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

Alexandre MEYBECK FAO, Italy
Alexandre MEYBECK

I would first like to thank the HLPE for calling for contributions at this stage of the process, while they can still be usefull. It is especially welcome as this draft already contains a summary and first tentative recommendations.

 At this stage, the draft provides broad and interesting elements on the topic, although still academic especially in some sections. The invitation to provide references and evidence based examples is thus  particularly welcome.

1) The approach adopted in the report on the definition is adequate especially as it recognizes the diversity and heterogeneity of small holders agriculture. Keeping in mind the object and audience of the report, some points could deserve further consideration.

A clear, simple and operational definition of “small holder” by the HLPE would be particularly usefull, not only for this report but, more generally, for the on going work of CFS and the HLPE. There is often a need to have a clear understanding of what small holder agriculture covers, or something akin to it, see for instance box 1 of the Climate Change and food security report “what is a small scale farm?”  It could then be framed in various contexts and confronted to other notions such as “family farming” for instance. Such notions, after been defined, should then be used consistently all along the report.

The significance of small holder agriculture and the importance of investment would be gain by framed in the broader perspectives of agricultural development and its role as a driver of economic development (World Bank, 2008). It is of particular relevance since a report dealing with investment has to be forward looking and account for the need for agriculture to answer a growing global demand, driven by population and income growth, and to feed a population which is increasingly urbanized. This creates opportunities for the agricultural sector with specific challenges for small holder agriculture. Among the questions to be addressed here, as raised by some contributions is how best to answer the growing demand for food and agricultural products, what role could small holders play and at what conditions? This is very linked to the very future envisaged for small holders agriculture, with very contrasting visions and evolutions, often regional or country specific. The report describes some examples of evolution of the size of the farms. May be it could go a bit further and attempt to delineate possible futures of farming, including small holders, as determined by broad trends, including population growth.

In that perspective, the significance of small holder farming as job provider is mentioned but could be further stressed. The role of agriculture development and especially of small holders as a driver of rural and economic development should also be recalled here. Especially as (see below) investments in small holder farms and for small holders are intrinsically linked: often small holders investments drive/are conditioned by, the development of small local enterprises providing them inputs and services and transforming, trading, their products.

2) These considerations could lead to reconsider the formulation of recommendation 18 of a National Smallholder Vision and Strategic Framework. This could not be isolated from a broader vision of agriculture, rural and economic development. As small holders are not isolated from the rest of agriculture, nor indeed from economy, a vision of small holder agriculture should be part, and in many countries the essential part, of a Vision for agriculture. Such a perspective is also supported by the fact that, often, the lack of investment for small holder agriculture was often only the result of a lack of interest for agriculture in general. The biggest players, whether big farmers, land owners or industry having their own capacities to invest or drive investment.

3) The report raises the extremely interesting and important question of the legal status of “farming” and of small holders. This would deserve more thorough analyzes as it is of considerable relevance to facilitate and secure investments. Examples are specific tax regime for farming activities in many developed countries, protection of agricultural land in Quebec, specific land tenure regime in France for instance.

4) A framework for smallholder agriculture and related investments could be very usefull to help understand specific situations and design specific policies and actions.  

Such a framework should take into account the broader systems of which smallholders are part, territorial, particularly relevant for natural resources management and public investments but also food chains which are driving economic relationships. This last dimension is not very present and could gain in being explored.

It could also benefit from a clearer typology of investments, distinguishing short term investments (for instance seeds and fertilizer for next season) and long term investments such as land restoration or trees for instance, distinguishing material investment from immaterial (education, knowledge sharing).

5) There is also a need to clearly identify investments to be done by smallholders themselves, from those which are needed to support them or make them possible, either by the public sector or by the private sector.

This last point would deserve more attention. Investments by small holders can trigger and be facilitated by the creation of small local enterprises, often providing jobs and income to women to provide inputs or transform output. Among other examples the adoption of metallic silos for crop and root storage, promoted by FAO, NGOs  and other development agencies not only reduces post harvest losses and improves the capacity of farmers to interact with markets; it also provides new job opportunities for rural youngs, including often small holders and drives the creation of small enterprises (Mjia 2008, Tadele 2011). Another example is the creation of local seed enterprises which both trigger local production of seeds, adapted to the needs and demands of small holders, providing added value to local seed multiplicators creates additional sources of income and increase efficiency and resilience of production (Van Mele et al 2011, FAO 2010). 

