3.3 A new agricultural future

The simple question facing policy makers, especially in developing countries, is who will sustainably generate the agricultural surpluses needed to feed a growing population, and how?

There is no shortage of simple, off-the-shelf blueprints on offer. One group of protagonists maintains, in the words of a widely cited analysis in The Economist that, when it comes to farming, ‘big is beautiful’. More specifically, that Africa should import the ‘Brazilian model’ of large-scale commercial agriculture and phase out smallholder farming. Once fashionable among colonial administrators, this camp maintains that large farms are more productive, more innovative, more adept at embracing new technologies, and – ultimately – better at feeding people.

Another set of advocates sees all large-scale agriculture as a threat to the peasant way of life, a source of inequality, and a vehicle for subordinating agriculture to commerce at the expense of human need. This group tends to view new technologies with deep suspicion and is equally sceptical of international trade, concerned that they lead inevitably to the exploitation of poor producers and labourers resulting in deeper poverty and hunger.

Such polarized debates are unhelpful. They continue a long tradition of ‘expert opinion’ directed towards small-scale food producers. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any constituency in international development that has been subjected to so much irrelevant, and in some cases, harmful advice.

The romanticization of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

It is certainly not the case that big is bad. Whether a farm is ‘bad’ or not depends upon the practices of the farmer or company running it – these can be exploitative and environmentally destructive whether the farm is two hectares or 20,000 hectares.

Nor is it a case of ‘big is beautiful’. Exporting the Brazilian model to Africa combines bad economics with a detachment from social reality, and is a prescription for increased poverty and hunger.

A simple thought experiment demonstrates why. There are around 33 million small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa working plots with an average size of 1.6 hectares – about the size of 3 American football fields.136 In Brazil’s Cerrado region, a not untypical farm is in excess of 20,000 hectares.137 Put differently, a single large-scale farm imported from Brazil into Tanzania could displace 12,500 smallholder farms. In the absence of an unprecedented and implausible level of job creation in urban centres, the transition to ‘big’ agriculture would be anything but ‘beautiful’ – it would deliver a dramatic increase in poverty, rural hunger, and urban slums.

Moreover, today’s large farms tend to suffer from a heavy ecological footprint – due to profligate water use, pollution of groundwater, and reliance on oil-based agro-chemicals and diesel-burning machinery – thus undermining the human and natural resources on which food production must depend.

If we are to meet the three challenges set out in the previous section, then sustainable models of smallholder production must be where the lion’s share of effort goes.

The huge untapped potential to increase yields among smallholder farmers is where the real opportunity lies. And while less input-intensive, more climate-friendly agricultural practices are not exclusive to small farmers, they are often well suited to this scale of production, and easily adopted (see Box 10).

Because vulnerability, poverty and hunger are concentrated among the rural poor, investing in smallholder agriculture will build resilience, and boost incomes and food availability in hunger hotspots, especially if the investment is sensitive to gender inequalities.138 Furthermore, history shows that investing in agriculture has provided a crucial ‘growth spark’ in the take-off of most successful developing economies.139

Box 10: ‘Sustainable intensification’

Agriculture will have to become less input-intensive and wasteful if the resilience challenge is to be met. Clues as to how this can be achieved lie in a toolkit of practices known as ‘sustainable intensification’.

Use of animal and green manure reduce dependency on expensive inorganic fertilizers, the price of which is linked to oil. Agro-forestry and intercropping with leguminous vegetables helps improve soils and diversify income. Integrated pest management techniques reduce the need for expensive chemical pesticides. Water harvesting reduces the need for irrigation and helps deal with unpredictable rainfall. Soil conservation techniques maintain soil nutrients and productivity.

Recent research into these practices has produced exciting results. The most comprehensive study examined 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 countries and found an average yield increase of 79 per cent.140 Another study reviewing 40 sustainable intensification projects in 20 African countries found that average yields more than doubled over a period of 3–10 years.141

Precisely because these practices were developed for farmers without access to inputs and machinery and for contexts where conservation of the natural resource base is critical, they have a much lighter ecological footprint. Use of fossil fuel-based agrochemicals and diesel-burning machinery is low; carbon stocks – above and below ground – can be conserved or even increased; and water and soils are used more efficiently and sensitively.

A good example is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a low external input approach widely adopted by farmers in India, Indonesia and Viet Nam. It was developed for small farmers to help them boost productivity and reduce reliance on inputs, and promoted by Oxfam and other NGOs in a growing number of countries around the world. The results are startling: studies across eight countries found average yield increases of 47 per cent and average reductions in water use of 40 per cent. This, coupled with reduced use of seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, allowed farmers to increase their incomes by over 68 per cent on average, while significantly reducing methane emissions – one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.142