Global Food Security – The Future of the Smallholder Farmer

From Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Photo from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website

On Monday 28th January I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful talk organised by the University of Cambridge. It was the second in a series of three talks surrounding the issue of feeding our growing population. Having spent time last year in Brazil, working with small farmers, and the NGOs supporting them, this is an issue that is of great importance to me, and also one in which I was interested in hearing the panellists points of view. I felt that Dr Marion Guillon ended the debate with three words that will determine the future for smallholder farmers, “necessity, attractivity and competitivity”. Without these, there will be no reason for the smallholder to stay, but from my experience, and from what the panellists said, then I believe that there is hope, at least in some parts of the world, to believe that the smallholder may be able to consolidate and thrive well into the future.

So what is happening in the world of the small farmer? What work is being done? And what do they need to be able to thrive in the future?

Feminisation of agriculture

In recent times, agriculture has become more and more feminised. This is a phenomenon that is the result of male migration to urban centres, leaving mothers and children in the rural areas to tend the land. This is therefore creating new adaptations for women farmers, as they have more responsibilities that reduce the amount of time that they can spend on the land, such as child rearing and cooking for their families. It also represents an opportunity for women to become more empowered. With access to training, then they can really take a proactive step to becoming economically more independent, and also develop their agricultural work as a business. This is something that I saw when I was working in Brazil, with CECOR. Within the community that we stayed, the majority of those working the land was principally the job of the women of the community – they tended to the small hold, and the chickens, whilst the men tended more to the larger livestock if they had any. Through CECOR women had become empowered through access to selling their produce at a local agroecological market. This passed responsibilities to women and gave them more autonomy.

Land policies

Judi Wakhungu, from the African Centre from Technology Studies, stressed that in Africa the problem is not so much with policies as in the enforcement of such policies, which therefore relies very heavily on support from the government leadership.

The issue of landgrabbing is something very much on the agenda these days, and countries’ responses to this will be indicative of the success of smallholder farming in these regions in the future. Judi also highlighted this point, and drew our attention to great variations of behaviour across the continent. She stressed that countries like Kenya and Ghana have much more progressive policies that do not “give” land up to foreign investors, unlike what is happening in Ethiopia, for example, leading to the forced displacement of many.

Whilst I do not know a great deal about African policies and am still doing research, in Brazil the experience was that there is a lot being done to redistribute land to the previously landless, as was the case in Poço do Serrote. However, I am also aware of the strong push for sugar cane production and soya in the country, which causes similar problems to those mentioned above. I will be writing a blog on a later date to look into the issues of property rights in more detail.

Crop diversification

The issue of crop diversification, and the cultivation of site specific crops, is also very important on many levels. With the increasing problems related to climate change, and also environmental effects coming from the loss of diversification, which makes crops much more susceptible to mass failure through disease, this is essential for smallholder farmers to be able to maintain their livelihood and feed themselves.

Efforts are being made for smallholders to revert to more traditional crops for the areas in which they live. This in the case of Africa means reverting to cultivation of traditional crops such as sorghum, millet, yams and cassava. This is important as these crops are usually more resistant that wheat and other traditional cash crops. Sam Dryer, who was at the debate speaking on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, explained how the foundation is working with small agricultural communities working towards these aims, and also working in conjunction with local markets and chains to encourage the sales of alternative produce, to gain an entrance of these products into the market.

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Farmers’ organisations

The importance of creating “circles of trust”, as termed by Sam Dryer, was raised on various occasions during the debate. This often comes in the form of farmers’ organisations, unions, and also, in reference to foundations such as the Melinda Gates Foundation, or INGOs, for example, making sure that people that go and do the training, or workshops, or whatever work it is, have a real connection with the people that are receiving the services.

When I was in Brazil this was exactly how CECOR worked. They were a local NGO, which was comprised of people from varying backgrounds, some were even farmers themselves. When they were doing any training, they would train someone from a community, who would then in turn go to train other people in the community, who could then move to train other communities. This ground up approach ensures the empowerment of the people in question, and also ensures that they can work with people they trust.

