Marginal farmers must not be forgotten

Posted: 16 June 2008

Author: John Madeley

Half of the world's undernourished people, three-quarters of Africa's malnourished children and the majority of people living in absolute poverty, live on small farms. Unless more is done to help them, the world's burden of hunger and suffering - along with its stressed environment - will not be relieved, argues John Madeley in this special report.

Most of the the world's small farmers, work between 0.2 to two hectares of land, producing food mainly for their own families. More than two-thirds are women Living on the margins of society, these farmers are at the heart ofthe world's poverty and hunger problems.

South Asian farmers winnowing wheat© CGIAR/CIMMYT
South Asian farmers winnowing wheat© CGIAR/CIMMYT
South Asian farmers winnowing wheat.© CGIAR/CIMMYT
In bad years, when their food runs out, marginal farmers may have to sell vital assets such as animals or find work as daily labourers. Ingood years they are often disadvantaged in the market place: they trade in small volumes; their produce is of varying and often poor quality and they have limited contact with traders and market channels. Policymakers frequently overlook these conditions.

The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) includes halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. But this will notbe achieved unless the needs of the people who live in hunger are recognised and they receive the right kind of support. This is especially true now, when food prices are rising and some 100 million more people have joined fhe ranks of the hungry. A new, comprehensive approach is needed to do this.

If more food is available in areas where there is currently a shortage, it could help towards the achievement of other Millennium goals.Increased production usually leads to higher domestic consumption, which brings with it direct benefits to health - particularly among women and children - and education, as children are able to attend school regularly and concentrate better. This, in turn will create the conditions under which women will be able to opt for smaller familes.

No voice

While marginal farmers should be at the centre of efforts to reach the MDGs, they are, in practice, accorded low priority by governments. With no voice or platform, their marginalisation is compounded by the fact that nationalagricultural policies often fail to recognise them, while donors fail to reach them. For donors, growth tends to get priority over hunger, with what support there is going to better-off farmers who can produce for markets.

Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso. Credit: FAO/D. Debert
Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso. Credit: FAO/D. Debert
Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso.© FAO/D. Debert
Overall aid to agriculture has also declined dramatically over the last 25 years in favour of more market-led approaches. For the world'smarginal farmers, this has meant less support for the technologies and practices they need to increase their food output.

But poorer farmers have shown that when they receive sensitive support they can produce more food and escape from poverty, despite the mix of problems they face.

Erratic rainfall

The first of these relates to the climate. The crops and livestock of marginal farmers are mostly dependent on rainfall. Anything that reduces rainfall, or makes it more erratic,can be life-threatening.

According to a recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, "Croplands, pastures and forests... are progressively being exposed to threats from increased climatic variability. Those least able to cope will likely bear additional adverse impacts."

To help cope with climate change, the report suggests a strategy which helps them to breed diverse varieties of crops to suit marginal conditions - though, since marginal farmers often farm in fragile areas with poor soils, the range of crops they can grow is limited.

In hilly areas, soil may be washed away by heavy rain. On the fringes of deserts - along Africa's Sahel belt, for example - the desertification process has rendered the soil infertile on many small farms. Nevertheless, there are ways of protecting land under threat from sand - for example, using shelter belts around villages.

Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
Many marginal farmers also have limited access to fertilisers, markets, credit and other services. Living as they often do in remote areas, they are unable to take advantage of new market opportunities. And options for alternative employment are few and far between.

Big potential

Despite all these difficulties, there are plenty of examples of marginal farmers successfully raising their productivity. They may be poor but have a great deal of potential. The right kind of support can help them

In India, women farmers in Andhra Pradesh have increased crop yields by over 300 per cent using various low cost, simple methods, says the Deccan Development Society (DDS). A voluntary organisation operating in 75 villages in the Medak district.

DDS works with low caste dalit women and very poor women from other social groups, who have formed themselves into voluntary associations called sanghams. The 4,000 members are primarily agricultural labourers and marginal farmers with one or two acres of land. Most of this hasdegraded soil, producing only 30-50 kg of grain per acre.

