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Re: HLPE consultation on the V0 draft of the Report: Investing in smallholder agriculture for food and nutrition security

World Vision International , Estados Unidos de América
05.02.2013
FSN Forum

Summary and Recommendations

  • P8, #2 – While we understand the desire to refrain from excessive use of technical language, it might be helpful to reference the concept of nonseparability – where production and consumption decisions are closely linked – a common feature of smallholder agriculture. Where decisions are not separable we see quite different behavioural responses than one might otherwise expect.
  • P8, #5 – The discussion of smallholders and markets is helpful – all engage in market transactions in one way or another.
  • P9, #9d – This is an important point, but it would also be important to mention another are of institutional weakness: the general institutional or cultural or governance context can sometimes impinge on the ability of smallholder farmers to act individually or collectively to effectively manage their resources
  • P9, #10a – It is not only the productivity of resources that is impacted by secure access. We need to also recognize that the quality of the resources are as or more important as the quantity. The quality of those resources impact their productivity, sustainability and resilience – and each can be improved with the right decision-making context.
  • P11, #s 19-25 – These points are difficult to follow.
  • P12, section headed by “ensuring and enabling environment and adequate incentives”. In addition to the 3 points mentioned (banking, policy investment code, market regulation mechanisms) it would seem appropriate to mention that the importance of an enabling environment for sustainable land use.
  • P12, #29 under “technical and organization proposals”, not only is it “Strengthen the collective action processes to support smallholder technical innovation and increase market power”, but also to enable sustainable land management at the watershed or landscape scale.
  • P14, #32 – We agree that productivity and resilience are very important, but most of the discussion has referred to things which target productivity directly. However, productivity has often been compromised in part by lack of attention to the health of the agro-ecosystem on which productivity depends. Putting resilience of the agro-ecosystem high on the agenda will do a lot for improving (restoring) its productivity. The reverse is not true. A narrow, short term focus in productivity will only see short term gains that compromise long term sustainability as well as resilience.
  • P14, #36 – The discussion on contract farming is helpful. Elsewhere there is mention of the problem of market power – especially where there are few buyers and many sellers (smallholder farmers) – and the need for various forms of farmer organization to help counter this one-side market power. This is good. In addition to this, it would be helpful to mention the importance of prices which ensure adequate returns to household labour – this means, enough to live on when working full time. The alternative is to have families struggling to grow their own food on the side using unsustainable farming practices to the detriment of the local environment and the well-being of the population.

Chapters 1 and 2

  • We actually know very little about smallholders. We don't really have definitions for how small 'small' is, we don't know that much about the complex ways in which they interact with various markets (upstream, downstream, labour, financial), and how they interact with other farming systems in different places. Consequently, the recommendation 'the sole issue of defining smallholders - just counting and giving an accurate picture of the structural characteristics of this heterogeneous sector - should receive the highest priority' is important.
  • While talking about smallholders in aggregate may be useful for advocacy purposes but specific policy recommendations would need to be national or even sub national in order to really benefit smallholders. The idea raised in the paper of 'National Vision and Strategic Framework for Smallholder Agriculture' to be developed at national levels is obviously moving in this direction.
  • The report acknowledges that the idea of an 'exclusive subsistence' farmer does not really exist; all smallholders require cash and therefore need to be more embedded in the local economy. However, the cash requirements, and the best source of that cash (and credit) is likely to differ across different types of smallholders.
  • The statistic that worldwide, 73% of all farm units dispose of less than 1ha of land is something that is probably not widely appreciated.
  • The commentary around demographic shifts over time was interesting - contrasting growing population and shrinking land holdings in the developing world with the increase in the size of farms and reduction in the number of people in the sector as it modernizes in the west. The trade-off between providing employment for people and having farms of optimally efficient size could be more clearly drawn out.
  • The discussion of markets would be helped by further mention of the relative power of smallholders in the market place as well as the differences between those who are net buyers and net sellers and how those positions might vary seasonally. With respect to market power, there are important considerations for smallholders who face situations of few sellers in input markets and few buyers in output markets.
  • There is a boxed text on low levels of contractualization (i.e. most farmers are not integrated into global supply chains), but this doesn't really develop into anything in terms of recommendations.
  • Commentary around the idea of efficiency in smallholdings vs. larger farms is interesting. Smallholdings can be much more efficient in terms of calories produced for energy used, and also for labour-intensive crops, but they are also often not on an even playing field in terms of access to inputs etc so they can perform very badly when compared to larger farms. In short - it all depends on context.

