Children in a classroom, Mali. Photo: Oxfam
Children in a classroom, Mali

Day 10: Levelling the Plowing Field, Creating Choice

20 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

Let’s not be dogmatic about farming methods, many options are needed. Options are precisely what smallholders lack. At best these farmers live imprisoned in “either/or” lives filled with heart-wrenching choices. The rich world must foster equal access to farming essentials and above all choice, for smallholders are indispensable to the future of agriculture. 

By Roger Thurow, author and Senior Fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

After two weeks of lively opinion and discussion, this much is clear: The future of agriculture needs to play out on a level plowing field. This means all farmers of the world should have equal access to the essential elements of their business—seeds and soil nutrients, financing, risk-mitigation, extension advice, markets, trade. It requires an even-handedness of government support; developing countries need to prioritize and promote agriculture and rural development as robustly as the rich and emerging nations do. And the rich world countries need to scrap trade inequities and policies that for decades have tilted the global agriculture trade in their direction and perpetuated hunger elsewhere.

As we have learned from the diverse commentators and essayists, much of this hunger is experienced by farmers themselves, namely the smallholders of the developing world who are unable to grow enough food to avoid an annual hunger season. Hungry farmers. That is a ridiculous, and shameful, oxymoron. The future of agriculture must abolish this ugly phrase.

“The future of agriculture needs to play out on a level plowing field.”

The goal: Creating the conditions for all farmers to contribute as much as they possibly can, not only in how much they produce but also in the nutritional quality of what they grow and what we all consume—while also preserving the environment. We’re all in this together. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly should have realized it in the past couple of years of climate extremes; one year there is drought in the Horn of Africa, the next year there is drought in Middle America. Be they farmers in Kenya or Kansas, their prayers were the same.

The result of a level plowing field will be that all farmers have the ability to make the choices crucial to securing and growing their livelihood. From the rich variety of comments sparked by the essays, we see that many choices exist. Indeed, these discussions are valuable in that they showcase the wide variety of choice.

A choice of seed. A choice of soil nutrition. A choice of financing. A choice of insurance and other safety net innovations. A choice of markets. A choice of prices. A choice of crops. A choice to store or sell. A choice to buy land. A choice of tradition. A choice of modern technology. A choice to stay on the farm or move to the city.

Choice. Let’s not be dogmatic and stifle choice by favoring one option to the exclusion of others. Let’s not sit in America and Europe and decide what the farmers in the developing world should choose. Do we know for sure that a smallholder farmer in Africa with one cow has enough organic matter sufficient for her couple of acres before we deny her the choice to use a thimbleful of fertilizer per plant—when that micro-dose might bring the hunger season to a swifter close and end the malnourishment of her children? Do we know that a farmer might need the stalks and husks of her maize to feed her cow and cook her meals and light her house before we criticize her for not leaving it all in the field to practice conservation agriculture? Do we insist that a farmer use seeds saved from the previous harvest when experience tells her that those seeds will have a lower germination rate and lesser yields than newly purchased seeds?

“Hungry farmers. That is a ridiculous, and shameful, oxymoron.”

A farmer may have only one season a year to make the right choices. And perhaps only 30 or 40 seasons in a lifetime. As it is today, far too many farmers—particularly the smallholder farmers of Africa—don’t have any choices. For too long they have been considered too poor, too remote, too insignificant for anybody—particularly for anybody in the global agriculture industry—to care. They don’t have a choice of seeds, or farming techniques, or financing, or markets. In most cases, choices aren’t affordable. In many, they aren’t even available.

These farmers live Neither/Nor lives. Their harvests are so meager that they can neither feed their families throughout the year nor pay school fees for their children. They can neither feed their families nor afford medicine. They can neither feed their families nor repair their mud-and-sticks houses to ward off the cold and keep out the rain.

At best, they live Either/Or lives. Here, they are faced with heart-wrenching choices. Either feed the family or sell some of the food to send the children to school. Either feed the family or buy the malaria medication. Either feed the family or buy another cow or buy metal sheets for the roof or buy more land to diversify the crops. They can’t do both. They can do one or the other.

“In most cases, choices aren’t affordable. In many, they aren’t even available.”

