The subject of making farmers’ voices heard should be central in the green revolution that we intend to create. The green revolution for Africa can only happen if farmers in different communities are able to take ownership and make contributions in decisions that influence their livelihoods and their agriculture. Often times the feeling is that we the scientists have all the answers and that the farmers only need to take what comes from us.
This model has proven time and time again to be flawed and unworkable, I believe.Making farmers’ voices heard also does not happen necessarily through participation of a couple of Farmer Organization officials at series of workshops and conferences. In other instances such farmer representatives are invited to participate in research planning or project development initiatives. While such levels of participation may be necessary, they do raise the question of “who is representing whom” and what happens after these various events.
In all such instances of representation, there is often a lot of talk, which is never followed through, and the farmers on the ground never even know that these interactions have taken place. Sometimes also, some farmer representatives do find themselves in unfamiliar territory of researchers and scientists, who simply go ahead and do what they have planned to do anyway. In other cases, the farmer representatives may find themselves completely out-gunned by the research and development partners – sometimes even to the point of feeling intimidated. Even when Farmers make contributions at such fora, they are hardly ever taken into account as part of the inputs for developing the solutions. This is a situation where the farmers may speak, but no space has been created for incorporating their concerns. This point was amplified in the contribution made by Ralph von Kauffmann in an earlier contribution to this discussion.
What I believe is needed is a mechanism for creating space for farmers at different levels to meet in a “farmers’ consultation” to deliberate on particular issues, make their key concerns known, and get involved in identifying mechanisms that could lead to a resolution of the challenges. Scientists, researchers and development workers could be invited to participate in such farmer-driven consultation processes, but principally to listen and to learn. Farmers must be empowered and encouraged and capacitated to be in the drivers’ seat, in voicing out the issues and making suggestions on way forward. This would also include identifying challenges for which some resolution is required either through research or through policy changes, etc. Once such capacities and processes have been established, researchers would find it very rewarding in working jointly with the farmer representatives in sharing ideas on possible solutions and planning some joint activities to resolve outstanding challenges and finding solutions.
It is in this respect that I express my support for the process that was highlighted in the contribution of Amdissa Teshome, Chief Consultant, A-Z Consult. He highlighted four steps that need to be fully farmer oriented in implementation:
(i) Community consultations;
(ii) Regional validation workshops;
(iii) National policy dialogue forum- for farmers; and finally, and
(iv) Policy engagement. All these processes are developed with farmers in the driver’s seat, and with farmers empowered to brainstorm and seek to contribute to finding solutions to the problems facing them.
I am very pleased to make a contribution to this theme based on the experience of Future Agricultures work in Ethiopia over the last 2 years. It is well established that policy making in most African countries including Ethiopia has been and continue to be top down. The elite group (the researchers, the politicians) think they know what the farmers want and design policies and programmes with little or no consultation with farmers.
Future Agricultures in Ethiopia has developed an all inclusive policy dialogue process that brings farmers voices to policy makers and make them heard. This process involves four steps:
Step I: Community consultations: engage a cross-section of community members in a dialogue on the future of agriculture. These include the elderly, adult farmers and pastoralists, youth and children (future farmers and pastoralists) and private investors. In all categories women are represented equally.
Step II: Regional validation workshops: findings from Step 1 are validated/enriched at regional workshops with researchers, academics, regional agricultural officers, NGOs and donors, farmer representatives and private investors. Farmers’ voices are being heard at this stage.
Step III: National policy dialogue forum: a farmers’ voices are brought to the national level and presented at a series of national forum in the presence of senior government officers, donors, NGOs and CSOs and parliamentarians.
Step IV: Policy engagement: armed with farmers’ voice, policy engagement and influencing has began. Although this is principally a bottom up process, policymakers are consulted/informed at all levels.
This process has now led to the creation of a Forum on Future Agricultures in which farmers’ voices will be brought to the attention of regional and national policy makers on a continual basis.
