New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture

So what were the main issues discussed? Here are six that caught my attention:

  1. This was, in many respects, building on the main ideas of the World Development Report 2008,,menuPK:2795178~pagePK:64167702~piPK:64167676~theSitePK:2795143,00.html]. Yes, agricultural development matters, in many cases small-scale farmers [SF] can drive it; but, given the diversity of circumstances, there will be variety in the trajectories seen. Not all SF will prosper through farming: off-farm work, businesses and migration will be a route out of poverty for many.
  2. What was added to those messages? Much recognition that rural areas are transforming, that we may be observing the last time that the majority of the (majority) rural population of the world are farming: youth are, in their large numbers, not interested in small-scale agriculture. [These are major messages from IFAD’s Rural Poverty Report, published last year — see]

A frequently rehearsed argument was rebutted: the idea that since the future is neither agrarian nor one of small farms, that development paths should shun both agriculture and its small farmers. On the contrary, as Peter Timmer has written eloquently, if we are to create more prosperous, urban societies where most work in manufacturing and services, then agriculture has to develop to release labour, some land and capital for investment in other sectors.

  1. That said, there is still plenty of concern over large-scale migration out of rural areas. The nightmare of rapidly proliferating urban slums remains powerful — despite Julio Berdegue’s observation that most of the urban growth in Latin America is seen in towns of 50,000 to 100,000; and not in the metropoli.
  2. When it comes to technology, debates often rapidly polarise between those advocating high science, including the application of GM; and those arguing for more ecological approaches, often with lower external inputs, building on indigenous knowledge and not using GM. That didn’t happen here, presumably since there were not that many from civil society.

I detected a shift, however, amongst the delegates from the world of agricultural research and technology. Enthusiasm for high technology, micro-scale technical advances has been tempered by, it seems considerations of climate change, so that the search for environmentally sustainable farming is pretty much the mainstream. The IAASTD was not mentioned in the plenaries, but it seemed its messages have been taken on board. Gordon Conway gave a beautifully judged informal presentation before dinner that seemingly captured the mood of the meeting: apply the benefits of conventional science pragmatically, so long as they are set within an understanding of ecology, and indeed of rural systems in all their dimensions.

  1. The Latin America session was a stand-out. Julio Berdegué began by considering who the SF of Latin America are, identifying a large group who have just about enough assets to take advantage of market opportunities. What makes the difference for these SF? The overall economic environment for farmers — infrastructure, education, health, policies, etc.: not transferring assets to them, as so many aid donors try to do to the exclusion of much else. Amongst the generally delighted responses to this provocation, was the reflection that some sacred cows of agricultural and rural development needed to be corralled.
  2. That leads to the single most important point from the meeting: a march away from the focus of many donors on marginal SF, on the poorest of the poor.  Whether by design or accident, IFAD got what its president has begun to advocate: an endorsement of the need to focus on small farmers with some potential, since growth is critical. Why the urgency of growth? Partly since there is a demographic dividend occurring in Asia and Latin America, and soon to appear in Africa: a dream if we have growth that provides jobs, a nightmare if youth cannot find opportunities.

Implicit in this view is that so long as growth comes from the advantaged end of the SF, rather than from large farms, there will be multipliers that will create jobs for marginal farmers.

A final reflection: what has changed since 2007 when the World Development Report for 2008 was launched? Two things have captured the imagination. One is climate change. With every month that passes, it is recognised that this not just an added complication, but that adaptation and mitigation have to be central to agricultural development. There’s a way to go before it is fully integrated, but everyone seems to see that this has to be done, and soon.

The other is the impact of higher prices, first in 2007/08 for cereals, and now in early 2011 for almost all agricultural commodities. The sense that scarcity threatens has sharpened the attention to agriculture: but also signalled that, for once, there is money to be made in farming. This may be made by sovereign wealth and hedge funds investing in mega farms: but equally, this could be smallholders.