By Hanna Saarinen
Agriculture plays a vital role in the development of societies and economies – but it has been neglected and underfunded for a long time. This has been changing lately: governments are increasingly turning to private sector companies to generate investment. Following this line, the European Commission’s proposal for a new European Consensus on Development strongly emphasises the need for the EU and its member states to mobilise private resources for agricultural development. But the EU should re-think the kind of agriculture it wants to support if it intends to eradicate poverty.
The Commission’s proposal highlights that “major private sector investment is required in Africa, particularly as the agri-food and agro-industry sector is a key sector for creating the jobs needed”. The proposal focuses on smallholder farmers as players in agricultural value chains, but it stops short of specifying which role exactly farmers should play.
Small-scale producers indeed form a core part of the global agricultural system, yet they are often neglected and undervalued. The criteria against which farming is typically measured – yields of specific crops, productivity per worker – tend to favour industrial monocultures characterized by the heavy use of external input.
Diversified systems can compete with industrial agriculture
On the contrary, diversified agriculture systems are delivering a range of environmental and social benefits like resilience to shocks and protection of biodiversity. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of overall output, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress. However, narrowly defined indicators of agricultural performance fail to capture these benefits.
While the private sector can and should play a positive role in agriculture, it is of utmost importance that EU development efforts focus on the pressing need for a paradigm shift first. This requires prioritising support to regenerative and holistic production systems, recognising the diverse functions of agriculture, which touch on the social, environmental, economic and cultural dimensions.
Too strong focus on technical solutions
In this equation, politics and power do matter. Vested interests undermine socially and environmentally optimal outcomes, wherefore decisions often run counter to the best interest of communities and the environment.
In addressing the challenges faced by small-scale farmers – including market failures, insecure land rights and marginalisation – the focus of the proposed EU development policy framework seems to be ‘technical solutions’, which over-emphasise the role of industrial agriculture under the pretext of its greater efficiency.
This may lead to tacitly reinforcing, instead of addressing, the macro-economic and political roots of challenges the sector is facing. Unless there is a profound re-thinking of what kind of agriculture – and on whose terms – the EU should support, the Consensus on Development is bound to fall into the lot of policies that have proven unfavourable for the most marginalized.
EU, needs to listen – and respond – to the voices of farmers
Agriculture development can only happen with the active participation of farmers; the women and men who cultivate the land: the 475 million small-holder farmer families who produce more than 80% of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world. Governments, the private sector and donors, including the EU, should give a renewed attention to their aspirations and concerns. With their unrivalled knowledge of local conditions, small-scale producers hold many of the practical solutions that can help put agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable path.
By some estimates, smallholder farmers are responsible for 90% of investments in agriculture so well-targeted investments to empower them can deliver transformative, positive changes in rural socio-economic landscapes. Supporting a stronger role for the private sector should not come at the detriment of empowerment of small-scale producers.
This blog is part of a series analysing the details of the proposed review of the European Consensus on Development. Read all our stories on the EU’s new development framework.Oxfam International EU Advocacy