Global food security vs. poverty and dignity: Resurrecting an old debate

Monday, February 10, 2014

Last week I saw a very interesting post on the Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network. It is a great piece about improving the infrastructure and increasing access to financing and technology by small-scale farmers. The post's central question, however, is not one of resources but of age: what can we do about the fact that the average age of the global farmer keeps rising?
Aside from these well-known hurdles, what is less often discussed is the demographic challenge that could limit global food production. Farmer populations are ageing rapidly. Worldwide, the average age of farmers is about 60, including in developing countries, and many amongst them are women and poorly educated. Older farmers are less likely to introduce new, transformative production techniques.

One could expect their children to do so, especially in developing countries where 60% of the population is under 25 years of age and most living in rural areas. The problem is, however, that few rural youth see a future for themselves in agriculture. At the same time, by 2030, 60% of the world's population is projected to live in urban areas. As urban populations consume higher-protein food, the demand for meat and processed food is rising, which is expanding land use for livestock production, further accelerating deforestation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture.

Can these challenges all be addressed simultaneously? Yes, but only with concerted efforts on a number of fronts. Key for change will be a focus on supporting farmers to design their own programmes and engaging young farmers.
I take absolutely no issue with looking to small scale farmers for ideas or innovations. No one can argue that they have a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight into agriculture and are an invaluable resource to the farming collective. But does the key to global food security really lie in enticing young people to get into small-scale agriculture? As I read this piece, my memory was jogged to recall a blog post by Owen Barder for World Food Day back in 2010, when I was first wading into the aid and development blogosphere. Ah, those were the days.
[T]he fact that the majority of the world’s poor work in agriculture means, [according to the agricultural lobby], that the best way to improve the incomes of the poor, and so reduce hunger, is to increase agricultural productivity. More adventurously they claim that more effective agriculture can drive the whole process of development, by increasing farm incomes, leading to rising savings and investment and so kick-starting industrialisation.

This is a plausible story, but it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture.

When people leave farms and get jobs in manufacturing their incomes are both higher and more secure. Demand for food in the cities grows; the number of people working in agriculture falls; food prices rise; and the remaining farmers get higher incomes. Rising incomes enable farmers to invest more in irrigation, fertilizer, machinery and seeds. Agricultural productivity rises, not as a consequence of direct efforts to improve agriculture but as the indirect consequence of industrialisation. On this view, industrialisation will drive improvements in agriculture, rather than the other way round.
Barder certainly doesn't mince words here. Though it was quite a while ago, his take on the issue had obviously stuck with me (since I remembered it almost four years later), so I decided to re-visit the mini-debate inspired by his commentary. Oxfam's Duncan Greene responded with a very eloquent counter-argument:
Firstly, the ‘springboard argument’, namely that countries need to increase productivity in agriculture so that they can then transfer the surplus into industrialization, has a lot more historical foundation than Owen’s ‘just dump agriculture and start building factories’ version. As the FAO notes, “Growth originating in agriculture, in particular the smallholder sector, is at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest as growth from non-agriculture sectors.” See also Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent paper on the history of farm policy in take-off countries such as Vietnam and Chile.


The point here (and I imagine Owen would agree on this one), is that the way the world tries to feed the nine billion is crucial. A technological magic bullet route that ignores small farmers and farm labourers in favour of large high tech solutions will drive up poverty and inequality, whereas a focus on labour intensive and small scale agriculture will boost incomes for the poor, help ensure their families are educated and well nourished, and (should they so wish) enable them in due course to leave for the cities as a matter of dignified choice, rather than as an act of desperation.
And therein lies the conflict. If the primary goal is to ensure "global food security," then the priority should be on promoting large-scale industrial farming to increase productivity through economies of scale. If, however, the emphasis is on improving the lives and livelihoods of the poor - in this case, farmers - in a way that allows them to retain their dignity, then the strategy is entirely different.

Aid Thoughts summed the debate up beautifully.
The important point out of this explication is not that more labour is moving to urban areas: that can and does happen without any increase in productivity as population growth in agricultural areas is accompanied by stagnating forms of ownership, often favouring smallholdings that eventually can no longer be subdivided. The important issue is rather that productivity increases out of the movement away from the small-farmer model into the large, powerful commercial farming model. It’s not ‘fair’ in that many farmers lose their land in particularly unpleasant ways, even if they are legal. But this redistribution, however it is achieved, seems to be necessary.

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