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

Sustainable smallholder agriculture: Feeding the world, protecting the planet
Venue: IFAD, Rome
22 February 2012 - 23 February 2012


As the world belatedly turns its attention to the pressing issues of environmental degradation, resource scarcity and climate change, the concept of sustainability takes its rightful place at centre stage in discussions about agricultural and rural development.

Farmers face two stark realities over the next four decades: They must produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a growing, more urbanized population, and they must do so facing the likelihood that arable land in developing countries will increase by no more than 12 per cent.1 That monumental challenge can be met only if sustainability is the foundation of approaches to food security and poverty reduction in every country and every community. No other strategy has a hope of feeding current populations while protecting and restoring the natural resources that future generations will need to support their livelihoods.

This means that food production must be intensified even as production methods evolve. The agriculture sector will become more community-focused, establishing an appropriate local balance of crops, livestock, fisheries and agroforestry systems to avoid overuse of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers and to protect soil fertility and ecosystem services – while increasing production and income. It will be imperative to work within ecosystems, using natural processes and a mixture of new and traditional technologies.

Fortunately this is already beginning to happen. Farmers around the world are demonstrating the benefits of preserving natural assets and working in harmony with local ecosystems:
  • In Brazil, three southern states support zero-tillage and conservation agriculture.2
  • The African Conservation Tillage Network is bringing together farmers and policymakers who are dedicated to improving agricultural productivity while using natural resources sustainably.
  • The Chinese government's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) emphasized the need to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and called for organic foods, water conservation and sustainable practices.
  • In the Philippines, the Government has stopped its fertilizer subsidy programme and introduced a balanced fertilization policy that promotes location-specific combinations of organic and inorganic fertilizers.
  • The Indian state of Rajasthan is supporting watershed and soil management and incentives for use of biofertilizers.
  • Indonesia has banned some pesticides and introduced farmer field schools to teach integrated pest management.3
However, many of these successes remain piecemeal and fragmented. We know that sustainable agriculture is the only way forward – but many of the necessary policies are not yet in place to scale up successful approaches and ensure widespread adoption.

Smallholder farmers, when guided by coherent policies and fair incentives, have shown they are willing and able to change how they do business. With access to appropriate technologies and innovations and relevant training, they have produced results with multiple benefits for communities, ecosystems and natural assets as well as themselves. But without institutional support it is unrealistic to expect poor farmers to change their practices for altruistic reasons. We need to work with smallholders and support them so they can become the developers of sustainable solutions. That is the best way to boost food production and improve livelihoods in an environmentally sustainable way.

  1. The current world population of 7 billion is projected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100. See 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2010). Estimate of arable land comes from Bruinsma (2009), as cited in IFAD's Rural Poverty Report 2011.
  2. Conservation agriculture aims to achieve sustainable and profitable agriculture by promoting three principles: minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotation.
  3. IFAD, Rural Poverty Report 2011 (Rome, 2011). Integrated pest management takes into account the life-cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment, reducing the need for pesticides.

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