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Colin Poulton
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Perhaps predictably, I find it hard to disagree with Steve’s arguments. There is a pro-smallholder and pro-science – even pro-GM! – position, drawing on a strong empirical record, that Paul completely misses in his attempt to slay the giants of romanticism. I will, therefore, confine myself to two main points:

The first augments Steve’s points about the comparative advantage of smallholder vs large-scale commercial agriculture. In low income economies, replacing labour with capital is often not efficient. This is true for many agricultural production tasks. Moreover, smallholder family labour is often better motivated and hence more efficient than the hired labour that large-scale farms have to rely on. In general, therefore, there are few economies of scale in agricultural production in Africa, although there may be in processing and marketing. That said, there are supply chains – most notably, export horticulture – where significant capital investments at farm level are unavoidable.

There are also economies of scale in traceability and other aspects of quality assurance. In such supply chains, the advantages of large farm organisation may outweigh the labour benefits of smallholder production. In a recent review of commercial agriculture in Africa for the World Bank (http://go.worldbank.org/XSRUM2ZXM0), we found that large-scale production had outperformed smallholder systems in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, but that smallholder production systems had outperformed large-scale in cotton and cashew, with strong performance under both forms in tea. The current debate has been prompted by the high food prices observed in 2008. Notably, food crop production in Africa remains dominated by smallholders.

The high costs of accessing and defending large landholdings in much of Africa may contribute to this. However, in a low income economy there are no obvious scale advantages in maize production and poor consumers are a long way from demanding the traceability and food safety assurance that could tip the balance in favour of large producers. Tellingly, where large farms do exist, they often choose to produce higher value crops than maize and other staples. Paul argues that “allowing commercial organizations to replace peasant agriculture gradually would raise global food supply in the medium term”. However, as Prabhu Pingali and others have shown for East Asia, market forces will tend to produce farm consolidation only when real wages in an economy rise well above levels seen in most of Africa today. When this happens, replacing labour with capital will make increasing sense and increasingly large plots will be necessary to generate an income for the owner comparable to that which could be obtained in an (attainable) off-farm job.

My second point augments one of Paul’s points. We can point to plenty of evidence showing that, where smallholders are supported through public or private delivery of support services (accessible input supply, seasonal finance, technical advice etc), they can compete strongly with large-scale farms in low income economies. However, large-scale farms do possess an important advantage: they can access such support services themselves (e.g. direct contact with commercial banks), whereas smallholders are heavily dependent on services being brought close to their farmgate. As Steve notes (not altogether approvingly), large-scale farms can even lobby for public infrastructure provision, something that smallholders have rarely been able to do.

The case for large-scale farms, therefore, looks stronger where states completely fail to provide or to encourage support services to smallholder producers. Without such service provision, smallholders are indeed more likely to be trapped in chronic poverty than to be drivers of agricultural growth. In recent years there have been encouraging commitments from African governments to increase their investment in the agricultural sectors of their countries. This is critical if smallholder production is to supply the ever-rising demand for food on the continent.

Colin Poulton, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Michael Loevinsohn
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I’d like to challenge one of Prof. Collier’s key points: small farmers are failing to keep up with the pace of change. “Innovation is hard to generate through peasant farming”, he writes. “Their mode of production is ill-suited to modern agricultural production in which scale is helpful”.  On the contrary, small farmers have shown time and again a capacity to rapidly evolve technologies and systems; in this their greater number and their closer interactions with their land, crops, animals and each other, relative to large farmers, are key advantages. This extends to achieving scale economies – where these are attractive – through cooperation. In a context of rapid change, small farmers’ capacity to evolve is critical. However, it is far more often ignored or suppressed than supported and fed.

