The debate on agriculture and development is heated and, apparently, never ending. This is especially true of the role and position of peasant (or smallholder) agriculture, with people either vigorously defending the sector or saying that in time it will (and should) disappear. Prof. Olivier de Schutter is a clear exponent of the former line of thought, as is evident from his contribution ‘We want peasants’ on Land Portal (26 September, 2018).

One of the main arguments of the advocates of peasant agriculture is that it produces a large share of the world’s food. FAO does it when it tweets (on 27 September) that 80% of the world’s food is produced by ‘family farms’. More implicitly, De Schutter does the same when he states that “it is small and medium-sized farms that are the most productive per hectare”. However, statements like these fail to make an important distinction. Although some 90% of all farms in the world are considered to be family farms (working on 75% of the world’s farmland), 84% of all farms are smaller than 2 hectares and operate only about 12% of the land[1]. As the authors of the article from which I take these figures write, “… it seems implausible that farms smaller than 2 ha in size are able to produce the majority of the world’s food using a mere 12% of the world’s farm land, and, in any case, claims to the contrary are unsubstantiated.”

By simple substraction, the other 6% (90%-84%) that are seen as family farms operate 63% (75%-12%) of the world’s agricultural land (see the table below). In terms of world food production, that would seem to be the family farming subsector that makes a difference. To summarise:

 

% of farms

% of land operated

Smallholders (peasants)
84
12
Other family farms
6
63
Subtotal family farms
90
75
Other farms
10
25

Based on Lowder, Skoet and Raney (2016) (see footnote 1)

But even if peasant agriculture operated more land and produced more food than it does, the pro-peasant argument seems to have another flaw. A few years ago, during a LANDac conference in Utrecht, a speaker warned the audience against the dangers of ‘romanticizing the smallholder’. What did he mean? Well, exactly what he said: do not idealize the life of peasants. Because their life in most cases is full of hardships; they are poor and can barely make a living out of their 1 or 2 hectares of land. In view of this, is it correct to ask peasants to keep on being peasants? Would it be right if the world’s food security was ensured thanks to millions of peasants who live in poverty and will always remain poor, because no matter how peasant-friendly policy-making becomes, 1 or 2 hectares simply is not enough to have a decent life?

Perhaps, instead of ‘wanting peasants’, we should rather want peasants to be something else: people in off-farm jobs that add value and really improve their income: the best way to get out of poverty is to get out of agriculture[2]. How should this happen? Paradoxically enough, it is likely that the best way to get out of agriculture is to invest in that very (smallholder) agriculture[3], since that would increase productivity and require less labour (= peasants).

However, in order to fight poverty it is not enough to invest just in agriculture. The question remains: what happens to those peasants that ‘get out of agriculture’? How to avoid that they end up in the big city slums, and as poor as before?  The answer seems to lie in rural industrialisation organised by the very smallholder farmers themselves, through the creation of processing and marketing (cooperative) enterprises, with job creation near the actual places where agricultural production happens. This would kill several birds with one stone: less peasants, i.e. more available land per farmer; higher incomes for ex-peasants (in those companies); and no disruptive rural-urban migration, since those ex-peasants would instead migrate (if at all) to nearby small and medium-sized towns: “the missing middle”, in the words of the same speaker who told us to beware of seeing the life of peasants as romantic.

One can only agree wholeheartedly with the values Prof. De Schutter adheres to: sustainable development of the planet, eradication of poverty and protection of human rights. But the question is whether they can and should be realised by keeping the share of family farms at 90% - including the 84% smallholders and their families, who more often than not find themselves in a poverty trap because of the sheer size of their holding. There is nothing romantic about that.

To conclude: I am aware that the debate is wrought with uncertainties and no one has the ultimate truth. There are many nuances. But the figures presented above (which are not mine) are pretty convincing.  That is precisely why it would be interesting to have comments by prof. De Schutter with his thoughts about those figures and their meaning, and more in general about peasant agriculture and what it means for the peasants themselves.

 

 

[1] S. Lowder, J. Skoet and T. Raney : The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide. World Development, Volume 87, November 2016, Pages 16-29 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X15002703)

[2] See, for instance, C. Peter Timmer: The Structural Transformation and the Changing Role of Agriculture in Economic Development: Empirics and Implications. Wendt Lecture, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, 2007. (https://fse.fsi.stanford.edu/publications/the_structural_transformation_and_the_changing_role_of_agriculture_in_economic_development)

[3] L. White: African agriculture is growing, but is it transforming? Future agricultures, February 2014 (https://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/african-agriculture-is-growing-but-is-it-transforming/)

 

Related content: 

Share this page