Child running through a rice paddy
Child running through a rice paddy

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

20 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

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.

Download: Should agriculture as we know it have a future?


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?

Are the main problems political?

I really like this contribution to the debate. It gives a nice summary, but it also shows the complexity of the issue at stake.

Before the debate started, I wrote a reading guide on my personal blog, trying to summarize possible solutions. In my view, solutions can be categorized in three main groups:

  1. Technological solutions
  2. Political and institutional solutions
  3. Behavioral solutions

Thus far, most contributions emphasized the need for political and institutional reforms.  At least 13 authors (out of 21) stress the importance of political or institutional reforms. Some of these reforms are related to the farmers themselves (e.g. new farm model, reducing inequalities), others are on a larger scale (e.g. free trade, challenges faced by ecological farming). Some are related to political issues, others more related to economic institutions. Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the contributions is aimed at these kind of solutions.

The second group of strategies: technological solutions, has also received considerable attention (7 out of 21). However, it seems that there is much controversy here. Some argue for a complete fossil-free regime, whereas others argue that this is not possible. Nonetheless, I think it is save to conclude that we need to lower our dependency on fossil fuels. Moreover, we need to adapt to a changing climate, by introducing new technologies and crop varieties.

I have seen very few behavioral solutions. It seems that only Rengam emphasizes the role of consumers. And on the last day, Sonali Bisht, author of the post above, does the same. Therefore, the role of consumers and their behavior is a bit neglected in the debate. Maybe we have to prepare for a further alienation between consumers and farmers, as urbanization is still increasing and share of income spend on food decreasing.

To conclude, are the main problems really political/institutional? Or is the debate somehow biased? If the problems are mainly political, Oxfam needs to address this first, since they have some power as large NGO. In the end, this debate also shows that there is no silver bullet. Several solutions need to be implemented simultaneously. Both bottom-up and top-down. Will this debate lead to some practical solutions? I am really looking forward to it.  


The Role of Agriculture - on any scale anywhere.

This is considered a very valuable and relevant discussion. Agriculture and farming, I submit after exposure to Southern Africa since 1984, are age old and still relevant practices. As a faith-based worker I continue to encourage small and large scale farming in South-Africa as well as in the SADC region. I do think that politics are far too manipulative and lucrative, creating unrealistic situations in cost drivers, markets, production, labour issues, demand, supply and feasibility. While a "super-system" of cities and systems/ services might be very appealing to some, rural settings with agri-co-operatives are equally essential. I continue to urge as many people in Africa to farm, as might be possible, - from back yard gardens, self-sustained villages, subsistance farming, kibbutz communes to large regional SADC commercial farms and agricultual colleges. Yet, ultimately on the last subject posted, my experience amongst people at ground level agrees that politics cause problems for agriculture, feeding people sustainably and certainly cause serious challenges for the farmer too. Consumers are of the most demanding yet confused people under the sun!

The myth of "King (or queen) consumer

It is true that agriculture increasingly is market-driven. But it is a common mistake to equal that with consumer-driven. Changes in agriculture are mainly resulting from technology, competition between farmers and increase use of fossil fuel. These factors change the relative cost of foodstuffs and that influence consumer behaviour. Just one example. When I was a child, we ate almost no chicken in Sweden. Hens were cooked for a tasty soup, but chicken was a rather pricey food. With constantly reduced grain prices, hybrid broilers and mass production of chicken, chicken meat is now so cheap, and in relative terms much cheaper than most food. This has resulted in a ten-time increase in chicken consumption in this country. The same goes for the shift from butter to palm oil etc. That is all driven by relative price and not by consumer preference as such. In addition, consumer preferences are easily manipulated by advertisments.

Not even niche markets like organic are "consumer-drive". When I and a few others "created" the organic market in Sweden som thirty years ago, there was no consumers crying "we want organic", rather the opposite. Also the organic market - and the fair trade market - are creations of other interests than consumers. Of course, we can't cajol consumers into eating something they really don't want (muslims to eat pork as an example, or most Swedes to eat grasshoppers).

