By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson
The final eDialogue in our five-part series on the ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?’ finished off by exploring policy implications for the inclusive transformation of small-scale agriculture in challenging times.
A stellar panel of experts from five continents brought a rich and insightful set of perspectives to the table.
We asked: “Is a fundamental shift in incentives and policies needed to tackle the ongoing issues of poverty and malnutrition facing rural-households who farm, and to align small-scale agriculture with the goals of a transformed food system? If so, how might such shifts be brought about?”
Rhetorical questions perhaps, but it was enlightening to hear from a group of highly knowledgeable panellists that profound shifts in policy are needed and that such change is possible, despite the difficulties. The need for new visions of policy goals, that take a much more integrated approach to food systems was a clear message.
It was also clear that policy does matter. Current incentive structures and market externalities are often driving food systems and the conditions for small-scale farming in the wrong direction. Past policy settings may have been appropriate for a staple crop-oriented approach to food security, prior to times of resource scarcity, climate change, the growing nutrition crisis, and more complex rural-urban interlinkages. Today, however, emerging challenges and future risks require a substantial policy rethink.
Against a backdrop of ‘progress’, too many people are being left behind: Given a set of mega-trends, we were encouraged to be optimistic about the future. Taking Africa for example, wage rates, education levels, health status, financial inclusion, access to mobile phones, and off-farm employment rates have all improved dramatically and appear to be heading in the right direction. However, this does not mean that specific groups aren’t being left behind or that there aren’t fundamental challenges in the food and farming sectors related to livelihood security, health and nutrition and the environment. These are very real challenges that affect large numbers of the most vulnerable male and female farmers, and farm workers, and they require substantial policy innovation. This wider positive development trajectory does though give hope for change. However, linking back to the theme of ‘recognising diversity’, what is possible is profoundly shaped by a country’s specific economic status and its particular political economic dynamics.
Recognising good public benefits: It was observed by the panel that farming and food is a largely a private sector activity. Yet, depending on the way food systems are functioning, the outcome can lead to huge public good benefits or costs. Basic, public investments in agricultural research and development, and in ensuring rural infrastructures such as roads and communication along with the right incentive mix for good health and environmental protection are foundations for society to reap benefits rather than costs from the ways we produce and consume food. Deeper discussions about public costs and benefits, both in the short and longer-term and how they link to market failures and incentive structures is a critical starting point, for the transformations that are increasingly recognised as necessary.
Working backwards from a new vision for food systems and rural economies: Arguably, policies related to small-scale farming have focused too narrowly on immediate issues rather than longer-term visions for change. The food systems agenda creates an opportunity to rethink small-scale farming within a wider context of creating visions and transformation pathways for food systems that are oriented towards improved livelihoods, good nutrition, environmental sustainability, and that are economically inclusive. This ties into utilising what will be substantial growth in the value of both domestic and regional food markets to help drive wider rural economic development. But all this requires longer-term and more integrated and dynamic policy thinking that works back from these visions of possible ‘food futures’ to the policies, practices and programmes that are needed to guide the transformation. At the same time, the risk and uncertainty of such complex and dynamic socio-technical systems must be recognised. Linear management and control approaches to policy are increasingly ineffective. Framed by a risk-based approach, our institutions and policies are often poorly equipped for our uncertain world.
An enabling pathway for ‘small food system entrepreneurs’: An underlying message was that the future for many small-scale producers will most likely not be as farmers, but rather as ‘small-scale food system entrepreneurs’, generating income and employment opportunities from diversified sources both on and off the farm. Policies are needed to support this entrepreneurial transition and capture the value from food markets to help drive wider rural economic development.
Responding to vulnerability: Future policies must prepare for and be able to effectively respond to the increasingly complex, intersecting social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities faced by farmers and farm workers. COVID-19 has well illustrated the devastating impact of the pandemic on household incomes and their ability to purchase sufficient healthy food. The climate crisis is likely to dramatically increase the risks of droughts, natural disasters, disease outbreaks and even conflicts, all of which disproportionately impact on small-scale producers. This uncertain context with its overlapping short- and long-term shocks and stresses, presents a complex set of challenges for food and farming policy, demanding more adaptive, experimental, reflexive forms of governance and institutional arrangements. This call for much more innovative forms of affordable insurance schemes and risk-oriented social protection.
