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

Transnational Institute TNI Transnational Institute, Netherlands
Transnational Institute


This report offers an extremely timely and valuable contribution to the critical issue of smallholder agriculture and investment. The following comments are presented with an eye towards strengthening those areas where improvements could be made:

1. Definition of smallholders and smallholder agriculture. Section 1.1 of the report offers a definition of smallholders and smallholder agriculture that is not entirely self-evident and somewhat problematic. Smallholders are defined in the report by a resource base that is small and is “… as yet, not or barely able to render an acceptable livelihood” (p.19). Tied to this definition, as stated in the report, is a constant endeavour by smallholders to expand their agricultural production in order to go “beyond precariousness”.

Yet this definition does not account for the high degree of heterogeneity among smallholders that the report correctly insists on. The varying levels of capitalisation, technology use, asset ownership, etc. which denote different classes of smallholders are rendered invisible by the current definition of smallholder livelihoods as inherently sub-marginal. Are we to assume that once smallholders go ‘beyond precariousness’ they have transitioned out of their smallholder status?

Most damagingly, the current definition risks constructing a narrative of smallholders as non-investors when in fact that, as the CFS 37 report on smallholder sensitive investment in agriculture concluded, smallholders and their organisations responsible for the bulk of the investment in agriculture and produce most of the food consumed in the developing world.

2. Markets and the terms of inclusion. There are many cogent remarks in the report on the different types of markets, their institutional arrangements, and their relevance to smallholders. Promisingly, the report comments that pro-poor outcomes are not simply guaranteed by providing for market ‘access’ without further specifying what kinds of markets one is referring to or the terms under which smallholders are to be included in these markets.

Yet all this appears to be forgotten in section on contract farming; the further expansion of which the report appears to endorse. This is all the more surprising given that in other sections of the report (3.3.5, 3.4), it is rightly noted that global value chains are structurally biased against smallholders. It is also recognised that for the majority of smallholders, improving traditional wholesale and retail markets offers the best opportunities (section Against this backdrop, the enthusiasm for contract farming can not be reconciled.  

It is also a mystery as to why contract farming is equated in the report solely with integration into global agri-food chains when there are a host of other types of contracting arrangements that imply a different logic. A prominent example is community supported agriculture (CSA) in which producers and consumers sign forward contracts for the provision of agricultural produce. The diversity of contracting models and alternative arrangements deserves greater consideration in the report.

3. Smallholders’ rights to land and natural resources. Securing smallholders’ rights to land and other productive resources needs to be given greater attention in the report than it currently has, given that it is often a pre-requisite for smallholders’ investment in agriculture.

The report is rather inconsistent in its discussion of smallholders’ access to land, which is alternatively treated as a right (section 3.2, 4.5, 5.3.3) or, more worryingly, as part of a market transaction (2.3.1, 4.4). Especially in the current context concerning large-scale land appropriations, securing smallholders’ rights to land and natural resources is a matter of urgent attention – an issue which is given only a cursory examination in a few paragraphs in section 3.4. It would be good here to build on the recommendations of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests as well as link to the ongoing CFS consultations on responsible agricultural investment (rai).

4. Public investment in agriculture beyond public goods provision. The report’s recognition of the important role of public investment in agriculture is welcomed. The emphasis in the report is however on public goods provision, which, while undoubtedly important, should not be the only focus of public investment in agriculture. It would be more opportune in this regard to speak of targeted public investment in agriculture that explicitly prioritises smallholders through for example price supports, food reserves, credit policies, extension services, etc. 

5. Natural resource management, environmental stewardship, and agro-ecology. It is a shame to see the ecological question receiving so little attention in the report when this is one of the main cases to support smallholder agriculture and mixed farming systems. The singular reference to agro-ecology in the report under section is alarming in this regard, given that it is one of the key strategies, practised widely and successfully by smallholders all around the world, to improve their resource base in an ecologically sustainable fashion.

6. Farming futures and rural youth. Investment should be about ensuring the conditions for social reproduction. Against the backdrop of massive rural flight and endemic poverty, securing livelihoods and farming futures for the next generation of rural youth must be considered as matters of utmost important. This is an imperative that deserves greater attention in this report.