151.400 were in private perimeters (meaning that their layout and equipment for irrigation were carried out by the private farmers themselves, essentially through the construction of surface wells) and 76.200 in public perimeters (laid out and supplied by the state from dams, pumping stations and deep wells).

While the private perimeters merit no particular attention in so far as the increased land values acquired by the plots reflect the investments made by the producers themselves, it is quite different with the public perimeters where state expenditure is estimated at 2.400 dinars per hectare.14 Although the laws governing the public perimeters]' suggest a contribution to investment costs of 80 to 600 dinars only per hectare, depending on the perimeters and the agronomic properties of soils (five to 25% of actual investments), they have not always been enforced.

Today, some 20.000 farmers thus benefit from increased land values gained from public expenditure at no cost to themselves. While some two-thirds of them have plots smaller than five hectares, 6.000 have holdings larger than five hectares; in several cases, the holdings even exceed 50 hectares. A ceiling on holdings has been proposed by legislation but it has still not been applied: thus a study of the lower Medjerda valley in 1977 shows that of 1.288 holdings belonging to private persons, and covering 8.922 hectares. 25 farmers (2%) held 2.250 hectares (24% of the total area) or an average of 86 hectares whereas the ceiling fixed by the law is 50 hectares.16

Of all agricultural sectors only the irrigated sub-sector has been encouraged by the state: between 1962 and 1971, investments in agricultural irrigation amounted to 80.6 million dinars (29% of agricultural investment), between 1972 and 1976. 23%, and between 1977 and 1981.254 million dinars or 43.6% were also devoted to it although the existing potential was greatly underutilized.

Table 9.3

Utilization of land in state irrigation schemes




Irrigable area (ha)




Irrigated area (ha)*




Area cultivated (ha)+




Utilization rate(%)




Intensification rate (%)




* Irrigated area is the physical area irrigated.

+ Area cultivated includes both the physical area irrigated and the area cultivated more than once during the year.

Source: Enquête périmètres irrigués. Campagne 1981-1982. Ministry of Agriculture. Tunis January 1983.

Thus then, the intensification rate (which measures the ratio between the area cultivated and the irrigable area supplied) is only 56% whereas the accepted norm is nearly 130%. This manifest underutilization of existing potential is explained in part by the water shortages that sometimes occur at some dams but the major obstacle is represented by the structure of landownership Surveys have revealed the existence of an inversely proportional correlation between the size of holdings and their intensification rates. In the public perimeter in the lower Medjerda valley where the average size of holdings is 10-11 hectares, the irrigation rate is only 63%, whereas in that of Nebhana where the average size is 3.5 hectares, the intensity of irrigation is above 100%. This correlation is also confirmed within a single perimeter.

In the lower Medjerda valley the intensification rate up to 20 hectares is over 50% but above 20 hectares it is below 50%, reaching only 30% for holdings over 50 hectares.17

The situation in the private perimeters is generally better during the last three years the intensification rate has varied between 85% and 90% (as against 56% to 59% for the public perimeters) so that on average for private perimeters and public perimeters combined the intensification rate is 78%. Given the capacity available today irrigated perimeters' production could rise by 50%. Without even questioning the current structure of landownership (although legislation provides for that) by simply asking farmers, especially those owning over 20 hectares, to develop their land fully either by themselves or by hiring labour, the country's total agricultural production could be increased by 10 to 15% - even without any further irrigation capacity.18

In addition, greater respect for the purpose of the various perimeters would make it possible to reduce food dependence for livestock and sugar products considerably. While market gardening and tree crops take up a lot of space (122.000 hectares), forage crops and industrial crops (sugar beet) (23.000 hectares) are neglected, although there is the most urgent need for these.19

Why, of all the sectors that make up agriculture, is the irrigated sub-sector virtually the only one to en joy remunerative prices (including in addition to ground rent a rate of profit approximating that of other non-agricultural branches) and various inducements from the state?

The hypothesis that we adopt at this stage is that unlike other agricultural sub-sectors the state is here deprived of the essential weapon that enables it to extract a surplus What enables the state to set prices at a low level is the possibility of importing similar products at a price lower than the domestic price: this is the case with cereals, meat, milk and dairy products as well as olive oil which can he replaced by imported soya oil.

