Turning the spotlight on agriculture

Emma Blackmore's picture
Guest blog by
7 May 2010

Have we glimpsed real signs of economic recovery? Growth figures from the last quarter of 2009 and first quarter of 2010 for the US and UK certainly suggest so, as would the International Monetary Fund’s predictions for global economic growth in 2010. The National Bureau of Economic Research has, however, refused to officially declare the recession as over. The debate will go on. Meanwhile the question of what will emerge from the ashes of this crisis remains unanswered.

Despite this, shifts are beginning to become evident. Renewed focus has been given to agriculture in international policies – spurred by the food and fuel crises of 2008 and the global economic crisis. The multiple whammy brought growing hunger to much of the developing world and fears of global food insecurity and widespread fuel shortages. This necessitated reflection on agricultural policy – particularly at the international level. That throws up certain questions to do with national agricultural policy and the role of the some 450 million small farms that dominate the developing world.

Shifting focus
But first, it’s key to understand the current shifts in the agricultural contexts.

Food security concerns also led to some shifts in global investment patterns as agricultural land became the focus of investment attention. There was a rise in ‘large-scale land acquisitions’ or ‘land grabs’ in Africa and elsewhere by countries including China and Saudi Arabia to secure land for agriculture, and this was partly driven by needs for food security, for profit and also for production of biofuels.

As Due South has noted, investment in agriculture has been a bright spot in foreign direct investment (FDI) patterns in the developing world, with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) predicting it will be at the forefront of the next boom in FDI. Many private investors have recognised the potential profitability of the agricultural sector, identifying a gap between supply and demand of agricultural production and so identifying a need for both intensifying production and finding more cropland.

Concern has been raised over the lack of consideration of the impact of these ‘land grabs’ on smallholders, with fears of exclusion, loss of livelihoods and local food insecurity.

A role for small-scale farmers?
Small farmers are the prime players in agriculture in the developing world. Globally, some 2 billion people depend on an estimated 450 million small farms.

But what is the future role of small-scale farmers in agricultural development? Do they have a key role to play in future agricultural production and in achieving global food security? The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) seems to think so and argues that investment in small-scale agriculture is vital to ‘grow the economy out of the recession’. The UN has appealed to national governments to ensure that agriculture is at the top of their agendas, and the World Bank has highlighted the importance of agriculture and small-scale farmers in its 2008 annual report.

But despite the spotlight turning on agriculture, widespread prioritisation of the role of small-scale farmers is far from being achieved, and current recommendations and policies for agriculture do not always have positive outcomes for small-scale farmers.

Historically, investment in small-scale farming by national governments has been low, particularly in Africa and the sector continues to suffer from investment levels far below the 10 per cent recommended by the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). But a government focus on agriculture generally means more for poverty alleviation.

Small-scale farmers face numerous challenges, such as limited access to credit and to inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and technology. But in addition to the role they play in building food security and alleviating poverty, they can be efficient producers (producing as much per hectare as large farms), potential allies for environmental sustainability and part of the solution to climate change.

A small-farm focus in global thinking
Small-scale farming is already the focus of a lot of fast and furious thinking: it’s one of today’s hotter topics. The roles of producer organisations (such as co-operatives), governments and big business in making global and regional markets work better for development, for instance, are all the subject of debate.

Each of these sectors has its own set of assumptions and recommendations about the risks and opportunities for small-scale farmers. But the time is ripe for more inclusive and integrated thinking on the issues facing small-scale farmers and on opportunities to forge solutions – both at the ground level, such as access to different inputs (technical) and at the policy level, ensuring that the structures and procedures necessary for small-scale farming to flourish are in place.

Small-Producer Agency in Globalised Markets, a programme co-run by IIED and HIVOS (the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation), aims to seize the opportunity thrown up by this concentrated focus on agriculture by seeking knowledge-based solutions to some of the issues small producers face.

It has set out to elicit, map and integrate knowledge on the dilemmas confronting small-scale producers in global, regional and national markets. Should producer organisations and their federations focus on rights-based approaches that recognise farmers’ rights as citizens, or market-based approaches that recognise the entrepreneurial nature of small-scale agriculture?

Should government revive its traditional role in the regulation of markets in the face of uncertainties in the global economy? Can international companies change their business models to include small-scale producers in fair and equitable trading relationships?

For small-scale farmers and their organisations to position themselves and make effective choices in the face of this complex agenda demands knowing how to organise their interests and take effective action, and building capacity to do so. It also requires a widening and reshaping of the debate.

The programme has a 16-member learning network spanning Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, who either work directly or are closely involved with small-scale farmers.

Through knowledge sharing and the development and dissemination of new knowledge, the network seeks to support the development community (including policy makers), producer organisations and businesses in their search for better informed policies and practices – ones that support small-scale farmers and see their future inclusion, in fair conditions, as vital for development. Watch this space.

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