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The unseen investors – Why smallholder farmers are central to debates on agricultural investment

Travel report from the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) 2013
by Martina Graf, Coordinator YPARD Europe

Berlin, minus 12 Celsius degree outside, when I dive into the crowd of ministers, students, NGO representatives, groups of delegates, investors, ambassadors from governments and lobbyists. They come together in the frame of “Die Grüne Woche”, which is the world's biggest fair for food, agriculture and horticulture, and is held in Berlin, Germany.

Meanwhile, the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, an international political event, is taking place, focusing on central issues regarding the future of the global agri-food industry. It unites politics, science and industry in a platform facilitating an exchange and political understanding on a chosen topic related to agricultural policy issues. This year is about “Responsible investment in the food and agriculture sectors – A key factor for food security and rural development.”

Agri-business often reminds me of the big sea, a habitat where many little fishes (smallholders), and less bigger fishes (industrial agriculture) live. Usually the little fishes are eaten by the big fishes, what makes the smaller ones being creative and tough in surviving. Both, the small and the big ones, are important! But a good balance is needed and an intact environment/ habitat is necessary to keep the circular flow.

Entering the congress with that picture in mind I feel more like a “little fish”, crowded by many “bigger fishes”, a bit lost; unfortunately no list of participants is available. But of course as little fishes always do, they make their way and I find the panel discussion, in which I am most interested in: The unseen investors – Why smallholder farmers are central to debates on agricultural investment.  As smallholders strongly are back into the debate on agriculture and rural development the panel discussion is just one out of many in which the issue of “little fishes” is tackled.

Looking at the debate on agricultural investment in and of smallholder family farms, they are most of the times not directly addressed although they are the key players producing the majority of the food consumed in the world. It seems as there are not seen as the major investors in land and agriculture anymore.

Within the general discussions on agriculture investment of smallholder farmers most hope seems to be put on foreign direct investment and on the private sector, more or less meaning the big agribusiness companies instead of the direct actors: the smallholder farmers. Often it seems as smallholder farmers and the engagement of public policies are disappearing in this debate. Therefore the core idea of the workshop is to bring the smallholders back into the debate and to listen to their own approaches and to their needs. Main questions discussed in this frame are:

  • Are the Public Private Partnerships, the production of cash crops and the integration into the value chains of the agribusiness really the right way forward?
  • What working alternatives haven been developed by smallholders in the last decades that could and should be scaled up instead?
  • Do smallholders need more pesticides and fertilizer or is agroecology with low external input requirements the way to increase production and wealth?
  • Especially from a southern perspective relevant question is: what do we understand by investment? Can it be measured only on a monetary basis or are agricultural policies that are supportive to smallholders much more valuable?
  • Can public procurement policies offer farmers a better market access than supermarkets?
  • What can be drawn from the IAASTD or global agricultural report into this debate since the report was the first to bring smallholders strongly back into the debate on agriculture and rural development?
  • How can civil society and small scale farmers bring these questions forward in the CFS in order to influence the debate within the FAO?

The pointed out results, which afterwards are discussed in the agriculture ministers’ summit, after two hours of workshop and an intensive discussion are:

  • Smallholders keep biodiversity; due to the small size of land they own (no monoculture possible). And that fact can as well be sold on the market.
  • Crop rotation and intercropping effectuate a lower use of fertilizers, what leads to lower expenses.
  • In rural areas the importance of a good infrastructure is often forgotten by policy makers.
  • Women often are the backbone of smallholder support and as the IAASTD report pointed out will play an important role in implementing changes in the future.
  • Promoting and establishing cooperatives helps to put smallholder farmers back on the map. Cooperatives promote smallholder products on the markets, offer extension services and lead the smallholder farms to a better self-confidence and to a greater independence.
  • Integration of food production into policy programs shall ensure a solid frame for food producing smallholders.
  • Smallholder farmers show inclusiveness and transparency, especially when they process raw material into a finished product in cooperation with others and sell it directly in larger quantities on the market.

To be honest those are not too many new insights.  But as more smallholder organizations raise their voice, as more they get involved in the political debate. The importance of investments of smallholder farmers on the economy has to be recognized and discussed. Food supply only can be ensured with strengthened smallholders. And this will show positive effect on the industrial farms as well due to a healthy balance which is needed. Therefore it is crucial to keep on discussing on the topic again and again. From a YPARD view it was a pleasure to see how many young professionals participated in and gave their contribution to the discussion.

To go back to the picture of the sea: With an increasing number of small fishes, the diversity increases. As we all know from nature: It is important to ensure a large diversity to provide a healthy habitat. As more healthy little fishes swim in the sea the more colorful it gets. You may think now: “But hey! Martina, by having such a picture in mind, you didn’t consider that with a higher number of little fishes, the big ones just got a better food supply!” Yes, I admit that they do, and of course big fishes will always eat small ones, but they can’t eat more than they need. But stronger little fishes will be enabled to show their enormous beauty and importance they have in providing diversity. They will be much better recognized and therefore receive the deserved appreciation!

Interesting links to the topic:
- Global Forum for Food and Agriculture 2013
- Civil Society Mechanism
- Global Agriculture

picture: "underwater" (c) getye1/stock.xchng