An illuminating case comes from the highlands of southern Rwanda, one of the most densely populated parts of the most densely populated country in Africa.
Soon after arriving in the late 1980’s, I took up an initiative to advance sustainable intensification of highland valley bottoms thru farmer-led experimentation. Farmer groups in 3 valleys tried out and modified technical options they or we suggested; they bore all risks, we provided initial seed and advice. Within 2 seasons the valleys were transformed (photos). Rice, previously only grown 200 m lower, spread rapidly. Farmers identified varieties that tolerated cold and developed cropping patterns adapted to their economic orientation and the hydrology of their valleys. By the second season, all the groups had constructed sandbag-reinforced diversion dams and peripheral irrigation canals. Farmers who had never before seen a need to farm cooperatively were now electing coordinators to organize tasks that benefited all, like irrigation maintenance, and, when necessary, to enforce penalties. Appropriate scales of cooperation were quickly found for different tasks: larger for maintaining canals, smaller for managing a seedbed, still smaller for scaring off birds. “Traveling seminars” in which the groups showed and explained what they were trying were crucial for the evolution of these lumpy options. How to maintain functional diversity was a constant topic of conversation.  Rice was proving very productive (appreciated at home and with a ready market) but its spread threatened other elements.  Sweet potato especially: growing it in the valley provided cuttings for the hillsides and made year-round cultivation possible – an enormous boost to food security. One solution was to grow rice in paddies then rebuild raised beds for sweet potato, beans and e.g. out-of-season maize for the market: tremendously labour-demanding but evidently feasible for farmers with a few hundred sq m of land. Innovation was driven by necessity, which was hardly in short supply. But the context was less than supportive: markets functioned poorly, extension was demeaning and the state apparatus hostile to any autonomous initiative. Discussion in policy circles favoured scale and specialization – fewer people, growing one or a few crops, either in the valleys or on the hills. This much of the story was recounted in Agricultural Systems (1994, attached). I left a year before the genocide broke out in 1994. I visited in 1996: despite upheaval and more than 4 years without support of any kind, the groups had survived and rice cultivation had spread up the valleys.  It was more difficult to make out what had happened to other innovations. A few months ago, a colleague visited the area. The groups are all still active, 20 years on, and he found rice dominant over many kilometres of valley (photo).  It’s unclear to what extent farmers have been supported in this by public or private sector institutions (I know some are active in the area) and whether farmer innovation is being recognized. I’d love to find out more. A final thought. New cultivation techniques for familiar crops may prove an important production frontier, particularly as climate change accelerates. The System of Rice Intensification and related approaches are notable examples. The wheel is still very much in spin but evidence suggests a potential for significant gains in production and water use efficiency along with an inescapable need for local innovation and adaptation around the basic principles. Supporting the innovative capacity the Rwandan groups demonstrated would seem essential if that potential is to be captured.  

Michael Loevinsohn, Applied Ecology Associates

Peter Rosset
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I am surprised to find this debate starting all over again, and would like to ask readers to look over the following essays I wrote during an earlier iteration of these debates.  In them I challenge the conventional wisdom that small farms are backward and unproductive.

Using evidence from Southern and Northern countries I demonstrate that small farms are “multi-functional” – more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than large farms. Small farmers can also make better stewards of natural resources, conserving biodiversity and safe-guarding the future sustainability of agricultural production.




Peter Rosset, Associate, Global Alternatives

Layne Coppock
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

I have worked now for 25 years in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. I have been fortunate to be able to follow situations on the ground during much of this time. My role has included applied research, participatory research, outreach facilitation, and local capacity building.

The pastoral dynamics described by Stephen Sandford are already pretty well known by people who have carefully observed these systems over many years. In addition to recent efforts by the PARIMA project, previous work by ILCA in Kajiado Maasailand (ILCA Systems Study No. 4 of 1991) and on the Borana Plateau (ILCA Systems Study No. 5 of 1994) point to similar pastoral system trends.

Upon reviewing the arguments by Sandford and Devereaux/Scoones, I side with the more optimistic views of Devereaux/Scoones. As I look back over the large literature on livestock development, one comment stands out from a book by Hans Jahnke (1982). Jahnke essentially said that while the technical options for livestock development on Africa’s rangelands were slim at best, the scope for development of human potential among rangeland inhabitants was vast. The last few years working in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have convinced me that this perspective is correct. Livestock development, after all, should be to the benefit of human beings—freeing them from hunger and marginalization. Many of us have made profound errors in our careers by focusing more on the technical aspects of livestock development while discounting the real goals of human development. So, one interesting question is, “Are there multiple pathways to improve the human condition in rangelands, besides just having a sole focus on the livestock component?” The livestock economy is crucial, for sure, but are there other “sustainable, small victories” to be achieved? One of the more interesting aspects I have observed of late is how many rangeland inhabitants can have their lives transformed by observing success of innovative peers, exposing them to new ways of thinking, and providing access to some basic education. In essence, helping people more effectively engage a changing world and have more choices about how they live day-to-day.