I am in full accord with the advocates for enhancing the farmer’s voice. But I have to ask the question “And then what?” There will be little point in giving the farmers voice if there is no one ready to listen and respond. I agree with the argument that we must move from being technology driven and simply seeking uses for new information technology to becoming farmer centric. However, I am not convinced that we, including myself, fully understand what that implies.
Empowerment is synonymous with becoming knowledge-able and there are a lot of dedicated people doing good pioneering work in finding ways by which farmers can become be provided with both the information and the learning tools they need to form new knowledge appropriate to their unique situations. Some significant successes can be found in the South Asian and African partnerships of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) in promoting rural lifelong learning. Amongst the many others interesting approaches are the new concepts supported by the WK Kellogg and Bill Melinda Gates Foundations for barefoot universities and learning circles.
If these efforts are successful there will be growing numbers of farmers hungry to learn and who will be equipped with the physical and intellectual tools they need to utilise new information to build on their own funds of knowledge. Supposing that succeeds, as it must, where would they go to for the specific tailored information that they would want? Africa’s extension services are not well equipped or trained to deal with the many and highly varied questions that the farmers would ask by SMS, e-mail, MP3 players etc. The agricultural research institutes and the universities do not have the necessary linkages with rural communities, the agricultural research systems, or the staff incentive to respond on a daily basis to farmers’ questions.
The vision is beginning to clear of an interconnected agricultural knowledge system linking farmers (at rural learning communities, barefoot universities, learning circles, and farmer learning groups etc.) to agricultural information providers which are themselves interconnected so that the farmers will not get advice from whomever they happen to be connected to but from the person best qualified to answer.
The different components such as rural learning facilities, technology mediated distance education (TechMODE), open access training resources, training of facilitators to promote learning, automated FAQs, quality assurance systems, etc. are being advanced.
However, is sufficient thought being given to how it will all be brought together and to the reform and change management needed to develop the new mind sets and the very different incentives that will have to be devised to get all the actors involved in this 21st century way of empowering farmers to drive agricultural and rural development.
Professor Paul Collier’s thesis incriminating poor countries for lack of progress in food production, especially in the wake of the worsening global food crisis (and economic meltdown?) as hinging on the preponderance of small farms raises more questions than proffering feasible and sustainable solutions. One question is: for whom do large-scale commercial farmers in poorer countries produce?
The argument for big farms as a means of boosting food production does not provide answer for the food shortage experienced in Africa and other poor regions. This is because most (if not all) of the large-scale commercial farmers in these regions produce essentially for Western markets where they are able to recoup their investments faster than they would have if they had targeted their production for domestic markets, where agricultural produce pricing is very erratic and responsive to a variety of environmental, socio-economic and political uncertainties. These capital rich investors who are often members of the political and economic elite are able to easily deploy resources. However, there are only a handful of such advantaged capital rich investors that are willing to invest in food production for the purpose of alleviating domestic food crisis. Even when large scale farming had been embarked upon in most African countries, monumental failure had repeatedly been bitterly encountered.
The bulk of African farmers are resource-limited residing in remote areas. It was the small farms that dot African communities that feed the various populations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a fact that these countries, like Nigeria , produced in excess of home consumption needs. Indeed, Nigeria (in the years preceding the discovery and exploration of oil) was a net exporter of food and agricultural products, deriving the bulk of her national income from agriculture. Those were the days of groundnut pyramids, cotton, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, grain and vegetable exports. These products came from the numerous small farms even as limited as they were in “modern farming inputs.” What went wrong, one might ask. Several things were amiss including the strong drive to modernize agriculture by employing large-scale production strategies with little or no regard for the prevailing institutional, cultural, environmental, socio-economic and other agricultural production considerations.
The African farmer is vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and is ill-prepared (and, therefore, caught off guard) when disasters come knocking. There are limited facilities and expertise for early warning devices. Conversely, in times of good harvests, producers have great difficulty in marketing excess crop and dairy products. The resulting glut results in depressed farm gate price and often producers are compelled to sell at significant losses. Post-harvest technologies, especially for preserving perishable foods are still being developed, the post-harvest losses are staggering. This could serve as disincentive to produce. Agricultural insurance scheme is almost non-existent for the smallholder. In times of losses, the farmer receives no compensation as every loss is borne by the farmer and his/her household.
