Smallholders Unite

To the Editor:

Paul Collier ("The Politics of Hunger," November/December 2008) sets out three priorities for overcoming the world food crisis: replacing peasant and smallholder farming with large-scale commercial farms, promoting genetically modified crops, and reducing subsidies to biofuels in the United States. Collier got two of these right but missed the boat with his anti-smallholder bias when it comes to modernizing agriculture, especially in Africa. A focus on smallholder farming is a proven strategy for accelerating growth, reducing poverty, and overcoming hunger.

First, smallholders have proved to be efficient commercial farmers, when given a chance. This is evident from Asia's "green revolution," which was led by smallholders in the 1960s and continues today. In India, cereal yields are now 2.6 times as large as they were in the 1960s, with nearly 90 percent of the country's farmland controlled by farmers with less than 25 acres. And this was not accomplished through organic agriculture; Asia's smallholders now consume over half the world's fertilizer. The failure to realize a green revolution in Africa reflects governments' and donors' consistent bias against agriculture and smallholders in particular. When given the opportunity, smallholders in Africa have proved to be just as responsive to new technologies as their Asian counterparts. Witness the adoption of hybrid maize in much of southern Africa, the dairy revolution in East Africa, and the increased production of cocoa, cassava, and cotton in West Africa. And witness the many failed starts with large-scale farming in Africa, which date from colonial times.

Second, accelerating smallholders' productivity increases food production and reduces poverty. From 1991 to 2001, China doubled its cereal yields based on the output of smallholders, while dramatically reducing rural poverty by 63 percentage points and moving a historically unprecedented 400 million rural people out of poverty. Over the same period, in Brazil, that country's model of large-scale farming, the model espoused by Collier, nearly matched China's record of productivity growth, but the number of rural poor in the country actually increased.

Finally, Collier portrays the global food crisis and the hunger of some 900 million people as a food-supply problem alone. Yet increasing food supply is only one part of the solution; generating incomes for the poor so that they can access food is equally, if not more, important. Do not forget that 75 percent of the world's poor live in rural areas and that they mainly depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Since the majority of these rural poor are net buyers of food, raising the productivity of the land they control so that they can better feed themselves is essential for them to gain access to food.

Although large-scale agriculture has a place in some land-abundant areas of Africa -- if it is driven by markets rather than subsidies and if the rights of the current land users are adequately protected -- it would be a grave mistake to forsake the proven power of smallholders to jump-start growth, reduce poverty, and solve the hunger crisis in Africa and beyond. Promoting smallholder farming is not "romantic populism" but sound economic and social policy.

DEREK BYERLEE
ALAIN DE JANVRY
Co-Directors, World Bank's World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development

 

To the Editor:

Paul Collier correctly states that policymakers have the ability to curb increasing food costs and food insecurity. However, Collier's promotion of massive commercial agriculture as a solution is worrisome because it ignores fundamental principles of equity and rights and stands to harm the poorest and most food-insecure.

Adopting large-scale agricultural systems concentrates financial gains among the few who own the large farms. The poorest end up being malnourished, whereas the wealthiest gain the most as the "elite capture" problem of development is played out. Most smallholders would become sharecroppers or hired hands in such a system. More troublesome is the wholesale trust placed in
the hands of corporations for ensuring the food security of poor countries. In offering market-based solutions, Collier ignores the fact that poor people have a limited ability to purchase seeds and fertilizer. Collier admits that a sudden switch to global agribusiness could have "ugly consequences," yet if his grand experiment to help the poor fails, rural families will be further impoverished and starved. In places of poverty and malnutrition, are solutions such as these equitable or even ethical?

Collier's other line of reasoning rests on a false dichotomy -- that the future of agriculture depends on either embracing genetically modified technology or single-mindedly advocating for small-scale organic production. Apart from being reductionist and simplistic, Collier's argument is naive in its advocacy of monoculturalism.

Policy responses should focus on promoting agriculture as a viable livelihood by improving small-scale agricultural production, market structures, and rural infrastructure. Farmers need tools, training, and access to water. In looking for a silver bullet, Collier fails to take into account that the calculus of production does not change, even with the introduction of high-yield, pest-resistant seeds. Further investment in agricultural development is necessary to realize increased productivity -- genetically modified seeds or not.

A glaring gap in Collier's piece is his failure to consult the farmers for whom he proposes his solutions. More neocolonial, large-scale commercial structures imposed by Western countries are often the last solutions poor rural farmers would choose. We advocate community-based agricultural programs that support food security and viable livelihoods for the poorest. A rights-based approach to food security acknowledges that the social-justice considerations of providing employment and food for the most impoverished do not allow any outside intervention that would further consolidate resources among the wealthiest.

JOAN VANWASSENHOVE
DONNA BARRY
Partners In Health

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