What I learned in my reporting is the farmers’ great desire to live AND lives. Lives where they can produce a surplus harvest of nutritionally improved food so they can feed their families throughout the year AND pay the school fees for their children—AND afford the malaria medication AND diversify their crops AND improve their houses AND buy another cow or more chickens AND buy more land.

Choice. Creating choice—delivering choice—should be the aim of development, especially agricultural development. Choice is freedom. Choice is liberating. Choice is empowering, particularly for women in the developing world who would be making many of these farming decisions. Choice is encouraging, especially for the youth and especially if they can see that farming isn’t only for merely surviving but that it can be the way to robustly thriving. Choice will set free the future of agriculture.

If the farmers desire to live in an AND world, so should we all. We can’t insist on Either/Or development. As a number of commentators have noted, no one size fits all. There really are no silver bullets. We need both small ag and big ag. Ethiopia, for example, needs both the wheat and maize farmers in the highlands cultivating thousands of acres AND the smallholders tending only an acre or two. We need old traditions of saving seed when that seed is still productive AND new seeds to trump disease, pests and climate change. Some farmers can go all organic and thrive, some need fertilizer to escape the hunger season and survive. We need traditional AND modern techniques. We need local knowledge AND international innovation. It’s not a matter of soil versus seeds, but soil AND seeds. It’s increasing production AND increasing quality. It’s agriculture AND nutrition. It’s intensification AND conservation.

“Choice will set free the future of agriculture.”

Silos for food storage are wonderful for promoting choice: sell now or hold for later? But silos in the other definition of the word—narrow, blinkered, selfish thinking—obscure choice.

Providing choice requires infrastructure development; infrastructure to provide access to inputs, to transport surpluses to shortage areas, to support efficient markets, to provide knowledge. It requires policy frameworks that encourage innovation and transparency and accountability. Above it, it requires that we listen and share and cooperate.

These things can level the plowing field and create an equality of choice.

On one matter, though, there really is no choice: We need all farmers, everywhere, to be contributing as much as they can if we are to meet the great global challenge of nutritiously feeding nearly 10 billion people by 2050. We especially need the world’s smallholder farmers. Neglected for so long, they are now indispensable to the future of agriculture and food.

Download: Levelling the Plowing Field, Creating Choice


Ten days into the Future of Agriculture, what have we seen?

In response to provocations about who will feed us all and whether there are too few farmers, yesterday's discussion considered whether more attention needs to be given to market mechanisms as well as just production. It also questioned whether we are too prone to think in binary when advocating for the different pathways that we might like agriculture to take. Today, our final day, Indian development specialist Sonali Bisht and US based journalist Roger Thurow give their take on what was discussed. They have been following the past ten days of discussions. What do you think, does their analysis give us enough hope for a good future for all and especially for people living in poverty?

standards & certification procedures

 Thanks Roger Thurow  and Sonali Bisht for your summary of the discussion . If we take the both summary together, our concerns and comments are well captured and articulated. In both postings somehow I missed the following issues. If they are still relevant for the future agriculture outlook, please include your thoughts in your summary.  

1.     WTO standards especially on food safety and animal and plant health standards (the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement or SPS);  to comply this standards there are  a lot of measures  to be  followed  like regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures . What will be the major implications in future agriculture system on producers and small holders’ point of view?

2.     We talked about the organic productions, however we have not given more stress on the current costly certification process like Fair Trade standards and organic certifications, rigorous code of conducts ( CoC) to be adopted to meet the standards etcs. How these types of costly process will have impact on future agriculture system? And how to make this process more affordable to the small scale farmers?

Great blog

I totally agree with the idea of 'choice' - too often development organisations have an idealised vision of rural small-holder farming and promote only organic methods.  In some cases this is the best way but in others fertiliser and even pesticides can make a big difference.  This is especially the case where farmers have very  small plots of land in highly populated countries.  An example is in Malawi where government supported inputs of chemical fertilisers have made a big difference to national harvest levels. 

