Man with his packed donkey in Kosht epa valley, Afghanistan
Man with his packed donkey in Kosht epa valley, Afghanistan

Day 7: Farmers do not come from Mars

17 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

If poor farmers had more freedom to innovate and adequate access to public and private investments, they would likely disappoint us by getting out of farming altogether. But even if only one or two in five remained, they would change the world for the better, literally.

By Julio A. Berdegué, Principal Researcher, Latin American Centre for Rural Development (RIMISP)

Resource-poor farmers are not Martians. Like you and me they make decisions that are largely informed by their culture, their capabilities, and the set of incentives (positive and negative) they face. The question that Oxfam asked me to answer invites us to think about a world in which the capabilities of the farmers have been greatly expanded and the incentives they face have been redefined in ways favourable to them. 

Amartya Sen would say this is what development is all about, attaining “the freedoms of people to lead the kind of lives they have reason to value.” 

What would resource-poor famers do with that freedom to innovate? Probably we would see about 500 million different answers, one for every smallholder on the planet. We need to recognize that that is just fine, because very often those of us who look at poor farmers from afar, tend to have strong preconceptions of who we would like resource-poor farmers to be in a better world that we have built in our minds. 

“What would resource-poor farmers do with the freedom to innovate? We would see about 500 million different answers, one for every smallholder on the planet.”

If these farmers had more freedom to innovate, many of them very likely would disappoint us, leading lives that they have reason to value and that are probably quite different from those that we, external observers, would like to see them valuing.

To begin with, many of them would move to cities. If they really had a lot of freedom, some would even move to other countries. However, if before deciding to move they had adequate access to public and private sector investments in support of their innovations, if they moved for sure it would be because they would value that option, and not because poverty, hunger and social exclusion expel them from their birthplace. 

Others would remain where they’ve always lived, or nearby, but would gradually become only part-time farmers, or even get out of farming. They, or their children, would become traders, shopkeepers, artisans, professional singers... or doctors and engineers and, God save us, MBAs or politicians. With such diversity they would enrich the social, cultural and economic fabric of their villages and of the nearby towns and small cities. Richer, better rural societies would be the result.

Finally, some would continue to be farmers. I believe that they would be a minority of the 500 million that we started with. And that is also perfectly fine. If they were capable of bringing their ideas to fruition because they have adequate access to public and private investments, even if only 100 or 200 million remained in farming, they would change the world for the better, literally. 

Think about it: As farmers, what would they seek to achieve through their innovations? Probably they would seek to produce more, and to do it in ways that allow them to become the preferred choice of the buyers of their products and, ultimately, of the consumers. I think that they would value innovations that put more cash in their pockets, so they can buy the goods and services that are part of the lives they have reason to value and that they cannot produce themselves or exchange with their neighbours. 

“Farmers would value innovations that put more cash in their pockets.”

They also would probably like to work less, or better said, to ease the huge physical exertion that is today associated with the life of the resource-poor farmer; that would allow them to live fuller, more humane lives. And, finally, I believe they would also like to be far less dependent on the political masters that today use their control of varied resources to condition farmers’ choices as citizens. 

I am quite sure that almost all farmers would seek these four outcomes of innovation, because, after all, farmers are not Martians. 

Yes, you must be asking, what about natural resources? Well, I am not as certain that most resource-poor farmers would chose to use less water, or fewer pesticides, or adopt soil-conserving technologies, under the “What if...” conditions of almost unlimited freedom from constraints that is implied in Oxfam’s question. 

I would hope that many would, but I am not sure. You see, several of the four outcomes of innovation that I believe most farmers would seek if they had a chance and that I listed in the previous paragraph, in many circumstances are contradictory to conserving nature. Would they sacrifice income, or production, or less physical exertion, if it were necessary to avoid a negative impact on the environment?  I am not sure they all would.

“Would farmers sacrifice income, or production, or less physical exertion, if it were necessary to avoid a negative impact on the environment?”

How, then, could society incentivize resource conservation so it is aligned with farmers’ probable preferences? We return to the start of this note: I believe that smallholders’ decisions are largely informed by their culture, their capabilities, and the set of incentives (positive and negative) they face. Those are the three possible entry points for policies and programs that seek to incentivize and support resource-conserving livelihoods. 

But let me insist that smallholders make their living by using natural resources, and for them to use those resources in ways that are better for nature, they must be able to see the benefit of such a course of action; simple coercion does not work in the long run and, to start with, smallholders are already coerced enough by so many forces that they really do not need any more of that.

A fundamental starting point is that society should secure the effective exercise of the most basic rights of smallholders as human beings, such as the right to food and to lead a healthy life, or the rights of women in smallholder households to make informed decisions by themselves and act upon them. This can only lead to a better relationship between smallholder communities and nature around them, because the expansion of such rights can remove or ease many of the reasons why smallholders may use natural resources in unsustainable ways.