Training and education

Education is essential to ensure the maintenance of healthy soil, to ensure better nutrition (not just growing cash crops, for example), to allowing smallholder farmers access to markets and to be able to access markets in an equitable way for themselves. Through farmers organisations this education is possible as in encourages an exchange of information and support network that otherwise would not be there.

The sorts of training that were available to farmers in the area of Brazil where I was based were varied. They tended to be offered either by local NGOs or also Government Departments. You can see a description of one such event we attended in my blogpost about feed preparation and storage. This is actually a subject that is particularly relevant to working within farmers’ organisations, as the access to the group can lead to the possibilities of buying between the group the equipment necessary for drying and storing crops to reduce losses.

Funding programmes

Finally facilitating the entrance of smallholder farmers into the market through the use of funds and also the provision of insurance is also essential to the success of the smallholder farmer in the future. These people have traditionally been excluded from formal routes to credit, but through technology, particularly such as mobile phones, access to banking systems and bank accounts is becoming easier.

Judi mentioned a programme called the “One Acre Fund”, which provides farmers that form part of farmers’ groups with $75 dollars with which to gain access to education, money to buy quality seeds and fertiliser and also  market facilitation which can be facilitated through handling and storage. This is something that promotes group organisation, which work as support networks, as well as giving smallholder farmers an opportunity to start up and gain access to markets.

There is a long way to go, and in this blog I have not even touched upon many of the relevant issues nor gone into the detail necessary to look into any of the topics above described. This will keep for a later date. However, I do think that the debate provided a good background from which to start thinking and looking at how the small farmer should figure in the future of agriculture, and how this can be made beneficial for everyone.


Feeding a growing population – Panel Discussion 23rd October 2012


Rural agricultural worker preparing land for planting in Brazil Sertão


The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Tanzania panel discussion “Feeding a growing population: the essential contribution of agriculture in Tanzania” on 23rd October proved to be an interesting evening, and made me think back to my time in Brazil. The small family farmer has a central role to play in the future of agriculture. Much is being done to support small scale farmers in Brazil, as my experiences earlier this year showed me. Tonight I found out more about the situation in Tanzania, and the question of the future once again played on my mind – how to encourage young people to follow in their parents’ footsteps?

It proved to be a very interesting evening with varied speakers. It gave a good overview of the situation, some interesting opinions, and left much food for thought after the event.

The agriculture focus

The first speaker was Dr Andrew Coulson, an agricultural economist and author, who gave a comprehensive description of the agricultural conditions in Tanzania, highlighting the problems faced by Tanzanian farmers, such as poor, sandy soil, periodic droughts or water shortage – whilst recognising that plants and trees grow quickly in this part of the world.

He then went on to talk about the methods that small scale farmers in the region, as in other parts of the world, have developed to overcome these difficulties – methods such as fallow periods, ridges, multiple cropping, the use of multiple small plots, and seed selection for taste and drought resistance, not just yield.  He also made an important point about the dangers of tractor tilling – with soils that are common in Tanzania, generally the hoe and the ox-plough maintain the nutrients of the soil nearer the top of the soil, whereas the tractor overdoes this, causing nutrients to be lost too deep in the soil.

Small family farming

All four of the speakers had something to say about the need for both small family farms, alongside larger scale farms, though each had a slightly different emphasis. As described by Andrew, the characteristics of small family farms are that they incorporate the whole family, they respond to changes in the market, they are careful about risks, they are mixed (i.e. they will both grow crops and rear animals), and they are innovative. Large farms on the other hand allow for the production, processing and packaging to be carried out in a production line approach, more easily and efficiently than by a small scale farmer completing each as a separate process.

Monique Mikhail, Sustainable Agriculture Policy Adviser for Oxfam, involved in their GROW campaign, was also very much in favour of stimulating agriculture on a small, family farm scale, using private investors. A big argument for this is to give people a step up out of poverty. For this people need land rights, and women, being the primary people involved in small scale agriculture, but also the most marginalised, can be supported through this method too. An example that Monique gave was one of Oxfam’s projects in which they focused on small scale chicken rearing. This was chosen partially because chickens are cheap, require little space, and because most small scale farmers already keep chickens. They are also usually a woman’s responsibility, which gives women some control over the money received for raising poultry.
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Through training and support, people involved in the programme have been able to develop economically viable enterprises from raising poultry. Both men and women have been able to raise their prices as a result, as well as gaining skills in basic literary and numeracy which allows them to keep track of their business. Through increased production, the family intake of meat and eggs, important sources of protein, also increased. This is another important aspect of successful small scale farming – improved nutrition for low income families.


The use of “outgrowers”, or contract farming, is a middle ground between the small scale and large scale. This arrangement can be very successful, but needs to be approached with caution as small scale farmers are vulnerable to exploitation. This method of farming was particularly supported by Daniel Hulls, Director of AgDevCo, as the future for feeding a growing population . He argued that whilst it is important to have a plurality of approaches, the use of outgrowers is essential for Tanzania to meet its food needs in the future because of the scales of food required, and also economies of scale in irrigation and storage. His company provides capital to existing and new SMEs in agricultural sector, to facilitate the growth and viability of their business and to help them enter into the value chain, which as isolated small scale farmers may be more complicated.

Cassava: Adding Value for Africa

Finally, Professor Andrew Westby spoke about a project on which he has been collaborating, C:AVA (Cassava: Adding Value for Africa).This project focused on what people should be growing, and how to encourage the growing of different crops. Currently in Tanzania wheat is a crop whose production is shooting through the roof. This needs to be treated with caution due to its vulnerability to weather changes amongst other things. Cassava on the other hand is drought resistant, can be harvested in stages and requires little input. The aim of the project was to look into ways in which high quality cassava flour could be marketed and incorporated to replace wheat flour. This involved small scale farmers, who would plant and harvest the crop, perhaps start the processing of the cassava into flour. The flour would then be taken by an intermediary to finish processing and finally be sent to a bakery as a wheat replacement.

What about education?

As well as the speakers today, members of the audience also raised interesting points. Problems of urban demand were mentioned, as well as the future of pastoral traditions in Tanzania. A point that I feel is vital to note is the importance of education. Something that I found in Brazil was that the education system is not geared up for children who come from agricultural families. The school year makes no allowances for when children or young people may have to go and help with harvesting, or planting, or any other agricultural activity.

There is no provision for agricultural training at a typical school and it only prepares people for city, or town, life, which results in young people feeling that agriculture is a dead end, not something to base their future on. And so they end up migrating to towns and cities, abandoning the land that their parents work. A sign of this  attitude towards family agriculture is the fact that tried and tested ways which work – the importance of the use of hoes and not tractors for tilling land, for example – can be seen as outdated, when it is actually more beneficial to the land. There is a danger of thinking everything that is newer is better.

If we want to encourage small family farms then this is a trend that we have to reverse, or change. In Brazil, the organisation I worked with, CECOR, did a lot of work with young people in rural areas to get them involved in their environment, not just through agriculture, but through other enterprises such as creating artisanal products, and involving them in cultural events. All of this helps them to be proud of their heritage and allow them to make a choice. So they can make – and believe they can make a future out of agriculture if they choose to do so.



Experiências dos voluntários

Aqui têm um artigo escrito por Alice e Emily, duas voluntárias que trabalham aqui no projecto. Elas queriam fazer uns comentários sobre as suas experiências aqui na comunidade, com um enfoque particular na agroecologia practicada pelas famílias que nos hospedem.

Desde a nossa chegada pouco a pouco fomos aprendendo sobre as realidades da vida aqui, e o nosso interês na agricultura sustentável e de pequena escala aumentou. As practicalidades do modo da vida aqui nos animaram ampliar a nossa visão mundial. Não mudou essencialmente as nossa expectativas, mas sim nos fez pensar.


