Have we tipped the balance?

Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Food security, Private sector

To celebrate World Food Day, we are releasing Tipping the Balance – 2012’s report on agricultural investment and market governance – as an eBook. Maria Michalopoulou ponders how the debate has evolved since the launch of this landmark report.

Consider this little paradox: 500 million small-scale farms around the world feed almost 2 billion people, nearly one-third of the global population. Yet these same small-scale farmers are also the most food-insecure, due to a lack of access to the markets, resources, finance, infrastructure and technologies enjoyed by large farms. 

Growth in small-scale agriculture has twice the effect on the poorest as growth in other sectors.

The theme of today is rethinking our food systems, making them sustainable for food security and nutrition. A tall order indeed, but an imperative one. The food price hikes of 2007-08 are a not-so distant memory reminding us that our food system is more volatile than we ever believed. And we are not out of the woods yet. There is widespread expectation that agricultural commodity prices will rise in the medium to long term if global imbalances between supply and demand are not dealt with effectively. 

Small scale farmers, and in particular women, are caught in the middle of these imbalances. As the people who ultimately produce the food that reaches our table, they are at the heart of the food system, yet at the fringes of investment and political decisions. 

In Tanzania women produce 70 per cent of all food crops and in Nepal women are involved in 80 per cent of farm activities. Yet in many countries women’s role in agriculture is still unrecognised, going unnoticed as family labour. Women have little control over income and decision making, they lack access to land, finance and markets, and are burdened with household care responsibilities that leaves them no time to innovate or get involved in business

Small scale farmers produce more than 70 per cent of the world’s food supply and in many low- and middle-income countries remain the main source of agricultural investment. However, over the past few decades, according to statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the share of total government spending going to agriculture has decreased in all regions except Europe and Central Asia. 

Budget cuts have also driven a reduction in government services in rural areas, including extension, health, and education services, along with a growth in market functions being handed to private sector traders, and the closure of public storage infrastructure – dramatically affecting small scale farmers who have no access to independent private finance and other services. 

Over the 20 years to 2001, only 1.5 per cent of global economic growth benefited people on less that $1 per day.In December 2012, Oxfam and IIED published Tipping the Balance, a report that looked into exactly this issue of how policy levers governing investment in agriculture and governance of
agricultural markets can tip the balance (either favour or negatively affect ) small scale farmers.

A year on, the findings of this report have been at the centre of discussions challenging the thinking of many in the donor and NGO community on investment in agriculture and sustainable agricultural development. Do the two walk hand in hand, complementing each other? Should they? What are the gains, risks and opportunities of different scenarios? What is the impact for communities and natural resources? The findings and the recommendations are many and rich in detail, coming from analytical research in Guatemala, Nigeria, Tanzania and the Philippines and interwoven with global references. 

A couple of examples help paint the picture: the rise of investment in biofuels in Guatemala has led to  many small scale farmers selling their land to large-scale palm oil and sugar farmers in exchange for (often unfulfilled) promises of jobs and community improvements. An estimated 46% of land distributed after peace agreements has been re-concentrated in this way. Unfortunately when economic returns on agriculture are low, the offer of immediate cash is a clear incentive for farmers to sell their land. The short-term economic gain, however,
tends to be followed by food insecurity and deprived livelihoods as well as land conflicts, with 1,288 disputes in the country at the end of 2011.  

In Tanzania and other sub Saharan African countries large scale plantations are pushing out local communities not only from their land but also from the use of the natural resources, leading to environmental degradation and abject poverty of local populations. Not to mention the blunt practices of land grabs which are becoming more and more widespread. Finally, a stark illustration of the imbalances in agricultural markets can be seen in the agri-food sector in the Philippines, where the market share of the top four firms can be as high as 90 per

Almost a year on from the publication of Tipping the Balance, the debate is very much alive and – with the people who produce our food deprived of their own right to food security, well-being and economic security – it is well beyond the stage of a moral argument. By putting small scale farmers at the heart of discussion about rethinking our food systems, we place our bets on a more diverse, balanced, sustainable
picture of the future of agriculture and world food supply.

Solutions exist, but is there the will to make them a reality?

Read more

Author: Maria Michalopoulou
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.