Supporting smallholders in securing global food security

This is a guest blog (originally posted here, also seen on Huffington Post) by Jeremy Lefroy, Conservative MP for Stafford and a member of the International Development Select Committee. From 1989 to 2000, he and his family lived in Tanzania where he worked in the coffee industry. Upon returning to the UK, he continued work assisting smallholder farmers in East Africa and founded Equity for Africa which provides equity-type funding for small businesses. Jeremy recently visited Tearfund’s work with partners in Rwanda and guest blogs here in a personal capacity.

This weekend, as London 2012 draws to a close, David Cameron will be chairing a conference at Downing Street about tackling malnutrition among the world’s poorest children.

I hope that this meeting is the start of a concerted effort by the UK – which holds the G8 Presidency in 2013 – to encourage the world to take hunger and malnutrition seriously.

Mo Farah, British 10000m gold medal winner, will attend the Hunger Summit at No.10 on Sunday 12 August

At least one billion people suffer from chronic hunger, more than at any other time in history; and food security for much of the rest of the world is increasingly fragile. The International Grain Council estimates that globally, we currently have enough grain to feed the global population for 72.4 days. This figure is expected to fall to 66.9 by 2013 and decrease further in subsequent years.

The world’s population, currently just over 7 billion, is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. Food production needs to rise to meet basic needs, let alone the consequences of changing diets.

The 500 million small farms (less than 2 hectares)  in developing countries, where farmers and their families work their own land supporting some 2 billion people, will play a vital role. They have often been thought of as inefficient when compared with larger estates.

With the right support, that is not the case. When smallholder farmers have access to technical advice, inputs, and technologies, including high-yielding seeds, affordable fertilizer, and irrigation, they can be as efficient as much larger farms, sometimes more so.

I have been working with smallholder farmers in various ways for the past 25 years. Official development organisations largely ignored them in the 1980s and 1990s. In the UK, it was NGOs such as Tearfund, Oxfam, Cafod, TWIN, Christian Aid and Equal Exchange which supported them and showed how important they are to the global economy and food security. The cooperative and fair trade movements brought their work to greater prominence in the UK, now the largest fair trade market in the world. Just as important has been the contribution of many private sector companies that worked have alongside smallholder farmers year in, year out.

I am glad to say that governments are now recognising the importance of smallholders. Even so, recognition is one thing. What is needed is action. Below I set out some action which could be taken – indeed which is being taken in some countries.

Land title

For smallholder farmers, security of title is vital. Without it, land is at risk to land grabs – sadly increasingly common – and local disputes. In Rwanda last year, with the International Development Committee of the House of Commons (IDC), I saw how a nationwide land registration scheme supported by DFID is working in villages.  By 2015, at least 6.4 million people will have title deeds to their land. As well as meaning that land cannot be sold without the consent of the owner, farmers can use land as collateral to borrow to invest and raise productivity.

Nutrition, crop diversity and pooling of land

From 2007 to 2008, during the last food price crisis, the number of undernourished people in the world rose by 40 million to a total of 963 million and has continued to rise since. Crop diversity – grains, fruits, vegetables and cash crops – is important for food security, nutrition and incomes which is why farmers tend to plant many different crops on even the smallest of plots.

An advantage of secure land title is that plots can be pooled while retaining individual ownership.  If land is pooled, instead of each family allocating small areas to every crop, larger areas can be planted in the most suitable sites within the pooled area.

A scheme along these lines is being implemented, also in Rwanda – the Land Use Consolidation farming model to improve land management and agricultural productivity while maintaining crop diversity. Farmers in a given area grow the priority food crops in a synchronized fashion while keeping their land rights intact. Consolidation is voluntary, but it is a prerequisite for gaining the benefits such as subsidized inputs under Crop Intensification Program (CIP).  Since its introduction in 2008, the consolidated production of priority crops under CIP has brought significant increases in food production.

Water

Too little attention has been given to water usage and security, despite the warnings that access to water is likely to be one of the major sources of conflict in the coming decades. Agriculture is estimated to use 70 per cent of the world’s available freshwater. With the water needs of the world’s increasing population, it will need to use water much more efficiently than at present.

Rainwater harvesting, using earth dams or from roofs; drip irrigation for smallholders; growing under polytunnels; recycling of water used in crop processing – all this can be done with relatively small investment. Yet funding for all these, whether from commercial or subsidised sources, is too little despite the clear short- and long-term returns.

In Chiansi, Zambia, the IDC saw how major irrigation schemes could be developed for the benefit of larger farms and smallholders alike. One farmer told me how he was already earning two hundred dollars a month from the crops produced on his smallholding using the irrigation infrastructure from the larger project. I believe that close cooperation between large and small farms in the same area has great benefits, not just for shared irrigation but also processing and marketing. It also brings greater social cohesion.

Storage, rural roads and value-added processing

Proper storage facilities are one of the most effective ways of improving food security. In June, with the IDC I visited Bamyan province in Afghanistan. There about half of the potatoes grown either go to waste or are sold very cheaply at harvest time because they cannot be stored properly. The US Agency for International Development helped to build 50 potato storage facilities in the province in 2008. This is a start but this is sufficient for just 2% of annual production.

In DR Congo, I and my colleagues on the IDC saw the difference a reasonable road, with DFID funding, could make to farmers. A journey of 80 kms, which had taken 5 days, was cut to 2-3 hours, reducing transport costs and meaning that fresh produce was much less likely to go to waste.

Food processing is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, yet it is undervalued in many developing countries. In Afghanistan, crops are sent to neighbouring countries and then returned, processed and packaged. If this value were to be added in Afghanistan, it would bring jobs, income and tax revenues there. Processing factories would also give farmers another market for their produce.

Research and extension services

Research and extension services have often been neglected in recent years. This is partly because they are easy targets for government cutbacks and partly because of the reduced importance of state marketing boards, which often collected a levy on the sale of crops to finance research and extension.

But here there is a clear role for public private partnerships. Responsible private investors recognise the importance of ‘common goods’ such as research and agricultural extension services. By financing efficient and locally run research stations they can make an invaluable contribution to the continued growth of the industry. A good example is in Tanzania where tea research is now done by the Tea Research Institute of Tanzania (TRIT) (an industry-run and financed institute) which has acquired an excellent reputation. There is no reason why the same model could not be used for extension services.

Supporting smallholders

Smallholder farmers are essential partners in achieving food security and reducing malnutrition and poverty. They need long-term commitment both from their own governments and the international community. This is not just a question of aid. Smallholder farmers are businesswomen and businessmen who need access to finance, fair and efficient markets and reliable infrastructure.

I look forward to the UK using its presidency of the G8 to championing the role of smallholder farmers globally and ensuring that their voice is heard and their contribution recognised.

Declarations of interest: Jeremy Lefroy MP is a member of the IDC; director and trustee (UNAid) of TWIN; has been involved in businesses working with smallholder farmers in Africa and South America since 1986.

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