Productive smallholders

The policy debate on rural development and hunger has flared up again. The positions of those advocating a technology- and market-oriented approach and those taking account of local conditions and structural aspects seem irreconcilable.

[ By Roman Herre ]

At the World Food Summit in 1996, the international community resolved to halve global hunger by 2015. But instead of falling, the number of hungry has so far increased – by more than 50 million to a total of 854 million worldwide. Nearly 80 % of them live in rural areas. The fact that food prices are rising – not least because of increased demand for agrofuels – does not augur well.

In recent decades, development policy-makers have tended to neglect rural areas, even though small farms play a crucial role in food security. Many developing countries have become dependent on food imports – with dire consequences.

In the meantime, donor interest is re-focusing on agriculture. Competition for increasingly scarce natural resources has become fierce. On the other hand, rural communities in poor countries have become better organised and more assertive.

Multilateral actors like the World Bank and the Global Donor Platform on Rural Development favour industrial farming geared to world market demand. They see farms as suppliers of global supermarket chains. Such notions have been around for 50 years, justified on grounds of productivity and output.

Today, the proponents include the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. This initiative of the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations favours the cultivation of patented high-yield varieties, including genetically modified crops. Such plants depend on expensive irrigation systems, fertilisers and pesticides. However, even the World Bank stated in its latest World Development Report that many rural communities can scarcely afford this capital-intensive approach.

Small farmers, landless people, indigenous communities and women’s organisations therefore favour multifunctional small-scale agriculture. After all, they do not think merely in business terms. What is at stake is local and national food security, employment and core components of rural culture and knowledge systems.
What is needed to reduce poverty and hunger are not monocultures and genetically manipulated cash crops but intercropping, biodiversity and locally adapted seed. Such farming is not only environmentally sustainable, but also marked by low capitalisation and high labour input. Therefore it is the appropriate approach for marginalised rural people.

High-yielding varieties, on the other hand, are extremely demanding in terms of nutrients. Therefore, they deplete soils and necessitate the use of fertiliser. These varieties are also susceptible to pests and easily hurt by fluctuations in climate. The consequence can be total crop failures – and the poor, in particular, would have nothing to make up for the loss. In intercropping, some varieties are typically resistant, so harvests are never wiped out completely.

Advocates of small-scale farming are often dismissed as romantics. However, numerous studies show that sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming are very productive. Organic farming in the South permits yields almost twice as high as those actually achieved by conventional agriculture.

In the EU, less than one percent of agricultural research funds are spent on organic farming. Public and private finance has been channelled into high-tech approaches for decades. Obviously, a more balanced support would unlock a great potential. However, the aim must not simply be to maximise yields or even profits. Reliable harvests and secure food matter very much too – especially in times of crisis.

Vital diversity

The main reason for the dramatic decline in the range of cultivated crops – and thus in their genetic diversity – is the spread of industrial agriculture. In a development driven by the Green Revolution, the practice of growing high-yielding varieties is superseding diversified, small-scale agriculture. Prior to the Green Revolution, farmers in the Philippines grew more than 3,000 different varieties of rice. 20 years later, only two varieties were planted in 98 % of the country’s paddies. The worldwide erosion of genetic diversity is staggering. An estimated 75 % of all crop varieties were lost forever in the 20th century.

Diversity is nature’s survival principle. To adapt to changing environmental conditions and prevent food shortages, it is vitally important to have a wide range of cultivars and crop plant varieties. In times of climate change – which impacts particularly on agriculture – ability to adapt is more important than ever. The effects of climate change will be felt most in the developing world, where the majority of crop varieties are found – and they are vital for food security. Preserving and increasing that diversity is crucial for guaranteeing the right to adequate food.

Access to land remains one of the most pressing issues. According to the UN Hunger Task Force, extremely unequal land distribution is among the principal causes of hunger. Displacement and eviction, on the one hand, and extreme concentration of land, on the other, marginalise people and thwart rural development.

Technology- and market-centred approaches compound rather than alleviate the problems. Small farmers often need to take out loans to meet the regular costs of seed, fertiliser or pesticide; and if they cannot pay the instalments, they lose their land. The World Bank approach of solving the land issue by liberalising land markets does not help the poorest farmers, who have no money for investing in land. This is one of the lessons learnt from so-called “market-assisted land reforms”.

Access to land for small farmers needs to be safeguarded, for example, where it is threatened by agro­fuel plantations. Indeed, violations of the right to food occur where governments allocate land for energy crops. Typically, traditional land rights are ignored, local groups are deprived of their livelihood and evicted – and the cultivation of crops that were grown for generations is discontinued.

In countries with extremely unjust patterns of land ownership, redistributive reforms must grant plots to the landless and land-poor peasants. Where people suffer hunger because they have neither land nor other possibilities of earning a living, land reform is a government’s obligation under international law – as a measure to fulfil the human right to food. A long-term promotion of the beneficiaries, that takes into account biodiversity, is a keyfactor for success.

Civil-society groups accuse the World Bank, AGRA and GDPRD of being more aligned to agricultural corporations than to the poor. In that context, buzzwords like “ownership” and “empowerment” become almost meaningless, indicating no more than a little scope of setting accents within a predefined framework. Indeed, the agenda has already been set, as can be seen in the way most relevant multilateral institutions deal with the issue of food sovereignty: in most cases, they simply ignore the democratic, self-determined approaches to food and agriculture policies as demanded by rural groups. It is much the same story in the context of agrarian reform.

Strengthening the human right to adequate food in bilateral and multilateral development cooperation would strengthen participation of rural groups and is a key requirement for reducing hunger and promoting the kind of rural development, that considers food not only as a commodity but also as a cultural good.

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