But, this recourse to imports that enables the state to exert pressure on prices is hardly possible for fruit and vegetables for, unlike other agricultural commodities, they are perishable, and between the place of production abroad and the final Tunisian consumer, the risks of damage are very high: generally those produced in Tunisia are priced much lower than in other countries: and transport, packing and processing costs arc often higher than the market value of those commodities

The state therefore has very little margin for manoeuvre in this area: in the framework of capitalist accumulation, it must ensure that these staples are produced at prices that are not too high since they represent a not insignificant proportion of the cost of reproduction of the labour force.

The only effective means available to the state is to increase production rapidly so as to avoid demand exceeding supply and the creation of a shortage (of which producers would take advantage to extract a superprofit) and - why not? - to bring about a situation of relative ever-production that would make possible a reduction in prices.

The tool it must use is irrigation since that alone can make possible a rapid intensification of production that would affect prices.

Consequences of state agricultural policy

Except for the irrigated sub-sector, with fewer than 50,000 farmers, state policy has consisted for over two decades in extorting a growing surplus at the expense of the vast majority of the Tunisian peasantry, so that:

a) the peasantry has been kept in a sometimes tragic situation of poverty where it is unable to set aside the necessary savings to preserve and improve its means of production. The 1980 national household budget survey reveals that almost half the rural population is living below the poverty line and that, out of a population of 1.865.000 persons living below this threshold (set in 1962 at 50 dinars per head per annum, equal to 120 dinars at 1980 prices). 1.473.000 live in the rural areas and 392.000 in the urban areas. This means that four out of five 'poor people' live in the rural areas whereas the rural population represents less than half the country's total population. How then can it produce the incomes necessary for productive investments?

b) capital, 'the bearer of capitalist rationality', has invested less and less in agriculture as a result of the fact that the prices of essential agricultural products barely cover production costs.

The consequences of this situation are a significant falling-off of investment, a virtual stagnation of production, an increased food deficit and a retention of small and medium-sized family holdings.

Falling-off investment, stagnation of agricultural production and food dependence

Whereas the rural population represented almost 45%, of the total population during the 1960s and 35% in 1980, agricultural investments represented barely 20% of the total in the 1960s and 12% between 1970 and 1979. As a result, agricultural production virtually stagnated: the balance sheet drawn up on the occasion of the preparation of the Sixth Plan for 1982-86 reveals that agricultural value added rose in constant prices by only 1% per annum between 1962 and 1971 and 2% per annum between 1972 and 1981.

Since homogeneous statistical series for the last two decades do not exist, the movement of the production of each of the leading commodities can be reliably measured only for the period 1971 to 1981. During that period, the production of commodities, whose prices are officially fixed, virtually stagnated: that of cereals rose at an average rate of 1.1% per annum, of meat (not including poultry) at an annual rate of 1.7% and that of oil olives even declined by I. I % per annum, while production of vegetables experienced an annual growth rate of 5.3% and that of fruit 6.2%.

During the 1960s, the growth of production was even slower since agricultural value added grew half as slowly as during the 1970s. Consequently, from being an agricultural surplus country. Tunisia was transformed increasingly into a deficit country: immediately after independence, the country had a rate of cover of its food imports by its exports of over 200% until 1960: after 1961, and until 1966, this rate of cover fell to an average of 150%: after 1967, the deficit became structural, the rate of cover, except for 1972, was around 80% but after 1977, the situation became serious since less than half of Tunisia's food imports were covered by its agricultural exports.20 During 1980, 1981 and 1982, the rate of cover fell below one-third and the deficit rose to 141 million dinars per annum.

Given that during these three years the value of agricultural production reached an average of 642 million dinars, it emerges that the food deficit equalled 22% of national production by value. But what must still be pointed out is that this food dependence forms an essential part of the country's financial dependence since the deficit in question represents no less than 60.5% of the deficit in the current account balance and 66.7% of that in the balance of payments.

