Smallholding can feed the world
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:44 28 March 2014
Oct 18, 2012: Organic smallholding has become mainstream, and is increasingly recognised as offering the most practical and comprehensive solution to many of the world’s problems, says author and Country Smallholding writer Alan Beat
A global study involving governments, non-governmental organisations, industries and 400 scientists from rich and poor countries over a four year period was published in 2008. This authoritative report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded: “The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse. We have little time to lose if we are to change course. Continuing with current trends would exhaust our resources and put our children’s future in jeopardy.” The scientists saw little role for genetically modified (GM) crops in feeding the poor; Professor Robert Watson, chief scientific adviser to DEFRA, said: "The short answer to whether transgenic crops can feed the world is 'no' "
Also in 2008 a report from the United Nations (UN) found: “The evidence supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most other production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. This is in line with the findings of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 2007.”
In 2010 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, published his report which stated: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just. Scaling up agro-ecological practices can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and rural livelihoods, and reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion.”
In 2011 the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) published a report on sustainable agriculture which recognised “an emerging scientific consensus that a shift to small scale sustainable agriculture and localized food systems will address most, if not all the underlying causes of deteriorating agricultural productivity as well as the conservation of natural soil and water resources while saving the climate. A model that integrates sustainable farming and renewable energies in a circular economy could compensate, in the best case scenario, for the carbon emissions and energy consumption of the entire nation while revitalising and stimulating local economies”.
A generation ago, statements like these were restricted to a tiny minority of pioneering organic visionaries. But we are now witnessing a sea-change in attitude, for the authoritative reports quoted above - a small sample among many - cannot be lightly dismissed. Organic smallholding has become mainstream, and is increasingly recognised as offering the most practical and comprehensive solution to many of the world’s problems.
Globally, smallholders already feed one third of humanity - more than 2 billion people, many of them in the world’s poorest communities. Most of the world’s prime cropland is given over to large scale commercial farming focused mainly on exports and non-food crops. In contrast, the majority of staple foods for domestic consumption are grown on small plots of less than two hectares. For example, across Latin America, peasant smallholders produce 51% of maize, 77% of beans and 61% of potatoes for domestic consumption from just one-third of total cropland.
There are about 500 million small-scale farms in the world varying in size and productivity. Typically, a family cultivates a mix of staple crops to feed its members and produce a small surplus to sell at the local market. This means producer families also have cash for essentials, school fees and healthcare.
Small-scale farming offers locally-grown food at affordable prices. The local economy revolves around the production and sale of locally-grown seeds and crops. Such localised food systems help to buffer communities against outside shocks and reduce their dependency on expensive bought-in foodstuffs and products. Relatively modest investment to provide training, seeds, tools, livestock and water has been shown to significantly increase yields wherever it has been trialled. There is no longer any doubt that investing in small scale farming makes good financial sense. For example, the FAO estimates that Zimbabwe could triple or even quadruple maize production with an annual investment of £30 million for three years, to comfortably meet the food requirement of the entire population.
Paradox of scale
In 1962 the Nobel economist, Amartya Sen, first documented the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of food they produce per area: the smaller the farm, the greater the yield. It has been confirmed many times over by scientific studies across the world.
Small farms have typically been shown to be from two to 10 times more productive, and much more profitable, per area of land; and this applies globally, not just in the developing world. Even in the USA, the agricultural census shows a sharp decline of net income per acre as farm size increases.
Smallholdings are highly productive because they are typically biodiverse systems that take advantage of the beneficial relationships between multiple crops and livestock, while wastes from one crop become resources to recycle through another. They embody the circular economy of nature, where energy and nutrients are recycled within the ecosystem. The large commercial farm, in contrast, follows an industrial model of bought-in goods and services to produce specialised outputs plus waste in a linear, non-cyclical fashion.
Across most of the developed western world, farm profitability is distorted by massive state subsidies, both open and hidden, to selectively favour larger farms. A profits survey of UK Farms by the Institute of Chartered Accountants found that income from direct subsidies made up 97% of farm profits in 2008. The survey also reported that farmers were making substantial changes in response to the Single Payment Scheme; the most widespread being reduction of fixed costs by using contractors, and expansion of acreage through renting, buying or collaboration. But while ‘profits’ can be artificially created in this way, food yields cannot, and there is very strong evidence that more food would result from supporting smaller farms instead.
Organic or chemical?
In the USA, the Rodale Institute runs a side-by-side study to compare organic against chemical farming. Over a 30 year period to 2011, this research has demonstrated that organic farming offers significant advantages. Briefly, it found that organic methods:
• Match chemical yields in a typical year;
• Outperform chemical in drought years;
• Build rather than deplete soil organic matter;
• Use 45% less energy;
• Produce 31% less greenhouse gases;
• Are more profitable than chemical methods.
Interestingly, organic maize yields were 31% higher than chemical yields in years of drought; while GM ‘drought tolerant’ varieties showed increases of just 6 to 13% over non-GM varieties.
