Day 10: Should agriculture as we know it have a future?

Sonali Bisht

Blog post by Sonali Bisht

Writer, development worker and advocate
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The consumer is king in agriculture. Until aware consumers change their behaviour, the smallholder farmer will get good words, symbolic gestures, and little else. Consumers need to meet producers halfway by paying a fair price and sharing the risk.

By Sonali Bisht, founder of INHERE (India)

The technology to produce synthetic food exists. Food pills are only one step beyond the vitamins, proteins and other food and nutrient supplements currently on the market. We have knowledge of hydroponics and we can grow food in multi-storey production complexes. Certainly there are plenty of alternatives to traditional farming for food and other needs. Does agriculture, as we know it have a future? 

The experts who contributed to Oxfam’s Future of Agriculture debate, all eminent persons, leaders in their field, chose not to address such radical alternatives, and the comments received did not dispute that choice. Clearly, food grown by people living in rural areas, especially smallholders, is seen as important for the future.

“The technology to produce synthetic food exists.”

Smallholders currently constitute the majority of agricultural producers, the bulk of the poor and half the world’s hungry. They are expected to continue producing for a growing and more affluent urban population, and to do so in ways that keep food prices low, preserve the environment and manage the multifaceted risks they face, including vulnerability to shocks from the natural, socio-economic and political environment. The risks and vulnerabilities faced by women and indigenous populations, and expected to be managed by them, are even greater.

The experts generally offer optimistic visions for the future of agriculture, though the reasons for their optimism vary. Experts with a background in agriculture research and industry put their faith in fossil-fuel and chemical-based agriculture to achieve the increases in productivity needed to feed the population of the future. Or they champion comparative advantage, open trade and functioning markets.

Experts with a civil society background, on the other hand, believe high production levels can be obtained without chemical- or fossil-fuel-based inputs. They cite evidence that organic and sustainable agriculture achieves equivalent production in normal years and higher in drought or abnormal years. They also see sustainable and organic agriculture as empowering for women farmers, valuing their role and knowledge in agriculture, and helping to keep them and their families out of crippling debt. And several view food sovereignty as more important than markets.

The primacy of smallholders was acknowledged by almost all the experts. Several maintained that smallholders can generate research knowledge and use it for their prosperity, noting that peasants already make an enormous contribution in that regard.

“The primacy of smallholders was acknowledged by almost all the experts.”

If farming is to continue, youth need to pursue it as a career. But at present, farming is not an occupation young people aspire to and smallholder farming is not perceived to be a respected occupation. Agriculture is not given the status of a skilled craft in most countries, and thus wages of unskilled labour apply. This situation can and must change in developing and developed countries alike.

Farms need to be managed as profitable businesses if they are to attract a new generation of farmers. Perhaps, as Nicko Debenham suggests, some form of community or group enterprise would offer a sustainable business model that could generate a “more-than-acceptable living.” I wonder if that would appeal to Susan Godwin, who wants secure land tenure and more access to information for her daughter. Or to Rokeya Kabir, who says women farmers deserve more for the hard work they put in.

The views expressed were many and too rarely did those of opposing views engage each other. Pro- and anti- food sovereignty views were left unresolved. Much of the debate resided in the realm of hope, perhaps best expressed by John Ambler, who envisaged institutional reforms leading to healthier eating and a healthier food system.

“The reality is that it has been difficult to build political will that favours smallholders.”

The underlying challenge has always been politics. As Prem Bindraban observed, power structures, vested interests, economics and other drivers influence decisions in agriculture. Participants in the debate voiced this sentiment in different ways to express skepticism as well as hope. But the reality is it has been difficult to build political will that favours smallholders.

There is an Indian saying that the one who is thirsty goes to the well; the well does not come to him. Yet, without exception the experts feel farmers should produce for the market, conduct market intelligence, take their produce to the market.

One would think that if food is a priority need of consumers the initiative would come from them or their representatives. The consumer, who is generally urban and has higher income, should take responsibility for creating reserves to account for the vagaries of weather and for insurance against price fluctuations. The farmer should be in the position to decide whether he or she can produce at the price consumers offer or if further negotiations are needed. Community-supported agriculture, where communities invest in farmers by subscription, is a model that is worth more attention, as it guarantees farmers a fair price and assures consumers of clean and safe food, while sharing the risk.

“The one who is thirsty goes to the well; the well does not come to him.”

Mostly this does not happen. Politicians have their constituencies to please, and most of these are non-farmers living in wealthier areas of the country. Private companies view agriculture an unending stream of business and profits. The political power of the fossil-fuel industry and the lobbying clout of agribusiness keep agriculture dependent on fossil fuels.

Nonprofit NGOs, though always strapped for resources, can create models of excellence which demonstrate the success of innovations. But these are rarely replicated at scale. Research institutions create knowledge which the poor are unable to access and use, while private companies can and do, often at a fraction of the real cost.

The consumer, especially the urban consumer, tends to be king in agriculture. Companies vie for a percentage of his or her essential spending and governments pander to the needs of this majority. Good intentions tend to get lost in this realpolitik. Until aware consumers change their behaviour, the smallholder farmer will get good words, symbolic gestures, and little else.

“Farmers need to be recognized as co-creators of knowledge, encouraged and respected for the innovations they develop.”

It would not cost very much to make changes that, by common consensus, would transform the future of agriculture for rural poor people. Farmers, especially women, need security of land tenure and protection against land grabbing. Farmers require fair prices for their crops and ways of farming which do not get them into debt and food insecurity.

Above all, most experts and respondents agree, farmers need to be recognized as co-creators of knowledge in agriculture, encouraged and respected for the innovations they develop. Farmers and research institutions must be linked in a web of knowledge creation and application, with joint responsibility for improving production and productivity through joint trials, participatory innovation, and farmer validation of scientists’ claims. This is the key to meeting production challenges in the agriculture of the future.

“Agriculture not only feeds people, it, builds close-knit families and societies.”

National systems and multilateral agencies should support this process, with NGOs and farmers’ organizations facilitating accountability. Planning of production for local markets and according to local needs would avoid mismatch and waste. Application of force majeure clauses in production agreements would eliminate much of the risk. Subsidies and artificially lowered prices of commodities as social welfare measures have proven to be hotbeds of corruption and disincentives to farmers and should be avoided.

Agriculture not only feeds people, it creates engagement and employment in sustainable livelihoods, builds close-knit families and societies (especially smallholder and family farming) and supports cultural and social engagement as well as social stability. In today’s world it provides an alternative way of living away from the stress and strain of urban areas. It preserves our farm landscape, traditions and heritage. We all have a responsibility to protect and enhance our agricultural heritage—and that means not allowing a single farmer or farm labourer to go hungry or to suffer for trying to make a living in agriculture.

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