Africa / Agriculture / Asia / Food Security / Latin America

Prabhu Pingali at the Borlaug Dialogue/World Food Prize ceremony in Iowa

Forage Diversity field on ILRI Addis campus

Preparing the land for seed in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

On 13 October 2010, Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of Agricultural Development Policy and Statistics at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made the following remarks at the World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue events  (13–15 October 2010), being held this week in Des Moines, Iowa.

‘. . . The theme of this year’s symposium “Take it to the Farmer” is very timely and I hope it will successfully draw attention to the plight of 400 million of the World’s farms that are less than two hectares. I hope at the end of these two days we will reaffirm our commitment to placing the smallholder farmer at the center of the development process. I also hope we will use this occasion to finally bring closure to the perennial debate on the viability of small farm agriculture.

‘In 1976 I joined ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India, as a Summer Intern, my assignment was to address the burning question of the day: are smallholders as productive as large farmers? The answer was then and continues to be today, Absolutely Yes! And in many instances small holdings are significantly more productive than large farms. Over the decades there have been several hundred studies across continents, crops and farming systems that have provided overwhelming evidence that smallholders are just as productive, just as innovative, just as competitive, and just as risk taking as large farms – yet the debate continues. We are gathered here once again to debate the role of smallholders in agriculture and economic development.

‘Over the decades, while we were busy debating, the Green Revolution happened. The prospect of mass starvation in Asia, that many predicted, was forever eliminated. Intensification and agriculture productivity growth triggered overall economic growth and contributed significantly to poverty reduction in the region. The transformation of Asian agriculture happened on the backs of smallholder farmers – women and men.

‘Smallholders in the Indian Punjab, with average farm sizes of one hectare, went from producing a single crop of rice or wheat with average yields of little over a ton to producing two crops per year, a rice crop followed by a wheat crop, each with average yields of 4-5 tons. Many even managed a third crop of vegetables or fodder in between. In China, farm sizes were even smaller, Chinese farm households were allocated one mu per person. What’s a mu? It’s one fifteenth of a hectare, or one sixth of an acre. For American Football fans (we are in Iowa State Cyclones country here), one mu is equivalent to the area between the 0 and 12 yards, just a little larger than “the end zone”. The Chinese agriculture transformation took place because farmers extracted the most out of their mu.

‘Smallholder productivity growth took place not just with crops there are also dramatic examples of how small livestock owners seized opportunities for growth. Rural women in India, with one or two cows, created the “white revolution” and contributed to making India the largest milk producer in the world. Kurien was the leading force behind the dairy development in India and the 1989 World Food Prize laureate.

‘The Green Revolution had a transformative impact not just on food production and food security but also changed the lives of youth across the developing world. I was born in a small South Indian rice producing village, I consider myself part of the Green Revolution generation, a generation that directly benefited from the early gains of the Green Revolution – our schooling and college were paid for from the increased farm incomes. Our ability to leave the farm was made possible by the productivity growth that took place on the farm. In this room there are dozens of people who have had a similar personal impact of agriculture transformation that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Who is the smallholder farmer? She could be one of many different types of farmers. She could be a small, subsistence farmer eking a living from a small plot of land or a few livestock. Or she could be a “post green revolution” farmer, trying to sustain the productivity gains and enhance her income opportunities through diversification. She may also be a farmer that is becoming increasingly commercialized, growing cash crops and trying to connect into local and global value chains. The needs of each of these groups of farmers are very different and even within these groups there are significant variations between farmers. The challenge we, the global development community, face is to target the right solutions to the right populations.

‘Let’s talk about the smallholder subsistence farmers, the group that we are all most concerned about and the ones that we most often invoke as the focus of our efforts. These are farmers, often female headed households, who live under a dollar a day, with few assets and high levels of food insecurity. Their access to technology and inputs is limited and they are often condemned to subsisting on low and variable production from fragile ecosystems. Small farm sizes are declining further due to sub-divisions to grown children since their ability to be absorbed by the off farm sectors are limited. Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of these poor households. A large share of sub-Saharan Africa is characterized by such households, but they are not exclusive to sub-Saharan Africa. Poor subsistence agriculture households are also commonly found in South and Southeast Asia, Central America, the Andean zone and elsewhere in the developing world.

‘Some argue that agriculture is not the pathway out of poverty for these households. OK, so what is the pathway? For low income countries with chronically low economic growth rates, poor human capital and extremely limited opportunities for private sector job creation – if not agriculture then what? Think about Madagascar, where 70% of the population are below the poverty line and most live in rural areas, if not agriculture then what is the pathway out of poverty?

