Support Uganda’s smallholder farmers, not replace them

The modernization and commercialization of Uganda’s agriculture to boost food productivity for domestic consumption and surplus for exports to neighboring countries and beyond has been adopted. What is still under discussion is the method of implementation. Two schools of thought have emerged.

There are those who favor large-scale farming – by national and foreign entrepreneurs – using capital-intensive modern technologies of machines, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and high-yielding or drought resistant seeds. They reason that smallholder farmers are less efficient and less productive to meet domestic and external demands.

However, findings from countries that have used high tech farming methods for a while have flashed warning signals. During an international conference in Delhi, India in February 2009 it was reported that through agricultural intensification, farmers had over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated and over-applied pesticides with adverse impact on soil, water, land and biodiversity resulting in lower productivity and environmental degradation.

It was recommended that farmers switch to more sustainable and productive systems including conservation agriculture which minimize plowing and tillage and promote permanent soil cover and diversified crops rotation and ensure optimal soil health and agricultural productivity.

In 2007 organic agriculture was discussed at an international conference in Rome and concluded that it should be promoted because it minimizes water, soil and air pollution and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.

The second school of thought shared by the author favors smallholder farmers which are efficient and productive contrary to popular belief. The system is also labor-intensive and appropriate in a society where the bulk of the population has no skills outside agriculture. Many studies have confirmed the efficiency and productivity of smallholder farmers of which some examples are summarized below.

 Regarding land use, J. P. Gittinger (1987) has written that in many developing countries smallholder farmers use land more efficiently than the larger farmers although policy makers often see large farmers as more desirable. In her article entitled ‘Hunger, Social Equality, and Food Sovereignty’, Kathleen Mcafee has dismissed the illusion that small and medium-scale farmers are less productive and less efficient.

In May 2008, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) organized a meeting on the role of smallholder farmers in addressing the global food crisis. Speakers including those from the government of Malawi, University of East Anglia (UK) and the World Bank all stressed the importance of smallholder farmers in boosting food production to improve food security and livelihoods.

There was a unanimous call to increase investment in agriculture as the most efficient means to alleviate poverty and improve food security. It was stressed that smallholder and women farmers should be targeted pointing out that they are more efficient and produce a large quantity of crops.

The participant from Malawi reported that smallholder farmers had improved agricultural productivity and total production through an input subsidy provided by government which helped them to attain food self-sufficiency and a surplus for export to generate foreign currency.

The participant from the University of East Anglia stressed that targeting smallholder agricultural systems is critical through new innovative public and private partnership, increased public investments in research and extension systems and development-oriented local governance and institutions. He also underscored the importance of creating or strengthening cooperative, farmer, business and scientific organizations explicitly for supporting small agricultural producers in production, storage, processing and marketing their crops.

The participant from the World Bank reported that recent research has demonstrated that for the majority of crops, smallholder farmers are more efficient producers.

And at the end of an international conference in Madrid, Spain, the Prime Minister and United Nations Secretary-General issued a joint statement on January 27, 2009. They stressed, inter alia, that they will work with national and other stakeholders to explore options for a global partnership to sustain a movement against hunger and promote smallholder agriculture.

These findings have reiterated that smallholder farmers are more efficient and more productive than large-scale farmers. With adequate support Uganda’s smallholders hold the key to increasing and diversifying food and agricultural productivity. Therefore the government should increase budgetary allocation to agriculture to 10 percent as agreed at the Maputo AU Summit with the bulk to the smallholder sub-sector.        

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