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February 7, 2011
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I’ve known Sophia Murphy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy for over a decade, since we worked together on the SophiaMurphy_thumblaunch of the (still uncompleted) Doha Trade Round, and I’m a big fan. She has consistently been one of the most thoughtful and nuanced commentators on agricultural in general and the role of small farmers in particular, as well as being a wonderfully serene influence, building consensus and earning respect from all sides in an often heated debate. So in a sense her time has now come – public narratives on development have seen small farmers go from disparaged dinosaurs to core players in a world of climate change and resource constraints. To give you a flavour, here are two extended quotes from her latest paper, for the impressive-looking Hivos Knowledge Programme:

“The [global economic] crisis made it almost impossible for government officials to contend that all was well in the world of agriculture. For 50 years agricultural production grew at a comfortably faster rate than the human population. Today, that productivity growth has shrunk to little more than one percent, near parity with the human population growth rate estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau as 1.1 percent in 2009. The post-war production boom depended largely on abundant oil and natural gas, together with irrigation and selective breeding that focused on increasing yields of grain per individual plant. This approach, while hugely successful, is challenged from many directions today. The oil and gas that go into pesticides, fertilizers and the fuel to run farm equipment is finite and prices have risen, and are likely to go on increasing. Fertilizer prices rose dramatically during 2008. The terrible waste associated with widespread and careless use of irrigation systems, too, is under attack as water tables and underground aquifers shrink and as climate change makes rainfall more uncertain. Meanwhile, the science of hybrid seeds seems to have reached a plateau, while the newer science of bio-engineering remains controversial. A number of countries have rejected the technology outright, while the private sector’s insistence on private property rights makes the technology prohibitively expensive for small-scale farmers. Now public health officials are joining debates on food and agriculture because there is mounting evidence to link industrialized food and agriculture systems to the rapid rise in the incidence of obesity and its associated illnesses.”

And her ‘final thoughts':

iatp cover“The moment seems ripe with opportunities for small producers (SP). Their production meets a universal human need, and demand for food is growing. The knowledge and experience of SP is very much in demand. But there is no question that, as in the past, there are visions of development that would ignore them, and others that see SP as a problem.

What might be different this time? One is the lack of consensus on technology. The Green Revolution of the 1960s entailed significant investment in inputs that were derived off-farm and therefore represented a new capital cost for farmers to absorb. This time, in part informed by the unanticipated social and environmental costs of the last Green Revolution, there is a big and relatively open debate. There are not just NGOs and farmers organizations on both sides of the debate, but national governments and inter-governmental institutions as well.

Second, climate change has given a whole new impetus to long-standing environmental concerns as to the sustainability of agricultural practices. Choices about what people eat and how it is grown have taken on an environmental dimension that has been lacking in industrial societies since the time that food production became a specialized activity that takes place away from where the majority of people live. Farmers have always worried about the weather; now consumers are worrying about the weather, too.

Three, visions of development are shifting. The public resources made available to development, as we have seen, are subject to their own fashions and whims. But it is possible to argue that there is a moment of greater pragmatism in the fashion; that the certainties of the 1980s and 1990s have eroded under the (heavy) weight of global economic recession, increased volatility in agricultural commodity prices and the real if hard to cost burden of unaccounted for environmental damage.

In all this, SP need to answer some questions and to think through some of the questions being asked around food and agriculture to understand where best to put their time and energy. Where can some synergy be created between their need to survive and thrive in uncertain times and the global policy debates that are putting SP in the mainstream of the discussion?

The challenges are many but the opportunities for change in agriculture have not been greater since the world emerged from the carnage of WWII. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has famously written that the most profound social change of the second half of the 20th century was the “death of the peasantry.” Perhaps a profound social, economical and political change of the first half of the 21st will be their resurrection—or at least, their return to favour as fully modern economic actors. This paper has described where that renewed support for small-scale farmers can be found in the current debate: It is found in governments’ food security concerns, in agribusiness’ interest to secure supplies and to develop new markets, in consumers’ demands for more equitable trade, in intergovernmental organisations putting more emphasis on tracking abuses to international law and human rights, and in small producer organisations professionalising their role with young new and better educated leaders The challenges ahead are surely enormous, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, it would seem reports of the peasantry’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.”

Great stuff.

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