The term "agricultural treadmill" can be traced back to agricultural economist William Cochrane, who coined it in 1958. At its inception, it referred to a dynamic that forced farmers to continually adopt new technologies to stay afloat. The first new adopters would gain an advantage in the market by adopting the technology. More farmers would follow, but the gains the early adopters got would be lost. Eventually, the late adopters would be forced to adopt the technology too if they wanted to keep their farms.
This is oversimplifying and perhaps distorting the concept, but imagine a new technology that makes a farm more efficient. The first farms to adopt it might produce better quality products, or lower cost products. They can keep the profits and use them, or they can lower prices and outcompete other farmers. Eventually, once the majority have adopted the new technology, however, the new low price becomes standard. Late adopters must adopt the technology too unless they want to sell their crops at a loss.
The treadmill is harmful for both economic and environmental reasons. Economically, it creates a difficult to impossible situation for farmers. Environmentally, it pushes farmers toward more environmentally harmful practices. However, Ward (and apparently the literature) see the treadmill as a feature of structural conditions and not individual farmer choices:
"The treadmill can best be conceptualized as a set of structural conditions, which have been shaped by international political and economic processes and became embodied in agricultural and food policies across the advanced capitalist world. In turn, these conditions have played an important role in transforming how farmers ‘see the world’ and organize their production, such that the intensification of production through the application of science and technology has become a ‘logic’ of production at the farm level" (Ward 1993:349).
Roughly speaking, Ward sees Fordism and the corresponding productivist agriculture it engendered, facilitated by the "symbiosis" of the state, agro-industrial capital, and agricultural sciences, as creating the structural conditions for the agricultural treadmill. Ward calls these structural conditions "the macro treadmill." To discuss this, we need some definitions.
Fordism "is based on the expansion of domestic markets for mass-produced goods in advanced capitalist states, and requires the progressive adoption of mass consumption by the industrial working class" (Ward 1993:353). This is what happened in the mid-20th century in the U.S.
To make this happen, the U.S. (and Canada and Western Europe) adopted "productivist" agriculture. Citing Goodman and Redclift (1991), Ward explains that there were two main influences in shaping the agricultural system after World War II. First, in the Fordist period, agriculture needed to provide cheap food to an urban industrial workforce which would, in turn, enable higher proportions of household income to be spent on non-food consumption, and so further integrate the industrial working class in the market for mass-produced goods" (Ward 1993:354). This it did. You can see the stats for what percent of disposable income each nation spends on food. The U.S. is the lowest. Last I checked it was nine percent. It was much higher pre-World War II.
Second, accumulation occurred within food and agriculture itself (Ward 1993:354). Farmers don't just hand weed, plow with an ox team, and save seeds anymore. They buy machines and inputs from corporations. And the food they grow is often sold to a corporation. Some of it is sold as fresh fruits and vegetables, but a lot of it is processed, packaged, and branded. Therefore, corporations get rich on both ends. (Ward is still citing Goodman and Redclift here, but Kloppenburg's First the Seed is a great read about agriculture and capitalist accumulation.) Ward writes, "The pattern of accumulation, they argue, is shaped by the biological constraints of the agricultural production process and human food consumption requirements, but in the process of transforming agriculture, environmental problems have resulted" (Ward 1993:354).
In other words, the normal rules of capitalism, when applied to agriculture, run headlong into nature. A farm isn't a factory. It doesn't play by the same rules. Therefore, the way capitalism has developed in agriculture is shaped by nature, and it in turn led to environmental problems.
Continuing with Goodman and Redclift, two processes were at play in adapting the agri-food system to Fordism. First, capital needed to develop new markets for commodities and second, "the mutual interests of a scientific community and agro-industrial capital in adopting a high-technology model of agricultural production and development" (Ward 1993:354). Through these processes, the agricultural treadmill became system-wide.
The changes to the Fordist/Productivist regime came about beginning in the 1980s when states in North America and Europe started to halt or reduce the subsidies that had propped it up (Ward 1991:357). Simultaneously, many countries became more concerned over food quality and the environment (Ward 1991:357). This is where the shift began to Post-Productivist agriculture (or at least Ward says so - some other scholars question it):
"In the Post-Productivist era "The economic pressures now faced on farms arise directly from the consequences of the technology/policy model in the Fordist regime of accumulation. Accumulation has become concentrated in those sectors of the modern food system both upstream and downstream of the farm such that farmers’ economic position in the food system is being weakened. In turn, agriculture not only receives a shrinking share of total value-added in the food production process, but the nature of farming practice becomes increasingly determined by off-farm interests, either because of the power of input manufacturers to influence patterns of technological change (Munton et aI. 1990) or because food processors and retailers exert pressures through contract purchasing arrangements to determine food quality specifications" (Ward 1991:358).
I believe what he is saying there is that farmers were price takers on both ends (on buying inputs and selling commodities) which put a squeeze on them, and farmers are getting a decreasing "farm share" (the amount of each dollar spent on food that goes directly back to the farmer). He goes on to say:
"The combination in the 1970s of a production- oriented support policy without constraints on the quantity produced and low real interest rates encouraged high levels of debt-financed investment in agricultural land, machinery and buildings. However, by the mid-1980s, and following the EC’s attempts to curtail over-production, farmers who had followed this strategy of business growth became embroiled in a debt trap of rising real interests rates, collapsing land values and falling farm incomes" (Ward 1991:358).
In other words, there was the farm crisis of the 1980s, and a lot of farmers lost their farms. Those who remained often got larger, buying up the land of those who lost their farms. During the same period, the effects of environmental harm were catching up to everyone, and nations began to put environmental regulations in place (Ward 1991:358).
This is where counterurbanization fits in. As people move from cities and suburbs to the country to enjoy rural life (and not farm themselves), "a growing number of farmers now have new neighbours who often have quite different ideas about how the rural environment should be managed... The farmers felt that social change in the countryside has further diminished their autonomy." (Ward 1991:359).
It's at the end here that Ward makes any reference at all to the question of whether agriculture has actually changed from productivist to post-productivist (which some scholars doubt):
"The treadmill continues to trundle on, however, in part because the productivist rationale or ethos remains prevalent among agricultural interests. This need not necessarily be solely because the technology/policy model served the interests of the agricultural industry (or at least those sections which survived through accumulation) but because the productivist era was characterized by clearly defined goals of expansion and technological ‘progression’ about which there was little disagreement. Achieving the goals of producing food for the nation facilitated a sense of pride in the industry" (Ward 1991:359).
Farmers are now farming in a different context from the productivist heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, but that doesn't necessarily mean the farmers themselves have changed - or want to change.
Goodman, D. and M. Redclift (1991), Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology and Culture (London: Routledge).
Ward, Neil. 1993. "The Agricultural Treadmill and the Rural Environment in the Post-Productivist Era." Sociologia Ruralis, 33: 348–364. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9523.1993.tb00969.x