Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, writes for This is Africa on the central role of smallholder farmers in the sustainability debates at Rio+20.
Agriculture is where environment, food security and poverty eradication come together. Because of increasing population and changing food consumption patterns, farming must become more productive and less wasteful in order to feed the world and contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction. But at the same time, increasing competition for scarce natural resources and climate change are making investments in agriculture more risky, especially for the 500 million small farms in developing countries. Negotiators at Rio+20 must recognize the importance of small farms and include them in their vision for meeting the world's challenges - feeding 9 billion people by 2050 - while protecting the planet.
Small farms form the backbone of the economy in rural areas, where the bulk of extreme poverty persists. Smallholder farmers are stewards of vast areas of natural resources, and farm up to 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. They feed close to one-third of humanity and contribute to local and global supply chains, despite working some of the most fragile land on the planet with limited access to institutional support, credit and markets.
It is clear there is a huge unmet opportunity for smallholders to provide more and better food while acting as ecosystem managers. The experience of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has shown that smallholder farming systems that work with, not against, ecosystems are more productive and are more resilient to droughts, floods and other shocks. As the Sahel food crisis has grabbed headlines, one IFAD-financed programme has been supporting "re-greening" techniques such as planting trees in their fields that help farmers reclaim degraded land. The trees enrich the soil, prevent wind and water erosion and provide fodder for animals. They can also yield fruits or medicinal products that communities can consume or sell. Sustainable approaches like these are improving lives for millions of poor farmers. In Africa, for example, over five million hectares have been transformed in Niger, one million in Ethiopia and 500 thousand in Mali.
Unfortunately, the environmental benefits that both underpin and result from sustainable smallholder farming systems are typically not counted or valued by policy makers. That needs to change if we are to reform our global agriculture and food system at the speed required. The poor women and men who work small farms have learnt through bitter experience that narrow measures of success fail in the long run. A lack of enabling policies has led to unsustainable production practices that,in turn, have contributed to the degradation of 65% of Africa's agricultural land and continuing deforestation. Poverty, hunger and exclusion are driving a narrow (and short-term) focus on crop and livestock production at the expense of the ecosystems that poor rural people rely on for long-term sustainability. The G8 has just reiterated its commitment to the 2009 L'Aquila pledges, announced a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and a US$3 billion private sector investment push in Africa. This is good news, and it can get even better.
Rio+20 discussions on 'going beyond GDP' are a unique opportunity to reshape how we measure success. A major challenge is how to widen the frame to include the stock of natural assets that will sustain poor rural people. IFAD is currently piloting an approach to scale up "multiple-benefit" investments to build the climate resilience of smallholders. Our Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) aims to do this by supporting communities to include their long- and short-term objectives in decisions over scarce land and water resources. ASAP looks beyond any one single production outcome to measure changes in the area of land managed sustainably, efficiency of water use, and the number of women's groups involved in sustainably managing natural resources,as indicators of resilience.
Bridging sectors like agriculture and environment has always been a good idea.Now climate change and fiscal austerity have made it indispensable.The women and men working 500 million small farms can escape and remain out of poverty by becoming better ecosystem managers. That's a big payoff that Rio + 20 - and smart investments in agriculture - can deliver for generations to come.