It can be a successful strategy to use the market for certain things but one should be aware of its pitfalls and constraints. The individualistic, neoliberal, idea that there is no need for policy as the miracoulous market will fix everything is a dnagerous and seriously flawed idea. Read more about who controls the markets at:


Bisht is right: polemics provokes comment but resolves little

What a pleasure it has been to follow this dicussion. While promoting divergent viewpoints (sometimes wildly divergent), the essayists highlighted some of the thorniest problems our food systems face. It is in the nature of the blog to overstate, polemics is what provokes response. Yet, I agree with Bisht's conclusion that the contributors could have engaged each other more directly, and I'd say perhaps more seriously. Too often we got underhanded swipes at opponents instead of full-on debate.

Yet that's a small quibble. This discussion opened the door on many fascinating and pertinent issues. Perhaps Oxfam could follow up with an altered format: an online roundtable with a small group of experts taking questions or comments at once, a "live" interaction.


What if smallholders decide using fertilizer?

The primacy of smallholders


I am among those acknowledging the primacy of smallholders, but I do not accept that smallholder farming is agro-ecological and environmental friendly and that industrial agriculture using inorganic fertilizer etc. is by definition damaging the environment more. I have used as one illustration the exponential increase of the elephant density with fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa. Another illustration is strong decrease of wind and water erosion when extensive soil depleting agriculture is transformed into intensive “green revolution” agriculture (see for example my paper “The lesson of Drenthe’s essen”). The effectiveness increases still more when inorganic fertilizer is applied in an ISFM*** context.


Sonali Bisht recommendations become stronger and the chance that they will lead to political action bigger, when not making live too easy with the above distinction of two types of agriculture, the good and the bad. Cannot we leave smallholders the freedom to make their own choices regarding the inputs to use? I do not have problems with the statement that high production levels can be obtained without chemical- or fossil-fuel-based inputs, but I have missed a paper about the question where to get the required organic resources. I verified often what was called “evidence that organic and sustainable agriculture achieves equivalent production in normal years and higher in drought*** or abnormal years” and found too often unscientific papers or half-truths, which I consider whole lies.


*** Smallholder farmers in Niger, guided by the team that I headed, using fertilizer in an ISFM context, obtained in a dry year  (370 mm) 2,900 kg/ha of millet grain against a national average of 400 kg/ha. In an extreme dry season in Rwanda, using the same approach, at 210 mm a maize yield of 2,100 kg/ha was obtained, against 1,400 – 1,800 kg/ha in case of using only manure, and 0 kg/ha without any fertilizer use.  


Consumer meeting the producer


I appreciate Sonali saying “Consumers need to meet the producers halfway by paying a fair price and sharing the risk”.   She is giving a solution which in my opinion is the ultimate solution for the smallholders.  But that in a way also defines the problem better than anything else because this is precisely what is not happening and is perpetuating the problem.  Does the consumer meet the smallholder producer?  More important, can the consumer or smallholder ever meet the producer or consumer, respectively?  In between the real consumer and the smallholder we have an army or layers of bulk consumers, the processors, and the bulk purchasers, the traders. Neither of them is a consumer in the real sense and both can be called bulk buyers.  In a study done by us for understanding the supply chain of fresh fruits and vegetables (unprocessed) we found that there were six intermediaries between the farmer and the consumer. And all the six not only had their margins they also influenced price by their inefficiencies causing wastages, delays and so on.  Who bears the cost of inefficiencies, delays, intermediation etc?  The consumer and if the consumer is not ready to factor these in the price, then the farmer.  The same applies for processors who intervene between the consumer and the smallholder. The processors and traders have so positioned themselves that the risk reward theory is totally negated, with smallholders bearing the risks and the intermediaries reaping the rewards.  These intermediaries create a myth that the consumer is the king,   The intermediaries take both the consumer and the smallholder for a ride. In fact, both the consumer and the smallholder need to meet halfway. This can happen only if the intermediaries are not allowed to play a dominant role and control prices and the price is fixed between the consumer and the smallholder with intermediaries only acting as service providers and facilitators.  Only then can there be a regime of fair prices and sharing of risks. If that happens, agriculture without doubt will have a very bright future.