Increasing smallholder productivity- In conversation with Rudy Rabbinge

Increasing smallholder productivity-  In conversation with Rudy Rabbinge

the Netherlands - 04 May, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

“Economic development usually begins with agriculture, so we must take smallholders as a starting point,” says Rudy Rabbinge, emeritus university professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University and Research (WUR). Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the role of smallholders, and the need to increase their productivity.

How would you define a smallholder?

The definition is arbitrary, but usually the term is used for a farm of less than ten hectares, which is managed by one family. Unfortunately, you often see that the smallholder is romanticized. The small scale is cherished. But it shouldn't be a goal to keep smallholders small. Smallholders also want to earn income which they can use to send their children to school.

Do you mean that the average farm size of smallholders will have to increase?

It is likely that the average farm size will increase, but this shouldn't happen abruptly, and we should not be moving towards large scale plantations of thousands of hectares. Moreover, expanding the acreage is not the only way for a smallholder to grow. Growth can also be achieved by increasing productivity.

Stefan Dercon of the University of Oxford suggests that it may be more effective to invest in non-agricultural sectors to fight poverty. What do you think?

I am sure that many people will disappear from agriculture in the long run. Currently, about 80% of the workforce in some African countries is engaged in farming. In the Netherlands, this is 2-3%. I think that in many countries we will end up somewhere in between those two extremes. But we cannot assume that the non-agricultural sector will lead the way. Stefan Dercon’s argument is not new. For many years, advisors of the World Bank have been telling African countries that they can eradicate poverty by investing in industrial and service sectors, instead of their agricultural sector. This has proved to be an illusion. In large parts of Asia, hunger has decreased significantly because of investments in agricultural productivity. In Africa this has not happened, and hunger has been increasing. Economic development usually begins with agriculture, so we must take smallholders as a starting point. This is where we need to provide incentives. One of the main obstacles is that smallholders — often Artboard 7 copy.pngwomen without property rights — are not able to get finance from banks to invest in their farms. Financial institutions must therefore urgently change their regulations to allow these smallholders to access credit. There is also a need to stimulate agriculture-related processing. Turning a potato into a bag of chips is relatively easy and very profitable. And, of course, increasing smallholder productivity is a priority.

There is a debate between proponents of agroecology and proponents of agricultural intensification on how to best increase smallholder productivity. How do you see that discussion?

The problem is that people tend to use caricatures. Some imply that agricultural modernization would disregard ecological knowledge. But that is not true. Agricultural innovations that do not take environmental factors into account are bad innovations. Agroecology is a nice concept, but unfortunately it has been taken over by ideologists. These are people who reject any external input to increase productivity. That is harmful to development, and ultimately causes hunger. Agroecology as an ideology is disastrous.

What is the key to increasing smallholder productivity?

I was once asked by Kofi Annan of the United Nations to lead research into why the productivity of African agriculture remained low, while the agricultural productivity in other parts of the world had been growing rapidly due to the Green Revolution. This resulted in the ‘Realizing promise and potential of African agriculture’ report. After that, we founded the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and started several large programmes. A key component of the solution lies in the soils. Soil poverty in Africa is very high. That is why we started working together with the International Fertilizer Development Centre, and great progress has been made since. But we have been struggling against an ideology that despises anything to do with fertilizers.

Tropenbos International focuses on agroforestry and community forestry. How do these practices fit into the agricultural development that you envision?


Agroforestry is interesting if there is enough land available. But in situations of land scarcity, agroforestry might be a poverty trap, because the productivity per hectare is relatively low, especially for food crops. Community forestry is different, in my opinion, because it has a societal function. Forests provide all kinds of environmental services and increase the attractiveness of the landscape. This must be paid for with public funds. I think things often go wrong when forests are managed to make money. If you compare it to agriculture, there just isn't that much money to be made from forestry.

Could the carbon market provide economic incentives for sustainable forest management by communities?

Perhaps the carbon market will provide new opportunities, but the problem is that permanent grasslands absorb more carbon than forests. If you want to capture carbon, it makes more sense to focus on those grasslands. I think forests are best managed by nature conservation organizations, paid for with public funds.

But aren’t communities increasingly expected to take on the role of forest managers?

I think communities can collaborate with nature conservation organizations. If they have forest tenure rights, they can even lease the forest to these organizations.

Is the goal to manage forests for the public good, while investing in agricultural productivity to support smallholders?

Yes, and when increasing productivity, we must look at what is possible at which location. I did some research on how to improve agricultural productivity in Europe. As it turned out, the differences in potential were enormous. There is very little suitable agricultural land in Greece, and a lot in Denmark. This must be taken into consideration when developing a food system. The Greeks already understood that 2000 years ago. They didn't have enough grain, and therefore each household’s second son had to go to colonies in Sicily and North Africa, to produce grain on the fertile soils there. The grain was brought back to Greece in large boats. My research showed that you can produce enough food in Europe on half of the current acreage, with 80% less pesticides, and half the costs. But that means that we will have to focus agricultural production on the most fertile and suitable lands, and use the marginal areas for other purposes such as carbon storage. Unfortunately, agricultural policy works against this, because if you give marginal land a different destination, then you will no longer receive agricultural subsidies. That's bad policy.

You have been chairman of the board of Tropenbos International. How do you see the role of Tropenbos International?

Tropenbos must do what it does best. It must look at the facts. What are the characteristics of a landscape? What is possible in which location? What are the different interests? These insights must be shared with those directly involved, the people who live in the landscape, and with decision makers. Tropenbos must provide insight into the choices. Because, eventually, choices will have to be made. Without making choices, things get messy.

rabbinge-blur.jpgRoelof (Rudy) Rabbinge is emeritus university professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University and Research (WUR), and member of the High Level Panel of Experts Steering Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Between 2003 and 2012 he was chair of the board of Tropenbos International. His research interests include sustainable development, food security and the role of smallholders in development trajectories.


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