supporting smallholder agriculture can stop hunger

By Joe Walker

Poor farmers across the continent are among the hungriest and poorest sections of our societies.  But with just a little more support they could be at the very heart of new global strategies to tackle hunger.

Globally, these ‘small farms’ sustain up to two billion people – a third of humanity.  Yet the day-to-day reality for the vast majority of these farmers is one of grinding hunger and poverty: astonishingly, three-quarters of the world’s hungry live on small farms or are rural landless.

A new report by development agency ActionAid, which is based on extensive global research, coupled with interviews with several hundred farmers, government officials and academics, in Malawi, Kenya and Uganda, suggests that it is defunct policy choices which are to blame. The report presents compelling evidence that supporting smallholder agriculture can stop the spread of hunger and tackle poverty.

Growth in agriculture can have twice the impact on poverty as growth in other sectors. This occurs both through the direct impact of raising the incomes of the large numbers of rural poor, and through the strong linkages between agriculture and other parts of the economy. The International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that raising productivity and incomes in the agriculture sector is the cheapest and most practical way for most African countries to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty and hunger in the next five to ten years.

Encouragingly, where promises to support smallholders are being kept, the results are good and point to the huge untapped potential of smallholder agriculture. For example, in Uganda, the re-invigoration of services targeting poor rural farmers has helped them increase their food security and incomes. Badly degraded land in western Kenya has been rehabilitated through sustainable farming, and not only have maize yields doubled but diversification into fruits and vegetable growing has improved household nutrition and incomes earned. Meanwhile, in Malawi, the well-documented public support to smallholders, has put a decisive end to years of recurring famine, reducing the number of people requiring food aid from over 1.5 million in 2004 to less than150,000 in 2009.

As promising as they are, however, interventions such as these have only gone part of the way to plugging the huge gaps left by the chaotic withdrawal of public support from agriculture. Over the past 25 years, as a result of well documented World Bank and International Monetary Fund liberalisation, government support to agriculture in developing countries has all but dried up. The argument used was that government interventions were inefficient and market-distorting.  But this one-side approach systematically ignored the positive functions of state involvement. What’s more, they got it badly wrong in assuming that the private sector would fill the gaps left in services. In fact, the cure was even worse than the disease. Unsurprisingly, smallholder productivity stagnated, while African countries became dependent on food imports.

Belatedly, world leaders are acknowledging the withdrawal of public support was a mistake and that the private sector alone will not deliver food security. After a decades-long decline, spending by African governments actually doubled between 2000 and 2005. But this is still not enough to face growing challenges, nor is it targeted in a way that is most beneficial to the poorest farmers.

Above all, evidence shows that governments and donors are not supporting those who do most of the farming – women.  Women remain invisible, with few government interventions aimed specifically at them. Women produce 60-80 per cent of food in developing countries and still have little control over, or access to, agricultural resources: owning only 1 per cent of the titled land in Africa and receiving only 7 per cent of extension services and 1 per cent of all agricultural credit. Agricultural policies that exclude more than half the rural population are absolutely nonsensical. Rural ‘extension services’, agricultural research focused on smallholders, and rural financial services would help women and the poorest but are the most under-resourced.

Low-cost, ecologically sustainable and climate-resilient methods of increasing productivity are also being neglected in favour of conventional intensive approaches that often benefit richer farmers and have high environmental costs.

Governments could do much more to tackle hunger levels.  And making a living from the land is getting harder, thanks to intensifying droughts and soil degradation, and growing commercial pressures on land. Food production per person in Africa is 10 per cent lower today than it was in 1960, with climate change set to further devastate yields.

Three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children live on small farms.  It doesn’t have to be this way. Just a little more investment in supporting poor farmers could reverse this rural tragedy.

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