The power, politics and profit of small-scale farming

As the debate between organic and biotech methods rages, many argue that the real issue comes down to control and autonomy.  


As the debate between organic and biotech methods rages, many argue that the real issue comes down to control and autonomy. 

The weather may be dreary and drizzly on this wintery day in Cape Town, but Zandile Hlangwana lights up like the sun when asked about her upcoming harvest. Aged 25, Hlangwana started farming just a few months ago in South Africa’s fertile Western Cape, and she is now nearly ready to pick the very first fruits of her labour.

“In two weeks, I’m going to be harvesting my veg,” she beams, reeling off the list of legumes and leafy plants she’s been lovingly cultivating. “It’s really exciting for me. I don’t have a baby, but for me this feels like looking after a baby.”

On her seven small plots of land in town, Hlangwana grows a wide variety of crops and expects to make a decent profit from her venture. This is particularly impressive not just because Hlangwana is new to agriculture, but also because the techniques she uses are fully organic.

As one of around 5,000 members of Abalimi Bezekhaya – a Cape Town-based association that provides support, equipment and a guaranteed market for small-scale urban farmers – Hlangwana has been trained in a range of ‘agroecological’ techniques such as mulching, cover-cropping and composting.

In stark contrast to the narrative that Africa needs a Green Revolution based on mono-cropping, hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilisers and corporate investment, these alternative methods require low inputs and are highly knowledge- rather than capital-intensive.

Advocates of these approaches argue that industrial methods deplete the soil, pollute water tables, and fail to benefit small-scale farmers. And instead, they suggest that their techniques work with the land in a way that is more sustainable for the soil and more nutritious for consumers. A growing number of studies also suggest agroecological approaches can be more productive than conventional methods and more profitable for small-scale farmers thanks to high yields and cheap inputs.

“The industrial farming system is subsidised because it is not sustainable,” says John Nzira, an agricultural expert who has trained thousands of farmers across the continent over the past 20 years. “But if you look at the diversity of the agroecological approach, you feed yourself first and you also make a very good profit.”

The literature on these approaches is growing, and if these assertions are accurate, they could have huge repercussions for the 70% of Africans like Hlangwana who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Indeed, many of Abalimi Bezekhaya’s farmers already attest to the benefits of agroecological methods, and as the organisation’s co-founder, Rob Small, puts it: “We’ve found a way for people to feed themselves and get a regular income without relying on mainstream madness.”

On the back of these kinds of claims and in defiance of calls for a more industrial approach, the agroecological movement is gaining broader attention and champions.

For example, in 2013, the UN Conference on Trade and Development published a 320-page report entitled ‘Wake Up Before It Is Too Late’, which called for a “paradigm shift” towards “mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems”.

This March, meanwhile, a wide range of civil society movements gathered in Mali to hold a forum, which concluded with the bold declaration that: “Agroecology is the answer.”

And even large commercial farms are starting to adopt some of the methods used by the movement under the banner of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture.

According to agroecological campaigners, Africa already has the indigenous expertise necessary to increase productivity and feed itself. And given this, they argue that much more attention, research and investment needs to go into these technologies, rather than what they see as potentially risky and unnecessary biotech innovations such a GMOs.

But not everyone is convinced by this optimistic thesis. “There are areas where you need very little input, but the studies on agroecology have been very selective,” says Calestous Juma, author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa and Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School. He insists instead that biotechnology innovations including but not limited to GMOs can yield huge benefits and will be necessary for African agriculture to transform for the better.

“We have mounting problems, we have climate change, expanding nutritional needs, growing populations – every problem you can think of that could make agriculture very difficult in the future. This means we need to broaden our toolbox,” he says. “By saying we shouldn’t even try certain methods, they are playing God because nobody has the foresight to say that what works today will be what we need in perpetuity.”

“We were told GMOs would wreck the environment but the evidence does not show that,“ he adds.

Who controls the food system?

Both sides of this debate draw on their own sets of case studies and scientific evidence to claim their methods are the route to more profitable, productive and prosperous farmers.

But members of the agroecological movement also emphasise that technology is in fact just one small part of their argument. Agroecology, they say, is not just a set of techniques, but a response to questions of power and politics.

“Agroecology is about control,” says Mateus Santos, Africa 1 regional coordinator for La Via Campesina, a coalition of around 150 organisations, which claims to represent 200m farmers worldwide.

Santos and others point to the fact that just six companies control 60% of the world’s commercial seed market, the largest four grain traders control around 90% of the global grain trade, and 11 companies control 98% of the world’s pesticide market.

This situation, they assert, leads to circumstances in which huge multinationals can easily capture markets through their combined financial and political power, restricting farmers’ choice over what inputs to buy and which markets to supply.

As a cautionary tale, they point to the Green Revolution in India in which large numbers of small-scale farmers were encouraged to switch to hybrid and GM seed. These did offer higher yields, but critics say the intensified chemical-led approach exacerbated water scarcity, forced farmers to use increasing levels of pesticides, required smallholders to buy patented seed every season, and drove them into debt. Notoriously, suicide rates among farmers soared.

“We saw what they did in India and how it failed. Now they want to do it again in Africa,” says Santos.