Coming from the background of extreme poverty, the productivity of resource-limited farmers has declined steadily over the years. In many instances, land degradation has resulted in declining erosion and/or siltation, deforestation, overgrazing and desertification. The end result is food insecurity, which manifests in de-humanizing experiences (hunger, poverty, disease, etc). This scenario is aggravated by the increasing rate of land alienation to the economic and political elite who appropriate massive expanse of land for speculative purposes. This has resulted in the loss of land by majority of rural poor who are either forced to migrate out of the rural area and constitute themselves into a social menace in already congested cities, or become tenants to land merchants and land speculators. Many farmers and pastoralists who have lost access to land and/or livestock are increasingly converted to contract farmers for national multinational conglomerates.
Some past efforts geared at improving agricultural and food productivity have focused attention primarily on the injection of scientifically proven technologies that have led to substantial increase in crop and livestock production. Many of such introduced varieties have been found unsuitable because they are often not compatible with the agro-ecological conditions and farming systems of many African farming communities. Many of the introduced crop and livestock species required high-level inputs and management, which the poor farmer cannot provide. Where new varieties have been adopted and found to be well suited to the agro-climatic conditions, the resulting high yields have found limited market outlet. The resulting glut, coupled with the cheap imported foods from the West, African producers are faced with serious glut and depressed price and accompanying loss of income. Above scenario calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of policies and programmes primarily targeted at the smallholder farmers of Africa . Even where the scientific investments can lead to improved productivity, unless the poor have secure property rights the benefits are often expropriated by the powerful once the often poor quality of land has been restored meaning that the poor not only loose from the technical improvements but they loose on the value of the labour equity that has gone into improving productivity.
To get the African farmer out of the woods and be launched into prosperity, the aforementioned constraints must be meticulously addressed. For the region, the starting point for improved food production and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a complete overhauling of the institutional and policy environment. Reforms must be embarked upon by African leaders and peoples with every sincerity of purpose.
For us, the first step is to undertake a comprehensive land reform such that every rural producer shall be guaranteed secure access to crop and grazing land in pursuant of legitimate livelihoods. This calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of land use and land tenure regulations and policies which would facilitate access to and use of land. Since most African communities access land through customary arrangements, land policies must of necessity include customary land arrangements which can be easily supervised through existing traditional institutional arrangements. Land policy guidelines must of necessity be couched within the socio-cultural milieu of the African society. This way, customary land-users will have secure right.
Achieving food security will largely be determined by the willingness of African leaders to make a clean break from past business of government and imbibe the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability, rule of law, equity and fairness. It is this “business unusual” that will propel the engine of social and economic growth through the execution of people-oriented programs and institutional reforms. The thrust here is to provide enabling environment for enhancing the productivity and income of the rural poor. If corruption in the public and private sector can be halved by 2015, Africa would have moved some 60% towards attaining food self-sufficiency.
There is need to double development assistance (especially in the wake of the current global economic meltdown) channeled to fight hunger and poverty through community-based projects that target the real producers who often are the vulnerable groups in African countries. Application of aid should be through CBO’s and traditional institutions that are in tune with the local conditions and realities.
Small commercial farms, and not large-scale commercial farms is the answer to the current food crisis in Africa , at least in the foreseeable future.
‘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.
To produce the food necessary to reduce high world food prices and meet the future demands of a growing and more affluent population, large-scale commercial farming needs to be encouraged. Any romantic illusions about small-scale farmers should be set aside. Or so Professor Collier writing recently in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2008) argues.
This is particularly important in Africa where:
“African peasant agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing commercial productivity frontier, and based on present trends, the region’s food imports are projected to double over the next quarter century.”
Large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) have the advantages of being technically more advanced, able to reap economies of scale, mobilise funds and invest, and to react to evolving market demand:
“In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source.”