Apart from the amounts, what is particularly serious is that the dependence relates to strategic food staples: today, national production covers only 55% of cereal needs. 40% of dairy product needs and a tiny part of those for sugar. Moreover, these three leading products alone represent over two-thirds of total food imports and nine-tenths of our deficit.

Retention of small and medium-sized family holdings

After two decades of extracting a growing surplus from the essential products of agriculture, small and medium-sized holdings based on family labour have been consolidated. This is a major trend, due not to some imaginary 'resistance' by a pre-capitalist sector to the development of the capitalist mode of production, but to state policy. In fact, if it is happening, it is because profit-seeking capital has hardly been attracted to a sector where the fixed prices cover only the strict production costs and because it is this peasant agriculture-subject to fixed prices and unable to avoid production even where these prices are particularly low- which best facilitates this transfer of value to the benefit of non-agricultural capital. For unlike capital, the peasant and his family are obsessed neither with realizing a profit nor with realizing a rent but quite simply with surviving.

Stabilizing agrarian structures and keeping wage labour in narrow limits are typical features of the evolution of the agricultural world: the principal contradiction is not between the agrarian bourgeoisie and the agricultural proletariat (or poor peasantry) but between the vast majority of the peasantry and 'urban' capital (through the continual decline of the prices of essential agricultural commodities and the reduction of the farmer to the status of a home worker on sub-minimum wages). On top of this formal subjection of the peasantry to urban capital, the agricultural world is also witnessing the exploitation of a proletariat and semi-proletarian peasantry by big capitalist farmers and the development of new forms of surplus extortion through the ownership of mechanical means of production (tractors, harvesters and so on).

Stabilization of agrarian structures: Thanks to the survey of agricultural structures conducted in 1961-62 and the series of basic agricultural surveys that have been carried out annually since 1976, it is possible to analyse the broad changes occurring in the agricultural world.

Tunisian agriculture is still characterized by a very unequal distribution of land: between 1961-62 and 1980 the number of farmers has increased only slightly (from 326.000 to 355.000, at most 9%): small and medium-sized holdings neither in number nor area (less than 20 ha and 20-100 ha) have declined, but their numbers rather increased (320.700 in 1961-62 to 350.600 in 1980, from 98.4% to 98.8%) and the area they occupy also increased from 3.572.000 ha to 3.779,000 ha (74.1% to 81.5%): large holdings (over 100 ha) seem to have lost some importance both absolutely and relatively: the area they cover fell from 1.250.000 ha (1961-62) to 858.000 ha (1980) (from 26% to 18.5%) and the number of farmers (5.100 in 1961-62. 4.400 in 1980) fell both relatively and absolutely.21

On average, the size of large holdings fell from 245 ha to 195 ha while that of small and medium-sized ones stabilized (at 6.2-6.3 ha22 for the former and 36-37 ha for the latter).

Relations of production: Within agriculture these relations have become more complex; wage labour does not seem to have increased much, indeed rather the reverse. What strikes one first is an absence of the development of capitalist relations of production involving an ever-rising number of capitalist farmers (or bigger capitalists) and wage labourers with only their labour power to sell. But a new dynamic has made its appearance: it is no longer crystallized through ownership of land but through mechanical means of production: tractors, harvester threshers, harvester binders for example.

The fact is that small producers have found themselves more and more driven to deal with the continuous decline in the prices of their products by turning to modern means of production. Lacking the means to acquire them, they are obliged to hire them. And precisely behind this 'hiring' relationship lurks a new relationship of exploitation, from which the owners of these means of production extort a large part of the surplus produced by the peasantry.

Comparison of the 1961-62 survey with those carried out in recent years also reveals a stabilization or even a diminution of the number of wage-earners in agriculture.