The example I have is the creation of 60 dynamic collective-action groups in southern Ethiopia (with over 2,000 members in total, 76% women) over the past five years. This process has been accelerated to a large extent by exposing the Ethiopians to peers from northern Kenya who have made remarkable achievements in a variety of self-help initiatives starting in the 1980s. Thousands have attended cross-border rallies in the past couple of years, and thousands have been trained in a variety of capacity-building efforts focused on micro-finance and entrepreneurial endeavors. People have learned to reconfigure their lives a bit and be a little more informed in terms of how they can better manage themselves and their families in a difficult and changing environment. People who were illiterate and incapable of making simple calculations with a pencil a few years ago now successfully manage small businesses, negotiate with exporters, market livestock, and handle large sums of money. Livelihood diversification happens and interesting local niches are discovered. Human capital, social capital, and financial capital are all being created. Details of this process are forthcoming.

It is therefore tempting to look at the big picture as Sandford has and see little other than calamity and chaos, but in terms of impacting individual lives a considerable scope exists for change, if for no other reason than the baseline condition can be so grim. I also believe there is a bias among some scholars who discount the value of education and capacity building among the rural poor. Pastoralists in particular are often viewed as “all knowing” and inherently capable of coping with considerable change if we just left them alone. My recent experiences tell me this is not true. Many pastoral women have told us that they never dreamed of anything different from the difficult lives they previously lead until they were inspired and awakened by innovative peers to do a few things differently.

Yes, Sandford and others are correct that the challenges are daunting. Several factors must properly line up if major progress is to be achieved and sustained, including improvements in markets and governance that lie far beyond the control of pastoralists and their advocates. But things will be worse if we stand by and do nothing. The larger environment for southern Ethiopia has a few favorable trends underway at the moment. For example, never have the export market opportunities been greater for Borana livestock than they are today. Never have there been greater incentives for pastoralists to improve livestock production practices to take advantage of new market opportunities. Never has the region held the positive attentions from policy makers than what occurs today. I have been impressed by the depth of knowledge that many policy makers posses about pastoralism and the need for multi-faceted, pastoral development approaches. The technical know-how and capacities of NGOs and GOs in southern Ethiopia have never been stronger than they are today. As one case in point, the Oromia Agricultural Research Institute (GO) is ready to embark on a major prescribed fire plan across the region to assist in reclaiming large areas of the Borana Plateau from bush encroachment. This is being done in partnership with local people, a departure from the old, “top-down” ways of doing business. These points illustrate why I have confidence in the value of building human capacity, at multiple levels, to promote pastoral development.

What are the greatest threats to such seemingly small elements of “progress?” Threats, of course, include things like population growth, resource restriction, and drought over the longer term and poor governance and local/regional conflicts in the shorter term. The major problems reported to us concerning the sustainability of collective-action groups are political and managerial, not environmental.

Layne Coppock
Department of Rangeland Resources, Utah State University

Andrew MacMillan and Amir Kassam
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

The overall debate question is: “…. What are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility [in Africa] in ways that will boost production in a sustainable fashion, where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, board-based development?”

We suggest the following design principles as a basis for effective policy.

1. Distinguish between increasing national food production and achieving full household level food security.

  1. Raising national food output does not necessarily lead to improved household and individual food security and nutrition: it may, however, contribute to lower food prices and hence increase the amount and possibly quality of food that poor families can afford to buy
  2. If very small-scale farmers, who themselves are food insecure, increase their output, this is likely to improve their food security and nutrition
  3. If increased food production comes mainly from small-scale farmers rather than large-scale farmers, this is likely to contribute indirectly to greater food security in rural communities, because production systems are more labour-intensive and hence more people receive earnings (or, in some cases, payments in food) from food production related activities.
  4. In most situations, higher levels of productivity are attained on small-scale rather than large-scale farms, and hence, where land is scarce, strategies for expanding food output mainly by small-scale farmers are not only more equitable but also likely to be more successful in raising output.

2. There are very few situations in which full household food security can be attained simply by raising national food production: income redistribution measures, especially targeted cash transfers (or other social security programmes) must be part of the solution, even in rural areas.

3. In many areas of Africa, there is unused land with reasonable agricultural potential. As long as labour is amply available and there is easy access to land, growth in production by small farmers in these areas can continue to come from expanding the agricultural frontier, with limited use of external inputs.

4. In other regions, where rural population density is high, intensification offers the only route for expanding food output.