Territorial innovation: Forget the notion of large cities and rural areas. Increasingly populations are spread across a vast number of towns and small- and medium-sized cities, creating vast peri-urban areas and stronger rural-urban connections. This creates tremendous opportunities for small-scale farmers, both in terms of new market linkages and value addition, but also in terms of off-farm employment opportunities that can complement farm income. However, at national and sub-national scales, tailored policies are needed to support such territorial development and the often unique conditions of different locales.
Land reform and inequality: Equitable land access and rights that balance the needs and interests of small-scale farmers with small-holder commercialisation and the development of larger-scale farming remains one of the most critical aspects of policy. Land policies have a profound influence on gender equality and empowerment, the rights and livelihoods and vulnerable groups, and investment by both small-scale farmers and larger operators. The world is seeing an increasing polarisation between consolidated large-scale agri-food sector investments and small-scale family farming which risks growing inequalities and difficulties in creating a more economically inclusive food system. Policymakers need to come to terms with the sort of land and investment policies that can better balance food system outcomes of health, equitable livelihood opportunities and environmental sustainability.
Cultural identity: Farming and rural lives are about peoples cultural identities. Policies need to be careful of instrumental approaches that ignore the cultural connections with land and the role that food plays in culture and identity. These factors also have a significant role to play in the decisions farmers take and the importance of land beyond pure economic returns. Empowering rural groups to express and strengthen cultural identities that help maintain social cohesion solidarity should not be overlooked.
Access to capital: Although access to land matters, equally important for many households is credit and longer-term investment funds. For all the talk of rural banks and micro-finance, most small farmers simply cannot get working capital. They rely on whatever they have as ready cash which often must be spent on pressing priorities, such as school fees, medical bills, and household consumption. Thus, many small farmers struggle to buy quality inputs or hire labour when they need it the most, and in the process forego yields they can ill-afford to miss.
Fundamentally perverse incentives: Our panellists left no doubt that past policy decisions that have resulted in a set of deeply perverse incentives, at both the global and domestic scales. Too often existing public expenditures drive towards the production of calorie-rich rather than nutrient-dense foods and put ‘band-aids’ on poverty rather than enabling the conditions for rural economic development. Current subsidies drive unsustainable use of natural resources or distort trade to the disadvantage of small-scale farmers. The extent to which small-scale farmers receive public support varies enormously among continents and countries. In South Asia, where public support to rural households is multi-layered, a wider view of how policies impact on food prices makes it clear that small-scale farmers are often ‘net taxpayers’. Essentially, they subsidise cheap food for consumers and value extraction by more powerful enterprises further along the food value chain.
Beyond “subsidies” to investing for the public good: Panellists stressed the point that the right kind of targeted subsidies can make a difference to agricultural productivity and livelihood security. While the pros and cons of input and price subsidies have been hotly debated over the past decade, a rethink around the language of subsidies is needed. Given market externalities, the huge public costs and risks of a failing food system, widespread rural poverty and inequality corrective public good investments are essential. These include for example creating incentive mechanisms to drive the demand for and production of a diversity of more nutritious food, incentives for good environmental practices, ensuring rural infrastructure, or improving social protection schemes, particularly in relation to risk. The challenge is to design so-called ‘smart’ subsidy programmes that have a significant impact on the availability of food and the improvement of household incomes in the short run while stimulating growth and rural development and increasing (or at least not suppressing) effective demand for and commercial distribution of inputs in the long run.