Thus, during the four years 1977-80, the average number of permanent wage-earners was 54.200 as against 72.600 in 1961-62, although there was an increase in the size of the permanent labour force (546,300 in l961-62.593.200 over 1977-80): more and more, it seems that agriculture relies on family labour (473.700 in 1961-62. 539.000 over 1977-80) which now represents nine-tenths of the permanent members of the labour force.23

Clearly the consolidation of independent family agriculture and the failure of wage-earning to become the norm. Recognition of the fact that this 'inevitable creation of a minority of capitalist agricultural holdings based on wage labour' and the concomitant polarization between proletarianized peasants and a rural bourgeoisie are just not happening is unavoidable. But because their land does not support them, many farmers have to sell their labour power to obtain some extra income. Wage labour is thus not a separate status: the majority of the peasantry has recourse to it more or less partially. And today almost two-fifths of smallholders devote most of their time to outside work, usually as wage labourers.

It must, however, be noted that this 'semi-proletarian' character of the peasantry seems to have diminished since 1961, as the proportion of small peasants devoting more than six months to activities other than their farms fell from 53.7% to 38.1% in 1980. The number of big absentee farmers seems to have diminished too.24

In 1961-62, only 18.5% of farmers had recourse to mechanical means of production: today, almost two-thirds of them do.

The users of these means of production are not only the big farmers: the proportion of smallholders using them rose from 13.2% in 1961-62 to 52.2% in 1980 and of medium-sized farmers from 38.2% to 77.7%: in the space of two decades the number of smallholders using mechanical equipment rose by a factor of 4.5 and that of medium-sized farmers by 2 to 2.5.25

The vast majority of these users, however, is made up of people who hire the equipment. While in 1961-62, there were 9.560 owners of such equipment and 44.290 hirers (or one owner for 4.5 hirers), today there are 11.700 owners and 187,800 hirers, or one owner for 16 hirers.26 And behind this 'hiring' lie concealed relations of production through which the owners extract part of the surplus peasant labour and pass on to the 'hirers' the price loss that they themselves suffer (when they are farming at the same time) as farmers

Studying the village communities in the region of lake Alaotra (Madagascar) where the state has carried out an 'agrarian reform' (redistributing land to small and landless peasants and banning dealings in land). J. Charmes27 shows that because the problem of providing small peasants with equipment has not been solved, they have been unable to liberate themselves from their former masters, 'who soon realized that the monopoly of capital had become the new channel through which the old relations of domination were to be perpetuated'.

The progressive disintegration of ground rent led to some redistribution of clienteles, i.e of the labour force creamed off by those with power: in particular, a rising class (the class of owners of mechanical equipment) has made its appearance it has been able to carve out a niche for itself at the expense of the former landowners who have not always known how to grasp the opportunity of adapting themselves as the situation required

Closer to home, in Tunisia. Khalil Zamiti studying the village of El Menara (55 km south-west of the city of Kairouan), highlights this extraordinary form of surplus labour constituted by the 'hiring' of agricultural equipment by the owners at the expense of the peasantry.

At a rate of 1.70 dinars per hour for ploughing and 2 to 6 dinars for towing the water tanks intended for irrigating the olive groves, each tractor hired for 300 days a year, within the cheikhat, brings in for its owner a net profit of 10 dinars a day, after deducting the costs of repaying the price of the machine and the costs of fuel, maintenance, etc. Repayment of the supplier of the tractor is completed by the end of the third year

Far more than owning and farming the land, owning modern agricultural equipment is tending to become the essential form of surplus extraction within the agricultural sector.

The monopoly of land is tending less and less (or has even ceased aItogether) to be realized economically. It is more and more in the monopoly of machine capital that the extraction of surplus labour and the new contradictions in the agricultural world are crystallizing.

To summarize. Tunisian peasants are suffering a double extraction of surplus labour. 'personal' extraction by the owners of machinery and 'impersonal' extraction by extra-agricultural capital through the under-pricing of their products whose prices do not even remunerate their labour power at the minimum agricultural wage.

Current situation and prospects

Such was the situation in agriculture broadly speaking up to 1979. Since then, new trends seem to be appearing. These are shown in the unprecedented revaluation of commodity prices previously held down and even the freeing of some of them as well as in the enhanced role that the Sixth Plan for 1982-86 gave agriculture in the country's economic activity and the institutional and financial means now made available to farmers.

