|Small farms key to Asia’s long-term food security|
In securing Asia's future food needs, size does matter. More specifically, small farms matter.
Historically, the region’s food security and agriculture have been built on the productivity and resiliency of smallholder farming. That's why in the field of agriculture, "actions for food security must be based on a genuine appreciation and recognition of the central role of smallholder agriculture," Antonio B. Quizon, chairperson of the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC), said in a paper.
"Asian governments all have food security as a national priority. However, programs do not focus on improving smallholder farming and production systems," he said in the paper published in Lok Niti, ANGOC's journal. "In the “transforming economies” of Asia (including that of China), poverty remains overwhelmingly rural, yet agriculture is no longer seen as the historical main engine of economic growth, and small producers are no longer supported. This may have tragic consequences, as rural poverty persists, and rural-urban disparities grow wider than ever."
But despite their plight, smallholders still contribute a significant amount to the total value of agricultural output, he said. In India, he said, smallholders contribute over 50% of the country’s total farm output although they cultivate only 44% of the land.
"Throughout Asia, smallholders continue as the main producers of staples such as rice, corn, root crops, and pulses that feed growing populations," he said. He cited a study which also found that in Indonesia, small farmers and rural communities produce three-fourths of the country's rubber, 95% of its coffee and most of its coconut/ copra production.
"Small farms also serve as conservators as they also tend to grow a wider variety of crops and cultivars; these, in turn, serve to increase the resiliency of small farms against pests, diseases, droughts, and other stresses," Quizon said.
He said small farms also have higher use of labor, generally higher cropping intensity and are more diversified than large farms.
"There is a growing body of evidence that shows small farms to be more productive per unit area than large farms. This provides a compelling argument in favor of land reform, as land redistribution would increase productivity, efficiency and equity," he said.
In a world where hunger continues to stalk 925 million globally and half a billion people in Asia are undernourished, the demand for food is expected to grow further with the increase in population, Quizon said. It is projected that Asia will exceed 5.25 billion people by 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production to achieve food for all, he said.
"Meeting the new challenges and market demands for food security will require technological and institutional innovations, supported by government policy and public investments."
While Quizon also saw a role for smallholders in the field of agriculture, he noted the numerous challenges facing them.
Among the many constraints facing smallholders is that they cultivate small plots often with little or no public support. They also continue to count among the poorest and most food-insecure sectors in Asia and the world today, he said.
"The great irony is that small food producers are the most vulnerable to hunger. Small farmers and producers, rural artisans, and indigenous peoples are often deprived of access and control over productive resources (i.e., land, water, forests and coastlines) for their livelihood," he said.
He said recent trends in agriculture and the food industry are putting small farmers at even greater risk.
Despite the importance of agriculture to employment generation and poverty reduction, there has been declining government emphasis and investment in agriculture, especially in support of smallholders, he said.
"Many issues remain – policy coherence, land tenure, support for smallholders, agriculture subsidies, women empowerment, and addressing risks and vulnerabilities of malnutrition and food insecurity of the rural poor and the most vulnerable sectors."
Quizon said food security is now in the public's eye and into national development agendas after Asia and the world experienced a new round of “food crises”.
Several factors have been cited for the rise in food prices, which have also changed the game for small farmers. On the demand side, these include Asia’s growing populations and changing tastes and diets – away from traditional staples produced by small farmers, and towards increased consumption of commercially-grown meats and processed foods that require more resources and energy to produce, he said.
On the supply side, he cited rising costs of inputs; competing use of crops for biofuels; unsustainable production systems that cause soil erosion and reduce soil fertility; increasing scarcity of fresh water; and reduction of farmlands due to urban expansion, commercialization, and climate change.
Quizon said many of the region's developing countries now suffer from soil erosion and degradation. He blamed the following: deforestation, poor irrigation and drainage practices, inadequate soil conservation, steep slopes, and over-grazing. Some 25% of soil degradation in the Asia-Pacific region is directly attributed to agricultural activities.
Population growth, coupled with urbanization and industrial development, also contributes to the growing competition for land and water, he said.
In recent years, he said a new kind of commercial competition has come from wealthy food-importing countries and private investors who have begun acquiring farmlands overseas for the large-scale production of food, biofuel, livestock and other products.
"The new land deals affect domestic food production in host countries, as large tracts of productive land are ceded to foreigners, even though the host countries are chronically short on food supplies for their growing populations and have to depend on imports."
He said there are documented cases of small farmers and settlers being displaced or evicted from their lands, even when so called “public”, “surplus” or “unused” lands such as forests are leased to foreign ventures. "The new land deals increase the concentration of land ownership in a few corporations, and often leave the rural poor outside of both land and markets."
The so-called “supermarket revolution” is also a game changer. Supermarkets and fast food chains in East Asia, Southeast Asia and China now compete directly with traditional fresh markets supplied by small producers, Quizon said. "With the growing integration of the food production and distribution chains, the big traders and retail stores are now able to dictate the terms over their suppliers, and this leaves the small producers in a weak bargaining position."
Trade liberalization was also a game changer for the small farmers in Asia. The opening of agriculture to trade liberalization has led to the abolition of agricultural credit and subsidies from government, the privatization of agricultural support services, and increased competition from cheaper imports, Quizon said. There has also been a decline in public investment and spending in agriculture in many Asian countries, in sharp contrast to US and European countries where agriculture continues to be heavily subsidized, he said.
"With the vertical integration of the food industry, Asia’s small farmers today face a new layer of barriers – difficulty in accessing services and credit, weak extension services, and pricing policies that work against farmers (e.g., price controls on the farmgate prices of staples grains and traditional food crops)."
Small producers are also faced with new market demands: high-value products, continuous supply of uniform products, use of new production technologies, formal contracting arrangements, and new institutional requirements (permits and certification), Quizon said.
"The new rules of the market inadvertently serve as barriers against smallholders, and these include various industry requirements and standards. Given the high costs of certification and compliance monitoring, trading companies are likely to switch from smallholders to large agribusiness farms."
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