Day 10: Levelling the Plowing Field, Creating Choice

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.

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