Dramatic changes are inevitable for small-scale farmers over the coming decades. The directions of this change will have profound implications for the incomes and nutrition of the more than two billion people whose livelihoods are entwined with small-scale agriculture. Billions more will be affected by how food systems evolve and the environmental and climate impacts of food production and distribution. Small-scale farming households are key players in food systems as food producers and consumers and as custodians of environmental resources. And, food systems are at the core of realising most of the SDGs. Transforming small-scale agriculture over the coming decades must consequently be a fundamental development objective to ensure a large group is not left behind and to put food systems on a more sustainable footing.
There is no shortage of talk, reports and development initiatives aimed at supporting small-scale agriculture. However, for many countries and in particular Sub-Saharan Africa, and despite rapidly changing food markets, the last decade has not shown a trajectory of change that is encouraging for the future of most small-scale farmers. The problem is compounded by the unhealthy and unsustainable path down which food systems are currently proceeding. We see four interrelated reasons behind this:
- The un-nuanced understanding of the diversity of “small-scale farmers” and their different circumstances and needs – the dualism of small-scale agriculture.
- A lack of political will, at all levels, for creating the policies and making the public investments needed to support an inclusive and sustainable transformation of small-scale agriculture.
- Limited guiding visions for the future of food systems at a country level, and how the transformation of small-scale agriculture could occur within a wider systemic outlook for food and agriculture.
- Weak processes of interdisciplinary and systems analysis, dialogue and engagement across government, business, civil society and research.
As this project shows, across some 30 reports and studies, going back over more than ten years, there is no shortage of general recommendations about what needs to be done to improve small-scale agriculture. The menu of better public services, access to financial services, improving the functioning of input and output markets, R&D, infrastructure and effective producer organisations is well established. What is lacking are county level and more localised small-scale agriculture transformation strategies.
Based on the analysis in this project, a big blind spot seems to be around the proportion of small-scale farmers who are and could be in the future, financially viable producers of food for growing urban markets. The literature and policies are clear that many small-scale farmers will eventually leave agriculture and alternative employment options needs to be generated. However, what is much less clearly articulated is the vast numbers of small-scale farmers who struggle to make anywhere close to a living income and for whom there will be very limited commercial opportunities into the future. Much of the focus on small-scale agriculture has been on the commercial opportunities and transitioning small-scale farmers into these opportunities. There has been much less attention for the strategies that can work for those who will inevitably be left in some combination of semi-commercial and semi-subsistence existence, earning marginal incomes from local markets and surviving by finding off-farm sources of income. It is this group who will still represent the large percentage of the world’s poorest and most malnourished.
It is also not new to recognise that the transformation of small-scale agriculture needs to consider four strategies:
- Small-scale farm commercialisation for those who have the opportunities, assets and motivation
- Support for semi-commercial and semi-subsistence farmers as a transition phase between either commercialisation or leaving agriculture
- Provision of productive social protection to tackle the poverty, hunger and malnutrition of suffered many small-scale farmer households.
- Enabling mobility by creating off-farm employment opportunities and developing the skills for alternative employment.
Indeed, these were at the heart of the 2008 World Bank Report on Agriculture for development. However, over the ensuing 10 years there have not been sufficient efforts to quantify and geographically locate the numbers of farmers who require what types of support. Nor has there been sufficient effort to develop more sophisticated and targeted policy responses appropriate to the specific needs of different groups of small-scale farmers.
So what is the way forward? Ultimately the transformations of small-scale agriculture can only be driven through deeper national and local understanding and alliances for change that create a political will for policy reform and public investment. Consequently, and taking a systems perspective, we argue that a desirable transformation of small-scale agriculture requires three interrelated elements:
- Clarifying the desired transformation outcomes of small-scale agriculture transformation within the context of a food system perspective and based on scenario thinking about trade-offs, synergies and pathways
- Identifying the mix of transformation interventions needed to realise desired outcomes and assessing their utility against different future scenarios
- Putting in place effective transformation processes that integrate science with policy, politics and public discourse through multi-stakeholder engagement and enable a more systemic approach to change
Thinking about the future transformation of small-scale agriculture must be set within the context of the deep structural changes that are occurring within the food sector and the wider economy. These changes, which were articulated in Section 3, are dramatically influencing the opportunities, incentives and constraints for small-scale agriculture in ways that were not the case even a decade ago.
As the scenarios illustrate there are no guarantees about how the future will unfold. Human systems cannot be controlled and engineered, but they can be nudged in more desirable directions. Given the importance of small-scale agriculture to food systems and there is a desperate need to find transformation pathways that can optimise the value of small-scale agriculture while tackling the impoverishment and food insecurity that affects so many small-scale farming families.
But as said at the start this is far from new issue.
The food system drivers indicate the wider trends that will shape the operating environment for small-scale farmers, the dynamics of change illustrate implications the key implications for small-scale farmers and the above point to key uncertainties and possible futures. The key question is how to create a transformation for small-scale agriculture that is socially, economically and environmentally desirable. Different pathways will involve different trade-offs, inevitably with winners and losers. Understanding these trade-offs and how they could be mitigated is fundamental for developing transformation pathways.