Some fascinating South-South thinking from a blog and paper by Li Xiaoyun, Tang Lixia, Xu Xiuli, Qi Gubo and Wang Haimin of the China Agricultural University. Things that jump out compared to the usual Western spiel? The focus on staple foods, smallholders, gradualism and the role of the state.
“In China, a consistent agriculture-centred development strategy and staple food crop-led agricultural development policy, honed through an incremental learning process, significantly shaped small holder agriculture. This is a lesson in itself as it speaks to the need for consistency of purpose and the trust required to invest in one’s own traditional systems.
Another lesson from China stems from the steady transformation towards a market system ensured by the provision of irrigation, improved seed, and fertilizer and market facilities provided by the state, which enabled small holders to access the services economically. In contrast, despite the consensus reached on the vital role of agricultural policy in Africa, most countries have not been able to develop their own consistent home-made strategy.
Building a food-based agriculture takes time and must be accompanied by comprehensive support systems to assist new appropriate technologies to emerge. This includes re-investing in agricultural education, research institutes and experiment stations as well as a modern extension service.
African perspectives on agricultural development have been largely interrupted by various external influences. As a result many well-intentioned support programs have not been well integrated with the African small holder agricultural system, and at the same time, African countries have not been able to develop their own governmental capacity to provide the necessary support services for smallholders.
The smallholders have become a victim of marketisation and privatisation. China’s experience suggests that for the countries with a majority of small holdings, the development of agriculture requires consistent context based strategies. With a dominant staple crop rural structure, agricultural development can be staple crop-led. Above all, market reform should be gradual so that smallholders will not be put into a ‘market trap’ under market reform.
China’s agricultural development experiences also suggests that the effect of agricultural strategy and policy development depends on the state’s capacity to implement them on the one hand, and on the other hand, whether the policy is suitable for small holders and their social, economic and environmental conditions.
Policy issues cannot be considered simply as technical problems such that efficiency problems can be solved by technocratic solutions. Nor has it been effective in Africa to try and produce more favourable agricultural environments by encouraging external interventions led by big objectives and big business.
The most important consideration is how to put the real needs of small holders at the top of those big policies and plans. This is not to suggest that large scale farming for cash crops and export materials should be stopped or stunted, but it is clear that this single structural track in agriculture is insufficient to earn investment capital for wider state development. It is also clear that food security will not be solved this way and thus rural poverty will persist.
What might be learned from the China case is that both food-based systems and large scale agriculture can exist side by side and that many mutual benefits can be derived from their co-existence. A shift in emphasis towards sustaining and improving the food-based smallholder systems in Africa can be an inexpensive complement to the on-going cash crop economies. A symbiosis that fits the African reality needs to be configured and strongly maintained by State policy and programs.
The state has a clear role to play. As in China, food systems are a public as well as a private good. Nevertheless, Africa still should be very cautious about what to learn from China’s successful experience in agricultural development. For example, China’s long-standing food production-based agricultural policy has achieved national food security and increased food exports while farmers’ incomes have grown at a slower rate.
China’s agricultural production system has featured ‘high input – high output’ production patterns that have made an important contribution to food security, but many have had irreversible impacts on the environment and natural resources.
In a word, it is clear that Africa cannot copy China’s experience be it from the perspective of a national strategy or of small farm family operations. With diverse internal situations on the continent, in order to successfully learn from China’s experience in agricultural development, Africa should carefully identify and make adjustments to China’s experience in order to adapt to local and regional situations; just as China has done throughout its long history.
Above all, African nations need to make their own agricultural plans and continue to develop the human and fiscal resources to implement them.”
[h/t Tim Kelsall]