Small farmers key to easing poverty

Small farmers can be a driving force in cutting hunger and poverty worldwide. This was the key message to G8 leaders from an international gathering of leading development specialists this week.

70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and the vast majority of these depend on agriculture as their main income source. Investment in small farm agriculture can help to raise them out of poverty and catalyse wider economic growth, participants at “The Future of Small Farms” research workshop concluded.

The workshop was organised jointly by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington DC, the Overseas Development Institute in London and Imperial College London. It was convened to consider the prospects for small farmers in developing countries and the numerous challenges they currently face.

These challenges include globalisation (especially the dramatic rise of supermarkets even in poor countries), low world market prices for major agricultural commodities and the expected negative impact of climate change. In Africa, these challenges are compounded by the spread of HIV/AIDS and by continuing population growth that is making small farms smaller than ever. In addition, dispersed poor farmers rarely have an effective political voice, so are often short-changed in government spending priorities.

Nevertheless, according to Dr.Peter Hazell, Director of the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and one of the workshop organisers, “The difficulties facing small farmers and those who would assist them are not good reasons for giving up on the task, as some have suggested. The possibilities of creating sufficient alternative livelihoods in the non-farm sector within the next decade or two remain bleak in most poor countries, and there are plenty of good investment opportunities in small farms that are win-win for growth and poverty reduction.”

The workshop participants agreed that:

* Major public investments in rural infrastructure (such as roads, irrigation and electrification), agricultural research and support services are needed to unleash the inherent power of small farmers.

* In many African countries, however, delivery of such investment is constrained by the capacity and quality of state institutions through which the investment would be channelled. These institutions have to be reinvigorated by reforms that increase their accountability to civil society actors such as farmer organisations and the private sector.

* Donors must think carefully about how aid can be used to encourage such reform programmes. The danger is that large increases in aid could remove incentives for recipient governments to undertake real reform.

* There is a need to redefine the role of the state in the provision of key support services for small farmers. Structural adjustment programmes have led to state withdrawal from ensuring that small farmers have fair access to high quality seeds, fertilisers, technical advice, credit and marketing services, and a crucial vacuum has been created that in most poor African countries has not been filled by the private sector. The state should play a pro-active role, in collaboration with farmer organisations and private sector representatives, to “kick start” markets and attract greater private sector involvement.

“The Future of Small Farms” research workshop took place at Imperial College London’s Wye Campus from 26-29 June and was attended by 65 invited researchers, farmer representatives, NGO representatives and policy makers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the US.

Further information, including copies of key papers, is available at

From Imperial College London

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