Small farmers, on the other hand, have had their day:
“… their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. …”
“Innovation, especially, is hard to generate through peasant farming.”
If we need a model of what can be done, then Brazil provides one:
“In Brazil, large, technologically sophisticated agricultural companies have demonstrated how successfully food can be mass-produced. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next — the downtime for land — has been reduced to an astounding 30 minutes.”
Is Professor Collier right? Yes, he is correct to emphasise the need for commercial farming. But no, he is wrong to imagine that this requires doing so on a large-scale. His solution is unnecessary, flies in the face of history, and carries important dangers.
Large-scale farms are unnecessary in Africa
Does Africa need to imitate Brazil? Let’s look at the record of Brazilian farm output from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. During that time the index of production in Brazil rose by 77%, at an annual average rate of just over 4% a year: a good performance, one of the best twenty in the world. But no less than eight African countries — Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique and Nigeria — did better, while Ethiopia fell short of Brazil by the smallest of margins — see Figure. The African countries concerned all have farm sectors dominated by smallholdings — as applies in the cases of Vietnam and China that also have better records than Brazil. If Africa needs models, then it might be better to look to at its own success stories, or to some Asian experiences, rather than to Brazil. The history of African farming reveals numerous episodes where there have been remarkable spurts of growth in agricultural output coming from small farms. Coffee farms in Central Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, cocoa in Ghana in the late C19th, cotton in Francophone Africa in the 1990s, maize in Zimbabwe in the 1980s are just a few examples.
These cases show that when small farmers are given the incentives to produce more and the means to do so, they invest, innovate and respond to opportunity. It is not a lack of large-scale farms that lies behind the disappointments of African agriculture, but a lack of conditions to allow small farmers to fulfil their potential.
Large-scale farming has often failed in Africa
Professor Collier is not the first person to believe that larger-scale farms in Africa would lead to major increases in production. Others have been beguiled by the prospect of rapid transformations. But the record of schemes to introduce large farms has many failures.
Back in the late 1940s Britain saw opportunity in southern Tanzania to grow a crop that would meet the post-war demand for vegetable oil and jump-start agricultural development in a remote colony. Large mechanised farms would be opened in the bush on which groundnuts would be grown. The result was a shambles.
In the 1970s, a US agribusiness took over land in Senegal with the intention of growing vegetables for export. By the end of the 1970s Bud Senegal planned to export 100,000 tonnes of irrigated fruit and vegetables, but the result was failure and bankruptcy.
Ghana promoted large-scale privately-owned rice farms in the Northern Region in the late 1970s with subsidies: they failed once the subsidies were ended. This was not Ghana’s only bad experience of large scale farming: Nkrumah’s ill-starred attempts at large-scale state farms had been earlier failures. Yes, there are successful large-scale farms in Africa, but generally for those relatively few crops where economies of scale exist in production; for example in flowers, horticulture, and sugar cane. When it comes to the main food crops and other export crops, there are few examples of large-scale farms outside of South Africa.
Why is this? The main obstacle to farming on a large scale is the same one that hit Soviet state farms: the management of labour. Small farms have the advantage that family labour is generally self-supervising, prepared to work long and diligently in ways that hired hands are not. When large farms try to minimise the labour problem by mechanising, not only do their costs of production rise, but keeping machinery operating well in rural areas remote from supplies of spares and skilled mechanics is not easy.
Promoting large-scale farming is risky
The obvious danger is that allocating land for commercial farms in large holdings would take land away from the rural poor, or block them off from land that their children may need in the future. Socially unacceptable, any such moves involve high political exposure: expropriation is easy to justify on the basis of historic wrongs. But other less obvious and more insidious risks lurk.
What happens to agricultural policy when a large-scale farm sector is created? With relatively few farmers that can readily be organised, who are rich and politically well-connected as well, large-scale farmers in Africa have a track record of lobbying for special favours. Government is expected to support the large farms with roads, irrigation, and power supplies. Research stations are encouraged to devote their attention to the issues that concern the large farms. The result is that the large farms get these public goods, while any small farms do not. Worse, the large farmers demand subsidies on inputs, guaranteed prices for their outputs, and exclusive rights to grow crops or to market them.