5. In most agricultural land use situations in Africa, avoiding reductions in soil organic matter (OM) content is essential if soils are to be cropped intensively on a sustainable basis. If OM levels are allowed to fall, there will be a progressive decline in soil fertility.

6. Where soils are not already seriously depleted in organic matter, using inorganic fertilizers and soil amendments (including lime) can help to increase vegetative material production and build up soil OM content, provided that crop residues are retained on the land and soils are not disturbed by tillage.

7. Inversion soil tillage, whether by hoe or plough, accelerates the decline in soil OM content and the biotic activity it supports, and destroys soil porosity, and is best avoided or restricted to crop “planting stations”.

8. Use of Conservation Agriculture (CA) principles and practices (minimal or no-till, soil cover with mulch and residues, and crop rotations, especially with legumes) results in an increase in soil OM and nitrogen levels and hence can do much to maintain soil health and fertility.

9. CA is the foundation for a greener revolution that can make intensive farming sustainable, cut energy use (whether human or fuel-derived energy) in food production, decrease agro-chemical contamination in the environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize run-off and soil erosion, make a higher proportion of rainfall available for crop growth, and improve the quality and dependability of fresh water supplies.

10. But the CA requirement for retention of crop residues and use of cover crops is difficult to reconcile, especially in low-rainfall areas, with other demands for crop residues – livestock feed, fuel, brick-making. In these situations, CA systems need to incorporate components that provide for animal feed and fuel while at the same time enabling adequate soil surface residue cover.

11. Moreover, where no-till systems have to use herbicides for weed control, this will usually decrease their attractiveness to small-scale farmers who do not have access to herbicides or the equipment to apply them, or want to engage in organic farming.  Manual or non-chemical weed control can be difficult and time-consuming in the first years of practicing a CA system but, after a few years of good weed control and use of cover crops weed populations decline and become more manageable.

12. Best approaches to sustainable soil fertility improvement are likely to be location specific due to diverse agro-ecological and socioeconomic situations: “wholesaling” of standard solutions is unlikely to be feasible. However, mainstreaming of CA principles adapted to these diverse situations over time should form a policy goal for increasing soil fertility and enabling sustainable crop intensification.

13. In most situations, a shift to sustainable practices based on Conservation Agriculture principles requires fundamental changes in the ways in which farming is currently practiced and cannot be induced by top-down “message delivery” type extension services, though these may succeed in promoting greater use of fertilizers.

14. Instead, it is necessary to enable farmers to raise their level of understanding of the underlying causes of declining soil fertility and to engage them in testing CA-based options for improvement. The experiential learning methods practiced in Farmer Field Schools are very relevant to creating local capacities for moving towards more sustainable intensive farming systems with CA, adapted to local situations.

15. To the extent that farmer-facilitated and self-financing field school models are taken up, they have the advantage of imposing only limited demands on highly skilled staff and on recurrent budgets and hence can be scaled up rapidly without running into serious institutional, manpower and funding constraints.

16. Policies (e.g. subsidies) that promote fertilizer uptake or ploughing without linking these to the more complex changes in farming systems that may be needed to mainstream CA practices in Africa will undermine a shift towards sustainable soil fertility management and should therefore be avoided. In contrast, policies that compensate farmers for the enhanced provision of environmental services associated with the application of CA principles could accelerate a move towards more sustainable land use systems.

There is growing evidence of successful management of soil fertility for crop intensification on both large and small-scale farms using Conservation Agriculture practices in Africa from countries as diverse as Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, covering a range of agro-ecological and socioeconomic conditions. The fact that Conservation Agriculture is now practised on almost 100 million hectares worldwide implies that the principles on which it is based are recognised by farmers as one major potential alternative for enhancing soil fertility and for sustainable agricultural intensification in Africa and internationally.

Andrew MacMillan, former Director
FAO Field Operations Division

Amir Kassam, Senior Agricultural Research Officer
CGIAR Interim Science Council Secretariat

Jeremy Keenan
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

A colleague at Reading forwarded to me the contribution on big-small farms from Roy Keijzer, saying that I might find the reference to Mali interesting. I cannot contribute much to the main debate, as it is not my field. However, with reference to the Mail Niger inland Delta scheme to which Roy Keijzer refers, I can make the following comment: While his remarks about its present state of development etc may well be valid, its colonial history are interesting, in that it was developed originally by the French to counter the British cotton-growing Gezira scheme.