Leaving smallholders the choice

Creating Choice

Roger Thurow wonders if  “we know for sure that a smallholder farmer in Africa with one cow has enough organic matter sufficient for her couple of acres ...... to end the malnourishment of her children?” The answer is that we know for sure that she has not enough. Leaving the question beside how to feed that cow when having only a couple of acre in a region that is already overpopulated and where all land is turned into crop land, it easy to make the estimation of manure produced by that cow. A tropical livestock unit of 250 kg live weight, in the hands of a smallholder with only some acres, will at maximum eat what is required for survival: about 2100 kg/y (dry matter) of fodder of low quality. The digestibility will not easy be more than 50% and the N-content about 1.1%. If she succeeds in collecting all manure, she will obtain 550 kg of dry matter, with an N-content easy less than 1%. In other words, she obtains at maximum 5.5 kg N, in general the most limiting nutrient. If she is a good farmer, she can transform it in 140 kg extra cereal grain.


If she has only some acres, a micro-dose of fertilizer will not help her much. The micro-dose of N-fertilizer, promoted by ICRISAT for Southern Africa, concerns 50 kg/ha of ammonium nitrate, or 17 kg/ha of N, the most limiting nutrient where this approach has been elaborated. If the farmer is a good farmer, she will produce on a hectare base 425 kg extra cereal grain. Having only some acres, the yield increase will be negligible; not enough to end the malnourishment of her children.


Let us give the lady the choice to use somewhat more than a micro-dose.

Microdosing: from a smallholder's perspective

The ingenuity of microdosing is that it unleashes smallholder's limiting constraints, including nutrients, cash, and risk. Extensive research by Buerkert, Bationo & colleagues in the Sahel (50-120% yield gains) showed that releasing the P deficiency constraint increased P and other nutrient uptake beyond the amount contained in the microdose itself. They attributed this to a number of factors including better root growth to capture additional 'native' soil nutrients that would otherwise have been lost to leaching (N) or fixed by acid soils (P); higher survival rates of seedlings (fewer gaps in plant stand - reducing re-planting labor, increasing field-scale nutrient capture); quicker development of plants, avoiding drought and improving seed set; more grazing material leading to more manure deposition; and others.

In Southern Africa (Zimbabwe - studies by Twomlow and colleagues), soils of course differ and the yield increases appear more closely related to the stoichiometry of added N (30-50% yield gains). But these leveraged farmers into a position of affordability (lower capital requirement than for high fertilizer applications), profitability and reduced risk, which are equally important advantages. Low fertilizer rates enabled farmers to operate at the most profitable part of the yield response curve, enabling them to begin to move beyond subsistence farming to benefit from markets as well.

Microdosing appears to be a case in support of Thurow's central point. Examining how it contributes in smallholders' context of soil & climate diversity and livelihoods, leads to conclusions quite different from stoichiometric analysis alone.

One does not win the war with disabled troops

Micro-dosing of fertilizer


Micro-dosing is indeed an option making smallholder farmers acquainted with the use of fertilizer. Scientists who developed it, regards it as the first step on the agricultural development ladder. Besides the benefits of micro-dosing there are several disadvantages:

·         First of all the nutrient depletion by P on very poor sandy soils in the Sahel. I like call it “the miracle micro-dosing”; yield increases are much higher than expected in view of the small dose of P that is given. By the way, the 50 – 120% yield gains are only observed at very low yields without fertilizer! The phenomenon has been described in the seventies by a team from Wageningen (I was a member): “the hidden N effect”. In fact those soils are even more N- than P-deficient, but the P-deficiency causes such bad root growth that even the available N (and other nutrients) cannot been obtained. At the long run, those small P-doses will cause depletion of N and other nutrients. It is comparable with liming without fertilization.

·         Micro-dosing does not lead to the required improvement of the soil organic matter for efficient fertilizer use. Except the first uses, fertilizer in following years will not be very efficient and fertilizer use will not be competitive. There will be always a strong competition between crops and soil organisms for the little bit of additional nutrients.

·         If micro-dosing is financially feasible, with the exception of the “miracle micro-dosing, higher doses will be more interesting, because prices will be lower. If no important industrial agriculture is present, it will –by the way- be very difficult if not impossible to interest the private sector to develop a fertilizer market.