‘Some argue that the amalgamation of small farms into large estates with small holders recruited as employees in these estates is the answer. Large estates may solve the problem of overall food supply, but they will not solve the problem of poverty. When production is focused on large farms the binding constraint is management and supervision of labor, hence the drive towards labor saving technologies. So the employment generation benefit of amalgamation is generally not realized. Consider the agriculture growth pathways of China and Brazil, both had similar levels of agriculture productivity growth but very different poverty reduction outcomes. China, by focusing on smallholders saw a dramatic reduction in poverty levels, while Brazil continued to experience relatively high levels of rural poverty for several decades, recent pro-active anti-poverty measures brought the levels down significantly.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the smallness of the farm is not the problem – the problem is the failure of the state to provide the technology, the institutional, the infrastructural and the policy environment necessary for enhancing smallholder productivity growth. The State has failed to “take it to the farmer”, it failed to create an environment conducive for transformative change. Allow me to dwell on few of the conditions necessary for ensuring smallholder productivity growth.

‘Peace, stability & good governance are paramount. Consider the recent upward trend in agriculture productivity in countries that have recently emerged from conflict, such as Mozambique, Rwanda, and Angola. On the other hand, consider the collapse of the former bread basket of Africa – Zimbabwe.

‘Access to land and production resources is crucial. Consider the case of Vietnam, a country that was chronically food deficit and a major importer of rice through 1980s. In 1989 Vietnam handed the land back to the tillers with long term secure and inheritable leases and provided them the incentives to invest in enhancing productivity. Guess what? In less than three years, Vietnam went from a net importer of rice to the third largest exporter of rice and set itself on a path of sustained overall economic growth. In Tanzania, the abandoning of the “Ujaama Experiment” of collectivized agriculture in the late 1980s resulted in similar, if less dramatic impact on smallholder agriculture productivity.

‘Investment in infrastructure & markets is critical. Road densities in sub-Saharan Africa are the lowest in the world. India’s road density at the start of its Green Revolution in the 1970’s was 388 kilometers per 1,000 square kilometres. This compares with 39 kilometers per 1,000 square kilometers in Ethiopia today and 71 per 1,000 in Senegal. Poor access to markets is a great inhibitor of farmer investment in productivity growth. Improved road and transport infrastructure not only allows for improved flow of inputs and outputs, but it also leads to better transmission of prices and market signals to the hinterlands. To be effective, both transport systems and markets must be reliable, competitive, and link to the smallholders.

‘Small farm technology R& D makes the difference. The World Food Prize Symposium has traditionally been a gathering that celebrates the power of technology in solving the problems of poverty and food insecurity. We have seen the impact of stalwarts such as Norman Borlaugh and M.S.Swaminathan on the lives of poor smallholder farmers. The returns to investments in R&D have been high and continue to be high, especially in Asia and Latin America. The CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] has been an enormously effective player in the generation of technologies that meet smallholder needs. The failure has not been in the generation of technology but in its delivery to farmers’ fields. Re-building and re-invigorating the national agricultural research systems of developing countries, developing effective extension models and viable input supply systems are essential components of an effective delivery model.

‘History has shown us that smallholders are just as eager to adopt new technologies as their larger counterparts, however only if the technology is accessible and targets their unique needs and problems. In this context it is important for us to recognize that future gains in technology R&D are going to come from our ability to successfully tackle truly difficult problems in developing country agriculture systems, such as drought tolerance, high temperature tolerance, etc. Molecular biology tools will certainly help in this effort. So will a deeper understanding tropical agriculture systems and tropical crop biology, such as better knowledge of the cassava plant physiology. Knowledge that is currently not being invested in at temperate zone research labs in OECD countries.

‘Improve price incentives (remove distortions). History has provided overwhelming evidence on the importance of “getting policy right”, i.e., removing policy distortions and improving incentives for farmers to invest in enhancing productivity growth. Yet distortions persist at various levels – at the global level trade protection and subsidies for certain commodities by OECD countries have negative consequences on smallholder production in developing countries. Cotton production in West Africa is a case in point. At the domestic level, while several countries are making significant progress in correcting policies that discriminate against agriculture, the problem persists, particularly in the least developed countries. Getting price and trade policy right is an essential element of a strategy for successfully taking technology to the farmer.

‘There is a lot of interest these days, particularly in sub-Saharan African, for using fertilizer subsidies as a means of boosting smallholder productivity. Reasonable people can disagree about the value of such efforts, but there should be no disagreement that the funds allocated for fertilizer subsidies should not displace investments in roads, transport, research and development, extension and technology delivery systems. If they do, it is hard to see how long term sustainable smallholder development would be possible. Where price incentives, infrastructure and market access are right, smallholders will invest in technology and inputs, including fertilizers.

‘The above 5 components for building a sustainable pathway for smallholder productivity growth are tried and tested. History has taught us again and again that the problems of hunger and poverty require complex solutions – there are no easy quick fixes.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a period of agriculture renaissance, a period of renewed interest in the role of agriculture in the development process, there is potentially significant new money and stronger political commitment for addressing the needs of the poor. Let’s use this moment wisely, let’s put the smallholder firmly at the center of our agriculture development efforts.

‘Let me close by reminding ourselves of what Bill Gates told us from this very podium last year, “Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved – they are the solution, the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty and trying to feed a growing population” . . . .’

Read Pingali’s remarks on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website.

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