Prioritizing small-scale farming

Food Security21 Jan 2013Paul Wolvekamp, Aad Kessler, Coen Ritsema

Policy aimed at intensification of small scale agriculture most effectively stimulates global food security argue Wolvekamp (Both Ends), Ritsema (SLM) and Kessler (SML-WUR).

A persistent confusion permeates the Dutch debate about food. Sweeping statements on the need to meet rising global demand to feed a growing population growth seem to bar crucial questions regarding control over food production systems, distribution, lack of local food security and recurrent hunger faced in large parts of the world. Moreover, wastage of food, trends of growing meat and fish consumption and adverse subsidies are being left unchallenged. 1 Amidst such confusion, Dutch policy prioritizes export, trade and a corporate driven intensification of the agriculture agenda. It emphasizes green revolution and GMO technology, conveniently referring to combating climate change, but at the expense of small-scale farming and other modes of food production. This, whereas the IAASTD reportconcludes that in terms of achieving food security there is most to gain from stimulating intensification of small scale agriculture. 2

What adds to the confusion is the unanswered question about ‘availability of land’. In the absence of adequate local governance systems and prevailing corruption, large-scale agricultural industry is allowed to claim large tracts of arable land, clear forests and drain wetlands at the expense of local family farming, biodiversity and planetary stability. The prevailing Dutch food production, export and trade model has increasingly stimulated monoculture cropping. Consequently, local populations find themselves enclaved by millions of hectares of palm oil, soy, maize and sugar cane. International trade is dominated by a handful of corporations with an undifferentiated production process. But an emphasis on increased volumes of a few staple foods does not add to dietary value, resilience and risk aversion – key ingredients in the survival strategy of local people. It increases rural economies’ dependency on the vagaries of global markets.

The Netherlands is one of the world’s largest food exporters. This comes at a price, for example a disproportionately large social-ecological footprint. It causes severe problems with soil, water and air pollution, human health, greenhouse gas emissions and animal welfare at home and makes the Netherlands partisan to large-scale deforestation and land grab in the Amazon, the Cerrado, Mozambique, Uganda, countries in South East Asia and other regions which produce our feedstock. The Dutch government’s policy response to enhance sustainability is “…to focus more on the production of healthy and sustainable food and the export of knowhow and technology to emerging markets.” 3 There is a risk, however, that the remedy will deepen the problem, since the underlying causes of ecological degradation and social marginalization linked to the Dutch model of food production and trade are not being addressed.

A large part of Dutch welfare – earned via the horticultural, agricultural, financial and logistics sectors (e.g. Rotterdam and other seaports) is thus based on a systematic externalization of social and environmental costs. And hence, a first precondition to curtail these problematic side effects is to help ensure adequate land-use planning, implementation of national and international laws and regulations and mechanisms to mitigate and resolve conflicts over land, water and other key resources – notably conflicts between local populations and corporations. This implies living up to the voluntary guidelines adopted internationally in May 2012 for the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security. 4

The good news is that there is huge potential to restore and build more robust production systems. Millions of hectares of degraded land await investment and attention to become productive again and enable the local population and external entrepreneurs to cultivate and trade food, other products and environmental services. This includes former forest land, land suffering from erosion and waterlogged due to mismanagement and lack of inputs.  Priority needs to be given to assisting local land users, governments and other stakeholders in the restoration of soils, hydrology and vegetation. There is a pressing necessity in the face of climate change to make food production systems more diverse and resilient. Moreover, rehabilitation of soils and biomass – both above and in the soil – helps sequester CO2. This coincides with the increasingly stronger call from the global scientific community, land-use practitioners and policy fora to focus on sustainable land use and management practices to simultaneously preserve ecosystem functions while producing food and/or fodder (ref. UNCCD, FAO, DESIRE/Wocat). 5 Increased attention to agro-ecological farming, agro-forestry systems and investments in participatory forest protection and management regimes are also required. 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty directly rely on forest resources.  Indirectly, forest resources support the natural environment that nourishes agriculture and the food supplies of nearly half the population of the developing world (World Bank Forest Strategy 2002).

