BlogLand Rights

Oct 11 2013

Myth Busting: How We Can Really Achieve Food Security

The majority of the world’s hungry make their living from agriculture – a cruel irony.

They are hungry generation after generation not primarily because of drought, disease, or conflict.

Rather, the root problem is their relationship to land.

Most are smallholder farmers – relying on land for which they lack secure rights.

There are more than one billion such people around the world.

In Africa, for example, they make up 90 percent of the farmers.

They are people like Asira Nzamwitaakuze in Rwanda, who until three years ago had no legal certainty that the land she farmed was hers.

This didn’t just make Asira vulnerable.

It impacted how Asira farmed.

She looked for short-term gain. She didn’t invest in expensive, high-quality seeds or fertilizer. She didn’t dig a well, terrace her hillside plot, or bother building labor-intensive irrigation systems. And she certainly didn’t invest in orchards or other improvements that require a long-term commitment. All of that, to her mind, would have been an invitation to more powerful relatives or neighbors to seize her land and the fruits of her labor.

She never tapped the full agricultural potential of her plot. She lived and farmed day to day.

And, no surprise, she produced a meager harvest.

This is a structural problem and it deserves a structural solution: giving Asira, and farmers like her, secure rights to the land they farm and improving the invisible infrastructure (land-related laws, policies, and institutions) to ensure she feels secure and has the opportunity and the incentive to improve her harvest.

This missing invisible infrastructure doesn’t just frustrate Asira’s attempts to climb out of poverty or feed her family. It is at the root of so many of the greatest challenges that concern us today. Because the key to getting at poverty, hunger, conservation and a host of other problems is establishing the legal and policy infrastructure that encourage families to think long-term, to invest year to year, rather than survive  day to day.

Too often, this is overlooked.

Instead, we’ve seen well-meaning officials interested in food security perceiving that large-scale “modern farms” are the silver bullet to boost food security. But it is imperative to consider that the scale economies existing in industrial production do not typically exist in agricultural production.

In fact, World Bank researchers conclude that “the literature contains no single example of economies of scale arising for farm sizes exceeding what one family with a medium tractor could comfortably manage.”

Counter intuitive though it may seem, data from farmers growing different crops in different conditions all over the world show small farms consistently producing more per hectare than large farms.

Small farms are generally as productive or more productive than large farms – which is important to understand in developing country settings where most farmers are smallholders.  In such settings, it is much better to invest in smallholders, and not to displace them through the introduction of large-scale “modern farms”.

Nevertheless, the notion that larger farms are more productive has continued to be one of the most enduring myths and a key motivation behind the open door policy developing countries have toward large scale land investments.

This is not to say that large farms have no place. In the US, some of Europe, and elsewhere when labor is expensive, large mechanized farms make sense. But in countries where rural labor is more plentiful, small farming is king.

And a critical element to supporting small holders and allowing them to live up to their potential is clarifying and documenting land rights, as well as creating institutions and policies that recognize their rights to the land and their needs. Supporting women’s land rights is particularly important, because we know from research around the world that when women have secure rights to land, good things happen.  Their children are better fed and educated, productivity increases, women get greater voice in their household and community, and domestic violence is reduced.

My organization, Landesa, has seen the impact of secure rights to land in our work from Kenya and Rwanda to China and India. Consider one of the most unlikely and interesting cases. During the Vietnam War, USAID supported a land to the tiller program that saw rice production increase by 30 percent where it was implemented– during war time.

Our 40-plus years of work around the world (which was launched by the Vietnam example) is rich with other examples.  My organization’s nationwide survey of farmers in China found that famers who had proper documentation of their land rights were 76 percent more likely to make long-term investments in their land.  Researchers in Ethiopia found that a low-cost titling system led to increased smallholder investments in tree planting and soil conservation, increased farm productivity, and decreased border disputes.

That’s why we need to invest in small holders, including documenting and protecting their land rights to give them the opportunity to produce enough for themselves and their communities.

  • Problem: The majority of the hungry in the world are farmers.
  • Barrier to Progress: They are hungry generation after generation primarily because they have insecure land rights.
  • Solution: While well-meaning governments buy into one of the most enduring myths in agriculture – that large scale farms are the answer – wealth of research indicates otherwise: that supporting small scale farmers and providing them with secure land rights can boost food security and rural economic development.

This post originally appeared on Skoll World Forum during the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue October, 2013.

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