The Office du Niger scheme was probably one of the very worst forms of colonial development, at least as far as the local people were concerned. They were treated horrendously and suffered appallingly. The scheme was a large blot of shame on colonial development at that time. In fact, the Office du Niger project was one of the first classic social anthropological studies of the late Claude Meillassoux. Not surprisingly, the French did much to cover up his research and findings.

When dealing with such schemes/regions in their present day context, their previous exploitation (it was not development) should not be forgotten.
Jeremy Keenan, School of Oriental and African Studies

Ken Giller
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

  • What are the design principles for effective policy?
  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?

In southern Africa we were working actively through the SoilFertNet during the 1990s on targeting technologies, and came up with the term ‘best bet’ technologies to try to escape the idea of silver bullets that would work everywhere (see e.g. Waddington et al., 1998). When sitting in a discussion for the Africa Challenge Programme in Blantyre, Malawi, with Paul Mapfumo (UZ-SOFECSA) and John Pender (IFPRI) the suggestion came we should be thinking of ‘best-fit’ technologies (Giller et al., 2009). This was based on work through our NUANCES framework (Giller et al., 2006) that has extended this the idea of targeting to a (hierarchical) systematic analysis of fields, farmers and farming systems in terms of agroecologies, market access and infrastructure, education, resource endowments, local field variability etc to recognise the “socioecological niches” for technologies (Ojiem et al., 2006). John Pender referred to an IFPRI report that called for best fit approaches to information delivery services (Birner et al., 2006).

I think the idea of one policy or one approach is what we have to escape from – we need to move towards a ‘best fit’ policy approach – that can be tailored to the needs and opportunities of different regions. I believe our NUANCES methodology gives us a structured way of revealing the diversity and heterogeneity within farming systems and allows us to analyse trade-offs for technologies, and likely effects of policies in terms of their impact (e.g. Tittonell et al., 2008a; Tittonell et al., 2008b).

BUT – when we start to discuss these ideas, people at the policy end tend to be frightened off – they seem to want to treat Africa as a homogeneous ‘flat earth’ rather than the hugely diverse continent that it is… For me the most important design principle for effective policy is to recognise that – in the same way there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy!

Birner, R., Davis, K., Pender, J., Nkonya, E., Ananajayasekeram, P., Ekboir, J., Mbabu, A., Spielman, D., Horna, D., Benin, S., Kisamba-Mugerwa, W., 2006. From “Best Practice” to “Best Fit”: A Framework for Designing and Analyzing Pluralistic Agricultural Advisory Services. IFPRI, Washington.
Giller, K.E., Rowe, E., de Ridder, N., van Keulen, H., 2006. Resource use dynamics and interactions in the tropics: Scaling up in space and time. Agric. Syst. 88, 8-27.
Giller, K.E., Vanlauwe, B., Mapfumo, P., Baijukya, F.P., Ojiem, J.O., Pender, J., Tittonell, P., 2009. Best-fits for diverse and heterogeneous farming systems in Africa: from fields to farms and farming systems. forthcoming.
Ojiem, J.O., de Ridder, N., Vanlauwe, B., Giller, K.E., 2006. Socio-ecological niche: A conceptual framework for integration of legumes in smallholder farming systems. Int. J. Agric. Sust. 4, 79-93.
Tittonell, P., Corbeels, M.C., van Wijk, M., Vanlauwe, B., Giller, K.E., 2008a. Combining organic and mineral fertilizers for integrated soil fertility management in smallholder farming systems of Kenya – explorations using the crop/soil model FIELD. Agron. J. doi: 10.2134agronj2007.0355.
Tittonell, P., van Wijk, M., Herrero, M., Rufino, M.C., de Ridder, N., Giller, K.E., 2008b. Inefficiencies and resource constraints – exploring the physical feasibility of options for the intensification of smallholder crop-livestock systems in Vihiga district, Kenya. Agric. Syst. in press.
Waddington, S.R., Gilbert, R., Giller, K.E., 1998. “Best Bet” technologies for increasing nutrient supply for maize on smallholder farms. In: Waddington, S.R., Murwira, H.K., Kumwenda, J.D.T., Hikwa, D., Tagwira, F. (Eds.), Soil Fertility Research for Maize-based Farming Systems in Malawi and Zimbabwe. SoilFertNet/CIMMYT-Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe, pp. 245-250.

[See additional contributions in Resources]

Ken Giller, University of Wageningen

Small Farms Debate
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Small farmers can be a driving force in cutting hunger and poverty worldwide’ was a key message to G8 leaders from development specialists at The Future of Small Farms research workshop held in Wye in June 2005.