However, in many ways India’s Green Revolution acts as a kind of Rorschach test for agricultural observers, with both sides of the debate claiming that the Asian experience backs up their own arguments. Those on the other side of the debate, for instance, insist that India’s substantially increased productivity and structural transformation under the Green Revolution showed it to be a huge success whose emulation in Africa is now necessary.

A group of war veterans and ruling ZANU (PF) supporters move through a crop of winter wheat to occupy Seamish Farm in Glendale, 50 Km's north of Harare, 19 July 2000. All farm production in the area has been stopped by farmers in protest over the continued occupations. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP Photo/Paul Cadenhead


Meanwhile, big corporations insist that they must be central to this solution and refute the suggestion that they restrict markets or exploit small-scale farmers.

“Farmers get to make a new choice each year so whenever input suppliers bring a product forward, they need to offer something that reliably delivers a surplus benefit to the farmer. Otherwise the farmer isn’t going to choose that product again,” says Mark Buckingham, spokesperson for the agro-chemical and biotech giant Monsanto. “Our business can only succeed when our customers are successful.”

But for agroecologists, these arguments hold little water. They claim that markets are far from free and that agroecological approaches – in which farmers save seeds, grow what they want, use low levels of inputs, create their own fertilisers and pest control systems, and feed themselves first – offer a much better deal for Africa’s hundreds of millions of smallholders.

“In a globalised industrial model, the intermediaries – the transnational corporations – control every step of the food system, while the consumer and producer have only a very minimal say,” says Santos.

“We see agroecology and food sovereignty as a true alternative. Productivity needs to increase, but the way to do this is to support peasant-based agricultural systems. We need to develop local markets, produce locally, market local, diversify and increase the capacity of local economies.”

The seeds of change

The agroecological debate is thus all-encompassing in scope, referring to all stages of African agriculture, from field to fork.

But while all dimensions of this discussion are closely inter-related, some observers worry that the grandness of the debate has led it to polarise unhelpfully.

They suggest that both agroecologists and their techno-optimist opponents risk putting undue faith in their own technologies, while both food sovereignty campaigners and free market proponents can allow ideology to cloud their more pragmatic judgments.

For example, Ian Scoones, Director of the ESRC STEPS Centre at the Institute of Development Studies, backs the principles of the food sovereignty movement, but questions some of its prescriptions.

“The broader narrative that the food system has to change, that it’s massively unsustainable, that corporate control isn’t helping poor people or the environment – I subscribe to that completely,” he says, adding that the suggestion markets work perfectly in rural Africa is “a complete myth”.

“Through capture of markets and capture of technology through patenting, certain corporations can have undue and excess power,” he says. “But to see it as either agroecology or biotechnology misses the point. What you need is a much more democratised food system that allows different types of technology to serve the needs of the marginalised and poor.”

“There are good arguments for locally-based production and local spin-off benefits, but there are equally good arguments for export and trade, though they need to be properly regulated,” he adds.

According to Scoones then, the important issues are over regulation, freedom of choice, and access. A strong competitive private sector including multinationals has a part to play, he says, but alongside a well-supported public sector and broader policy support for informal markets, which remain central to small-scale farming.

He cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater whether that bathwater is what Green Revolution advocates might think of as low-productivity peasant farming or what agroecologists might characterise as predatory corporate-driven globalisation.

This view is broadly backed by Kanayo Nwanze, president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, who also sees merit in both sides of the polarised debate.

“We know that the current situation in the international seed markets often do not have the best interests of smallholder farmers in developing countries in mind,” he says, “[but] biotechnology can be an amazing tool in tackling biological or physiological stresses and challenges.”

Nwanze says that African farms are only performing at 40% of their potential and that simple measures such as improved seeds, irrigation and fertiliser could triple productivity, triggering transformational growth. New technologies and multinational involvement could be crucial in driving this ambition, Nwanze says, but insists any transformation needs to be democratic and driven by small-scale farmers themselves.

“I have often said that Africa’s development must be made in Africa, by Africans, for Africans,” he says. “Change cannot be imposed from the outside, it must be cultivated from within.”

Reaping what you sow

Speaking to a number of small-scale farmers like Hlangwana, the importance of self-determination is often repeated. They want to use methods are that sustainable, productive and profitable whether they are delivered by informal markets, NGOs or multinationals. But they also want to remain secure and autonomous.

“We believe in keeping our own seeds,” says Hlangwana.

The jury is still out over whether agroecological techniques and local markets are the best route to make Africa’s hundreds of millions of farmers more profitable, productive and empowered, or whether a Green Revolution, industrial methods and biotech hold the solution.

But given how important agriculture is to Africa, one thing that everyone agrees on is the huge potential for farming not just in growing the food necessary to feed a growing population, but also to create employment, wealth and a viable future for Africa’s growing population, and especially its youth.

And although farming is often seen as a tough, thankless and unprofitable livelihood, those who are making a success of it insist that with the right kind of support, infrastructure and entrepreneurial ingenuity, farming can be both empowering and lucrative.

“Most young people like me do not know you can make a living out of farming. They just want to be employed and do not know you can employ yourself through farming,” says Hlangwana. “But if you start young like me, when you’re fresh and you work hard, by the time you’re 70, you’ll probably be a millionaire!”

Subscribe for full access

You've reached the maximum number of free articles for this month.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.