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Q&A: “Smallholder Agriculture Needs to Be Seen as a Business”

Raúl Pierri interviews CARLOS SERÉ, IFAD’s chief development strategist

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay , Nov 1 2012 (IPS) - The countries of the developing South should remove the barriers still faced by small-scale farmers, because smallholders play a key role in economic growth, says Carlos Seré, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) chief development strategist.

“National and regional policies need to eliminate cross-border delays and regulatory stonewalls faced by small farmers,” said the Uruguayan expert, who stressed that “Investment in smallholder agriculture and rural development is the foundation for economic growth.”

In this interview with IPS on the occasion of the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2), Seré also discussed the importance of helping women gain access to land and of taking into account the environmental challenges faced by smallholders, in support programmes.

Carlos Seré: “Investment along the entire value chain is key.” Credit: Courtesy of IFAD.

The Oct. 29-Nov. 1 conference held in the Uruguayan resort city of Punta del Este was organised by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, in collaboration with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) consortium.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: The GCARD2 Road Map emphasises agricultural research and innovation for development. Is input from the ancestral knowledge of local communities – which has proved effective, for example, in the search for localised adaptations to climate change – being sidelined?

A: GCARD2 is a multi-stakeholder platform which is promoting partnerships in research for development. These are meant to forge alliances between advanced research institutions in the developed world, international agricultural research centres such as those of the CGIAR, and national agricultural research systems in the developing world.

The latter include national and local entities such as agricultural universities, civil society organisations, NGOs and farmer organisations, including indigenous peoples’ organisations, as full partners in the research process.

GCARD2 places an emphasis on the role of participatory technology development which builds on local knowledge and involves better understanding of people, their beliefs, their culture and other local socio-economic variables together with the bio-physical conditions.

Q: How can poor farmers adapt to new technologies and what criteria should guide investment in the sector?

A: For research to move from the lab to the field, it needs to be supported by a strong extension system and enabling policies that link research to products and markets so that the applications benefit both the public and private sectors.

The decision or choice to adopt new technologies is often quite complex for farmers, especially because they engage in agriculture for a variety of reasons such as generating income, providing for their own food consumption, buffering the impact of possible insecurity or shocks affecting other sources of income (for instance informal employment), and so forth.

Investment in the development of new technologies for adoption by small farmers should be guided by an understanding of the incentives and risks confronted by different types of farmer groups.

Therefore the need to focus more on research and innovation efforts to developing technologies that help farmers increase their productivity in ways that enable them to adapt better to harsher environments, water scarcity, and climate change.

Q: There are projects like the “Millennium Villages” which support small farmers in an interdisciplinary manner and have managed to increase yields. However, they still face logistical difficulties in accessing markets and ensuring that this increase will translate into higher revenues. How can this be fixed?

A: When small farmers in developing countries increase productivity, for a start, it can make a significant contribution to local and national food security and economic development – if they can, then, ensure that surplus food gets efficiently, safely from the farmer’s field to the market.

With extra money in the farmers’ pockets, we can then start to see true transformation for the developing world. Investment in smallholder agriculture and rural development is the foundation for economic growth.

If we want to make regional markets work, if we want to ensure developing countries’ food and economic security, then we must transform our infrastructure and the way we do business.

Roads, access to stable electricity, energy and running water, and good governance are also key to making the business environment attractive in developing countries Smallholder agriculture needs to be seen as a business.

National and regional policies need to eliminate cross-border delays and regulatory stonewalls faced by small farmers, to make it easy for them to get their produce from one country to the next.

Q: How successful can initiatives to provide inputs and training to small farmers in the South be, while subsidies in the North and barriers in international trade remain in place?

A: Proposals or schemes to provide inputs and training to farmers must be part of a broader package of initiatives to support agriculture-led development in developing countries – with maximising opportunities for access to markets.

However, while we recognise market distortions do exist and there are barriers to free trade, the low world food prices of the past that adversely affected agricultural incentives and performance have now changed dramatically.

Higher prices must come with opportunities for a supply response. We need comprehensive approaches to stimulating growth in the agriculture sector and in other rural sectors that can offer new entrepreneurial and employment opportunities.

Q: Women are the foundation of family farming in the developing world, but often the laws and customs of the countries limit their access to land. What is being done in this regard?

A: Gender equality is both a matter of fundamental human values and rights, but is now increasingly also clearly becoming more understood as a driver of economic efficiency in agriculture.

Women have major roles in all aspects of agricultural and food systems across the developing world.

Women are often the farmers of the developing world. Simply giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources and inputs could increase production on their farms by as much as 30 per cent and could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people.

We know, from a number of studies, that when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family.

When rural women are economically and socially empowered, they become a potent force for change. When it comes to access and control over land, in particular, this may translate into gender sensitive approaches in community-level institutions.

Thus, activities that have an impact on land access, building women’s capacity to be aware of their rights and able to claim them, supporting rural women to have access to identity cards so they can claim their entitlements over land are important enabling institutional responses, while technology systems must be responsive to time and labour saving for women.

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