With high and volatile food prices over the last few years, policy makers realized the importance of equity and access in agriculture and our current food systems. In the past decades, innovations in crop and livestock breeding, farming practices and mechanization boosted yields and production in many countries resulting in enough food being produced for nearly all. Yet one billion people go to bed hungry, the majority being subsistence farmers in developing countries who cannot produce enough throughout the year. In contrast, another billion people in the world are overnourished.
Agricultural policies and institutions should better serve small scale producers so that they can benefit from research innovations to become more food secure, resilient and escape poverty.
Foreseeing emerging trends and where we want to go
Policy-makers have to understand the drivers of change in the years to come, like climate change, increasing water scarcity and land degradation, urbanization, gender disparity, and what impact these will have on the rural poor.
Testing strategic scenarios through modeling helps inform decision-makers on better agriculture policy and investment decisions and define the research priorities to bring down rural poverty and food insecurity now and in the future.
For instance, the occurrence of aflatoxin, a deadly fungus contamination that attacks staple crops like peanut, millet and maize, is strongly influenced by weather during and after the growing season. An increase in hot and dry spells would increase the risk of aflatoxin contamination. Forecasting aflatoxin outbreaks in climate change scenarios may help prepare communities to reduce contamination risks and convince policy-makers to invest in appropriate infrastructures and services such as improved drying and storage facilities and related training. [see for instance the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, or AgMIP].
ICRISAT also works on adapting IFPRI's IMPACT model to analyze alternative futures for dryland agriculture. Other foresight research questions include how women's status in agriculture is evolving; what role urbanization and infrastructure development has in the diversification of SAT agriculture; what crop-livestock farming systems could be viable livelihood opportunities for smallscale farmers living in semi-arid tropics.
Policies that empower smallholder agriculture
Depending on how policies are formulated, eg a subsidy scheme to promote water-saving irrigation technologies, this may include or exclude small farmers.
We could distinguish production and technology policies and social protection policies.
- Production and technology policies
What policies can facilitate smallholder farmer's uptake of improved practices and technologies? For instance, smallholder farmers use rarely improved seeds in drylands. National and regional seed policies should support the development of appropriate seed systems for dissemination of improved varieties of nutritious and resilient legumes and dryland cereals (eg informal groundnut seed system), and gives room for private sector to grow and invest in pro-poor seed marketable solutions such as small packs of sorghum and other drought-tolerant seeds .
- Social protection policies
Food aid, cash transfers, non agri employment schemes, input vouchers [seed vouchers boost resilience - Reuters] - subsidy systems, crop rainfall insurances are some examples of safety nets that governments set up to reduce vulnerability of the poor. Sometimes these schemes do not reach the poorest, especially in rural areas, are corrupted or do not have the expected impact. It is important to assess the efficiency, impact and possible trade-offs of such social protection models, proposing alternative solutions.
Making the change happen through inclusive and appropriate institutions
Formulating new policy ideas is not enough. The right governance (of rural services in particular) and institutions (eg community and farmer organizations, inclusive markets for smallholder farmers etc) have to be in place.
Producing evidence of impact, communicating the results and working in partnership are important for farmers and the rest of the community to embrace policy change.
Given the low capacity of local government to provide rural services, such as extension services, we need to explore what arrangements or institutional innovations could improve the delivery of such services. (eg ICT innovations such as farmer videos to provide efficient low cost extension services)
One important field of expertise is collective action and property rights. Securing access rights to natural resources (land, water) and enhancing the capacity of smallholder farmers for collective action (eg development of farmers' organisations) are prerequisites for reducing poverty and enabling more effective management of common resources and environmental services. For instance, the consortium approach of ICRISAT watershed research enables community-based management in arid rural areas. It is strongly influencing the new Indian water policy.
One important institution to consider for the development of smallholder agriculture is the market, especially for overlooked crops like dryland cereals (sorghum, millets) and legumes (chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut). Investment in infrastructure, knowledge and financial services are some of the initiatives that will help connect smallholder farmers to markets .
The importance of gender: Over 60% of the active agricultural population in SSA and South Asia are women yet they are poorer, have less access to capital and resources and more malnourished than men. What policies and institutions will empower women in the agricultural sector?
With political will and good governance, innovative policies and institutions can greatly improve the lives of smallholder farmers and poor consumers. It is important to evaluate the impact of a new policy: on agricultural growth but also equity (do we reach the most marginalized?) and environmental conservation.
Read more on Markets, Institutions and Policies Research Programme and CGIAR Research Programme on Policies, Institutions and Markets
Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index