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The Big Impact of Small Farmers

By Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Food & Markets, World Wildlife Fund

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© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF

Despite rising global incomes and commodity prices, small farmers are once again being left behind. While most food consumed in developing countries is produced by small farmers, half of small farmers globally still do not produce enough food to feed their families. These families must either find off-farm income or go hungry. That is why stunting and malnutrition are most common in rural areas.

Many small farms are the least efficient on the planet but often through no fault of their own—they are on marginal lands no one else wanted, their holdings are too small to be viable, they need to produce both food and cash, they have little cash to invest in inputs, their practices were developed generations ago under different circumstances, and new technologies are not always adaptable to their circumstances.

Many small farmers grow perennial cash crops – things like coffee, cocoa, rubber, palm oil, and cashew nuts. Maps projecting the impact of climate change on long-term productivity of perennial crops suggest that areas currently suited for production will be marginal by 2025 or 2030. In other words, 10 to 15 years from now, we won’t be growing the same crops in these places.

While larger, wealthier producers can move to more suitable locations or hire experts to help them identify new crops, small farmers don’t have those options. And, without timely, thoughtful support, they will be worse off than they are today. Many continue farming the same crops, reluctant to tear out the trees even if they produce less each year. We already see this globally with coffee and cocoa where most trees are at least a decade beyond their prime but producers cannot afford to replant and loose even their small income for a few years.

We can turn this scenario around. While small farmers won’t be able to produce all the same crops going forward, they will be able to produce something. Moreover, new crops could allow small farmers to leapfrog over bad habits and poor practices. We have the opportunity to do a step-change with small farmers – the same way that many developing nations skipped land line telephones and went right to cell phones.

Here’s how it could work: it could well be easier to help farmers be more productive with new crops and new packages of inputs – things like planting materials and other inputs -- and practices rather than challenging their long-held beliefs about how to grow the crops that they and their families have grown for generations. The farmers will be starting fresh, with fewer bad habits.

In the face of these challenges, however, the goal should not be to maintain the status quo. We can take advantage of the rapidly shifting world to alleviate poverty and reduce environmental impacts. That is a result of climate change that we can all live with. 

Jason Clay is the Senior Vice President of Markets and Food at WWF and a member of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agriculture Productivity and Innovation. He grew up on a small farm in Missouri, lived on less than $1 a day for 15 years and got his PhD in anthropology. He has spent his career researching, teaching, working with farmers, as well as advising some of the largest food companies in the world. 

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published this page in Learn 2014-10-17 11:07:33 -0400