Political realities: No one should be naive about the political imperative of keeping food prices low and ensuring national food security. For a majority of people in low- and middle-income countries food is a large proportion of their expenditure and even slight rises in food prices can easily push them into a food deficient situation and dramatically impact on their ability to pay for other life needs. As was well seen in the 2008 food prices crisis, this has significant implications for social and political stability, something of which most governments are acutely aware. Further, many poor farming households are net purchasers of food. Consequently, governments are often very risk-averse in terms of changing policies that relate to food prices and food security. Further, the existing regimes of input and price subsidies have significant benefits for some, often influential, interest groups who bring their influence to bear in maintaining the status quo.
Practical realities: As one panellist highlighted, even with strong political will to reform food systems, incentive structures and how these impact on small-scale farmers, there are significant practical challenges. In general, more effective use of public investment requires effective targeting to the needs of specific communities and households in specific locations, often involving direct cash payments. However, many of those who need such support do not have bank accounts. There are huge data gaps in knowing who to target in what sort of ways and significant administrative challenges. This is one of the reasons more broad-based approaches are often used, despite the challenges of a distorting influence, poor targeting, and leakage of resources.
Mobilising political commitment for change: There is a tendency for people (and governments) to overplay the risks of doing something differently and underplay the risks of the status quo. Consequently, policy innovation and reform to drive the transformation of small-scale farming within a broader vision sustainable and socially-just food systems require four things: One, a clear perspective of the negative consequences of ‘business as usual’ that is understood not just by a small network of informed researchers and activists, but by political leaders of all stripes and wider society (after all, we are all consumers of the goods and services provided by our food system). Two, evidence that alternative pathways can work, based on sound research and detailed case studies documenting the emergence and persistence of ‘islands of innovation’ to provide ideas and inspiration for future policy and practice. Three, practical transition strategies to bring about change and which can balance out the interests of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and ensure ‘no one is left behind’. Finally, sufficiently strong international and national coalitions for change from across government, business, civil society, and science are required. Global public goods need to be invested in helping to generate the data and evidence, and the informed processes of dialogue and coalition-building necessary for change. Such processes are needed from local to global in ways that help to link understanding of how issues connect across scales. Of critical importance is building national and local level capability for generating and synthesising data and supporting stakeholder and policy dialogue with foresight and scenario analysis.
Farmers voices: The fundamental importance of engaging farmers themselves, with all their diversity, in policy dialogue was underscored. This is vital for understanding what farmers are actually experiencing, hearing their ambitions and ensuring they are able to protect their interests. Inclusive processes of policy dialogue from local to global levels need support and investment.
Acknowledgement: This blog drew in particular from the comments and inputs of the panellists of the fifth session of the eDialogue and we are very thankful for their rich contribution to the discussion. The blog is the authors’ interpretation of the session and may not necessarily represent the overall perspective or specific opinions of the individual panellists.
Panellists: David Nabarro, Meike van Ginneken, Thomas Jayne, Elena Lazos Chavero, Rebbie Harawa, Ángela Panegos, and Avinash Kishore
By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson
Tuesday 10 November was another fantastic session of our eDialogue series on ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?: Inclusive Transformation in Challenging Times’.
The panellists explored the complementary roles of commercialisation, food production for self-consumption and social protection in tackling farming household poverty and poor nutrition.
Now with four eDialogue sessions under our belt, a set of very thought-provoking perspectives are starting to crystallise. They have profound policy implications.
Achieving the SDGs hinges on transforming small-scale farming. Let’s step back to the fundamental issue. The world has an estimated 500 million small-scale farmers. In terms of rural households this represents a population of some 2.5 – 3 billion people – over a third of the world’s population. On the one hand, this group produces much of the food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. On the other, this group encompasses the majority of those who still live in extreme poverty and suffer hunger. A transformation of small-scale farming is fundamental to eradicating poverty and hunger, to feeding the world sustainably and well, and to tackling the climate crisis.
Small-scale farming households are very diverse. In thinking about this necessary transformation, our eDialogue panellists time and time again stressed the point that small-scale farmers are not a homogenous group. We often hear it said that there are no “one size fits all” solutions. We would go further and say that generalisations are not only misleading, they can be very dangerous and lead to ineffective policy directions and sub-optimal outcomes.