This turnaround, it must be stressed, was not dictated either by pressure from the peasantry or by any change in the composition of the ruling bloc. The peasantry, atomized and with no real power to make demands, does not strictly speaking represent a social force. Behind the new agricultural policy- or what is just its early beginnings - there are in fact the unprecedented upsurge of the world prices of agricultural products, the level of which has, in some cases since 1979-80, risen above domestic prices, and the dramatic deficit in the food balance. This last is fundamental since government's attitude towards the rural areas depends on how it moves any collapse in world prices threatens to lead to a reconsideration of the policy of encouraging agriculture embarked on over the last two or three years while a rise in them may well lead to a consolidation and reinforcement of this turnaround.

The new agricultural policy and its content

Until 1979, as we have seen, the prices of the main agricultural products (cereals, beef and veal and sheepmeat, milk, olive oil) were set by the state and, from the early 1960s, were continually undervalued. And, although employing two-fifths of the total economically active population, agriculture was attracting a smaller and smaller share of investments: one-fifth during the 1960s and one-eighth during the 1970s. After 1979-80, all this changed.

Revaluation of the prices of agricultural commodities: Whereas they had remained virtually stagnant from 1975 to 1979, the nominal prices of the main agricultural commodities- except for fruit and vegetables- were substantially increased after 1980.

Table 9.4

Changes in cereal and livestock producer prices: (in current dinars)


Annual increase 1975-79






Annual increase 1979-83

Hard wheat (quintals)








Soft wheat (quintals)








Barley (quintals)








Milk (litres)
















Beef and veal (Kg)








* The price of sheepmeat was freed in 1979. The calculations given here relate to the period 1975-78 on the one hand and the period 1978-82 on the other.

Cereal prices experienced an average annual increase of 14%, milk prices over 22%. After an annual increase of 16,0% the prices of beef and veal were freed at the end of 1982 and those of sheepmeat were freed at the end of 1979: since then they have risen dramatically.

In recent years, inflation has been higher than in the past: prices of industrial products have increased some 10% per annum and prices of the principal agricultural inputs have also increased substantially. Nevertheless, it emerges that farmers' incomes have improved considerably.

For cereals, on the basis of an identical cost structure and the same yield per hectare by type of holding, calculations show a significant rise between 1979 and 1982-83.28 whether including remuneration of the labour force (treated as income in so far as, for the most part, this labour force is that of the farmer and his family) or treating it simply as a cost.

Table 9.5

Movements in real income (in constant dinars) per hectare of cereal land
(1979= 100)

Cereal/farming type

Index of net income

Index of net income and remuneration of labour







Hard wheat:






















Soft wheat:












































Dairy farming changed from being an activity that remunerated the work of the farmer and his family at a level even lower than the guaranteed minimum agricultural wage to one that is now a profitable activity. Finally, stock farming constitutes an increasingly significant source of income, especially since the freeing of prices in November 1982.

Table 9.6
Changes in real income from stock farming (in constant 1979 dinars)

Product/farming type

Net income

Net income + remuneration of labour




















Cattle meat:c

Integrated without ensilage





















a Income per cow per annum.

b In integrated stock farming, the farmer produces the grass and hay and purchases the concentrate, in non-integrated farming the farmer produces the grass, but purchases the hay and concentrate,

c Income per fattened bull calf

Growth of investment in agriculture: During the 1970s, agriculture attracted only 12.5% of total investment. But during the Sixth Plan. 1982-86, this proportion was to be increased to 17.3%: investments were set to rise from 543 million dinars between 1977 and 1981 to 1 420 million dinars between 1982 and 1986. The attention thus given to agriculture was something new: previous plans gave it only 12% to 14% of total investment. To achieve this target, new financial and institutional measures were proposed:

- financially, it was proposed that the state set aside 929 million dinars, 25% of its capital budget, excluding debt, for financing (as against 20% curing the previous plan) and mobilize 178 million dinars in external credits for this sector: it was also proposed that the volume of credits granted by the banking system and the FOSDA should reach 487 million dinars as against only 173 million dinars during the Fifth Plan. ]977-81.