In second place, society can also improve the ways in which smallholders use natural resources by making available some goods and services that many of us take for granted but that many farmers lack in full or in part: roads and better access to cities, fairer and more transparent markets, enforcement of labour laws and regulations (many smallholder households depend in part on wage labour which in rural areas often happens under appalling conditions), access to credit, and so on. Such “public goods” dramatically expand the range of options that smallholders have, and often reduce the relative attractiveness of activities that deteriorate the environment.

One “public good” that is often forgotten is political rights. Smallholders need to be able to exercise such rights if they are going to have the voice and power to control the access and use of natural resources that belong to them by law or by custom. If rural communities do not have a say in crafting and enforcing the rules that determine who uses those resources and how they are used, the end result most often will be misuse by those who may not have the right, but have the power. 

“Smallholders deserve to be seen and treated as persons with equal rights, but also with duties and obligations.”

In addition, collective action through community- or resource-based or economic organizations is a particularly powerful tool because it can open ways of using resources that are completely blocked for individual and isolated smallholders.

Access to an expanded range of forms of knowledge and to resource-conserving technologies can also be quite effective, as long as those technologies also make sense to smallholders from a cultural and economic point of view.

However, I don’t believe that the above types of actions are enough, because smallholders do have an incentive to use resources in ways that maximize their short-term, private interests. Like you and me, smallholders love birds and trees and beautiful flowing rivers, but as you well know, when it comes to human beings such love is not enough to prevent us from hunting the bird, cutting the tree, or diverting the river if we can derive a benefit and we can get away with it. 

This brings us to my final message. Well-enforced laws and regulations that constrain certain innovations or that limit the use that can be made of resources are necessary. Smallholders deserve to be seen and treated as persons with equal rights, but also with duties and obligations. In the world of Oxfam’s “What ifs...”, smallholders are citizens, pure and simple. That is development.

Download: Farmers do not come from Mars

Comments

Rights, freedom, and access to resources for all

Yesterday we saw Harold Poelma of Cargill being challenged on his view of free trade and transparent markets. Madiodio Niasse was asked how to ensure youth could stay in farming and Tarcila Rivera was confronted on free indigenous knowledge.

The two essays of today work from the assumption that a more just and sustainable food system can only come about when farmers rights to land, food, finance, and seeds are respected in a fair and equitable manner. However, Berdegué and Kabir differ in how they see farmers responding to greater freedoms and access. Kabir assumes that farmers without the unjust domination from the rich and powerful will better manage the land through a more sustainable agriculture. Berdegué is not sure. What do you think?

Another point of view

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Working less

Good post!

I am not sure that the remaining farmers would work less. They may work with more machinery and therefore consume less calories for their energy. I would say that many small holders today do not work awfully long days compared to a commercialised farmer. The commercialized farmer can always work more, to earn more, to pay for another investment etc.

In Sweden, where I come from, the "modernization" of farming has not come with shorter working hours. It has also come with much higher efficiency demand on every hour spent. The successful guys and girls only remain in business by being on the edge all the time.

And thanks OXFAM for this dailogue!

Another point of view

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The trap of simplistic thinking about what farmers would do

I feel that this whole discussion might finally end a bit pointless because it does not address the issue in its holistic dimension. Debating about what the farmers of today would do in the future if they had more freedom to innovate is just focusing on one single elemental state of this future without considering that for this state to take place many other interconnected things would have also to change and therefore farmers' decisions would not be oriented by only more freedom to innovate but also many of these other interconnected elements.

Looking at the futures is not just a simple game of  "Hey, guess what could happen if...". It requires more than that. Why do we believe that more freedom to innovate by itself would make the difference ?  Is this another expression of the conventional thinking that technology will solve the problem (whatever the problem is)? And why is innovation having merely a technical/entrepreneurial dimension? What about the freedom to innovate with a new (rural) society, not just with a new cropping system (by the way farmers have innovated for the last 3000 years at least)? What if the true innovation farmers could make if all other elements were there was to completely change our vision of living in rural areas?

Let's do more future studies/foresight about this, let's try to understand what could make farmers really shaping their future in a pro-active way rather than trying to adapt in a reactive way.

Simplistic thinking

Robin, You are correct in saying that there are many factors that could influence how farmers think and act in the future, and that I have not considered all those possibilities. I confess that it is beyond my capacity to take all those possibilities into account, even more so if we want to project our thinking 20 or 30 or more years into the future. But I would also argue that some of the simple factors that I do consider, will be important in many settings and for many smallholders in making their own decisions. Holistic thinking is always important, but it can easily lead to holistic paralysis. Thanks for participating!

Innovation is more than a technological fix.