Gender dimensions are critical. In understanding household diversity, it is critical to understanding the roles and changing role of women. For example, as male members of households seek employment outside the farm, either locally or further afield, the women take on greater farming responsibilities, but often without commensurate decision-making power, access to finance and expertise and security of land tenure. Women’s and girls’ empowerment remains a critical element of any transformation strategy for small-scale farming.
Most small-scale farming households don’t just farm. It is vital to recognise that rural households who farm are not only farmers. Farming households have a diversity of income sources. Household members engage in a combination of farming, off-farm micro-enterprises, rural wage labour, and migrating to work in urban areas. Poorer households may also rely on various forms of social protection. A shift of perspective is needed from “small-scale farmers” to “rural households who also farm”, recognising that farming is often just one of several important income streams.
The number of small-scale farms are not declining as economies develop. There is another critical observation. In OECD countries, economic development during the 20th Century saw a very rapid decline in farm numbers and significant land consolidation. Although there is a trend towards consolidation of farms in some countries of East Asia, this is not happening in most low- and middle-income countries. In fact, in South Asia and Africa farm numbers are increasing and farm sizes are shrinking, while perhaps counter-intuitively in parallel there is also an increase in the number of medium-sized farms. Two factors are at play. First, increasing populations without commensurate employment opportunities create an increasing demand for land. Second, without employment security, social protection, health insurance or pension schemes, many people hang on to their land as security. This occurs even if the land area is very small and even when they have substantial off-farm income. This situation is also leading to forms of informal and temporary land leasing and consolidation, in ways that enable people to maintain their legal or customary title.
Most small-scale farmers can’t make a living from farming. Against this background, we need to understand the profitability of farming. The harsh reality is that for many farmers growing staple crops – or even traditional cash crops such as coffee and cocoa – on small areas of land it is hard to make a living, given the low productivity and current market prices. Production of low-value commodities on small parcels of land generates small, often negligible, surpluses that make it difficult for the household to cover the basic income requirements for daily living. Some crop sales by poor semi-subsistence households are, therefore, not sales of surplus, but so-called “distress sales” to meet immediate cash needs, even if the household then has to buy in quantities of the same crop a few months later – when prices are higher. This makes livelihood diversification essential. Very small-scale farmers who are unable to diversify their livelihoods remain the poorest and most malnourished group of people on the planet.
On its own, linking farmers to markets is not a solution. The last decades have seen a development ethos around the idea of linking farmers to markets and agricultural commercialisation as a core strategy for tackling rural poverty. On its own, this focus on ‘making markets work’ is not a solution for the complex challenges faced by a majority of small-scale farming households. There is a reality of how much can be produced on a given area of land. With the very small land holdings many farm families maintain, the numbers simply don’t add up for the many crops they grow and the prices they receive for their produce. It is not a question of investing in “sustainable intensification” to increase yields by 20, 50 or even 100 percent nor of improving prices by similar amounts. Most small-scale farmers would need a multifold increase in farm income to get anywhere close to a living income. Without doubt, connecting to markets is important, but only part of the issue. It is what can be earned from producing for markets from a given area of land combined with other sources of off-farm income that ultimately matters.
A Pareto Principle for small-scale farming? The economic value of growth in the food sector will be very substantial over the coming decades. This leads to the argument that there will be significant opportunities for small-scale farming households in agriculture. However, this assumption needs to be unpacked carefully. It is already clear that a small minority of larger, more viable small- and medium-scale farmers produce the bulk of food being consumed by urban populations. Future demands for food will be for high-value perishables and will have requirements for quality, safety, traceability and volumes of delivery which create substantial barriers for most small-scale producers. The degree to which future food demands will be inclusive and translate into viable futures for large numbers of more marginal, small-scale producers is questionable at best.
