Possible Futures and Implications for Small-Scale Agriculture

The following futures were developed using the scenarios developed as part of the FAO ‘Alternative Pathways to 2050 publication (2018). The scenario discussion below take the FAO scenarios as a starting point to draw out the critical implications and dynamics for small-scale agriculture:

Business as Usual

The future develops along patterns that do not address critical challenges of food access, availability, sustainability, and equity, although efforts at achieving the SDGs continue in many countries. The situation for small farmers improves marginally in terms of general food security and access to new markets, but they are strongly affected by climate change, unequal distribution of economic development, technological innovation, and investments.

  • Economic development: Economic growth is moderate globally, with variable developments across countries. Foreign investments and fiscal policies continue along existing patterns, with limited moves towards sustainability. Diverse patterns of economic development within and across regions maintain inequalities, particularly with continuing patterns of social protection mechanisms. Small farmers continue to suffer from poverty and do not receive trickle-down benefits of fiscal policies
  • Governance: Limited effectiveness of institutions in enforcing standards and regulations in maintaining global peace. Energy and resource-related conflicts continue, and the financial and policy focus on defence leaves little room for economic and structural transformation.
  • Markets: market connectivity patterns continue on current trends, with modest investments in public infrastructure, limited progress towards sustainable practices, and inequalities within regions in connecting rural areas, small towns, and emerging urban areas. Small producers remain poorly connected to markets and influenced by labour market discrimination. Niche markets emerge for specific high-value products, but favour medium and high-income small producers with better market connectivity and awareness.
  • Technology and innovation: Unequal investment in technological development and application globally. Benefits of emerging technologies do not trickle down through the food systems.
  • Environment, Resource Use, and Climate Change: Renewable energy emerges slowly, although oil extraction rates continue at current patterns. Limited incentives for adopting sustainable practices further results in limited GHG sequestrations. Continuing emissions from an expanding agricultural sector (and economy-wide emissions) exacerbate climate change. In combination with more arable land brought under cultivation, increased deforestation and continued resource (including water) extraction, more countries become water and natural-resource stressed. Exacerbated climate change negatively affects small producers with increasing crop losses, low yields, decreasing water supply, and uncertainty from extreme climate events. Small producers do not adopt new technologies because of high risks to adoption, high input costs, a lack of return on investments through low prices of food, and a lack of investments and incentives from national governments.
  • Socio-economic well being: Inequitable access to education and health care and despite increasing availability of water and sanitation in LICs, maintenance of services continues to be an issue. However, there are improvements in overall food security and a reduced number of hungry and poor people, with a trend towards increased consumption of healthy and nutritious foods. Small producers spend significant proportions of their incomes on education, health, and basic services, reducing investments on production and farm improvement. Their health status suffers because of a lack of public health services, high food insecurity, and an increased trend towards consumption of processed foods in LMIC. In turn, this has a negative impact on on-farm productivity.

Towards Sustainability

Improvements in socio-economic and environmental domains improve equitable and sustainable access to basic human services, improve food security, and make significant progress towards resource-efficient production and consumption. Small farmers benefit from a reduction in income inequality, poverty, and hunger, and equitable access to basic services. Technological adoption is made easier with improved incentives, and massive investments in sustainable practices and agricultural R&D.

  • Economic Development: Economic policies favour sustainable innovation and enterprise and global development is oriented towards sustainability. Foreign investment is higher with a positive impact on local incomes. Improved redistribution within countries and regions staves off income inequality, improves food security for the poor, and improves the economic situation of small-scale producers.
  • Governance: Improved international and national governance make headway in creating and maintaining peaceful, inclusive, and just societies. The pathway to sustainability results in a lower global dependence on fossil fuels, which reduces the number and impact of resource-based conflicts. Small-scale producers benefit from the more inclusive policy orientation of governments, and experience less uncertainty, loss, and food insecurity from conflict.
  • Markets: A decrease in debt levels of LMIC encourage international trade while improving market integration of the poorer members of society. Increased adoption of balanced and sustainable diets, willingness to pay for social and environmental services provide an opportunity for small-scale producers to cater to new markets. This is aided by investments and incentives that encourage sustainable production and improvements towards pro-poor development. Investments in infrastructure connect rural producers with small and medium-sized urban areas, and benefit from improved and cheaper food storage and processing technologies.
  • Technology and Innovation: Increased investments in R&D and technology stimulates progress towards sustainability and inclusiveness. Small-scale producers have better access to innovative technologies but still have limited adoption because of higher risks and input costs. They face increased competition from middle and large-scale producers who invest more readily in food production technologies.
  • Environment, Resource Use, and Climate Change: Pathways towards sustainability result in lower extraction rates, efficient and effective technologies, and a decrease in GHG emissions. Energy needs are increasingly met through renewable sources. Sustainable practices result in decreased land use intensity, preservation of soil quality, efficient water use, reduced chemical inputs, and improved land management. Agricultural land expansion is slowed dramatically. Crop diversification, and sustainably intensified practice improve resilience to shocks. Small producers benefit from reduced input costs and improved land management practices. New markets of increasingly aware consumers are willing to pay more for these sustainably produced food products.
  • Socio-economic well-being: Increased social welfare through achieving goals of universal primary education, access to health services, sanitation, and clean drinking water improves social cohesion. Decreased human rights abuses and gender discrimination further contributes to increased societal equality. Small scale producers benefit from income that can now be invested in agriculture, training, or higher education, have alternative options for decent employment and livelihoods, and marginalized communities are freed from suffering through discrimination.