·         The simplicity of the fertilizer formula (1 nutrient) implies that for many fields, where other nutrients are more limiting, the efficiency is low.

·         The yield and income effect of micro-dosing is so low that it will be difficult interesting farmers in the technology. Smallholder farmers with limited land have more than agriculture for making their living. Investing capital and labor in micro-dosing implies not doing other things and when those other things are more remunerative, the farmer will not adopt micro-dosing.

·         I get often the impression that micro-dosing is also promoted for two other reasons: a) in  fact the promoters do not like the use of fertilizer  for environmental reasons; and b) one thinks that the farmers are not very clever; the formula are very simple. As far as the first reason concerns, the environmental risks of not using fertilizer in overpopulated regions are higher than those using fertilizer, and more difficult and more expensive to control. As far as the second reason concerns, it is my experience that smallholder farmers are very clever, while those among them who are not serious farmers are better off in doing other things. One does not develop agriculture, reach food security and tackle poverty with bad farmers. One does not win a war with disabled troops.


To avoid these disadvantages, I like to promote the use of fertilizer in a different way:

1. Promoting always the use in an integrated soil fertility management context.

2. Explaining the interest of using fertilizer by explaining the importance of the different nutrients.

3. Suggesting crop, climate and -if possible- soil specific formulas.

4. Suggesting 2 or 3 doses and specify their interest in relation to agro-ecological, socio-economic and        policy conditions.

5. Combine fertilizer promotion with input- and output-market development.

6. Promote collaboration of farmers, and interesting bigger farmers to collaborate with smallholders (e.g.    Zambian Farmers Union).

One does not win the war with disabled troops

The comments made by Henk and Mark following the excellent article by Thurlow is a clear example of how complex the growing challenges we face in addressing food security and declining rural incomes across sub-Saharan Africa. 

I would like to thank Henk for his critique of Micro-dosing and Mark for taking the high ground to defend approaches that agronomist from ICRISAT and partner institutions invested large amounts of time on to refine and promote micro-dosing to specific target groups throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

In truth the arguments put forward by both the proponents and the detractors of microdosing support Thurlows thesis that we need as large a basket of options - both technology and policy - if we are to even begin to address the growing challenges and risks that many rural households face on a daily basis.

I for one see Henks 6 steps as targets that we should set our sights upon - but we must not lose sight of the incremental changes required to achieve these targets, and the fact that some households will only move so far along the development pathway.  Such households - are not bad farmers - but have a different perspective of risk  to those that Henk might term a 'Good Farmer'.  The key consideration here is that both groups require support to meet their respective livelihood aspirations. 

Future of agriculture

It c ertainly can't go on the way it is because big business has control and it's feeding us bad food. We have to get rid of factory farms and GMOs for our children's sake and we have to support free farmers who grow healthy food in a sustaining environment. But I don't know how we will get between the multinationals and our governments; they have control there too.

The complexity of agricultural development

Thanks Stephen Twomlow for your constructive reaction. Be convinced that we think along the same lines! I agree, “..... we must not lose sight of the incremental changes required to achieve these targets”.

[Guideposts Korea]E-mail Interview

Dear Mr. Roger Thurow,

How do you do?
My name is Haewon Lee.
I am an editor/reporter for Guideposts Korea.
Guideposts Korea would like to introduce your story on our magazine section, "Goodwill from Abroad."
 This section introduces a person outside of Korea who leads movements or ministries to make a better world.

I read your article, A Hunger of the Soul in the January edition of Guideposts and found your article very impressive. I would like to feature your story for next month's edition of Guideposts Korea.

If you are interested, please give me your reply.

This is an e-mail interview with questions focused on your personal life story in relation to your movement.

Your story will come out in an essay format, in Korean.

For more on about Guideposts, visit Guideposts website, or our Korean website (Korean)

Thank you for your time.
Best Regards,

Guideposts Korea/ Editor Haewon Lee
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Animal welfare and water management for food security


great to see this debate. We at Compassion in World Farming have been finding ways to help deliver better food security in Africa, where farmers have prospered. We find that the health and wellbeing of their farm animals is critical to the success of their farming and livelihoods. Let's support farmers to develop farming which is kind to people, the planet and the animals. Here's our first case study: