Skip navigation

Robust support for Asia’s small-scale farmers

As over 400 food, agriculture and nutrition decision makers convene in Bangkok for the 6th Responsible Business Forum on Food & Agriculture, hosted by SEI and its partners, the challenges of maintaining a food secure future for Asia continue to build. SEI Asia Director Niall O’Connor explains why Asia’s smallholder farmers are vital to meeting these challenges, and how innovation in the entire food value chain, from smallholder and consumer, must be kindled.

Jamie Kemsey / Published on 25 March 2019


Niall O’Connor

Centre Director

SEI Asia

The global food system will have to undergo great changes if food demands are to be met over the next 30 years. Entire food systems, from the local farmer to the supply chain to the consumer, will need to change. Food safety and security remain major concerns as urbanization, population growth, climate change and public health concerns continue to mount. Meeting these challenges can help reduce hunger and poverty and complement lasting sustainable development.

SEI Asia is partnering to host the 6th Responsible Business Forum on Food & Agriculture on 25– 27 in Bangkok. The forum will bring together over 400 food, agriculture and nutrition decision makers from companies, governments, financial institutions and NGOs, to discuss innovation in value chains for food and nutrition security. In Asia, the coming decades in agriculture will be defined by the prospects of the region’s 100 million smallholder farmers, the largest population of smallholders in the world.

SEI is bringing together the private sector, NGOs and civil society in a roundtable discussion in the lead-up to RBF on Food and Agriculture that will focus on value chains and how joint efforts by businesses, research, civil society and communities can make them fair and beneficial, as well as environmentally sustainable. SEI Asia Director Niall O’Connor discusses the importance of support for smallholders in the region, and why innovation and progress in the food value chain – how we grow, process, trade, and consume food – is critical to ensuring a reliable and healthy food future.

Given that Asia is the region with the most smallholders in the world, what are the main sustainability issues regarding a rural transition for these families and where is it leading us?

Niall O’Connor: There are two considerations: first, the increase in transitions from farmers basing their livelihoods on farming to moving to peri-urban living and the abandonment of small-scale farming, and second, the transition or changing of the agricultural sector itself, due to modernization, climate change and mechanisation in the food value chain. Many rural communities are experiencing reduced populations and in some cases the feminization of agriculture as farmers and mainly men, young and old, relocate to urban areas.  How do we prepare communities for these changes?  Should we prepare farmers for the mechanization of increasingly urban style communities, so they can play greater roles in new urban areas, or do we encourage  decentralization of governments and businesses to help maintain people in rural areas? If we insist on decentralization, is there the infrastructure, jobs, education and secure livelihoods to support smallholders, and how do we create rural environments that will thrive and help maintain rural communities? In my home country in Ireland, for example, people now wish to go back to the countryside. They want to escape urban areas, but rural communities there have little to offer in the way of infrastructure and crucially, job security.

With modernization, how do we ensure smallholders have a voice in the value chain process?  Are they aware of best practices? The smallholders are in many respects the managers of the landscapes in which crops grow. Supporting rural communities to ensure they are given options and play a role in protecting ecosystem services, and that their voices are heard from local to national policy levels, for future sustainability, is vital.  We need to stop seeing smallholders as a liability, but rather work to empower them to continue to sustainably manage landscapes and protect ecosystem services. They should be a key part of any response to climate change and integrated from the beginning as farming methods modernize.

Rural-urban migration, mechanization, and commercialization are depleting agricultural viability and leading to neglect of critical resources such as soil, water and biodiversity.  What do you see as opportunities and threats, and what interventions can we put in place?

As mentioned, the rural areas are losing people and entire communities due to people seeking alternative incomes from off-farm activities. We will have to find a balance between support for those moving into new urban roles and keeping the rural areas alive through decentralization. There are several escalating threats to smallholder farmers that we must find better ways to address. These threats include adapting to climate change, changing practices in crop management, the unregulated use of pesticides and impacts on the soil, and soil salinization. Combine these with massive demands for increases in productivity to feed a growing population and competing industrial uses (biofuels, industrial starch, vegetable oils), and you can see that the smallholders have a tough job ahead to make their farms more productive and maintain an improved living from them.

However, modernization and rapid changes in farming do present opportunities.  Computerization of agriculture can lead to precision watering for example, and use of satellites for many other farming needs such as fertilizer use. This might seem far-fetched in the smallholder discussions, but this technology is available now, and the majority of farmers and farms, large or small, can and will benefit. There are also changing attitudes toward organically produced crops, and smallholders should be encouraged to look into more sustainable forms of crop and livestock production, which also often fetch higher prices. Sustainable farming techniques are part of the traditional knowledge among farmers in Asia but they must be incentivized and adapted to modern market demands. Additionally, various forms of building social capital in, for example, farmer groups, may help to improve the smallholders’ position in the value chain. We need to enhance resource mobilization and empower them with the intention of facilitating collaborative approaches to farming.

Small scale farmers are usually not on at the top of the political agenda, yet many cultural values are rooted in family farming. Is there a way to upgrade smallholders to become the centre of a new sustainability movement, leading the charge with sustainable farming practices, agrobiodiversity, local products, clean production, etc.?

Many of us are only one to two generations removed from the land. Farmers still have a huge impact on our culture, even in urban areas, which will likely soon make up 70% of the population worldwide. Many people in urban areas are now looking back to the countryside and dream of a less hectic life there.  How do we capture that? One part of the solution is to do more to protect farmers and their environment. They might not have all the answers, but they must play a major role in maintaining culture and in delivering sustainable farming and ecosystem services for all.

Farmers that have been on the land for generations often understand the environment very well and are highly valued for their indigenous knowledge and local solutions. They also hold spiritual values that are important for culture and our relationship with the land, and we need to recognize this and support it. Many Bangkok citizens, for example, come from rural areas and on the weekends they often return to that area. They also increasingly demand local products and organic food from sustainable farms. These recent urbanites are still connected to the land, and have a huge role to play in ensuring smallholders are supported and rural areas thrive. We need to find new ways to get them involved. On top of this, it is important to ensure such a connection to the land helps avoid ongoing land grabbing by larger corporations, and that the full mechanisation of agriculture does not push more farmers off the land and reduce their guardianship roles that are critical to maintaining healthy rural landscapes.

Looking at the bigger picture, why is it important that we foster innovation in food and nutrition value chains?

Innovation is critical to ensure the efficient use of limited resources and sharing them fairly among those who need them. We need to look at production processes and capacities.  We need to look at food storage and waste. We need to look at agricultural inputs, and reducing water, chemicals and fertilizer, as well as energy consumption on the farm. Innovation in all of these areas will produce higher quality food and less waste as it moves through the value chains. We should continue to encourage the Bioeconomy, which often provides us with new ways of using old resources and helps wean us off fossil fuel dependency. In the past, small bits of wood leftover from timber processing were discarded, but today they are being used in multiple value added and economic ways. With agricultural commodities, we must do the same, such as making better use of crop residues for livestock feed, soil improvement or energy production.

Innovation can also come through mechanization and technology. Smart phone apps, for example, on weather updates, on commodity needs, on market access and so on, can help farmers to better understand commodity demands and future growing seasons, and lead to higher quality crops and yields, linking them to the value chains where the producer has a greater understanding of, and thus more say, in product pricing.  If farmers are empowered through technology, they are then in a better negotiating position with businesses that they work with and sell to.

Is there a consumer role in supporting smallholder farmers in the region?  How can we better engage consumers to not only help improve food and nutrition, but also support farming communities?

Consumers have a major role to play, but they need better education. They are often removed from the land, and in many cases have a growing supermarket mentality, where there are cheap mass produced food items and often too many choices, and they don’t take time to think about their food or where it comes from. We need  to find better ways to link consumers more directly to farmers and commodity companies.  How do we empower consumers to demand the foods that they want, not just what companies decide to sell? This comes down to better understanding of behavioral choices – better assessments and analyses of consumer behavior. We also need to ensure consumers understand the seasonal varieties, learn to enjoy these, and in this way promote diversity in crop production, supporting new and innovative farming practices. Consumers need to connect with smaller and local brands, but today they often are unaware of their existence. Building these brands, which smallholders supply, will help maintain agrobiodiversity and value chains for the smallholders, and open new opportunities for growers to prosper. It starts with a better understanding of behavior and choice, and is supported by better promotion of smallholder products and their role in the value chain.

Design and development by Soapbox.