Bill Gates calls for ideas to help small-holder farmers

Posted by Bill Gates on May 09, 2011 Reposted from Gates Foundation blog

Small Farmers Are the Answer

On May 24, I’ll be giving a speech in Washington, D.C . to draw attention to farming families in the developing world and the important role they play in cutting hunger and poverty. I need your help in making the case about why small farmers are so important – in fact, I want you to share your best ideas and help spread the word.

Small Farmers Are the Answer

Why farming? Many people don’t realize it, but most of the world’s poorest people are small farmers. They get their food and income farming small plots of land. These farming families often don’t have good seeds, equipment, reliable markets, or money to invest that helps them get the most out of their land. So they work hard, but they get no traction, and more often than not, they stay hungry and poor.
We know that smart investments in farming families help them become self-sufficient. We know that increasing productivity while preserving the environment leads to higher incomes and better lives over the long-term. But governments are not living up to their pledges to provide this kind of support to small farmers.
Solving hunger and poverty is both an urgent problem and long-term challenge. But what gives me hope is that we know that investments are working.
Our foundation has invested $1.7 billion to date to help small farmers in Africa and South Asia. We have seen great progress in the work of our grantees and other organizations. I’ll be sharing some of that progress in my speech later this month.
Please join me. Tell the world why we should listen to small farmers and do everything we can to meet their needs. Go to our challenge page to send us your best ideas.
At the end of the challenge, I’ll highlight a few of the best entries.
More to Explore:

  • Small Farmers Are the Answer
  • David Tribe

    Written by David Tribe

    David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

    10 comments

    1. David – As the production economics of these small farmers is being created, consider the natural resource economics as well. I am a relatively very small-farm holder in the US Midwest and I realized that while I have a great many more resources at hand, small land holders in all parts of the world have parallel issues with both production and natural resource management. Natural resources are often overlooked due to the economic challenges of competing. I addressed this in my recently released book, EcoCommerce 101: Adding an ecological dimension to the economy. This neo-economic model allows small and all farmers to have value returned to them for ag resource management.

    2. Tim – could you spell out how this would apply to small farmers in say Africa or India (a definition of what a relatively very small farm holder is in the Midwest would also be interesting)
      (that’ll learn you to pique my interest… you’ll have to do better to entice me to purchase a book though!)

    3. Ewan – thanks for the discussion. I think part of the challenge is using definitions to define status rather than outcomes. As a US Midwest farmer, I own 50 acres and rent 50 acres in an area were many farms are 3000+ acres – that would be relatively very small by comparison, but it does not really tell you or me if I am at a disadvantage or not. So then I wonder, if these small farmer in Africa or Asia need to be bigger or can we solve their issues while they are small. EcoCommerce was developed so that as a farmer I can recieve a market signal for ecosystem services in a similar manner that I recieve a market signal for corn, soy, etc. These ecoservices are externalities in our economy (and in our government conservation system), yet I hear that the world needs these ecoservices to remain economically viable. EcoCommerce was developed to be integrated within the myriad of government and market forces in western agricultural economies. I am not saying that this ag ecocommerce will not work for Asia and African farmers, but only that I am not familiar enough with them to describe to you how it could be integrated. I would assume these small farmers need a cooperative structure to help them manage both their production and natural resource assets on their farms, watersheds, foodsheds, communities. I should mention that of the dozen or so reviews of the book, one was from an individual that is assisting small farmers growing organic cocoa in Africa. He believes the ecocommerce model would provide the framework to allow these ecoservice values that are produced by those farmers to return monetary value back to those farmers. As the peoples within governments, non-profits, policy institutions, financial markets, and others demand that ecoservices must be supplied in greater quantity, I find it surprising that so few understand that it will come down to a market signal – plain and simple as described by Adam Smith in 1776. The support for small farmers in Asia and Africa will come from an adequate and clear market signal for the goods and services that generate wealth for them. Of course, government policy makers with good intentions, attempt to mold a good policy to mimic a market signal with short-term success that morphs into long-term failures. It is difficult to design a market signal from one vantage point. What I was able to do with ecocommerce is after I studies Env.Sc, worked at a government field tech, participated in federal farm policy, farmed for 15 years, started a business that conducts on-farm env. assessments I was able to get clues on what worked in all those perspectives and ecocommerce emerged. This is the model that others attempt to use by talking to players in various planes of work, but listening is a difficult skill to acquire.