Robin, you are partially correct. If you have been following the debate from the beginning you will have seen that different essayists higlighted different elements of what agriculture could look like in the future. Innovation is one of those things that agriculture practitioners and policy makers have been harping about, some more loudly than others. Usually, it's like you say: innovation is regarded as this "technological fix" , catalyzed by the development agency. Few appreciate or recognize the fact that in rural communities, farmers experiment and try a number of things. If we take a more systems frame to understanding "farmer innovation" then it's possible to see how it's connected to other things such as having secure tenure, accessible infrastructure, etc. When I get out in the field to talk to farmers, I often get told that they want to experiment more, they want to learn more, connect more with others - all of this requires having an asset base that would give you the flexibility; good infrastructure such that your trip out of the village doesn't take you days to get there, etcetera. 

Finally, I aboslutely support the point Robin that you make when you write "What if the true innovation farmers could make if all other elements were there was to completely change our vision of living in rural areas?". Exactly. How would that happen? Many indigenous communities in Latin America are trying to get their vision of the rural to be widely accepted. One of the essayist Tarcila Rivera's organization has been working to do this. Extremely challenging: uphill battle it seems, exactly because it's so holistic.

But what could be those levers of change that would make people in positions of power who shape what happens in rural areas visualize the rural differently? Is it because they in fact think that these farmers come from Mars and are not their own citizens who have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations as they do? 

Is necessary to prove this What if...?

I fully support Mr. Berdegué's point of view. I said it already in the spanish debate. I came here because Robin's comment is a good one. But I don't think this possibility of this "new" rural society is going to be a game changer. Economic laws are strict: Engel's law involves that agriculture is always lagging behind industry and services. This is not going to change. As Gunnar said, and it's because this economic law, they have to work more and more. And it's not very difficult to prove it: it's happening every day: farmers are voting with their feet towards cities. 

Before I landed in this job, I worked as a vet during four years in Spain. Farmers were also complaining that their work doesn't have holidays, that they are always price takers (they know perfectly what this means), and that they depend on weather, not on salaries. And only the very, very committed stay there. Just because the rest can choose. 

Re:Farmers do not come from Mars

 @Julio A. Berdegué , I liked your sentiment on small holders' perspective  and  I totally agree with your argument and standpoint  on  the current  agriculture production system , generally small holders are left out and isolated , and they  directly or indirectly are not able to enjoy their preferred rights. One thing I disagree with your assumption that “the producers   become the preferred choice of the buyers of their products and, ultimately, of the consumers”.  I have some dilemmas – where to put farmers so that they will be always at the competitive stage. Should they remain at the bottom of the value chain or they have to move upward in the value chain. If they move upward in to the value chain, can they afford to do it?.  Due to the complexity of markets , like transactions  cost and other multiple barriers to entry in the market  ( we discussed about these issues in the previous discussion thread), it will be difficult  for producers to tackle various hurdles  and on the other hand active private sectors players  around the system should not be isolated from their roles. If they are isolated there will be another conflicts among the local chain actors which can lead the market distortions, in that situation ultimately producers will be at risk. There are many failures cases of cooperative system due to lack of transparency, trust among members. Therefore, it will be ideal to strengthening the Producers/producers group on collective marketing through bulking centre or warehouse receipt system and premium market price negotiation skills- where we can create win –win situation among the value chain actors.

Rights, freedom, Duties and Obligations will be Constant!

 

Julio A. Berdegué, Thank you for this excellent piece with which I cannot agree more. No matter what would the future of Agriculture looks like or what socio-economic and technological factors influence it down the road, rights and freedom of farmers and their duties and obligations to society will be Constant!

As already mentioned in your article, rights and freedom won't lead to any real change unless it includes women farmers and reduce their workload.

Rights, freedom, Duties and Obligations will be Constant!

 

Julio A. Berdegué, Thank you for this excellent piece with which I cannot agree more. No matter what would the future of Agriculture looks like or what socio-economic and technological factors influence it down the road, rights and freedom of farmers and their duties and obligations to society will be Constant!

As already mentioned in your article, rights and freedom won't lead to any real change unless it includes women farmers and reduce their workload.

Julio A. Berdegué, Thank you for this excellent piece with which

Julio A. Berdegué, Thank you for this excellent piece with which I cannot agree more. No matter what would the future of Agriculture looks like or what socio-economic and technological factors influence it down the road, rights and freedom of farmers and their duties and obligations to society will be Constant!

As already mentioned in your article, rights and freedom won't lead to any real change unless it includes women farmers and reduce their workload.

Rights, freedom, Duties and Obligations will be Constant!

 Julio A. Berdegué, Thank you for this excellent piece with which I cannot agree more. No matter what would the future of Agriculture looks like or what socio-economic and technological factors influence it down the road, rights and freedom of farmers and their duties and obligations to society will be Constant!

As already mentioned in your article, rights and freedom won't lead to any real change unless it includes women farmers and reduce their workload.

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