In 2006, a global review of 286 projects in 57 countries found that agricultural productivity increased by an average of 79% when ‘resource-conserving’ or eco-agriculture was adopted.
The way forward
The scientific evidence now strongly supports the view that neither large scale chemical farming nor GM crops can possibly feed the growing world population, whereas organic smallholding is the only way that can. The knowledge to transform food yields across the world already exists; it just needs to be implemented. Changing direction in the face of powerful corporate and political interests will not be easy, but the journey has already begun.
Some further reading:
ANGELINA NGOZA, Malawi
Angelina, a 28-year-old farmer in Nchisi district, Malawi, is shielding her six children from hunger and beating dependence on big business by going organic with help from international development charity Progressio.
She and many of her neighbours are no longer using high-priced chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and racking up big debts. Recently Progressio’s development worker has taught them how to make their own fertiliser using manure and other waste, grow legumes to turn into natural pesticides and turn weeds into compost, ending their reliance on herbicides.
“After only one year of being organic, I am already harvesting one extra bag of maize for my family and I know my harvests will get bigger,” says Angelina. “Organic farming doesn’t harm the soil, it is healthier and I can charge more for my vegetables in the market.”
Her neighbour Grace puts it another way: “We are now in control of our farming. We have more food to eat, more food to sell.”
Much of Progressio’s work with smallholder farmers like Angelina focuses on helping to boost yields through agro-ecology or organic farming. These draw heavily on farming traditions, but are not simply ‘a return to the old ways’. Instead, they are about building upon traditional practices and adapting them to changing environmental and climatic conditions.
DON FAUSTINO Honduras
Don Faustino Reyes Matute (52) lives with his wife and their five children in the San Marcos community, in the municipality of La Masica, Honduras. They first came to San Marcos in 1974, drawn by the plentiful natural resources. Today, Don Faustino and his family are full-time farmers, producing food for the whole family and enough surplus to sell in the local market and across the municipality. On their two hectares of land, they grow corn, beans, tomato, onion, leeks, papaya, sweet chilli, hot chilli, bananas, lettuce and coriander as well as rearing guinea fowl and pigs.
A total of 10 people depend on the produce from the farm – not only Faustino, his wife and their children, but also Faustino’s grandchildren who help him out on the plot.
Faustino passionately believes that we are slowly destroying the planet owing to our lack of knowledge about how to use the land properly. “This is particularly true when the deep-rooted knowledge about how nature works and the growing practices of generations of small-scale producers is ignored,” says Faustino.
Progressio believes that small-scale farmers can play a key role in helping the world to feed itself. “These farmers are real professionals,” says Progressio’s Environmental Policy Officer, Petra Kjell. “They have to be – their lives depend on it. And given half a chance, they could play a key role in solving the global food crisis. Not only do they produce food to feed 2 billion people, many do so in a sustainable way, providing livelihoods for themselves and their families while conserving the environment for future generations.”
EL CRISTAL, Ecuador
For farming communities in Ecuador, development doesn’t just mean moving forward – it also means going back to their roots.
“When I first arrived in Intag, the people used to sell their crops of yucca to buy things like tinned spaghetti or rice instead of eating them,” says Progressio development worker Myriam Salazar at the village of El Cristal in the region of Intag, Ecuador. “One of the first things I did was take out that intermediary step and encourage the people to eat the food they grew – to feel pride in their traditional diet.”
Pride is in no short supply now in the community, where villagers are eager to show how agro-ecology has benefited both their farms and their families. “Before we didn’t know how to care for our land properly – we burnt the fields, we used a lot of chemical fertilisers, we made so many mistakes. Then we became organic and have seen so many benefits,” said Enrique Simbana, resident of El Cristal. “Thanks to the plants we live here peacefully, we only buy salt and alcohol.”
This newfound independence has even attracted city dwellers to return to the countryside – a rare example of reverse urbanisation in a country plagued by rural residents abandoning their land. Eduardo Arias and his family left their life in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, after struggling to make ends meet in the overcrowded and poverty-stricken streets. “We missed the countryside,” he said. “We realised that even though we are still poor here, we have more freedom.”
The fields are distinguished by their patchworks of banana, yucca and potatoes planted all together to help balance soil nutrients and prevent pest outbreaks. These techniques have helped residents improve soil that had been exhausted through previous unsustainable techniques.
“If we had one message for our leaders it would be to protect the environment,” says Enrique. “We all breathe the same air, pollution affects everyone. It affects our crops, and our lives.”
Progressio is a charity registered in the UK that works to help people in developing countries gain power over their lives and overcome barriers that keep them poor. It sends highly-skilled people to work with grassroots organisations so that together, they do what is needed to improve the lives of thousands of people in poor communities.
Read about their work, and support it, on their website:
Angelina Ngoza, Malawi - Marcus Perkins/Progressio
Don Faustino, Honduras - Nick Sireau/Progressio
El Cristal community, Ecuador - Santiago Serrano/Progressio