    4. For some perspective
      This link shows small farmers in India operate on less that 2.5 acres whereas a large farm would be something over 25 acres (ie 1/4 what you operate on), average farm size in Malawi is 0.28 Ha (sorry to jump about iwth units, but there you have it).
      I remain intruiged – could you give a broad laymans description of what ecocommerce means for your own operation – what ecosystem services do you provide, what’s the impact on your production, what’s the payoff etc, is this a system which is operating – or simply one which could operate with the right financial environment set up?

    5. Greetings,
      Our organization is quite successful at training farmers to be more effective producers and at helping them recognize that farming is both a business and a profession. Too often I hear farmers in developing countries say, ‘I’m only a farmer.’ Too often folks in developing countries farm because they can’t do anything else. This attitude is hamstrings food production efforts at the most important level.
      We are focused on providing not only great training to farmers, but, also to instill in folks a recognition that they are part of a profession and their businesses are required by each and every person on the planet.
      Not everyone can come on a program like Worldwide Farmers Exchange. However, villages can send a representative who can learn some very transferable skills and return home to be an educator of others. Best of all, the practical hands-on learning here in the US offers the participants to see how profitable farming can be. The difference in the self image and the espris de corps the program creates make all the difference.

    6. Christopher – I think your perspection that many consider them “only” a farmer was prevalent in the USA, but with the most recent generation that attitude is changing significantly. Several reasons, I would guess; higher commodity prices, more educated workforce, increase in technology, and access to a broader population via the internet.
      Ewan – I did view the link and skimmed several of the docs. Obviously very challenging. Ecocommerce was developed to meet the eco-demands of society by tapping into the capacity of farmland to supply. I heard the arguments and debates and settled on the idea that as a farmer I need a “market signal” if I am able to deliver what society/gov/ind/retailers/utilities want. I compiled land management indices developed by the USDA, university, institutions and using this numerical system I devised a “market board of trade”. I trained ag advisors how to calculate these as their knowledge base contains 80%+ of what they need. So on my farm, I generate the basic ecoservices such as soil condition, clean water, habitat, carbon seq, etc. and “measure” these ecoservices using indices. Most indices have a recommended standard that should be met to achieve proper resource management. To illustrate the innovation possible, I developed a few indices of my own, such as a BTU Index that I would use if a corn ethanol plant wanted to describe their improving life cycle and energy balance. As in economics, things that can have value are unlimited in ecocommerce as well. So on our farm I am being the change that I expect that is needed in the world. My ecoservices are currently unvalued in the economic system. In my business, Ag Resource Strategies, I was contracted by Mn Dept of Ag to develop a valuation system so farmers could provide “reasonable assurance” that they met TMDL (water quality goals). Under this system we stipulated that a water quality score of “75” was the level of resource management needed. Perhaps Walmart might say a score of 60 is good enough for their sustainability index, and the municipal waste water plant may say 75 is required to engage in water quality markets and the electric utilty…well you get the picture.
      The interesting aspect of ecocommerce is that it shifts the center of natural resource management from the government toward the private sector. The government does not have the capacity to gather this on-farm intelligence, or the capacity to compile this intelligence into the geographical polygons (watershed, cheeseshed, Walmartshed) that is needed to correlate and coordinate the supply and demand components of ecocommerce. The failure of the eco-markets is rooted in the thought that this can be accomplished by individual ecoservice markets and not take the path that the ecological system is an economic system in its own right. We are embarking on a mission to manage the earth in relation to 7+billion people and we are hoping we don’t need anything as complex as a market signal. It is complex, but it does not need to be complicated – just like economics.

    7. Improving things for smallholder farmers as a way to heal sick food production and distribution problems is not a solution, though it might make a good Band-Aid.
      The most developed societies and nations leave food production to a thriving agricultural sector — one that frees obligatory subsistence farmers to seek careers better matched to their aptitudes.
      Activists praising subsistence farming in Africa should have many lives on their conscience.

    8. Hey!
      I typed-in a huge snarkfest, one of my most obnoxious creations ever, and it didn’t appear, even though it contained no links: what does the modereatator key on?

    9. Something other than the one that you put in above? This must be our server, which we are switching soon. It seems to kill processes going on on the blog before they are finished, which could be part of why this is happening. I searched the spam folder and there was nothing with your name on it in there, so it didn’t go that way.

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