Alice: De ter trabalhado para um empreiteiro agrícola na Inglaterra, não é uma sorpresa que repare grandes diferências entre os dois tipos de agricultura e as suas intenções. Troquei o trabalho num escritório por trabalho manual, trabalhava numa empresa capitalista e agora estou trabalhando numa granja auto-suficiente. Da produção a grande escala para uma comunidade próxima e de pequena escala – o contraste radical era de esperar, mas só depois da minha chegada aqui no Brasil foi que consegui um conhecimento melhor às diferências enormes de prioridades. As prácticas intensivas da agricultura inglesa prioritizam a maximização das margens de lucro ao corto prazo, que resulta numa maneira de utilizar a terra que não se pode sustentar. A maneira de cultivar a terra aqui é um investimento para o futuro.


O contraste na vida diária é significante. Na Inglaterra, é muito fácil desfazer-se da responsibilidade para coisas como o uso de água. Ao ver o modo de vida aqui nos fez com que valorassemos o significado de ações pequenas e vissemos que todo o mundo pode fazer a sua parte para mudar as coisas. A estructura diária é muito parecido à de Inglaterra – a maior diferência é a sua capacidade de aproveitar plenamente de todo recurso. Por exemplo, coisas pequenas como utilizar água somente quando é verdaderamente preciso, e utilizar todas as partes dum animal e da fruta (bolo de casca de banana, estómago de ovelha, etc.) e qualquer comida restante vai directamente para compostagem ou dar de comer aos porcos.




Então, depois de fazer algumas pesquisas, precisamos desenvolver novas maneiras e áreas a agricultura. “O Serviço de Pesquisas  Económicas do Departamento Estadounidense de Agricultura observou que em 2008 o consumo mundial de grão e oleaginosas excedeu produção para sete dos oito anos entre 2001 e 2008.”[i] A terra está a ser explorada e magoada quando essa terra preciosa se necessita para cubrir a demanda sempre crescente que a população mundial, prevista atingir 9,1 bilhões para 2050[ii], exige. A maneira de trabalhar aqui na comunidade é verdadeiramente inspirador, e tem tanta potencial ainda por descobrir de que podemos aprender. Beneficiam de ter um sistema que é extremamente auto-suficiente. A família com que moramos criam e cultivam tudo eles mesmos, e depois vendem esses productos na feira agroecológica local semanal. Sem intermediário, não existe a exploração tão comum entre agricultores pequenos e vendem na área local da um impulso à economia local. Além disso e ao contrário ao caso de Inglaterra, é a boa comida que é barata (por exemplo, a nossa família vende 15 limões para 33p, enquanto Sainsbury’s, um supermercado grande lá na Inglaterra, vende 1 limão para 30p).

Agricultura intensiva resulta em rendimentos cada vez menores e graves consequências ambientais. A natureza maleável e habilidosa que vemos na nossa communidade e à vez inspirador e humilhante. A demanda sempre crescente para alimentação junto com um boom acelerado de população precisa-se abordar agora. Já aprendimos muito de morar com a nossa família nessa comunidade e esperamos aprender muito mais.

[i] R. Trostle (2008), op. cit.

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Volunteering experiences

Here is something that Alice and Emily, two of our volunteers, want to comment about their experiences here in the community, particularly focusing on the agroecological farming that is carried out by our host families.

Since our arrival and the realities of life here have set in, our interest in sustainable and small scale farming has been stimulated. The practicalities of the way of life here have encouraged us to broaden our considerations. Our expectations haven’t been challenged as such, but instead we´ve been given a “reality check”.


Alice: Having worked for an agricultural contractor in England, it is of no surprise that I have noticed vast differences between the two ways of farming and their intentions. I have gone from doing office administration to practical labour, from working for a profit intensive company to living on a self-sufficient farm. From large scale production to a small-scale close knit community; this stark contrast was always expected, but since being in Brazil I have fully come to terms with the huge difference in priorities. Intensive English farming practices prioritise maximising short-term profit margins, which leads to a way of using land that cannot be sustained. The way they farm here is an investment for the future.


The day to day contrast is significant. In England, it is easy to shrug off responsibility for things such as water usage. Seeing the lifestyle here has made us appreciate the significance of small actions and that proved that everyone can make a difference. The daily structure is very similar to that in England – the biggest difference is their resourcefulness. For example, small things like using water only when you really need it and using all bits of an animal and fruit (banana skin cake, sheep stomach etc) and any waste food used as a natural fertiliser or to feed the pigs.