Such a typology could help distinguish the investments which depend on other investments, whether by other small holders in the same territory, by other private actors, either as input providers or output buyers or transformers, or by public actors. This could identify where collective (as a group of farmers or a food chain/sector) or public action is a condition for small holder investment or could facilitate it.

6) The draft does appear to contain main constraints to smallholder investment. Some of these could deserve more consideration.

Among the first constraints for smallholders investments is probably their exposure and vulnerability to numerous risks which limits both their capacity and the willingness of other actors to invest. Agriculture is exposed to physical risks, weather, plant pests, animal diseases, economic risks, price volatility of both inputs (energy, fertilizers) and outputs (Eldin et al. 1989, OECD 2009). Small holders in developing countries are particularly vulnerable because they lack assets. Their land tenure is often insecure. Access to basic inputs such as seeds and fertilizers is often irregular. They often lack the public services (veterinary services, pest monitoring) which could manage risks (monitor, prevent, act early to prevent their spreading). These vulnerabilities often add themselves.

The importance of vulnerability of small holders has been underlined by the HLPE, both in its report on climate Change and food security and in its report on social protection. This last report give examples showing how improving resilience of households can facilitate investment. A workshop organized by FAO and OECD in 2012 discussed various risks to which agriculture is prone. It shows how public policies can reduce vulnerabilities, thus facilitating investment. These policies would deserve more consideration in 4.3 and 5.2.4 should not be restricted to “reducing economic risks”.

This initial remark could lead to consider slightly differently the three lines representing diversity (fig 14). What is important in “assets” is not only the quantity but the degree of protection against risk. Assets totally invested in livestock are at risk of drought or diseases. Security of land tenure could be, especially considered towards investment, as important as the land itself. In “markets”, the balance of power between actors, often determined by relative economic size, is crucial. In both cases “institutions” can play a regulating role, protecting assets, limiting risks (both natural and economic) and ensuring fair rules of the game.

Given its importance for investment, land tenure would deserve to be specifically considered. Not only does insecurity of land tenure limit the willingness to invest in land management (including land restoration, agroforestry,…), it often prevents it as a transformation of the land could be resented by the “owner” as a form of appropriation. The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security recently adopted by CFS would deserve to be mentioned here. The legal status of trees and their protection could also be a determining factor in the development of agroforestry for instance.

7) Finally, the report could be very useful for CFS if it could “make the case” for why, or under what conditions, investments in smallholder agriculture are part of “responsible agricultural investments”. The analysis and recommendations of the HLPE report could appropriately feed into the undergoing work of the CFS, which intends to lead to the adoption, in 2014, of  “principles for responsible agricultural investments”.

8) The 2008 World Development Report of the World Bank was a milestone in reviving the proofs and the message that Agriculture was key to Development, but that this required a “productivity revolution in smallholder farming”, together with more sustainable practices and more competitiveness. Which many interpreted “smallholders have to grow”. This report could be the second milestone if it manages back-up the traditional “pro-smallholders” thinking, in making the proof that for economic, environmental or social reasons, smallholder agriculture is not going to vanish but has to be part of plan, if not a main part - and how-  for the future of agriculture, and balanced economic development,  in various regions, North and South. For this it needs to appropriately document (with credible references, economic, social and environmental evidence-base) justify and back-up the “pro-poor” and “small is beautiful” approaches (logical from a political/ethical point of view, but often challenged by economic rationales) used to discriminate between “good” versus “bad” investments, and the directions which smallholder agriculture, and as part of this agriculture in general, has to follow .


  • Eldin, M. & Milleville, P., eds. 1989. Le risque en agriculture. Paris, ORSTOM. 619 p.
  • FAO 2010, Promoting the Growth and Development of Smallholder Seed Enterprises for Food Security Crops, case studies from Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire and India. FAO Plant production and protection paper 201.
  • OECD. 2009. Managing risk in agriculture: a holistic approach. Paris.
  • Tadele Tefera*, Fred Kanampiu, Hugo De Groote, Jon Hellin, Stephen Mugo, Simon Kimenju, Yoseph Beyene, Prasanna M. Boddupalli, Bekele Shiferaw, Marianne Banziger. The metal silo: An effective grain storage technology for reducing post-harvest insect and pathogen losses in maize while improving smallholder farmers’ food security in developing countries Crop Protection, Volume 30, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 240–245
  • World Bank. 2008. World Development Report 2008, Agriculture for Development. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.