Small can feed big
A recently published United Nations report says that supporting smallholder farmers to play a greater role in food production and natural resource stewardship is one of the quickest ways to lift over one billion people out of poverty and sustainably nourish a growing world population.
It also pointed out that most of the 1.4 billion people living on under US$1.25 a day live in rural areas and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods, while an estimated 2.5 billion people are involved in full- or part-time smallholder agriculture.
“These smallholders manage approximately 500 million small farms and provide over 80 percent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world, particularly Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, thus contributing to food security and poverty reduction,” the report added.
Countries within the African continent should therefore support smallholder farmers and encourage them to play a greater role in food production. They should invest a great deal in the agriculture sector if the continent is to quickly move away of the poverty dungeon.
“Two decades of underinvestment in agriculture, growing competition for land and water, rising fuel and fertiliser prices, and climate change have left smallholders less able to escape poverty,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director.
It is therefore critical for African governments to provide an enabling environment for smallholder farmers so that they can effectively produce for Africa and her growing population.
“Given the right enabling conditions and targeted support, these often-neglected farmers can transform the rural landscape and unleash a new and sustainable agricultural revolution,” noted “Smallholders, Food Security and the Environment”, a report commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The report added that, “Sustainable agricultural intensification – scaling up farming practices that maintain the resources base upon which smallholders depend so that it continues to support food security and rural development – can be the answer to enhanced food security, environmental protection and poverty reduction. Smallholder farmers have a key role to play in this process.”
Smallholder farmers have a crucial role to play because they hold a massive collective store of experience and local knowledge that can provide the practical solutions needed to put agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable footing.
Elwyn Grainger Jones, Director of IFAD's Environment and Climate Division said, “To place these smallholders at the forefront of a transformation in world agriculture, they need appropriate support to overcome the many challenges they face.”
Accordingly, policymakers and practitioners of the relationships between smallholders, food security and the environment should work hand in glove with African governments in removing policy barriers to sustainable agricultural growth.
This requires market-based mechanisms that provide smallholders with incentives to invest in sustainability, such as: removing subsidies on unsustainable fertilizers; subsidising practices that encourage soil and water conservation; and expanding fair or green certification schemes that allow smallholders to compete in new niche markets locally and internationally.
Stakeholders in the agriculture industry should empower smallholder farmers, remunerate them fairly, and recognise that their stewardship of the land is what will ensure a sustainable food supply for everyone in the future.
Information is power and providing smallholder farmers with adequate and relevant information is also a way to empower them. To provide smallholder farmers with the information they need, investing in approaches such as farmer field schools and the use of rural radios and other mobile telecommunication methods is essential.
This also means that additional research is needed on the drivers of change that influence smallholder practices.
The time is now for African government to give smallholder farmers confidence in the form of incentives so that they can produce for Africa and in the process playing a crucial role of dragging out Africa from the poverty trap.