Look at the record of the commercial farming unions of South Africa and Zimbabwe in the recent past. Look today at the large grain farms of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Owned by the political elite, the price paid for maize by the government marketing board is way over the import parity price, conferring substantial rents on the wealthy producers — all in the name of national self-sufficiency.
The record of model Brazil is not so encouraging in this regard either. During the 1980s the commercial farm lobby managed to get the government to offer subsidies on interest rates for farm credit that by 1979–80 were equal to 19–20% of the gross agricultural product, or 2% of GDP. Whilst the majority of Brazil’s farms were of 10 ha or less, only 4% of such smallholders had a bank loan in 1980: 85% of the agricultural portfolio went to the more prosperous South, Southeast and Centre-West regions—with only small amounts going to the needy Nordeste.
Commercial farming, yes; agri-business, yes; but it doesn’t need to be large farms
This is not to deny that large-scale private investors seeking to produce more in Africa should be welcomed. Their capital, their expertise can be put to good use, to the advantage of both the companies and many African (small) farmers as well. But let’s get the economies of scale where they are needed: in the supply chains, in processing, transport and marketing —where lumpy investments and sophisticated know-how count. But let’s leave the farming to the local experts, the family farmers, who have all the incentives to work hard and carefully. This is not romanticism; it is simply a reflection of the empirical record. Small farmers in Africa have repeatedly shown that they can increase production. Let’s give them the chance to do so again.
Paul Collier (November/December 2008 issue) sets out three priorities to overcome the world food crisis—moving to large-scale commercial farms to replace peasant or smallholder farming, promoting genetically modified organisms, and reducing distorting subsidies to biofuels in the US. We think that Professor Collier got two of these right, but missed the boat with his anti-smallholder bias to modernizing agriculture, especially in Africa.
There are three reasons why a focus on smallholder farming is a proven strategy for accelerating growth, reducing poverty, and overcoming hunger.
First, smallholders have proven to be efficient commercial farmers, when given a chance. This is evident from the Asian Green Revolution experience led by smallholders in the 1960s and continuing until today. In India, cereal yields are now 2.6 times what they were in the 1960s, with nearly 90 percent of farmland controlled by farmers with under 10 hectares. And this was not through organic agriculture — Asian smallholder farmers now consume over half of the world’s fertilizer. Failure to realize a Green Revolution in Africa reflects a consistent policy bias against agriculture and smallholders in particular, by both governments and donors. When given the opportunity, smallholders in Africa have proven to be just as responsive in adopting new technologies as their Asian sisters. Witness the adoption of hybrid maize in much of southern Africa, the smallholder dairy revolution of east Africa, and the cocoa, cassava, and cotton successes of West Africa. And witness also the many failed starts with large-scale farming in Africa, dating from colonial times.
Second, accelerating smallholder productivity is win-win in terms of increasing food production and reducing poverty. From 1991 to 2001, China doubled its cereal yields based on smallholders with an average of 0.4 ha of land, while dramatically reducing rural poverty by 63 percentage points and taking a historically unprecedented 400 million rural people out of poverty. Over the same period, the Brazil model of large-scale farming espoused by Professor Collier nearly matched the Chinese record of productivity growth, but the number of rural poor actually increased.
Finally, Professor Collier equates the global food crisis and the hunger of some 900 million people with food supply alone. Yet increasing food supply is only one side of the solution—generating incomes for the poor to access food is equally if not more important. We should not forget that 75% of the world’s poor are rural, and that they mainly depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Since the majority of these rural poor are net buyers of food, raising the productivity of the land they control so they can better feed themselves is essential to gain access to food.
While we recognize that large-scale agriculture has a place in a some land abundant areas of Africa if it is driven by markets rather than subsidies, and the rights of current land users are adequately protected, it would be a huge mistake to forsake the proven power of smallholders to jump start growth, reduce poverty, and solve the hunger crisis in Africa and beyond. Promoting smallholder farming is not “romantic populism”, but sound economic and social policy.
Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry, Co-Directors of the World Development Report 2008, Agriculture for Development, www.worldbank.org/wdr2008.
It is rather unfortunate that the terms of debate should be framed by a man like Paul Collier. From his dreaming spire in Oxford, he looks down on the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Like many unimaginative economists, he starts with the market – and the world market to boot. Yet he understands neither agriculture nor world markets. And he does his case no good by patronising his opposition as ‘populist’, ‘ideological’, ‘romantic’ and even ‘romantic populism’.
One such term is the ‘war on science’. Has he not seen the IAAKSTD report of 2008, in which eminent scientists drew radically different conclusions from his? At times he shows an awareness of the problems implied by his approach, but then rapidly shifts away from them. Two examples: ‘Some have criticized the Brazilian model for displacing peoples and destroying rain forest’ and ‘the political coalition against GM foods has only expanded.’ Indeed so, since members of that coalition understand what Collier does not: we have played around with nature for long enough.
He writes that in large-scale commercial agriculture, ‘if output prices rise by more than input prices, production will be expanded.’ But as he also half-concedes, this has not happened. On the contrary, according to my calculations oil and fertiliser input prices have risen far more than crop prices – so the food crisis is above all a crisis of industrial agriculture. Between the commodities boom of the late 1970s and the one just ended, prices for maize and rice, deflated by those of developing countries’ manufactured imports, actually declined by 25 and 45 per cent respectively on a three-year moving average. Meanwhile real oil prices rose by 59 per cent and phosphates by 46 per cent.
Collier asserts that, ‘Where poor farmers are integrated into global markets, they are likely to benefit.’ Wrong again: over the same period, the largest price falls were in crops produced by poor farmers for globally integrated markets. Real coffee prices fell by 63 per cent, cocoa by 65 per cent and cotton, 57 per cent.
Collier shows no understanding of how commodity markets work. He writes, ‘global food prices must be brought down’; well, now they have been, as usually happens rapidly after price spikes, especially one so dramatic as this. But from China to Nigeria to France, the sons and daughters of farmers are leaving the land in droves since it no longer provides a decent livelihood. With prices low, for how long will big investors want to replace them?
We should start our analysis not with the market but the problems that need to be addressed: poverty and hunger. First determine who and where poor and hungry people are, then why they are so and how their lives can be improved. That is what I did in my book, Making Poverty: A History. This is not romantic or populist but practical good sense. And it did not lead me to airily dismiss, like Collier, the notion that ‘Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.’ The greatest numbers of poor and hungry people are peasants: smallholders and rural landless. What would the good professor do? Shoot them? Expropriate them and hand their land and livestock to big units, like Stalin in 1930? Stalin’s collectivisation programme was based on much the same faulty reasoning as Collier’s.
He ignores the fact that today’s poorest countries are generally small as well as remote, agrarian and commodity-dependent. That is why they fare badly under globalisation. The immediate need is not closer integration in world markets but shelter from those markets’ damaging influence. This applies above all in Africa: build links between African countries rather than between them and the outside world, to enable food surpluses in one area to meet shortages in others. Surplus farmers will then benefit from a good harvest and not see it frittered away in collapsing prices. In the long run that will provide the basis of all development, which is domestic accumulation, not external investment.
Collier offers modern Brazil and industrialising England as models. More relevant perhaps is Denmark, another small country which prospered on the back of small-scale agriculture, exporting food to its neighbours. That helped it to create an unusually harmonious society – unlike today’s Brazil or 19th-century England.
Freelance Consultant and Author of Making Poverty: A History (Zed Books, 2008)
One thing that is missing in the contributions I saw thus far, are definitions of large farms or small farms. 25 years ago I was in Australia and found interesting statistics for Australian conditions of course. To gain an income from farming equal to average national income a beef farmer in the North needed 100 km² of land or 1000 head of beef cattle. A sugar cane farmer needed 50 ha and a farmer growing green pepper 1 ha . Things have surely changed in the mean time and Africa is not Australia, yet looking at income potential instead of at size might be a useful way of looking at farming.
