Small is beautiful on World Food Day

Agriculture, Gender, Private sector

With ‘Sustainable Food Systems’ the theme of this year’s World Food Day, Erinch Sahan reminds both governments and private sector investors of their duty to actively support small-scale farmers, the unsung heroes of global food security. 

In agriculture, small is beautiful. Small farms generate jobs, food and development for some of the poorest people on the planet. In fact, 500 million small farms support nearly two billion people. These communities of small-scale farmers have shown us that they can thrive commercially with the right policies. 

However, it is these very same small-scale producers who are the most food insecure – due to a lack of access to the markets, land, finance, infrastructure and technologies enjoyed by large farms. We’ve made this case before, and we continue to make it. But we still need action to ensure that many more small-scale farmers can thrive. Action from business and action from governments…

In Private Investment in Agriculture: Why it’s essential, and what’s needed, we highlighted what is needed from business. Tipping the Balance: Policies to shape agricultural investments and markets in favour of small-scale farmers, drew from research with IIED from Guatemala, Nigeria, Tanzania and the Philippines to explore policy options for governments. Subsequently in Power,
Rights, and Inclusive Markets: Public policies that support small-scale agriculture
, we summarised what this all means for policy-makers. 

Tipping the Balance highlights two things. Firstly, there are certain policies that can tip commercial investments in favour of small-scale farming (or against it). Secondly, there are policy levers that influence whether small-scale producers carry an unfair amount of risk and capture an unfair portion of rewards. It leads us to ask question of policy-makers in governments: who are you tipping the
balance in favour of?

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that most donor and government policies are currently biased towards large-scale agriculture at the expense of small-scale producers, women, and rural communities. This needs to change. We aren’t arguing for large-scale farming to be eliminated. The food security challenge requires a mixed model of agriculture, both large and small, which can also support more inclusive development. Nor are we advocating for policies that lock people into small-scale agriculture. 

We know many will leave farming for jobs in other industries, mostly in cities. Though we do need to rectify the huge disadvantages faced by small-scale farmers around the world, resulting from policies that, whether deliberate or not, favour large over small farms. This means that even when small-scale producers can participate in markets, they are too often bearing a disproportionate amount of risk and capture an unfair amount of the rewards.

Table of policies that support small-scale agriculture. From Power, Rights and Inclusive Markets briefing paper.

The upshot from Oxfam and IIED’s research into what policies favour small-scale agriculture is this: governments must be deliberate and persistent in supporting small-scale farmers. This means they must focus on three key principles:

  1. Give small-scale producers – particularly women – power, in markets and in politics
  2. Protect basic rights
  3. Support inclusive markets

The table on the right summarises the key issues that jump off the page for policy-makers from our research. Whether it’s strengthening land rights, supporting producer organisations, providing tax incentives for investors sourcing from small-scale producers or developing competition laws that even the playing field, governments must look at the opportunities they have to support small-scale agriculture

The task for governments is not simple. But the principles are clear. Keep your focus on supporting small-scale farmers. And stubbornly insist that your policies should give small-scale producers power, protect their basic rights and open up for them multiple markets.

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Author: Erinch Sahan
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.