Small-scale farming at a crossroads

Is small beautiful or should the new motto be ‘move up or move out?”

vegetables in a store market

As director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., Shenggen Fan has come a long way from his roots in rural China, where he shared a one-hectare farm with his parents and two brothers.

The agricultural economist, honoured earlier this year by the World Food Program’s Hunger Hero Award for his commitment to fighting global hunger, identifies closely with the 84 per cent of the world’s 570 million farmers who survive on two hectares or less. He is well aware that small farmers produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and Africa.

“However, that does not mean small is beautiful,” Fan told a panel discussion at this year’s Borlaug Dialogue on the resources, technology and policies needed to make family farming profitable and sustainable. “In many cases, small means hungry.”

Fan considers himself fortunate that his family’s farm produced enough to feed themselves and others, but their meals often consisted only of rice. And as the brothers grew to adulthood, it became clear that when divided three ways, their small holding would be inadequate. So two brothers moved out, and the one brother who remained moved up by renting more land.

For Fan, “move up or move out” should be the mantra for reducing hunger and improving the profitability and sustainability of small-scale farming. “There are small farmers who simply cannot be sustainable,” he said, noting many of them are farming on eroded land in remote regions, which makes providing services and market access difficult. “It is not fair to keep smallholders hungry and malnourished.”

Most of the world’s farmers lack the amount of land they need to be viable, he said. In fact, in many countries, farmers lack clear rights to their land, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to properly manage what they do have or acquire more.

Fan said securing land rights is critical to empowering smallholders, but so are policies and programs that help farmers manage risk, improve market access and diversify into more nutritionally valuable crops.

Switch to vegetables

“The first step for smallholders is to diversify production away from rice, wheat and maize into more nutritious vegetables,” he said. “When they have enough to eat, they can sell nutritious food to the market.”

Fan said some countries are using subsidies to artificially promote the production of wheat and rice at the expense of more nutritious crops.

Not only would land tenure assist them in scaling up their operations, it could help them link with foreign investors, rather than being vulnerable to displacement by so-called “land grabs,” he said.

Faustine Wabwire, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based Bread for the World Institute, said agriculture in developing countries must undergo dramatic change if it is to appeal to the next generation, which is increasingly educated and has a taste for the comforts of urban life.

“Most young people, especially if they have been to school — they see their parents labouring all their lives and still be poor,” she said.

“There is a tendency for them to want to do agriculture, but it’s going to be agriculture that is mostly technology driven,” Wabwire said. “They are not attracted to agriculture with a hand hoe.”

Not so easy

But encouraging people to leave the land means having someplace better for them to go.

Ajay Markanday
Ajay Markanday photo: Laura Rance

Ajay Markanday, senior economist and FAO representative at the World Bank, agrees farmers have to be able to achieve a profitable scale, but he noted the traditional model of development in which a growing manufacturing sector draws people off the farm with well-paying factory jobs no longer exists like it did when agriculture was scaling up in North America.

Economists have coined the expression “jobless growth” to describe the global trend towards measuring economic growth by returns to capital instead of jobs created. Manufacturing has become less labour intensive and the areas in which new jobs are being created, such as the digital and service sectors, are a poor fit with an agrarian-based labour force that has little education and few skills.

Markanday said the phenomenon of jobless growth is behind a widening gap between the rich and poor in industrialized countries as well, but the effects are most pronounced in less-developed economies.

“How you make growth inclusive is a policy decision,” he said, noting governments in the industrialized world have opted for competitiveness in the global economy over inclusive growth.

Small can be beautiful

Kanayo Nwanze
Kanayo Nwanze photo: Laura Rance

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said investment in agriculture is an investment in jobs. He said for the foreseeable future, improving the productivity of small-scale farmers will be the best way to address both poverty and hunger. “For IFAD the answer is simple,” he said. “Invest in rural people; invest in smallholder farmers.”

Nwanze stressed the goal of feeding the world is achievable with the right policies, programs and partnerships with the private sector aimed at increasing the productive capacity of small farmers.

For example, between 1990 and 2013, China was able to reduce malnutrition from 23 per cent to 11 per cent and child stunting from 32 per cent to nine per cent.

“As we strive for innovation, there is nothing wrong with thinking small,” he said. “Sometimes, the technology farmers need is not a new seed, it is a smartphone or tablet.”

Such technology puts small-scale farmers on an equal footing with large operators because they can better access production information and extension support.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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