Small farms (and smallholding) do have a very important role as safety net in times of crisis – and the size can range from little more than an allotment garden to a few hectares. This safety function in times of crisis was in the past very important in Europe e.g. during and after WW II, and was also important in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communism (and the economy). And smallholder farming received very little research and development support, because the farm models that research worked for was not a small farm. For outsiders it is tedious to try to understand small holder farming, and it is also tedious to re-orient research (which holds far fewer benefits for agro-industrial companies than do large farms) to small holder farming. Definitely smallholder farms are not simply large farms at a scale of 1:100 or so, and therefore large farms ma not be able to provide many services for small holders. We also should look a small holder farms from another angle: in many African countries 60 or more %of the population still rely to a larger or smaller degree on agriculture for their livelihood. Definitely there is nothing romantic about it – smallholder farming can be very hard work, indeed. However, at present it is needed also for social security. What is needed as agricultural revolution in Africa is research and development that is pro smallholders that also takes into account the dynamics of smallholder farming, and this also has to take in institutional and regulatory systems, and at times even concepts such as varieties in plants and breeds in animals, because they may mean something different in smallholder agriculture than for large, so-called commercial farms.
Wolfgang Bayer, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation
A very important topic and distinction. It is precisely the scale of production and the respective models that accompany either small or large farms, that determines the social and economic character of agriculture, its ecological sustainability (ie how it maintains soil fertility), and its usefulness as a shield against hunger for the many.
The green revolution may have increased yields in certain grain crops for those able to take advantage, that is, those with capital to spend on seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But social inequalities widened, and ecological limits came to bear, ie the law of diminishing returns came to bear on increasing uses of pesticides as resistances built up, soil lost its natural fertility (due to lack of organic material being returned), etc… Lands became concentrated into fewer hands due to the industrial model.
Studies have shown that, the world over, on average the smaller the farms are, the more productive they are in overall calories per acre. We are not talking about the yields of large scale monocultures, but of a diversity of crops and animals raised in given areas. (www.foodfirst.org Peter Rosset)
Regarding GMO seeds, it is now widely known that their main function is to make large scale monocultures easier (more convenient) to produce, through the use of herbicides sprayed over the crop, that the plant can withstand. Overall yields of GMOs have been shown to be below those of the best hybrid or even open-pollinated varieties of the major grains and oilseeds. Conventionally grown hybrid grain crops continue to out-produce GMO crops.
Finally, the argument that large farms of “efficient” monocultures (“efficient only in the sense of how much food each farmer can produce, but not how much can be produced sustainably, or even economically, on a given piece of land) are needed in order to combat hunger is completely false. If rural peoples are to feed themselves, farms necessarily need to be smaller, so that living wage employment is more widely distributed and small-scale farmers have the means to grow their own foods, plus surpluses to sell. It is the lack of support on the part of governments and the international financial institutions that imposed harmful conditionalities for decades now (including the de-funding of grain reserves!) for small-scale farming that has marginalized that sector, not any inherent inefficiency in that way of life or that scale of production.
Once small farmers organize themselves into cooperatives, the small scale of their individual farm holdings becomes irrelevant. Their closer attention to the soil, their use of diverse plantings, their use of animal manures and other green manures, and their attention to micro climate through maintenance of wood lots, etc..for the domestic products forests supply, including medicines, all make small farms more effective in addressing economic impoverishment, in slowing or reversing the rural exodus to the cities, and in providing the community necessary to maintain a resilient rural culture.
It is likely that if you argue otherwise, your bread might very well be buttered in some way by the status quo of corporate, industrial-scale production, or some academic institution that thrives off the spouting of cleverly worded abstractions in the interest of capturing “research”
funding. The debate over small versus large farms is really a debate about corporate control and profit-taking by producers of industrial inputs versus the survival of independent small-holders, the people that Thomas Jefferson swore were the bedrock of democracy, without whom democratic process would dry up and wither on the vine…