Chapter 3

p.36 – last two dot points – the importance of hope and security is rarely recognized – the fact that the authors have included it is greatly appreciated.

p.37 first dot point. Relative stability in upstream (input) markets could also be important in some situations. While smallholders typically do not use a large amount of purchased inputs, strategies that encourage increased use of such inputs – e.g. commercial fertilizers or purchased higher quality seeds – risk failure if there is either considerable price volatility or sustained real price increases.

p.37 paragraph following the first dot point – there is mention of the importance of collective action and crafting appropriate governance rules. This is very important and more discussion of the subject would be very helpful.

p.37 section on Social Capital under 3.2 – where customary ties that influence access to natural resources are mentioned, it would be good to also include the management of those same natural resources. In addition to this, it would be good to mention the importance of understanding and influencing cultural norms and values that influence the management of natural resources and both the household and community levels.

p.38 first paragraph under 3.3.2 Farm level. This paragraph is rather confused. It mixes a few issues including productivity measurement, adoption of particular combinations of technology, and complementary investment to improve output per unit of inputs used by farmers. This paragraph and the following one also mix static and dynamic elements of productivity. It would help to consider each of these issues separately. So, for example

  • Explain that value is used in productivity measurement because inputs are typically not homogeneous. If, for example, the only input was a small powered cultivator, and all were the same, then it would be reasonable to talk about output per cultivator. But with multiple inputs of varying types, value has to be used to combine them and adjust for quality differences.
  • Investing in infrastructure and human capital as ways of improving productivity are somewhat different in that the human capital of the farmer is a direct input and will directly influence the farmer’s output per hour worked. The main productivity measures of a smallholding – output per unit of land, hour worked, or unit of intermediate input – may not be affected much or at all in the short run by infrastructure investments, but these investments in turn may have a big impact on the willingness of small holder farmers to invest more of their own assets to either increase their production  (e.g. by buying more land) or improving their productivity (e.g. by buying a piece of machinery). It would also be helpful to clearly mention that output per unit land area is not the only relevant measure of productivity – output per unit of labour may be more relevant to the resource-constrained household in some cases.
  • Productivity also depends on the “health” of the agricultural ecosystem – for example, the level of soil carbon and its influence on infiltration of rainfall and soil water holding capacity and resilience to variations in precipitation.

p.38 last paragraph (extending to the top of p.39 – It would seem appropriate to also mention here the impact on productivity and resilience of improving the quality of land resources through the adoption of various soil and water conservation practices (SWC), forms of Conservation Agriculture and Agroforestry practices (including FMNR – Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration) – see for example ICRAF’s work on Evergreen Agriculture.

p.39 first two paragraphs. Collective action is also a way of reducing risk.

second paragraph under 3.3.3. Collective action can also increase human capital through knowledge sharing.

p.39 last 4 paragraphs – these are excellent – it would also be worth noting that farmer organizations and collaborative networks also help to counter-balance power relationships in markets with few buyers – a not uncommon situation in rural areas in many developing countries

p.40 second paragraph under 3.3.4. While social safety nets can impact productivity through their impact on health and nutrition, there are other positive impacts as well. They can also stop productivity actually falling due to the farmers having to sell assets in extreme situations. In addition to this they can also contribute to increased productivity through other channels. Hoddinot et al (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1661284) provide evidence that safety nets are growth/productivity supporting (i.e. they don’t just reduce asset reduction, both indirectly (by promoting visits to health centers thereby reducing disease, by increasing educational attainment) and directly (through helping poor families to purchase agricultural inputs after a drought). An evaluation of WVI safety nets programmes in Lesotho also showed that safety net programmes (particularly cash and/or cash-food mix) also promoted greater investments in agricultural productivity (http://www.ids.ac.uk/files/cashtransfers-lesothoWVI-evaluation.pdf).

p.42 line 7 ‘and in regions like Africa market access is far more expansive ...’ Is Africa in a meaningful sense a region, and should it be ‘expensive’?

                Section 3.3.6 Not all of the areas of investment discussed in this section need necessarily be public. Indeed, the fiscal position of some developing countries may mean that provision of improved communications and other infrastructure will need to be done by the private sector. A key issue in this case will be transparency of arrangements between governments and private suppliers. Also, should there be some discussion of government agricultural extensions services in this section?

p.43 line 14 ‘disjoint’? Should this be ‘separate’?

In general, the categories of investment in Chapter Three need to be made clearer. Productivity improvement is the thread that runs through them, so a clearer statement at the start of the chapter about what productivity is and how it is measured would be useful. This would make clearer the range of variables that can influence productivity, which could then be discussed. There also should be consideration of the fact that increasing investment without increasing productivity may also be desirable, and many of the things that can influence productivity will also influence investment decisions more generally. For example, improving security of land tenure may encourage smallholders to make productivity enhancing investments in their existing holding, or increase the size of their holding, or some combination of the two.

Chapter 4

p.45 Box 5 The contents of this box is not particularly useful without further explanation.

