Small is beautiful in food systems where people matter

The strength of smallholder agriculture is eroded by lack of investment in local food value chains and blind faith in the open global market economy, writes Alana Mann.

Image Sourced: Department of Foreign Affairs

Ernst Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, wrote that the modern economy was unsustainable in 1973.

His philosophy of ‘enoughness’ recognised the finite limits of the planet and the wisdom of village-based economics that deny big is better and growth, greater. Nowhere is the logic of Schumacher more evident than in the villages themselves.

Of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people in the world, 70 per cent live in rural areas and depend partly or entirely on smallholder agriculture for their livelihoods. The UN claims 2.5 billion people managing 500 million smallholder farm households provide over 80 per cent of the food for the Global South. How small is small? In Africa 80 per cent of farms are less than 2ha, and an even higher percentage in Asia. Twenty per cent of the world’s food is produced on 250 million smallholdings in China – on only 10 per cent of the global land available. This example and others from Brazil, the Philippines, Cuba, Columbia and Africa defy claims that smallholder systems are unproductive. With low external inputs, high recycling rates and crop-livestock integration smallholder setups demonstrate high efficiency and productivity in comparison to the conventionally farmed monocultures that dominate the industrial, export-driven, food system. Further, small-scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists contribute to rural economies through employment and poverty reduction; they reduce socio-economic inequality and provide a social safety net. Under the right political conditions they provide stewardship of natural resources and cultural heritage.

Smallholder agriculture is practiced by families or groups of households often led by women, who play a central role in growing, processing and marketing food. Diversification of crops and livestock reduces the impact of price shocks, and off-farm activities supplement incomes. Far from inefficient, smallholder farmers are rational decision-makers who produce a specific quantity and type of food for subsistence and sale. Why would a farmer produce more food than she can realistically store, transport and sell at a price that is greater than the cost-price? Local food value chains are complex adaptive systems. They include field preparation, farming, and post-harvest processes of storage and handling, transportation and marketing. There is a need for bottom up solutions to overcome barriers at different stages of the process. Many of these rely on public investment in infrastructure, the protection of the basic rights and citizenship of smallholders, and guaranteed access to productive assets and inclusive markets. It is only when systemic blockages on local, national and international levels are overcome that subsistence farmers can compete with alternative food sources such cheaper imports, and achieve a degree of self-sufficiency.

Last month hundreds of small-scale producers met in Sèlinguè, a small village in Mali, Western Africa to devise a roadmap back to self-sufficiency. The outcome of this meeting, the Declaration of the International Forum of Agroecology presents the peoples’ alternative to conventional, industrial agricultural methods and the destructive elements of international trade. The Declaration states that agroecological methods of food production play an integral role in creating equitable, sustainable and healthy food systems. It emphasises that traditional peasant farming techniques such as intercropping, mobile pastoralism and composting can adapt agriculture to the changing conditions brought about by climate change.

The authors of the Declaration reject corporate greenwash that suggests industrial farming can become more sustainable by adding a few agroecological methods to a toolkit that relies on proprietary inputs and monocultures. “Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality in a food system and rural world that has been devastated by industrial food production and its so-called Green and Blue Revolutions. We see agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.” A revolution of a different colour, agroecology does not originate in a lab or rely on the open market; it is based on farmers’ local innovation and is built on peer-to-peer information sharing and ways of knowing through dialogue (diàlogo de saberes). It promotes decentralised and democratic planning processes that return power to communities, to “put the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of people who feed the world”.

Back in 1973 Schumacher accurately surmised that “the illusion of unlimited power, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production”. Advocates of the open global market economy and a second Green Revolution argue that free trade and higher yields will feed the world, and that localising food supplies is detrimental to food security. The smallholder farmers of the world provide evidence that the reverse is true.