The women earn enough from their land and through their labour to feed their families for six to seven months of the year, leaving a gap in their food security of four-to-five months a year. Bridging this gap was a challenge.

For ten years, from 1987-97 DDS encouraged the dalit women to work collectively on their marginalised lands. Using techniques such as bunding, trenching and topsoil addition, the women have improved about 10,000 acres of their own patches of degraded lands, enhancing their crop production by more than threefold. Lands which hardly produced 20-30 kg of sorghum per acre are now yielding 150-200 kgs, and food grain availability has increased for each family by four to six times.

DDS also set up a Community Gene Fund, under which women have re-established their control over seeds - the most critical link in the food chain. This has transformed dalit women's status in the community: instead of going begging to upper caste homes for seeds, other villagers now approach them to ask for seeds.

Research rewards

Another example cames from Uganda, where spending on agricultural research and extension has substantially improved agricultural productivity, says the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Each marginal shilling invested returned 12 shillings. These investments have made a big impact on reducing povety,and led to further investments in feeder roads and education, IFPRI has found.

The cost of rural neglect is epitomised in Zambia, where over 60 per cent of the population lives by farming. Here, the budget allocated to agriculture has dropped from 26 per cent in 1991 to 4.4 per cent in 1999. AS a result, the whole agricultural support system has been run down, with extension services operating at only 40 per cent capacity, and high recurrence of livestock disease.

This has resulted in low productively and increased poverty in rural areas. Even when the budget increased to 5.8 per cent in 2005 most of the spend was directed towards personnel costs and to a Fertiliser Support Programme which increasing maize production, at the expense of broader agricultural development.

It has been left to local farmers'associatrons such as the one in Monga District to work with looal communities to address some of the problemsthat farmers face - such as floods, sandy soils, drought, access to information and markets, storage facilities, poor extension services,and HIV/AIDS.

At a broader level, FAO has supported the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), adopted by the African Union in 2003 with the UK develpment department, DFID, as its largest financial backer.

Unfortunately, CAADP,under the banner of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), has not sufficiently consulted with African insitutions in developing its programme. And since it was largely put together in collaboration with the FAO, it is not in keeping with the proposed focus on African-driven development policies and strategies.

CAADP includes a commitment by African governments to allocate 10 per cent of state spending to agriculture by 2008. But most countries are falling fsr short of this commitment.

The fact remains that small farms hold the key to the future of susytainabel food production and that without mobilising their potential the fight against poverty, hunger, runaway population growth and the impact of climate change is doomed.

More than a century of research by agricultural economists has found that small farmers are generally more efficient than large farmers. Rogier van den Brink of the World Bank says, this 'often comes as a shock to those who equate efficiency with the visible signs of modernized, highly mechanized farms which achieve very high crop yields

End exclusion

Smallholder farms help local economies thrive and have the have the potential to generate strong linkages with the non-farm economy, which in turn will help others in the community. Poor farmers are more likely to spend any earnings locally, boosting the local economy. If their production increases they may also hire additional labour, creating job opportunities, as well as buying tools and other services locally.

What's more. such farming is sustainable. Traditional methods generally help to preserve biodiversity and local knowledge of food and plants.However, without care and suppport, poverty often leaves farmers with little choice but to clear trees to grow crops. Supporting smallholder farmers will help reduce deforestation and thus carbon dioxide emissions.

Acknowledging the unique circumstances of these farmers and including them in both national and donor agricultural policy is crucial. They needsufficient resources from governments, the means to organise themselves within the legal framework, better links to research and extension work that affects their livelihoods; and access to productive resources such as seeds, tools, water, credit and security over land.

Donors, in turn, must ensure they reach the poorest farmers with increased support. Above all, donors, governments and NGOs need to work hard to address the exclusion of marginal farmers and ensure that their voices are finally heard.

John Madeley is a contribting editor of Planet 21. He was lead author of a report by the non-government organisation, Concern Worldwide: "Unheard Voices:the case for supporting marginal farmers", on which this article draws. It can be accessed at www.concern.net