The ‘invisible’ farmer and the global hunger debate

New agriculture methods may improve efficiency and sustainability.

Bangladesh survivors ponder on work prospects
Garment workers who survived deadly tragedy with lifelong injuries fear they will never work again. [Al Jazeera]

International development organisations have increasingly sought to incorporate small-scale farmers into the global cash economy as a means to improve household food security and alleviate hunger.  Experts argue that greater monetisation of agriculture allows farmers to purchase fertilisers and pesticides (known as inputs), boost productivity, and sell surplus crops. 

Such an argument fails to recognise the plethora of farming activity that occurs outside of the market.  This non-monetised agriculture may be less risky, often stands a better chance of improving nutrition, and goes completely unrecorded.

Organisations such as the Gates Foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative, and the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, all see greater monetisation of agriculture and the development of so-called ‘value chains’ (links between input suppliers, farmers and markets) as the way forward for alleviating global hunger.  While most small-scale farmers clearly need cash to cover household expenses and can benefit from the sale of a small portion of their crop, this is significantly different from a fully monetised farming operation where all inputs and outputs are bought and sold on the market. 

‘Value chains’

Our experiences on the ground in Mali and Bangladesh illustrate this difference and contradict the new, dominant view on how best to augment food security for the poorest of the poor. 

There is no denying that small-scale farmers in southern Mali need cash. They need it to buy medicine, to pay school fees and to travel to the city. In fact, the need for cash drove farmers in southern Mali to grow cotton for the past several decades even when they knew it was bad for the soil and profits were minimal.

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Now development experts want to establish stronger value chains for food crops in southern Mali, branching out from the long-standing input and output markets for cotton.  Such an approach could be a win-win for small-scale farmers in Mali because it would allow them to earn money and move away from environmentally problematic cotton production.  The initiative’s flaw is that it fails to differentiate between the needs of different types of small-scale farmers. 

In southern Mali, the top 15 percent – of small-scale farmers – those that cultivate about 20 hectares – do benefit from access to credit, the ability to purchase fertilisers and pesticides, and access to markets. It is this type of farmer whose operations will expand at the expense of neighbors as a result of the renewed push to incorporate small-scale farmers into the global marketplace.

Unfortunately, increasing access to credit and growing dependence on purchased inputs is not as advantageous for the remaining 85 percent of Mali’s poorer small-scale farmers. These farmers frequently fall into debt when they buy inputs on credit, produce less than expected due to inadequate rainfall, and are unable to financially weather a bad year. The result may be a gradual loss of land to larger farmers, migration to the city where jobs are severely lacking, or working for a wealthier neighbor for limited wages.  Some economists present this as an inevitable trend of economic progress, as more people are incorporated into the wage workforce and national farm productivity statistics improve. 

In contrast to those poor, small-scale farmers that have heeded the advice of development experts and entered the market for purchased inputs, the most successful of this group are those that use agroecological techniques to boost productivity, such as an increased use of compost, the mixing of complimentary crops to manage pests and maintain soil fertility, and the planting of trees in fields to minimize erosion. These farmers have foregone the risk of loans for inputs, yet still produce enough food to feed their families and sell a surplus for cash needs.

Sustainable agriculture

A similar dynamic at play takes place in rural Bangladesh. In Pirojpur, one of the poorer districts of the country, federal agricultural and rural development statistics suggest that this is one of the least developed areas where minimal progress is being made.  Here farmers are largely subsistence (or self-provisioning) oriented, selling only a small portion to earn money. These farming communities operate almost entirely outside of any monetized agriculture trade – but are a constant target for market globalisation.

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The Bangladeshi government and NGOs working in the area have stressed improved crop management and storage methods as a way to help farmers better their household food security. Pairing community capacity building with targeted agriculture training, such as the facilitation of farmer groups and multi-cropping systems, has resulted in soaring farm productivity, especially in regions recently ravaged by natural disasters. Improved storage techniques have also helped farmers sell less at harvest time when prices are lower and save more for consumption, or for sale at higher prices, at a later date.  These initiatives have allowed struggling communities to simultaneously improve their food security and resiliency in the face of climate change and natural disasters.

Building resilient livelihoods in Bangladesh is critical given that it is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, especially sea level rise. Case studies collected in this district suggest that it is when development actors began to embrace subsistence agriculture as a valid livelihood that families and communities began to experience upturns in other indicators of prosperity, such as gender equity, access to education, affordable healthcare, and quality of life.

The irony is that much of real progress described above for the poorest farmers, both in Mali and Bangladesh, is not captured in the official government statistics used so widely in development circles – because very little of it involves recorded cash transactions. Until agricultural experts and development programs fully understand this measurement drawback they will continue to push for forms of rural development that may actually be counter-productive for the poorest of the poor.

William G. Moseley is Professor, Chair of Geography, and Director of African Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.  He may be found on twitter @WilliamGMoseley

James M. Lindgren is a student of geology and geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.  He spent time in Bangladesh while working for a rural development NGO.