- in terms of institutions, a bank specializing in agricultural financing (Banque Nationale de Développement Agricole National Agricultural Development Bank]) with capital of 40 million dinars was to be created and an Agence de Promotion des Investissements Agricoles [Agricultural Investment Promotion Agency] responsible for identifying projects and aiding agricultural promoters has already started operations.

Determinants of the new agricultural policy

The change in the political orientation towards agriculture is due essentially to the upsurge of world prices for agricultural food products. Until 1978, these were generally lower than domestic prices: including transport costs imported cereals and livestock products were generally 20% cheaper than local products. But, after 1979, the situation was reversed, especially as regards the basic commodity: cereals.

World cereal prices which, despite sometimes large swings, had been slowly increasing up to 1978, began to rise sharply in 1979: by 1981 they were twice the 1978 level. The food deficit, which remained contained within a limit of 50-60 million dinars at most, reached 85 million dinars in 1979, 144 million dinars in 1980 and over 173 million dinars in 1981.

Even from capital's viewpoint, the situation had become alarming and despite the raising of domestic agricultural prices international prices remained very high: encouragement of local agricultural production became vital to avoid a sharp rise in wage costs.


The analysis made above reveals how far policy towards the rural areas is dependent on the international situation. Significant measures have, it is true, been taken for agriculture but it is by no means assured that they will be continued and pushed farther. Today, world prices have fallen29 and the domestic economic situation is very tense: the external vice which lay behind the turnaround in agricultural policy is loosening and the pressure of urban actors -workers and the extra-agricultural bourgeoisie - for a larger share of the national income seems to be too strong to allow a real consolidation of the policy of encouraging agriculture.

The institutional and financial reforms contemplated for two or three years are being undertaken slowly and, in some cases,30 farmers' incomes are falling. But even if we suppose that a policy of encouraging agriculture is pursued, the essential question which then arises is: for the benefit of which farmers?

So far, paradoxically, the marginalization of this sector has contributed to maintaining a large peasant population: but will not raising the prices of agricultural commodities and the various measures to encourage agricultural investment lead to an unprecedented deployment of capital - as a social relation -in agriculture and the eviction of the peasantry?

The prospects are not yet clearly defined but the orientations that are gradually becoming clear seem to indicate that the path entered on is not a peasant, but a capitalist path: the volume of credit set aside for small and medium-sized farmers, who represent nine-tenths of the total and account for 80% of production, represents only one-third of the total, and the chief purpose of the established institutions (Banque Agricole and Agence de Promotion des Investissements Agricoles) is to support large farmers.

If this orientation is confirmed, the country's food security might be more or less assured but the problems that will then appear (migration from the rural areas and rapid urban growth) may prove to be uncontrollable.


1. At least until 1979, as since 1980, the price of cereals, milk and olive oil has been increased while the price of beef and veal and sheepmeat was freed (in 1979 for sheepmeat, in 1982 for beef and veal).

2 Study entitled: 'Prix à la production des céréales et du fourrage dans la Tunisie du Nord', by A. Mabrouk, for Bureau du Plan et du Développement Agricole. Tunis 1975.

3). A 1977 survey of cereal production costs by the Agricultural Statistics Division of the Ministry of Agriculture confirms these conclusions. It shows that the cost of production of a quintal of hard wheat (excluding the profit margin) is seven dinars in the north of Tunisia and 11.3 in the centre and south whereas the net price received by the farmer is 6.5 dinars and the cost of production of a quintal of barley (excluding the profit margin) is eight dinars in the north and 6.6 dinars in the centre and south whereas the net price received by the producer is 4.5 dinars. For soft wheat, the sample survey turned out not to he representative.

4. Coût de production des produits de l'élevage. Office de l'Elevage et des Pâturages, Tunis 1976.

5. In integrated livestock farming, the farmer provides the grass and hay but purchases the concentrate, and the level of production is such that one cow produces 3.01)0 kg per milking: in semi-integrated livestock farming, the farmer provides the grass but purchases the hay and concentrate and the level of production is 2.500 kg per milking.

6. 'Note relative aux problèmes posés au secteur de 1a production laitière'. Office de l'Elevage et des Pâturages, pp. 2-3. Tunis 1974.

