During a recent research visit to the University of Campinas (UniCamp), Brazil, I had the opportunity to engage a range of researchers and other professionals on a variety of topics related to agricultural development in that country. Although not discussed here in detail, these insights provide some interesting food for thought regarding the South African agricultural development context. This is particularly relevant given the two countries BRICS alignment, as well as their historical and socio-economic similarities. The areas of small farmer support and agro ecology are the focus of this article.
Small farmer support
Although the Brazilian State speaks to issues of supporting small to medium producers, the on-ground reality is different. Large agribusiness is able to exert excessive amounts of power and influence over the State. This results in a scenario where the needs of agribusiness are taken care of and their activities flourish while small to medium producers tend to be ignored and struggle to stay afloat.
Developing systems to help small farmers keep pace with the rapid advances in modern technology was therefore repeatedly highlighted. Without mechanisms that lower the barriers to new technology adoption, small farmers and other rural inhabitants become increasingly uncompetitive against large firms in a globalised world. These large players hold the knowledge and resources necessary to ensure their survival, whereas smaller players generally do not.
A lack of access to markets, limited skills and access to too few resources are among the major suppressors of small farm success. Solving these challenges is no easy feat, and requires the development of innovative systems and new ways of thinking. Reorienting the food system (and consumers) towards greater local production and consumption will be among the cornerstones of any truly successful agrarian reform model. Small farmers are given a greater chance of survival if they are supported by local residents. To achieve this support farmers must, however, produce food that is of a desirable quality and range. The consolidation of smaller producers into larger groups or associations offers one opportunity for building resilience, bargaining power and security in supply.
Smallholder reliance on the production and sale of traditional crops such corn, soya, beans and cabbage has left these producers in direct competition with large commercial players and unable to compete and remain profitable. Smallholder support should therefore focus on encouraging high value and niche crop production. By opting for this approach, competition against large agroindustry is largely avoided. Instead, small players open themselves to markets that are less saturated and result in a higher financial yield per unit of farmer effort.
Organic, biodynamic and agro ecological production models (which tend to fetch a market premium) along with high value crops such as herbs and exotic fruit and vegetables are all avenues that would allow small farmers to remain more financially sustainable.
It would appear that South Africa finds itself in a position where it is imagined that small farmers should be supported to grow into big farmers. While this logic cannot be faulted, it must be considered in light of the ideal of a more distributed society where more people own more of the land. In this ideal, there would naturally be more small farmers. To achieve this, an alternative model of agricultural development will be required – one where small farmers are enabled to stay small yet move out of poverty and into greater comfort.
A bunch of bananas grown on a 1ha permaculture style orchard along with approx 20 other species of fruit and vegetable (São Paulo State, Brazil, April 2017)
Brazil experienced a political (and judicial) coup two years ago. This instability has created much uncertainty, especially surrounding social support and the environment. One interesting aspect that has however appeared on the political agenda is the importance of moving towards an agricultural system that is based on agro ecology and environmental sustainability. Political talk is often cheap, but the recognition of the detrimental role that agriculture plays in environmental degradation and climate change, and opportunities for overcoming this, is still quite noteworthy.
Scientist’s predictions on climate change are being proved wrong at an alarming rate. The 2 ̊ increase in temperature that was expected by 2100 is now expected by 2030. 2010-2015 have been the hottest years on record, ever. The rate of climate change is increasing at an exponential rate yet human action has largely remained unchanged. This reality was potentially one of the most notable to come out of this trip. There is an urgent need to start planning for a heavily uncertain future where almost all conventional agricultural practices are not only unsuitable, but also directly responsible for exacerbating climate change.
Agro ecology was widely recognised as one of the only true hopes for sustainable food production into the future. Not only because production practices are less environmentally harmful, but also because of the climate stabilizing effect of perennial agricultural systems. Agricultural practices should also be streamlined so that they are focussed on a core of highly productive areas, leaving marginal land for environmental rehabilitation and climate stabilization.
Brazil is currently the world’s largest user of agrochemicals, however, this is coming under increased regulation due to environmental and health concerns. A strong correlation has been found between high intensity agrochemical usage and environmental and human health degradation. All agrochemicals must now first be approved by the departments of health, environment and agriculture before being made commercially available.
These insights hold many gems for guiding the development of the South African agricultural sector. We live in a globalised world where we can take advantage of the experience of other countries. There is no need for us to view ourselves in isolation, having to experience each and every misfortune and mistake for ourselves. Instead, we should be looking to the experience of others to create smart, forward looking policy and interventions that mould a safe and sustainable future for all generations to come.