        Para 2. ‘there is an obvious need to enlarge total agricultural production’. The report places a lot of emphasis on increased production and increased productivity , and both are extremely important. But there is little attention given to reducing waste at the farm gate or in the distribution change. Given the recent report on global food waste (by the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers http://www.imeche.org/knowledge /themes/environment/global-food?WT.mc_id=HP_130007) reinforces the general view that 30-50% of all food is wasted, this issue deserves more attention as a response to current and medium-term food security pressures.

p.46, last paragraph – this discussion of the close forward and backward linkages between agriculture, poverty and nutrition (of both children as well as the household adult labour resources) is very important and greatly appreciated. A systems approach that recognizes these interconnections and feedback effects is very important as in many (if not most) cases there will be two or more necessary conditions that must be met in order to effect change in household well-being measures (especially in the area of household (and especially child) nutrition).

p.47 The discussion of microfinance does not consider savings groups as vehicles for mobilising funds. While savings groups are unlikely to provide sufficient loan funds for larger investments, there is a growing amount of evidence that they are very effective for facilitating small investments or income smoothing, and have the added advantage that they frequently are operated by women who play a major role in small holder agriculture.

p.48 The section on risk beginning on this page does not really discuss the area of micro-insurance (including crop and weather insurance). This is a developing area and while it remains to be seen how important it will ultimately be in reducing smallholder risk, it should be considered.

p.49, second paragraph – in other words household decisions about production and consumption are nonseparable. It might be useful to mention the household modelling literature that discusses this and the importance of recognizing it when trying to understand household decisions and the possible policy options that will have the desired impact on them.

p.51. The typology developed beginning p.51 is of use in identifying important categories of variables, but it still leaves us with the problem of determining the relative importance of different missing/weak components and the best sequence of actions to help remove the barriers they create to greater food security. The real risk is that the mix of strengths and weaknesses in each country or region will be sufficiently different as to make the program and policy response essentially unique to that place. As the report acknowledges ‘It is specific forms of interaction and combination that produce the undesirable effects.’ (p.52), and some examples of the numerous country specific responses are noted on p.55. The complexities of land tenure in many countries is an example. Even a relatively straightforward approach like farmer managed natural regeneration needs to tailored to each situation it is used in.   

Chapter 5

p.58, section 5.2.2 – the title of this section is “Improving productivity and resilience”, but there is really very little mention of anything that would contribute to increasing the resilience of agricultural systems. As it stands now, this section is very weak for that reason. With respect to improving productivity, it is not only a matter of new technology but also of more widespread adoption of some very good existing practices. In many cases some of these practices are also very positive in terms of their impact on resilience (a very important dimension of sustainability) and productivity. When the primary focus is on improvements to productivity, the focus shifts to short term solutions that can actually negatively impact resilience (and sustainability) since they almost invariably neglect soil and water conservation practices and agroforestry practices. When the focus shifts to an emphasis on building/restoring resilience of the agricultural system, then one has a longer term perspective – one that puts more emphasis on adopting practices which lead to major improvements in the natural capital on which productivity ultimately depends. With these sorts of practices more widely adopted, then the stage is set to make much better use of other options – such as purchased inputs (after all fertilizer use efficiency, for example, is much higher on high carbon soils).

p.58, section 5.2.2.1, first paragraph – in addition to “investments to enlarge the natural resource base of smallholders” consider revising to read “investments to enlarge or improve the natural resource base of smallholders”

p.69, section 5.3.2.2 , second paragraph, point (c) – not only do more efficient producer organizations help in this way, but they would hopefully counterbalance the market power in contract negotiations in situations where there are few buyers – provided that there is appropriate legislative and institutional support and that buyers negotiate in good faith.

Some other points

  • More consideration of how behavioural change can be achieved would be useful. The fact that smallholders are often very conservative in their farming practices is well understood, and the logic of this conservatism is understandable. However, technical change and climate change among other pressures make adopting new practices increasingly important. Discussion of what evidence we have on effective incentives would be very useful. 
  • There is not much attention given to the role of traditional public sector approaches to smallholder agriculture through publicly funded agricultural R&D and extension services. How successful has their contribution to productivity growth in developing country agriculture been? What should their role be in the future? Are they attracting sufficient funding?
  • The issue of income versus food security is rather blurred in the report. The conventional economic response of produce in line with comparative advantage, while not fatally flawed, was shown to have important weaknesses in 2008. Small scale producers focusing on a particular crop were very exposed because of the big difference in movements of prices of different crops. So, for example, specialising in coffee production and using the income earned to buy food staples did not necessarily prevent exposure to food security given the massive movements in, particularly rice, prices at that time. So specialisation probably needs to be tempered with some direct production of food crops to better diversify risk.
  • The report probably attempts to consider too many issues. As it acknowledges, the smallholder sector is very heterogeneous, and the problems of, and responses to, the poorest and most food and nutritionally insecure will be different in some important ways responses to smallholders looking to supply to Wal-Mart or increase production for export. Also the range of possible responses contain a fair degree of complexity. A comprehensive report just focusing on the various dimensions of financing smallholder agriculture is not an insignificant undertaking.