7. Ibid.. p. 47.

8. The farmer is increasingly forced to turn to the market because holdings smaller than 10 hectares, which have most of the cattle, cover only 14% of forage areas whereas holdings larger than 50 hectares, which cover only 7% to 9% of the national herd, cover 56% of the forage areas.

9. FAO-SIDA Project. 'Développement de la production de viande bovine dans le Nord de la Tunisie'. Tunis 1976.

10. Coût de production de l'élevage, op, cit.

11. 'Enquête sur les coûts de production des olives à huile pour la campagne 1976-1977'. Ministère de l'Agriculture, Tunis, November 1980.

12. UNA costs and ministry costs compared (adding to these latter a gross margin of 15%) shows that there are virtually no gaps between the two sources:


UNA costs 1975

Ministry of Agriculture

(dinars per metric ton)

Benchmark year


Hard wheat



62.1 to 118.4*

Soft wheat



60.9 to 106.2*




59.2 to 114.7*

Oil olives




Cattle meat



587.0 to 642.0




670.0 to 910.0




105.0 to 132.0

* Excluding non-mechanized holdings.

The only product whose UNA cost is higher than the Ministry of Agriculture's is oil olive: 119 dinars per metric ton in 1975 as against 118.3 dinars per metric ton in 1977. But this, negligible, gap is more than made up for by the difference in producer prices: in 1975, oil growers were paid by the ONH on the basis of 527 dinars per metric ton, whereas in 1977, they received only 400 dinars (83 millimes per kg of oil olives in 1975 as against 60 millimes in 1977).

13. Unlike other products for which the statistical price series goes hack to 1961 and even earlier the fruit and vegetables price statistical series only goes back to 1965.

14. See 'Rapport préparatoire au VIe Plan 1982-1986: Périmètres irrigués'. Tunisia. Ministère de l'Agriculture´. April 1981. A study carried out by the Centre National des Etudes Agricoles estimates that the real cost of infrastructure within the irrigated public perimeter at 3.500 dinars per hectare for the new Testour Mendjez perimeter. This cost rises to 4.600 dinars if the value of the dam and delivery canal are included.

15. The first law dating from 11 June 1958 concerns the Basse Vallée Medjerda perimeter, the second, dating from 27 May 1963 and amended by the law of 16 February 1971 relates to the other perimeters.

16. See the study by M. Fekih. 'Structures agraires dans la Basse Vallée de la Medjerda'. OMVVM. Tunis 1977.

17. Note relative aux problèmes de l'irrigation dans les périmètres publics irrigués de l'OMVVM, PDI, p. 2.

18. Since the production of the irrigated sub-sector today represents some 25% of total agricultural production.

19. Source for figures: Vle Plan de Développement Économique et Sociale 1982-86, p. 100. Cf, the food deficit in industrial crops and cattle products (meat and milk).

20. For more details see the appendix: food exports and imports.

21. See Structures des exploitation agricoles, Ministère de l'Agriculture, Tunis. December 1981.

22. 'Pressure on the land' would he less pronounced than might appear since in the 0-5 ha hand there are almost 36.000 irrigated holdings.

23. See Structures des exploitation agricoles, op, cit.. p. 62 (for 1961-62), pp. 17ff (for 1977-80).

24. Ibid.. p. 18 (for 1961-62), p. 24 (for 1980).

25. Ibid.. p. 73 (for 1961-62), p. 32 (for 1980).

26. Ibid.

27. Jacques Charmes, 'Evolution des modes de faire valoir et transformation des structures sociales dans la région de l'Anony (Nord Ouest du Lac Alaotra)'. Cahiers ORSTOM. XII, 3. 1975.

28. For 1983, we have used an increase in the official cost of living index of 10%, although we know that during the first quarter of 1983, the index remained below the level reached at the end of 1982.

29. The prices of hard wheat moved from 12.690 in 1981 to 10.612 in 1982, of soft wheat from 9.956 dinars to 9.522 dinars and of barley from 9 ()51 to 7.800 dinars.

30. Thus the price of feed for milch cows was increased by 50% on 22 November 1982 without the milk producer prices being raised. The result was a collapse in farmers' incomes.