Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

Unheard Voices: The case for supporting marginal farmers
October 2007
John Madeley, Karl Deering, Ra Tiedemann-Nkabinde, Ruchi Tripathi
Concern Worldwide (UK)

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges the Concern website as the source of this report:

Executive summary

Half of the world’s undernourished people, three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children and the majority of people living in absolute poverty, live on small farms.1 Most of them farm between 0.2 of a hectare and two hectares of land, producing food mainly for their own families. Living on the margins of society, often without links to markets and struggling to make ends meet, these farming families are at the heart of the world’s poverty and hunger problems.

In a good year, those farmers with access to local markets may have a surplus to sell or barter. But in a bad year their food runs out long before the next harvest, and options for alternative employment are usually limited and often non-existent. In theory, these marginal farmers should be at the centre of efforts to defeat poverty and reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In practice, however, marginal farmers are accorded low priority by governments of both developed and developing countries. With no voice or platform, their marginalisation is compounded by the fact that nobody listens to them. National agricultural policies often fail to recognise them, while donors fail to reach them and in some cases exclude them. Donors tend to prioritise growth over tackling hunger, and support better-off smallholder farmers who have the potential to produce for markets and boost growth. Overall aid to agriculture has also declined dramatically over the last 25 years in favour of more market-led approaches. For the world's marginal farmers, this has meant less support for the readily available technologies and practices they need to increase their food output.

The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID) 2005 agriculture policy does not specifically address the special circumstances and needs of marginal farmers, focusing instead on agriculture for growth, investing in people that it considers to have the most potential. Despite this policy approach, taken by donor and national governments, poorer farmers have shown that when they receive support they can do much to raise output and overcome hunger and malnutrition. With sensitive assistance, impoverished farmers have the potential to produce more and escape from poverty. Women farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, for example, have increased crop production on their lands by over 300 per cent using various low cost, simple methods. Marginal farmers also have the potential to generate strong linkages with the non-farm economy, and traditional farming methods can help preserve biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Producing food in a low-intensive manner can also benefit the environment.


Marginal farmers face physical, policy and economic constraints, at local, national, regional and international levels, many of which are inter-linked. Addressing the myriad needs of these farmers is clearly complex and investment in agriculture alone is not the only answer. Other measures that address their marginalisation in a broader context, including social protection and increased investment in rural infrastructure and basic services, are vital. However, acknowledging the unique circumstances of these farmers and including them in both national and donor agricultural policy is crucial.

We acknowledge that some marginal farmers may choose to get out of agriculture and they need to be supported in this transition. However, for those that do not have that option, efforts must be made to strengthen their livelihoods.

Donors, policy makers and national governments should acknowledge the unique and complex circumstances of marginal farmers and that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to agriculture is not appropriate.

Targeted investment is needed to provide marginal farmers with appropriate services and assistance, such as low cost technology, social protection and agricultural research relevant to their circumstances.

Policy makers must also include marginal farmers when developing policies that affect them and build their capacity to participate in the decision making process. Their voices need to be heard.

Donors (including DFID) should ensure they reach the poorest farmers through more and better aid. DFID in particular should ensure that its 2008 agriculture policy review takes a more nuanced approach to agriculture.

It should ensure that marginal farmers, for whom agriculture is a way of life and their only option, receive increased support in order to become food secure and more resilient to livelihood shocks.

  1. P Hazell et al, The Future of Small Farms for Poverty Reduction and Growth, Washington DC: IFPRI, 2007, p 1.

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