A diversity of seeds on sale in Nanyuki market, Kenya. K Dekeyser

Why developing countries should boost the ways of small-scale farming

Rachel Wynberg, University of Cape Town, Laura Pereira, Stellenbosch University

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Industrial agriculture – farming that involves the intensive production of livestock, poultry, fish and crops – is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of land use. It depends on mechanisation and on inputs like synthetic fertiliser and harmful pesticides and herbicides and has led to widespread contamination of soil and water. It also relies on just a few major crops like wheat, maize, soybean and rice, the seeds of which are owned by a mere handful of companies.

A different approach to agriculture is sorely needed. This should, ideally, deliver household food security, ensure sustainable livelihoods and produce quality nutrition in a rapidly changing climate.

Developing countries that are industrialising at a pace are uniquely placed to avoid developing a dependency on one type of technological innovation at the expense of others. This is what is known as technological lock-in, with industrial agriculture being one form of lock-in. Such countries are also well placed to establish alternative ways to grow food that maximise livelihoods and sustainable food production.

For instance, Brazil, India, China and South Africa have agricultural sectors that have both industrialised farmers and resource-poor farmers who practice low-input agriculture. These countries offer important spaces for strengthening practices that are well suited to the challenges facing smallholder farmers. And ones that are more environmentally sound.

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A change in these countries could pioneer alternative approaches for other developing countries.

The basis for alternative agricultural systems already exists. They’re practised by at least 75% of the world’s 1.5 billion smallholders, family farmers and indigenous peoples.

These alternatives fall broadly under the umbrella of agroecology. Their key characteristics include the use of technologies based on ecological knowledge, as well as a focus on family farming and local production. They also have low levels of external inputs, and are diversified.

Developing countries could leapfrog industrial agriculture systems and move toward an agricultural sector that’s run on agroecological principles. But this needs increased public investment and a policy environment that’s conducive to encouraging the approach.

Millions are doing it already

Agroecology is already practised by millions of small-scale farmers across the world. China and India, for example, account for 35% and 24% of the world’s 570 million family farms. In Brazil, 78% of farms are less than 50 hectares. In South Africa there are about four million small-scale and mostly subsistence farmers.

These farms play a critical role in food security. This is especially true at a local level. But these farmers also face numerous challenges: access to land and capital, secure land rights, appropriate extension and advice, increased climate variability and market access.

The question is whether public money in emerging economies is being used to address these challenges and the needs of small farmers. Or is it being used to prop up large-scale industrial agriculture?

Many emerging economies have dual forms of agriculture – both industrialised and small-scale. Yet investment in agricultural innovations typically centre only on priorities for industrialised farming.

Genetic engineering is an example. It has become one of the main areas of focus in agricultural research over the past three decades. Highly specialised – it involves the modification of an organism by manipulating its genes – it needs high levels of investment. Those developing it also expect high returns and it’s very much a “top-down” approach, removed from the context and knowledge of most of the world’s farmers, and often bringing questionable benefits.


Smallholder agriculture is increasingly important in emerging economies. There is a need for alternative agricultural solutions. Emerging economies can be leaders in this field.

Agroecology presents a tested and forward-looking approach. But it needs to be institutionalised in the allocation of research funding and in science and technology policy.

Agricultural research and development is already playing an important role. Over the past decade there have been increased investments by emerging economies in agricultural research. For example Chinese government investment in agricultural research doubled from 2001 to 2008, exceeding any country except the US. Brazil similarly increased agricultural research and development spending by 46% between 2006 and 2013. South Africa’s investment level is more erratic. But it’s still high compared to most other sub-Saharan countries.

More needs to be done. Additional steps should include:

Emerging economies provide an important opportunity to upscale agroecological innovations to help improve the livelihoods of small and resource-poor farmers and address environmental problems. But they need public investment and an enabling environment to flourish.

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Rachel Wynberg works for the University of Cape Town, South Africa where she holds a research chair funded by the Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation. The work in this article was funded by a FP7 project on Responsible Innovation (PROGRESS). Through the University of Cape Town, she forms part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) which represents an innovative collaboration between universities, practitioners and a range of NGOs across southern Africa to revive and enhance traditional seed and knowledge systems and to deepen understanding about their functioning. Rachel serves on the Boards of Biowatch South Africa, Environmental Monitoring Group and the Union for Ethical Biotrade. This article is written in her personal capacity and does not represent the views of any of these organisations. No benefit will accrue to any organisation.

Laura Pereira does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University provide funding as partners of The Conversation AFRICA.