Cash Crop Essay

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Cash crops typically refer to food and nonfood plants whose yields are sold. Also called export or commercial crops, cash crops are intended to produce income, whereas subsistence crops are grown to feed one’s family and/or livestock, as well as to use in barter. Cash crops are usually sold as primary commodities. Value-added processing may occur within the country of production, and/or the crops may be transported elsewhere for further processing and packaging.

Examples of cash crops include, but are by no means limited to: Bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, cut flowers, grains, sugarcane, tea, tobacco, and tomatoes. Cash crops can be grown in tandem with subsistence foods and one another, but more frequently they are produced in monocultures dependent on capital-intensive inputs of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and/or pesticides. Also, cash crop production requires water supplies (irrigation systems and/or wells), transportation, human labor, harvesting equipment, and land. Some or all of these resources might be diverted from (and thus preclude or limit) other uses. Cash crop production, therefore, has significant environmental impacts.

Cash crops now dominate the agricultural sectors of so-called underdeveloped or third world countries, and with notable social and economic effect. By the latter half of the 19th century, household and village-level production in those regions became restructured within larger regional systems, colonial states, and world commodity markets. This forced integration of peasants and farm laborers into commodity and financial circuits controlled from overseas undermined traditional food security. In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis invokes a political ecology perspective to argue that it was “subsistence adversity (high taxes, chronic indebtedness, inadequate acreage, loss of subsidiary employment opportunities, enclosure of common resources, dissolution of patrimonial obligations), not entrepreneurial opportunity, that typically promoted the turn to cash crop cultivation.”

Money earned from cash crop production during good export years allowed wealthier landowners to pursue crop brokerage, lending at high rates, and investing in rental properties-some of which were acquired from their less successful neighbors. Marginal subsistence producers suffered, and many were forced into circumstances that led to marked declines in their conditions of production and terms of trade. By the late 19th century, millions of agriculturists had been integrated into the world markets, where prices for their commodities were prone to fluctuations based on global supplies and imperial politicking. Further, these agriculturists were made highly vulnerable during natural disasters, such as droughts or floods. As Esther Boserup argues, the emphasis on cash crop production during the colonial era reconfigured divisions of labor among smallholders. Regardless of a society’s patterns of labor in subsistence activities, cash crops and their attendant technologies tended to be introduced to men by men, restricting women’s roles in this new and increasingly important agricultural activity.

The post-WWII birth and expansion of the United Nations International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank provided additional channels for Western development efforts. Guided by modernization theory, IMF and World Bank assistance has promoted large-scale agriculture (cash crop production), industrial development, and further integration of poorer countries into global markets. Cash crop production reorients subsistence-based economies to export for foreign markets, allowing the state and its elites to acquire foreign revenue. When cash crop prices fall due to overproduction, local producers lose money-and possibly their land-while wealthier consumers get a bargain.

If producers follow the logic of economies of scale, cash crop production may then be increased to make up for the decrease in price. This may require better lands being devoted to cash crops, while staple foods are grown on lower quality lands and/or are imported. Environmental impacts of agribusinesses-and thus economies of scale related to cash crop production-include heavier demands on land that lead to deforestation to clear lands for cash crops, loss of biodiversity, decreased soil quality, erosion, increased chemical inputs, and/or pollution, among other problems.


  1. Esther Boserup, Women’s Role in Economic Development (Aldine, 1970);
  2. Deborah Barndt, Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002);
  3. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2000).

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