Food system opportunities beyond the farm. Growth in food demand can help to drive overall rural economic development and create a diversity of both on- and off-farm employment and enterprise opportunities. The pathway out of poverty for many small-scale farmers is most likely through diversified livelihood strategies where they become more integrated into off-farm economic activity and much greater levels of value addition. In the medium term, many will take up these opportunities while still doing some farming. The scale of off-farm food system employment opportunities along and beyond the value chain needs to be better understood. These are the places likely to create multiplier effects in the wider rural economy to drive structural transformation.
Don’t forget informal markets. While some supply chains are formalising, for the foreseeable future informal and semi-formal markets will dominate domestic food trade in most countries. They have supply networks that may stretch over great distances. At the consumption end, these systems meet the growing demand for prepared foods, with the role of women and youth being particularly important throughout. Optimising inclusive on and off-farm economic opportunities in these markets is essential for reducing rural household poverty. Policies need to be geared towards supporting more pluralistic arrangements, strengthening both informal and formal marketing channels to meet the growing demands of a diverse set of rural and urban consumers. At the same time, it is important to recognise that employment and trading conditions in the informal sector can be very exploitive, making it difficult for people to escape poverty and move towards a living income.
The need for holistic approaches. Tackling the poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition faced by many rural households whose livelihoods largely or partly depend on farming will require a multi-pronged and integrated approach. Strategies need to be targeted to the specific circumstances and needs of particular households and particular geographic locations. Broadly, four elements need to be integrated into a coordinated approach:
- Enabling inclusive commercialisation opportunities for those who have the potential for farming to be a viable element of their livelihood mix, with a particular focus on diversifying production systems to support more nutrient-rich diets.
- Optimising the potential for farming households to improve their nutrition and food security through what they can produce for self-consumption.
- Extending, targeting and innovating social protection to support those who are most vulnerable, to provide better risk management and insurance mechanisms and to support people to become economically active and self-reliant.
- Creating enabling conditions for farming households to diversify into off-farm income earning activities.
An enabling rural environment remains critical. Alongside initiatives that target the needs of individual households, there is also a need to put in place the public goods and services, including infrastructure, telecommunications, energy, education and health services, and sustained business investment and dynamic small and medium-scale enterprises which are needed to underpin the overall economic development of any rural area. Striving to create a vibrant rural environment where people actively choose to live – including young people – is key for the long-term future.
Getting the data. The eDialogue posited many observations about the trends and emerging opportunities and challenges for small-scale farmers. But the message was clear – the data does not exist to adequately understand what is happening locality by locality or country by country. There is a big gap in knowing who is on a pathway to greater prosperity and who is being left behind. Targeted and effective support strategies need to be based on a much more granular understanding of the livelihood strategies of diverse range of farming households and how their circumstances are changing. Investing in longitudinal, multi-sited, interdisciplinary research that can track livelihood trajectories over time and space and assess differential outcomes of various strategies and interventions will be essential if we are to fill those knowledge gaps.
Utilising digital potential. In all aspect of transforming small-scale farming digital solutions are seen as critical. This includes generating data, providing market information and access, payment systems, insurance, banking and finance, providing targeted social protection, and providing technical services. However, it must be stressed that these are not a panacea. They cannot replace, but only enhance other public and private services that are essential for creating and sustaining a vibrant rural economy.
Services to society. Rethinking the contribution of small-scale farmers. Instead of looking at the plight of small-scale farmers as a problem to be solved, what happens if we look at how small-scale farming can be part of the solution to a wider set of societal challenges? Four areas are key, providing a more nutrient-rich and diverse diet for society at large, providing eco-services that protect the environment, carbon sequestration through land use, and diversified and attractive rural livelihood options that help avoid large out-migrations (which put unmanageable pressures on urban areas and exacerbate the problems of cross-border migration).
Diversification – an underlying theme. Across the eDialogue series, diversification has become a common thread that has bound the panel discussion together. The diversity of farming households. The diversifying nature of household livelihoods. The need to diversify food production and marketing arrangements to meet nutritional needs. The diverse ways in which small-scale farming can contribute to society’s needs. And the need for a diverse yet integrated set of support measures to enable a socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritionally smart and a resilient transformation of small-scale farming.
