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Part 1: Smallholder farmers, biodiversity, and agricultural sustainability

In Part 1 of this series, we discuss policy steps that could be taken by the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) to ensure farmers can grow genetically diverse crops. In Part 2, we discuss the global community’s role in ensuring this is economically sustainable, including trade and domestic policy considerations for high- and middle-income countries that affect farmers in LDCs.

Smallholder farmers in LDCs are among the people most affected by climate change. As sustainable farming of diverse and climate-resistant crops is necessary for human life to continue, LDCs and the global community must be able to incentivise smallholders to grow crops sustainably, while also ensuring they can economically thrive.

Smallholder farmers are most affected by climate change and vital to fighting its effects

Agriculture makes up a large percentage of GDP for the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), most of which comes from smallholder farmers. These farmers are highly affected by sustainability concerns, climate change, and other shocks – more than two billion smallholders and farm labourers have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many smallholder farmers, financial sustainability and the ability to feed one’s family rely on dependable rain. Yet, smallholders are both highly negatively affected by climate change and vital to fighting its effects.

Sustainable and genetically diverse agriculture on small farms is vital to sustaining human life on our rapidly-changing planet. From a policy perspective, agricultural policy should have the goal of simultaneously improving income and productivity while maintaining environmental sustainability. This article will focus specifically on fostering crop diversification, which can affect biodiversity, pollination, soil, and hydrological functions.

Monoculture is unsustainable, yet incentivised in current policy

Historically, smallholder farmers have been able to develop food varieties that are more climate-resistant, nutritious, and resistant to blight. With the convergence of global markets, monoculture has become more widespread – farmers cultivating one crop, such as maize, at the expense of other crops, which leaves crops more susceptible to changes and disease. Monoculture therefore becomes increasingly unsustainable as it is more vulnerable to extreme climate events. As climate change affects flooding and weather patterns around the world, the adaptability that is built into small farms will become ever more necessary. Moreover, there is evidence from around the world that genetic diversity is necessary for food sustainability and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Economic specialisation benefits by increasing technical efficiency, but policies focusing on specialisation may lead to monocropping. Many smallholders in LDCs are either subsistence farmers or only sell enough crops to pay for basic necessities, often specialising by monocropping the most profitable crops. For example, current policy across sub-Saharan Africa has focused heavily on supporting maize production with the aim of increasing national food security, which has increased the land used for maize by almost 60% from 2007-2017. These profitable crops are often, but not always, more genetically homogenous than is sustainable, which leads to negative environmental effects and decreased long-term food security.

The move to monocropping is a combination of direct policy and more indirect incentives. The sustainable path, however, is one that allows smallholders to farm genetically diverse and sustainable crops and at the same time economically thrive.

Economic benefits of crop diversification

As crop diversification in the long-run can lead to higher productivity and income, it could strengthen economies and lead to the long-term prosperity for residents of LDCs. In cases where there is a trade-off between technical efficiency and diversity, governments will need to balance the gains from specialisation and crop diversification.

In some contexts, perhaps surprisingly, crop diversification is associated with both higher productivity and higher income. Crop diversification among farmers in Zimbabwe was associated with higher crop productivity, crop income, food security, and nutrition. Among farmers in Northern Ghana, crop diversity was beneficial for both technical efficiency and income stability; while this result is region-specific, it shows that ecological and economic tradeoffs do not exist in all contexts. Studies from Latin America show that “yield advantages [for polycultures] can range from 20 percent to 60 percent, because polycultures reduce losses due to weeds, insects and diseases and make more efficient use of the available resources of water, light and nutrients.”

Increasing agricultural productivity may be helpful for farmers in the short-run. Combined with access to markets and movement towards higher-productivity sectors, the long-run potential is even more significant. Better farm technology to increase productivity – including technology that reduces the costs of diversification –  may also be a driver towards industrialisation and “promote structural transformation of the economy” – a key goal of LDCs.

That said, competitiveness in global markets is necessary to foment this growth: “in LDCs, domestic demand alone would not foster increases in productivity. Levels of income are simply too low. Therefore, LDCs need to rely on trade to extend the market and drive increases in both agricultural and manufacturing productivity.” This will be further addressed in Part 2.

LDCs should incentivise farmers to grow genetically diverse crops

LDCs can take measures to incentivise farmers to grow sustainable crops while promoting technology take-up and economic growth. LDCs can distribute seeds of more resilient local varieties to ensure they are grown, and collect and conserve local varieties for seed banks. They also may continue promoting sustainable soil management and seed and fertiliser information via agricultural extension. Some other possible measures include:

Strengthening social protection systems

Smallholder farmers need to be supported in their investments because of the volatility of their incomes due to crop cycles, climate change, and shocks – this is even more important when thinking about risks of crop diversification. For farmers in LDCs to move beyond monoculture, there must first be social protection systems in place to ensure they are food secure and financially stable when small and large shocks hit. In Malawi, where 36% of farmers monocrop maize, the combination of maize and legumes is “is significantly associated with an increase in productivity and a reduction in crop income volatility.” Growing more than three crops does not significantly reduce crop income volatility, although in this case there are likely correlations between diversification and larger landholdings and higher wealth. However, if more farmers have access to resources to deal with diversification risks, there are potential direct economic as well as ecological benefits.

This UNCTAD report on food supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic states: “resilience becomes central to the transition towards sustainable agriculture, and must be addressed in both natural and human dimension.” Social protection will remain key not only throughout the pandemic, but during the climate change-related shocks to come.

Subsidising and otherwise promoting genetically diverse crops

Another measure LDCs and other countries could take is to subsidise genetically diverse crops or tax non-diverse crops. For smallholders commonly facing income constraints, subsidies seem a more feasible option. Subsidies would “bring down the prices on [less popular varieties] and again transfer demand to them,” ensuring more widespread genetic diversity in both domestic and global markets.

Existing agricultural subsidies in LDCs can be widely beneficial, but there is evidence that their design and implementation issues could be reformed to better benefit smallholder livelihoods and economic growth. These reforms could at the same time focus on crop diversification and sustainability. In Malawi, for example, this FAO article suggests continuing reforms on the Farm Input Subsidy Program with a mind to crop diversification. Reforms could include delivering expanded varieties of seed such as climate-resistant varieties, moderating maize seed price, “supporting predictable market demand for certified seed,” or offering subsidies conditional on sustainable practices. Since existing subsidy schemes and ecological needs vary, the specifics of subsidy reforms may vary across countries or regions with the aim of “increase[ing] productivity, efficiency and global competitiveness” alongside crop diversification.

Promoting agricultural exports for farmer and environmental wellbeing

Policies that support environmental and climate sustainability while maintaining economic growth are necessary for long-term prosperity of smallholder farmers in LDCs. But in our interconnected world, they cannot happen in a vacuum. Long-term economic and agricultural sustainability only comes from removing both local and global policy barriers to smallholder success. The rest of the global community, particularly rich and BRICS economies and multilateral organisations, has a role to play to support smallholder farmers in LDCs. Read more about this in Part 2, to be published soon.

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