Participants at the workshop, jointly organised by IFPRI, ODI and Imperial College London, concluded that investment in small farm agriculture could help to raise the rural poor out of poverty and catalyse wider economic growth.

However, the challenges small farmers in developing countries face include globalisation – especially the dramatic rise of supermarkets even in poor countries – low world market prices for major agricultural commodities and the expected negative impact of climate change. In Africa, these challenges are compounded by the spread of HIV/AIDS. In addition poor farmers are widely dispersed and have no effective political voice so are usually economically neglected.

But we should not give up on this task according to Dr Peter Hazell, Director of the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and workshop organiser. Possibilities for alternative livelihoods within the non-farm sector do not look optimistic for the next decade or so and there are plenty of good investment opportunities within small farms which are good for both growth and poverty reduction.

The workshop participants agreed that:

  • Public investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and support services is needed to unleash the inherent power of small farmers.
  • In many African countries such investment is contrained by the capacity and quality of state institutions through which it would be channelled. These institutions have to be reformed to increase their accountability to farmers organisations and the private sector.
  • Donors must think carefully how aid can be used to encourage such reform programmes. The danger is that large increases in aid could remove incentives for recipient governments to undertake real reform.
  • The role of the state in providing key support to small farmers needs to be redefined. Structural adjustment programmes have led to state withdrawal from ensuring that small farmers have fair access to high quality seeds, fertilizers, technical advice and credit and marketing services and have left a vacuum which in most poor African countries has not been filled by the private sector. The state should perform a proactive role in collaboration with farmer organisations and private sector to ‘kick-start’ the markets and increase private sector involvement.

Policy frameworks for increasing soil fertility in Africa: debating the alternatives
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – has launched a major new ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in a sustainable fashion; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate. For this reason, the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) has decided to invite a wide range of participants to debate some key issues around the way forward for policy, and associated institutional arrangements.

C. Devendra
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I have read with interest the ongoing exchange of emails concerning above, and cannot resist the opportunity to make a few comments.

Please permit me to present an Asian perspective.

1). Some of the comments made mainly from the ” North ” give the impression of poor understanding of what constitutes small farms. These probably stem from inadequate R and D efforts to appreciate the systems, infinite complexities needs and opportunities.

2). Even the very definition of what are small farms appears to be unclear if not poorly defined  – going from the references to small farms or smallholders in the developing countries to ” family farms ” in the ” North”. probably because of this and the overwhelming reference to globalisation, many in the industrialised countries have mentioned that these small farms are likely to disappear in the future. An important recently published  talked of  “current trends in structural change imply the likely and probably accelerating exit of smallholder livestock producers in developing and developed countries”. In Asia at any rate, this conclusion is  unacceptable.

3). A definition that has been used  in Asia is as follows: “Small farms have been defined as complex interrelationships between animals , crops and farming families , involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital , from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living “.

4). In global terms, small farms in Asia account for an estimated 87 % of all farms below two hectares . Many of these are models of diversification and efficiency in NRM. While globalisation has undoubtedly have had effects- and there have been other crisis as well,  many if not most have survived and are self reliant because of the low input systems, minimum external inputs , and resilience. In animal production, these farms currently contribute significant amounts of milk, ruminant meats, draught power, duck meat and eggs.

5). Two related  issues that have not been addressed concern the links to poverty and type of small farms. Agric. growth in the past has significantly contributed to reducing poverty, but as ESCAP( 2008) has recently reported , waning agriculture has slowed the decline in poverty. Stimulating small farm productivity is thus important. Concerning type of farms in Asia, those in the irrigated areas are the richer due to benefits of the Green Revolution, while those
in the rainfed areas are poorer and were largely by-passed . For various reasons including poverty ,  future development needs to focus on the latter. Results from several countries in the region highlight increased production due to improved technology application.

6). Increasing the contribution from small farms in the future can benefit from increased investments in R and D on small farms ,  accelerated technology application and delivery systems, intensification and commercialisation, improved market access, rural infrastructure and cooperatives, backed by appropriate policy. Focusing on these and other issues  is urgent in the light of the food crisis. Many of these issues will also apply to other parts of the developing world.  Dr. Wiggins is correct in his assessment that given the right conditions, small farms can serve food production in the future.  

C. Devendra, International Livestock Research Institute