Acknowledgment. This blog draws on the views and perspectives offered by the eDialogue panellists (listed below) in the first fours sessions of the eDialogue and we thank them very much for their inputs and insights. The conclusions in this blog are those of the authors and may not necessarily be those of the panellists.
Panellists: Gilbert Houngbo, Jemimah Njuki, Milu Muyanga, Julio Berdegue, Avinash Kishore, Irene Annor Frempong, Theresa Ampadu-Boakye, Ajay Vir Jakhar, Kofi Takyi Asante, Regis Chikowo, Audax Rukonge, Hannington Odame, Steve Wiggins, Heitor Mancini Teixeira, Milena Umana, Claus Reiner, Maija Peltola, Alejandra Arce, Abdelbagi M Ismail, Aida Isinika, Martin T Muchero, Cyriaque Hakizimana, Adebayo Aromolaran, Aditi Mukherji, Sudha Narayana, Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Jeevika Weerahewa, Mamata Pradhan, Ranjitha Puskur, Grahame Dixie, Fabrizio Bresciani, Andrew Powell, Marlene Ramirez, Irish Baguilat, Tran Cong Than, Mario Herrero, Fábio Veras, Namukolo Covic, Felix Kwame Yeboah, Iris van der Velden, and Clara Colina
Our first online session of this eDialogue began by “Setting the Scene” with a range of global and regional perspectives, and in the second session we heard more “Local Perspectives on Small-Scale Farming”, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. We also encouraged all of you to submit your ideas in the form of short 2-3 minute “vlogs” and we have a rich – if not abundant – harvest of ideas which you can view here. These vlogs are largely contributed by researchers, but a few farmers have shared their ideas and we’d love to hear from many more people so we encourage you to submit vlogs to us.
What we have heard to date only scratches the surface of the huge diversity of smallholder farming systems around the world. This is not surprising given that the best estimates are that there are more than 500 million small-scale farmers worldwide! Reflecting on what we have heard so far, what can we learn? For a start – small-scale farmers are key to both local and global food and nutrition security, and to rural livelihoods throughout the world. Second – generalisations are dangerous! All of us are influenced by our own experiences and examples. The huge diversity among what are termed small-scale farmers manifests itself not only in terms of differences among continents and regions, but also within countries and, the deeper we look, even within each village.
When thinking about the future of small-scale farming, we hear highly optimistic voices with some wonderful examples of individual farmers and farmer groups and cooperatives who are carving out their own future through farming. At the same time we recognise there are major challenges faced by small-scale farmers, not least due to the continual pressure to drive down food prices globally. We certainly don’t have all the answers so we’re counting on hearing many more voices and perspectives in the coming sessions.
Two critical questions come to mind for me, which I’d like to share and hear your comments on:
- We realise that simply tweaking the current systems is not enough – and we are challenged through the SDGs to think about “transformation”. To be honest I find this really hard – as a scientist I am pretty good at unpacking why things don’t work – but not great at imagining new futures. What would this transformation look like? I discuss this in an article just published which I entitled the “Food Security Conundrum of sub-Saharan Africa”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what sort of policies and actions could support a transformation of small-scale farming on Africa.
- To what extent can successful models for rural development around small-scale agriculture in one part of the world be an inspiration for change and transformation elsewhere? It seems to me that the differences among continents – in terms of opportunities both within the agricultural sector, in terms of alternative employment beyond the farm, in terms of cultures and the general economy to name a few – are so different that we must be cautious in trying to transplant approaches from one place to another.
So there is plenty more to discuss – and in our next session we are planning a series of separate meetings for different regions to address some regional specificities. Then we will have a joint session to explore some of the similarities. This will hopefully provide guidance for our two sessions in November where we will think about transition pathways and then finally policies to support future transformations.
Please do join us! We need your input.
Summaries of the previous sessions including online recordings and all of the vlogs can be found on our websites: