Opinion: Family farming first – any future needs family farming

Food Security27 Nov 2009Roberto Ugas, Bara Gueye, K. Gopal, Paulo Petersen, Edith van Walsum

With the World Food Summit in Rome in November and the Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in early December 2009, climate change and hunger are once again hot topics. Agriculture is at the heart of both. Official delegations, civil society, businesses and farmers are asking: what type of agriculture do we need? Can any type feed everyone or should we decide which is best?

Since the 1950s, industrialized nations, and more recently developing countries as well, have pushed their farmers to specialize and grow. Some 20 million farms in developing countries have expanded into large mechanized market-oriented businesses, but there are still over a billion rural people running small-scale multi-functional family farms of less than two hectares – and their numbers are growing.

Family farming, commonly considered old-fashioned, resistant to change and unable to respond effectively to market opportunities, is gaining recognition as a viable model for the future of agriculture. Yet, many maintain that only large-scale farming can sustain agricultural productivity in a global market and that reliance on small scale production will prevent farming communities from growing their way our of poverty, particularly in Africa. Smallholder agriculture is still considered an outdated concept: politicians prefer land concentration and agriculture for export to achieve economies of scale.

Governments and donors need to recognize the potential of family farming and support its development. But what type of support do farmers need?

Global value chains

Family farmers produce for home consumption and markets. Public policies support trade, investment and globalization. For international NGOs and policy makers, a key strategy to lift millions out of poverty is to include small farmers in global value chains. A growing number of small farmers are now included in global value chains.

In Peru, for example, organized small farmers have joined global value chains and turned the country into a leading world exporter of organic products, providing at least 100,000 jobs. Peruvian authorities created a national system to regulate organic agriculture similar to that in Europe (with compulsory third-party certification, for example), so that farmers could enter leading markets. But in practice, the system has prevented thousands from joining domestic markets. How far this policy has made poverty worse is not known. African farmers ask: ‘Where can we be competitive in supply chains? Can we compete with subsidized markets in Europe and the United States?’

There are growing concerns about this approach. Value chains exclude small producers, notably women who cannot meet the rising scale and quality requirements; neither can they manage the risks involved. Chain empowerment has been gaining ground: it aims to help small farmers cope with the inherent challenges of global value chains, including questions of power and governance. But even in Europe the gap between farm-gate and supermarket prices is continually widening and farmers are continuously being squeezed out of the system. If organized European farmers are not strong enough to get fair prices, how will family farmers in the south do? Chain empowerment is crucial, we agree, but there is a need to widen the perspective and explore other possible strategies to improve farmers’ lives. A lopsided focus on global value chain development may result in marginalizing those who cannot or do not want to meet the requirements.

Dwindling fossil fuels

The dependence on inputs such as fossil fuels and phosphate means we must re-think the growth models of agriculture. As these inputs get scarcer, strategies such as subsidizing fertilizers are, in the long run, untenable. What will a post-fossil fuel agriculture look like? We need to start looking now for approaches that make the best use of scarce resources before we run out of fossil fuels. Family farming traditionally manages with moderate external inputs, making the best use of local opportunities and on-farm (nutrient) flows, so that production per unit (of input or land) is high. Farmers’ performance can be improved with appropriate information, know-how and technology – in addition to secure tenure rights – so that family farmers can build up a viable farm.

Forgotten farmers

Poverty reduction strategies often jump from one extreme to the other, from commercial agricultural production for global markets, to safety nets for the most needy. In between, small farmers, many of them women, have their own flexible strategies. They have been adapting their cropping patterns and diversifying food supply in response to growing demands from urban areas, for decades. They have creative and innovative ideas – some more successful than others. However, their potential as farmers, as well as their farming logic, deserve far more recognition.

Family farming has evolved into a wide range of location-specific forms, as farmers have responded to different agro-ecological, socio-economic and political conditions. Even with climate change and shaky economic and policy environments, crop production is stable and exports have increased in several West African states. Over 80% of total agricultural production in Africa is consumed locally. In Brazil, family farmers work on 25% of the agricultural land yet produce 65% of the country’s food. In Peru, smallholders control around 90% of farms and produce 60% of total food. Family farming also helps safeguard biodiversity and retain cultural identities. It is hugely beneficial to a country struggling to rebuild itself once war has ended and can serve as a buffer during economic crises.

Boosting policy support

Given the current global interest in agriculture, now is the time to boost support for family farming. Political acknowledgement needs to realize secure access to land, credit, inputs and appropriate mechanization, particularly for the poorest. Where such rights and services are in place, family farmers will develop their own mix of strategies. They can produce with internal and external inputs, for their own consumption, for regional markets and even for international markets – with limited carbon footprints – boosting rather than destroying eco-system functions.

In Africa and elsewhere, governments need to be confident that small farmers can drive agricultural transformation. Rather than seeing them as outdated, national governments need to acknowledge that, with the right conditions, family farmers can boost agricultural development. Neglecting family farming will erode societies and will aggravate food and environmental crises.

The future of family farming is about re-humanising agriculture, about creating more equitable relations between producers, processors, scientists, institutions and consumers. It is about respecting diversity and living with nature in a factual way. A world where one form of agriculture out-competes others is not sustainable. Any future needs family farming!


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
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  2. IAASTD (2008) Agriculture at a Crossroads’ International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Global Report
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  4. Anna Laven (2009) Empowering Rural Entrepreneurs, The Broker 16, October 2009
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  8. Defoer, Toon (2006) Improving the Productivity of ACP Family Farm Systems
  9. Bolnick et al (2006) A Pro-Poor Urban Agenda for Africa: Clarifying Ecological and Development Issues for Poor and Vulnerable Populations, London: IIED.