Is small farm led development still a relevant strategy?

This blog post is by Chase Sova, DPhil student at the Environmental Change Institute, and is a summary of the talk given by Peter Hazell recently

Small-scale agriculture has changed dramatically since the time of the Green Revolution. Small farms today are smaller and more numerous than their 1960’s counterparts while urban centers have continued to grow.  Despite predictions by many economists suggesting increased land consolidation, the reverse has held true in many places including India and China. Shrinking small-scale farm sizes have led the rural poor to diversify in to off-farm income sources, further compromising agricultural output. Add to these trends emerging stressors like climate change and growing populations and you have the makings of a perfect storm facing small-scale producers. Recognizing that not all small-scale farmers are the same and adopting targeted measures to support them is an important step in adapting to this new era of smallholder farming.

This according to Peter Hazell, former World Bank and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) economist. Hazell recently visited Oxford University, giving a lecture entitled “Is small farm led development still a relevant strategy for Africa and Asia?” for the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.

Hazell set out in his talk to answer key challenges to the traditional small farm development paradigm, mainly:

  • Are small farms still the more efficient producers?
  • Can small farms compete in today’s more globalised value chains?
  • Is a new breed of large commercial farm emerging that is about to displace lots of small farms?
  • Can small farms generate the marketed surpluses needed to feed growing urban populations?
  • Are small farms still win-win for poverty alleviation and growth?

Ultimately, Hazell suggests that small-scale farms are still highly efficient (i.e. the smaller the land size the greater the productivity) although labour productivity remains low. A proliferation of agricultural cooperatives and other collective-action arrangements today has achieved some success in allowing small-scale producers to gain access to markets, credit and inputs. Trends in access are, however, shifting due to an increasing focus on delivering genetically modified seed and agro-chemical packages directly to larger producers, supported by trends in land-grabbing and other foreign direct investment. These and other considerations related to Hazell’s key questions can be found in his full presentation.

The result of these trends is that smallholder farmers are increasingly net-buyers of food as opposed to net-sellers. Small-scale farm surpluses, a pillar of the Green Revolution’s success in triple-win arrangements (poverty alleviation, food security, and growth) are harder to come by today. Supporting smallholder farmers remains a good strategy for poverty alleviation and food security - as they represent a social agenda in their own right - but unless small-scale farms succeed in generating linkages to off-farm sectors then their outlook in terms of economic growth remains poor.

But not all small-scale farms are created equal. Hazell’s principle thesis is that typology matters within small-scale farms, particularly in terms of the policy support measures. Drawing on the work of Vorley (2002) and the World Bank (2008), Berdegué and Escobar (2002), Hazell proposes grouping farms in to:

  1. Business oriented small farmers (i.e. those that are already linked -or nearly linked - with markets and quality inputs)
  2. Smallholders in transition (i.e. those part time farmers that are likely to leave agriculture)
  3. Subsistence oriented small farmers (food insecure, marginalized or ethnically discriminated farmers).

Support measures, then, could be targeted according these distinct typologies including, for example, improved technologies and market access for type 1 small farms, training and support for entrepreneurs and small businesses to support successful exits from agriculture for type 2 farmers, and safety nets and empowerment of women and vulnerable groups for type 3, subsistence-oriented farmers.

Admittedly, for research organizations like the CGIAR, it is difficult to develop a targeted research agenda given these diverse options for engagement. But, according to Hazell, we cannot simply rely on market mechanisms alone to accommodate the diverse needs of smallholder farmers. Increasingly tough tradeoffs are emerging between ‘triple-win’ outcomes. Continued success in small farm led development requires revisiting how we define smallholder farmers and moving away from one-size-fits-all responses.

Photo of Kenyan farmer by P. Casier (CGIAR)

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