Cape Town — Is small the new big when it comes to agriculture in Southern Africa? As rising food prices place this sector firmly in the spotlight, there are compelling examples at hand to make the case for greater investment in small-scale farming.
In an interview with IPS, Pedro Sanchez - director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute of the University of Columbia, in the United States - said that in Southern Africa it was possible to turn an economy around and improve food security by investing in small-scale farmers. The threat of severe food shortages in Malawi four years ago was averted when the United Nations, at the request of government, helped these farmers to obtain fertilizer, seeds and other farming necessities.
"It costs 70 dollars to grow a tonne of maize as opposed to importing it at 700 dollars. In 2006, there was a surplus of 25 percent; in 2007 the figure shot up to 45 percent. Malawi is a country that has gone from (being) a food aid recipient to an exporter of maize; the beneficiaries are Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland," Sanchez said.
The emphasis on small-scale agriculture does not equate to dismissing commercial farmers on large properties, however.
"In Zimbabwe, for instance, agriculture can be turned around in no time if the commercial farmers who have left the country are invited to come back," said Sanchez.
About eight years ago, the Harare government embarked on a controversial land redistribution programme to correct racial imbalances in ownership that dated back to the colonial era; this initiative has seen hundreds of white commercial farmers leave their properties. Critics of the programme allege that it has benefited high-ranking officials at the expense of poor, black Zimbabweans.
Besides political will and donor assistance, the proper application of technology was needed to achieve optimal small-scale agriculture, Sanchez added. Research should be carried out to determine the most appropriate use of technology under these conditions, and proper training given to farmers about how to implement it.
South Africa provides a lesson in what may occur when support is not provided.
The restitution of land in the country in bid to address the inequalities created by apartheid has increased the number of small-scale farmers, said Frik de Beer, a researcher in the Department of Development Studies at the University of South Africa.
"However, in many instances the farmers have been left to their own devices," he told IPS. "They have not had any guidance on how to produce commercially and how to get their produce to the market. Small farmers can make a huge contribution, but they need the support of the government."
The need for better use of resources on small farms is also raised in the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This landmark study, for which the findings were presented last month, surveyed the views of governments, the private sector and civil society to help plot a course for agriculture in the future.
"Increasing the performance of agriculture requires an improvement in productivity on the 80% of SSA (sub-Saharan Africa) farms that are smaller than two hectares," states the IAASTD in its review of agriculture on the continent, noting that current methods of informing farmers about the latest agricultural techniques are more suited to the demands of commercial farming than small-scale operations.
The assessment further notes that "...integrated and participatory approaches...can increase the likelihood that appropriate technologies for production are developed and adopted by small-scale farmers."
In concrete terms, this may mean involving small-scale farmers in setting priorities for research, and drawing them into collaboration with scientists.
However Johan Willemse, a professor in agricultural economics at the University of the Free State in South Africa, cautions against seeing small-scale agriculture as a panacea.
"Studies by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund show that subsistence farmers cannot feed the cities of the world," he observed in an interview with IPS.
Willemse said the Malawian success story could be attributed in part to the fact that the country had a sub-tropical climate and no shortage of water.
"In South Africa there is a scarcity of water...South Africa cannot meet its own wheat needs and imports 1.5 million tonnes of wheat. We also import other agricultural products, as well as oil, in order to supply the urbanites with food. The only solution is to stimulate large-scale commercial farming."
Last year marked a tipping point for the planet in terms of population distribution. For the first time ever, there were as many city dwellers as people living in rural areas.
Most countries in Southern Africa are importers of staple grains, Willemse added: "And, we see prices skyrocketing. If governments do not seriously reconsider the issue of commercial farmers, the starvation figures will increase and we will see an increase of food riots in the region."
The spike in food prices has been attributed to the coincidence of several factors, including the increased use of crops for biofuels, and greater demand for supplies in booming economies - notably those of China and India. A growing demand for meat in these countries has increased the demand for grain to feed livestock, putting further pressure on food prices - as have the effects of crop failure in various states, and record oil prices that have brought with them higher fertilizer costs. High oil prices have also pushed up the cost of transporting food.
World Bank figures show an 83 percent rise in overall food prices, internationally, during the three-year period ahead of February 2008.