Outcomes of eDialogue Session 1 (July 16): Setting the Scene – What future for small-scale farming?

By Lauren Barredo, 23 Jul, 2020

On July 16, 2020, the SDSN, Foresight4Food, IFAD, and APRA co-hosted the first of a series of eDialogues on the future of small-scale farming. The goal of the series is to present the latest thinking of experts working on the front lines to support small-scale agriculture, and this first session gave an overview of the challenges smallholders face and opportunities for improvement in yields and standards of living. A short summary is below, and a full summary is available online. To sign up for the next events in the series, please register on the Foresight4Food website.

Ken Giller, Co-Chair of SDSN Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, opened the discussion with an overview of the series. He highlighted that small-scale farms and farmers are critical to our global food system, as well as local livelihoods, and that the topic is even more timely given the global pandemic and its impacts. Giller said the series will culminate with a virtual wrap-up workshop at the end of November, and findings will feed into the 4th International Conference on Global Food Security in December, the IFAD Rural Development Report 2021, and the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

The first speaker was IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo, who opened by saying that the role of small-scale food producers has always been key to food security, but especially so in this time of COVID-19. Food scarcity has been on the increase in recent years, and the pandemic is worsening this situation. He also noted 3 billion people around the world cannot afford healthy diets, and this is an issue of income and access inequality as well as production. 

Milu Muyanga, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University and Research Director, MwAPATA Institute, Malawi, noted that a smallholder-led growth strategy has been touted as solution for reducing poverty in the sub-Saharan Africa. Growth starting among smallholders is likely to be inclusive and to have far higher multiplier effects than growth in any other sector. However, Milu questioned if smallholder-led growth is still a feasible strategy for Africa, given the yet to be tackled pre-existing problems that have continued to bedevil African smallholders and emerging new ones whose impacts are yet to be clearly understood. Muyanga noted that while smallholders constitute the majority of farm households in Africa, smallholders are not a homogenous group across and within countries.   

Jemimah Njuki, Senior Program Specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), warned that researchers and policymakers tend to generalize small-scale farmers and think of them as homogenous, or facing similar constraints. She suggested that we need more nuance in policymaking and research to succeed. Smallholder farms are not all equal; for example, as Muyanga noted, they hold different amounts of land. Some are commercial farmers with good access to markets, and these farmers just need good policy to thrive. Other farmers struggle with low levels of productivity on small, rainfed plots, but they have great potential to commercialize and earn a living wage. What is needed in this case is better access to technology and markets. A third category is farmers who farm to live, to eat. Njuki said the whole approach for them needs to be social protection, and that on the whole we need different approaches for different kinds of smallholders. 

Julio Berdegué, FAO‘s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, shared a case study from Chile, where we can see family farmers have done well in recent decades. The number of family farmers is declining more slowly than the number of commercial farmers, and their income is increasing more than that of commercial farmers. Berdegué posed the question, do we build bridges or walls to protect smallholders, and bridges to where? He warmed we often build bridges to the wrong place, such as putting a lot of attention on linking smallholders to niche markets (ex. fair trade and organic markets), but these only serve a very small numbers of farmers. 98% of farmers operate in traditional markets, but they get relatively little attention.

Avinash Kishore, a Research Fellow at IFPRI, saw many similarities between the challenges he sees in South Asia, and those presented for Latin America and Africa. Kishore highlighted four key trends he is seeing. The first is the rising gap between agricultural and non-agricultural income and resulting inequality. He warned that in South Asia they cannot move enough people out of agriculture, and their incomes cannot rise because the government does not want food prices to rise. The second trend Kishore noted is the persistence of ultra-small smallholdings (farms of 0.1 or 0.2 ha). The third trend is depletion of all natural resources (including soil, water, air, and biodiversity). Kishore’s fourth trend relates to the pandemic; there is now greater concern and demand for safer food processing.  

Irene Annor Frempong, Director of Research and Innovation at FARA, shared some reflections. She noted that Njuki’s point that smallholders are not homogeneous is a crucial point, and that characterization of farmers should underpin any serious initiative to include small scale farmers in the agricultural transformation agenda. She called for programs that go beyond social protection that directly help farmers move up the ladder to become commercial. The second point she highlighted was Berdegué’s point to look at the food system in more general terms, saying that Africa’s food system is primarily farming (62%) and little on non-farm aspects of processing, aggregation, logistics, retail etc. there is need to increase these non-farm components.  

A lively discussion followed, where Muyanga noted that access to land is becoming a serious constraint in Africa. Kishore shared progress in India on getting every person a unique personal identifier and mobile bank account, which also allowed cash transfers to the poor during the pandemic. Jim Woodhill, of the Foresight4Food Initiative, summarized the discussion with three key points: (i) all smallholders are not the same, and we need different opportunities for different groups of farmers, (II) we should pay better attention to which markets we look at, and semi-formal markets are critical, and (iii) we need to think more creatively about policy, especially on the technological front.

The questions posed during the online dialogue are available online. Thanks to everyone for their interest and active participation. An elaborated summary also available online.

We will be organizing an online discussion around emerging themes in the coming days – so watch this space!

Video Recording of the Event