Stratified Societies

A highly divided global society presents greater challenges to sustainability and inclusive development. Elite classes protect their self-interest and direct their decision-making power to un-sustainable development. Extreme poverty and food insecurity exacerbate resource extraction, resource-intensive practices, and increased regional and global fragmentation resulting from protectionist policies.

  • Economic Development: While global economic growth is respectable, it is led by consumption and resource-intensive practices. Low GDP growth in LMIC in comparison with HIC worsens income inequality, and national economic growth and foreign investments does not trickle down to influence local incomes. Policies favour commercial enterprises and are restrictive to small business and producers. Small-scale producers benefit even less from the public sector and the economic developments and cannot diversify incomes through commercial enterprises.
  • Governance: Conflicts over natural resources increase and corruption distorts decision-making around peaceful and inclusive societies. Societies fragment further as global leaders focus on improving their own regions and maintain global regions to benefit national consumption patterns. Small producers are affected by the price increase impacts of local conflicts, unequal investments in capital, and income disruptions.
  • Markets: Commercial enterprises are incentivizes to produce large quantities of low quality food for the masses, and high quality and luxury foods for the elite classes. Although rapid population growth can potentially provide new market opportunities for small-scale producers, high barriers to small enterprises block market access, and low production quality further reduces potential opportunities. Lack of investment in infrastructure focused on pro-poor development further reduces new market connections and rural development. Poor rural populations can migrate, but are faced with low-wage jobs.
  • Technology and Innovation: Low investments towards R&D results in lower investment in sustainable and innovative technology. Regulations around chemical inputs are relaxed and technology development focuses on labour-saving instead of sustainability. Small scale producers are trapped in a cycle of needing increasing amounts of inputs to adjust to deteriorating soil quality and more uncertain climate change impacts, but unable to afford the high costs. A dependence on mono-culture further worsens crop diversity, resilience to pests, and worsening nutritional profile. Agricultural prices increase because of low yields, and farmers are more vulnerable to shocks.
  • Environment, Resource Use, and Climate Change: GHG emissions increase rapidly, driven by low investments in R&D, intensive resource extraction and chemical use. Agricultural techniques are not oriented towards sustainability, new agricultural land is incorporated to satisfy the increasing demand, and water use efficiency worsens. Small-scale producers increasingly suffer because of competition with commercial farmers, and because of high crop losses exacerbated by climate change.
  • Socio-economic well-being: Access to basic services, education, and health is highly stratified across societies. The inequality results in worsening health and social outlooks for the poor layers of society, disempowerment and disenfranchisement. Small-scale producers spend increasing amounts of their income on basic services in a context of deteriorating health, and increasing poverty and food insecurity. Food production declines in significant parts of poor societies exacerbated by climate change, resource intensive practices, and a lack of investments in sustainable pathways.


In broad outline, the above scenarios reflect the multi-stakeholder discussions held in Ghana and Zambia with the project teams.  There is a deep appreciation that the current trajectories do not look good and concern that without focused intervention the consequences of business as usual may lead to future scenarios of more extreme polarisation as those with wealth seek to protect themselves from emerging problems.

As was started in a modest way in Ghana and Zambia there is a need to unpack future scenarios at a country level are draw attention to the specific uncertainties, risks and opportunities for specific locations.