A focus on drylands is notably key in tackling these global food challenges. Deserts and drylands take up 41% of the earth’s land surface, 2.1 billion people live in the areas, 90% of them in developing countries. Drylands support 50% of world’s livestock, store 46% of global carbon and support 44% of all the world’s agricultural cultivation. At the same time, drought, erosion, overgrazing and other man-made and natural impacts take their toll. 12 million hectares of land, an area the size of Benin, are lost every year – a potential deficit of some 20 million tons of grain. Drylands can be saved, however. Degradation can be arrested and reversed. Moreover, prevention is more cost effective than restoring already degraded land. Deliberate human interventions have already led to astounding recovery of range lands and crop lands (UNCCD News, Issue 2.4, 2010)

The Netherlands has allowed the percentage of international ODA spending on agriculture to drop below a mere 4%. It now faces the challenge to help ensure more funds, attention and collaboration come available for preservation of natural resources, land restoration, small-scale food production, logistics and market development. This is no easy task. In relative terms not much has been spent on enhancing smallholder production. Know-how on how to do this is scattered. Fact is, however, that for generations to come a majority of local producers will have to fend for themselves, notwithstanding all international commitments and technological developments.  Starting with what small-scale producers – notably women – want and what they can do within their span of control, what resources they find around their homestead offers them most security. It is to invest in sustainable ‘agro-cultures’ of rural areas, which represent half the world’s population and make small scale-farming possible, to be protected and promoted. 6

Sustainable intensification with a focus on small-scale producers allows for less input-intensive, more climate-friendly, avenues of food production. And it will simultaneously strengthen resilience and local food security. Agribusinesses will grow anyway, accessing the ample funds available from investment banks and other new players in the agricultural sector. And hence, the challenge for Dutch policy lies in supporting investments in smallholder farming and creating the enabling conditions at both local and higher institutional levels. It requires a rise in agricultural spending through ODA and other channels, and investment in (transdisciplinary) R&D initiatives that focus on smallholder needs and their access to finance and services – empowering notably female food producers and processors. Combining local sustainable initiatives with national policies to ensure upscaling is thereby crucial. Companies, for example within PPPs, see these opportunities as well. 7

On a last urgent note, countries such as Indonesia, that prioritize export crops like palm oil are becoming increasingly dependent on rice imports in a context of increasing food prices and social upheaval. This adds to calls for more local food production within these countries. A failure to address in-country food production potential and bottlenecks would add to tensions in the urban centres in the South, and their capacity to absorb the exodus of rural people has already been overstretched. Such failure would also allow for a continuation of food scarcity and hunger in remote areas, notably in India and Sub-Saharan Africa. 8Prioritizing regional food systems is not inspired by false romanticism. Small-scale farming produces at least half of the global food supply, offers most of the employment in rural areas and provides local people with a fall-back option in times of economic crisis and shortages. Its enormous potential deserves to be fully unleashed. 9



  1. See Fresco, L.O.: Hamburgers in het Paradijs. Voedsel in tijden van schaarste en overvloed. 2012.
  2. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, see:
  3. See:
  4. See:
  5. DESIRE/WOCAT: Desire for Greener Land. Options for Sustainable Land Management in Drylands. 2012. See:
  6. See: Why are the FAO and the EBRD promoting the destruction of peasant and family farming? In GRAIN, 14 Sept. 2012
  7. E.g. WUR’s proposal for a PPP with Achmea and Healthnet TPO for risk insurances and food security in Burundi; and Both ENDS/ProFound’s PPP with tea plantation companies, a farmers’ cooperative and NGOs in Sri Lanka.
  8. India is home to about 25 percent of the world’s hungry poor. Although the country grows enough food for its people, pockets of hunger remain. According to government figures, around 43 per cent of children under the age of five years are malnourished. Source; World Food Program
  9. GRAIN, 14 Sept. 2012.