Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry

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,