So having done some research, we need to tap into new areas and ways of farming. “The US department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service observed in 2008 that global consumption of grain and oilseeds outstripped production for seven of the eight years between 2001 and 2008.”[i] Land is being exploited and damaged when this precious land is needed to meet the ever growing demand the world population, set to grow to 9.1 billion in 2050[ii], exerts upon it. Their way of working here is inspiring, and there is so much unlocked potential that we could learn from. They benefit from having a system that is extremely self-sufficient. The family we live with grow and cultivate everything themselves and then sell these products at the weekly local fair trade market. With no middle man, there is no exploitation and selling within the area helps to boost the local economy. Furthermore and unlike England, it is the good food that is the cheap food (For example, our family sells 15 limes for 33p while sainsbury’s sells 1 lemon for 30p).


Intensive farming leads to ever diminishing returns and severe environmental consequences. The resourcefulness we have been witness to in our community is both inspiring and humbling. The ever increasing demand for food alongside an accelerated population boom needs to be addressed now. We have learned a lot from living with our family in this community and hope to learn a lot more.


[i] R. Trostle (2008), op. cit.

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Reunião do Comitê da Bacia Hidrográfica do Rio Pajeú

Onde o rio deveria passar pelo centro da comunidade, Poço do Serrote

Hoje assisti uma reunião do Comitê de Bacia Hidrográfica do Rio Pajeú, que consiste de membros da sociedade civil, empresas privadas, corpos governamentais e os sindicatos de trabalhadores da região. Essa mistura varieda de pessoas e intereses residem para tomar decisões enquanto o manejo da agua da bacia do Rio Pajeú. Num momento assim, aos princípios duma seca tão grave, é um gran privilegio ter a opportunidade assistir tal reunião.

Dos assuntos para ser discutidos hoje, o que para mim foi o mais destacado foi o tratamento da seca em si, e também a concientização do público nesse período, e a importância do tal.

Parece ter bastante polémica sobre a utilização da agua na barragem Cachoeira 2 na operação pipa. A operação pipa é uma iniciativa em efeito aqui no Sertão para encher as cisternas das pessoas mais necessitadas aqui na região agora, para que têm água para beber e cozinhar. Ja mencionei noutro artigo, e só deixou o prazo para pedir até o fim do mes de Junho, depois de isso não oferecem mais.

Na reunião houve uma confusão sobre uma publicação que expôs água suficiente até 2014. Seja publicado ou não, essa informação, todos concordaram, é completamente errada, e o que sim é necessário é uma análise da demanda de água, a quantidade consumida nos últimos meses, a quantidade ainda resindo no açude, e uma tasa de evaporação para os próximos meses. A questão de evaporação é particularmente pertinente nesse caso.
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Enquanto a demanda, uma preocupação grande do comitê é que a população urbana, em particular, segue sem ajustar o seu comportamento em relação de água, para enfrentar essa seca. Efectivamente, eles continuam como normal – molham a rua todos os dias para diminuir a poeira, por exemplo, embora isso desperdicia litros e litros de água, quando outras pessoas nem tem água suficiente para suas vidas diárias.

As vezes foi difícil chegar a conclusões nessa reunião. Como já imagino que comprende, um comitê com tanta variedade de membros nunca vai ser fácil chegar aos acordos. Não obstante, foi combinado organizar uma reunião para falar dos assuntos principais dessa seca actual, incluindo a questão de começar uma campanha de conscientização para o público para tentar reduzir a demande de água, e ajudar ao povo utilizar a água com mais prudencia. Outro objectivo da reunião seria reunir pessoas chaves enquanto a disponibilidade da água, e dar-lhes informações sobre volumen total da água, tasa de evaporação, análises sobre a qualidade de água e mais para poder melhor informar e depois tomar os passes mais apropriados para enfrentar a crise de água.

Por mim, tanto o conteúdo da reunião quanto simplesmente a presencia ali, fez com que fosse um dia muito interessante. A oportunidade de ver as interações entre os indivíduos presentes e as opiniões das entidades diferentes foi muito interessante. Foi uma experiência muito boa.