Transforming research and development practice to support agroecological intensification of smallholder farming.

Author:Nelson, Rebecca
Position:Transformative Solutions - Report

Millions of smallholder farmers face the daunting challenge of sustaining or improving productivity in the face of rising input costs, limited access to input and output markets, climate vagaries, and depleted natural resources. These farmers' objectives and circumstances are diverse, varying with both their biophysical environments and their socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Agroecological intensification (AEI), or the integration of agroecological principles into farm and system management, can improve the performance of agriculture--"performance" being locally defined and potentially including productivity, nutrition, resilience, and sustainability. In principle, AEI is relevant for all forms of agriculture, whether it is pursued as a business, as a means to support family nutrition, or for both income and self-provisioning. Conventional approaches to research and extension are, however, poorly designed to support AEI across diverse socio-ecological contexts, particularly given the weakness of research and extension systems in food-insecure parts of the world. Because agroecological principles must be implemented in a context-dependent manner and AEI is a knowledge-intensive process, delivering the benefits of AEI requires a radical reconsideration of the ways in which agricultural knowledge is produced and shared. Emerging developments in participatory methods, as well as in information and communications technologies (ICT), can contribute to innovative strategies that allow systematic matching of options--diversification strategies, crops or varieties, agronomic practices, and market arrangements--across heterogeneous contexts.


Much of the world's food is produced by farmers who cultivate two hectares or fewer. (1) Globally, there are over half a billion small farms, and smallholder farming provides livelihoods to 2.2 billion people. (2) In Africa, more than 90 percent of farmers are smallholders, and in India, over half the farms are two hectares or fewer in size. Because of their resource limitations and vulnerability to climate and other shocks, many of those who produce food do not enjoy food security; half of the world's food-insecure people are rural smallholder farmers. (3) Smallholder farmers face difficulties accessing markets and rely substantially on self-provisioning. It is thus of enormous importance for both global food security and poverty reduction to enhance the performance and sustainability of smallholder agriculture.

However, how best to achieve enhanced performance and sustainability of smallholder agriculture is under debate. Some propose transforming labor-intensive, semi-subsistence agriculture to modern, commercial, input-intensive agriculture, either via farm consolidation and mechanization, or by intensifying the use of external inputs with the intent of increasing productivity while maintaining small farm size. (4) Another vision emphasizes a reliance on ecological approaches and local food sovereignty. (5) Still others entail context-responsive blends of ecological and purchased inputs: fertilizers, chemicals, hybrid seeds, and tools and energy for mechanization. (6) Each of these visions implies a type of trajectory for farming practice. The purpose of the policy, research, and development systems supporting agriculture is presumably to support and nudge farms and farmers along the trajectory that is considered desirable.

In this paper, we argue for the agroecological intensification (AEI) of smallholder farming based on the flexible matching of options with contexts, and then consider implications for how research and development (R&.D) processes must change to support AEI, as well as the policies needed to effect those changes.


An argument in favor of AEI must, among other things, dispute the dominant narrative that argues for "modernization" of smallholder agriculture. In an extreme version of the modernization vision, smallholder farming is in itself a problem, an archaic way of life that should be terminated in favor of more efficient and productive ways of farming. For example, Paul Collier considers support of smallholder agriculture wrong-headed and romantic. This narrative responds to the obvious success of modern, energy-intensified agriculture with the idea that it should be implemented everywhere. However, there are several reasons to be cautious about this approach, including the environmental, economic, and cultural downsides of large-scale, external input-based farming. (7)

Agricultural modernization in industrialized countries has decreased the labor intensity of agriculture largely by increasing its energy intensity. Agricultural transformation processes have produced large, labor-efficient farm operations that enable small numbers of farmers to support largely urban populations. The availability of inexpensive petrochemicals and research systems that effectively took advantage of the opportunities presented by cheap oil have fueled the agricultural innovations that have made these transformations possible. The products of these research systems have included: manufactured fertilizer formulations; crop varieties that can efficiently convert these nutrients to high yields; the means of mechanizing farm operations; and irrigation. In turn, these products have allowed farming contexts to become increasingly uniform, such that standardized farming methods can be broadly applied. But resource-constrained smallholder farmers generally cannot access the resources and investments needed to implement energy-intensive farming methods. Oil has never been cheap in Africa, global prices have quintupled in recent decades, and oil is likely to get more expensive there and elsewhere.

Modern farming methods are associated with a number of problems beyond entry barriers for smallholders. Problems with energy-intensive agriculture include aspects of performance, sustainability, and social impacts. Performance issues include the overemphasis on cereal productivity, with consequences for dietary diversity and diet quality. (9) Sustainability issues include loss of soil health, pollution associated with pesticides and fertilizer runoff, and greenhouse gas emissions, the last of which contributes to climate change. Social issues relate to the equity implications of the farm consolidation processes. Cultural issues include food preferences and other issues related to "food sovereignty," or the right of peoples to influence the nature of their food systems. For these and related reasons, there is growing interest in transforming food systems in both developed and developing countries. There is a rising conviction among policymakers, scientists, and development practitioners that smallholder-led development is not only a viable way forward, but is necessary to ensure rural poverty reduction. (10)


In the debate about the future of agriculture and food systems, the term "sustainable intensification" is widely used. (11) Since sustainability is hard to determine and measure, this concept is quite vague. We prefer the term "agroecological intensification" (AEI) because it more clearly implies the means--ecological--by which change is intended to occur, and connotes the socio-technical context--agricultural--in which it takes place. We define AEI as improving the performance of agriculture by integrating ecological principles in farm and system management. AEI involves integrated crop, livestock, soil, pest, and system management through processes such as diversification, improved biomass and nutrient cycling, biological interactions that reduce pest and disease pressures, and synergies that maximize resource-use efficiencies and reduce risks. While modern agriculture is the art of optimized simplicity, post-modern agriculture must be the art of optimized complexity. Because of its complexity, AEI requires considerable information and knowledge. Because of its context dependency, AEI requires local adaptation and assistance from local policymakers, local NGOs, and international organizations to foster adaptive, variable approaches that shift with the different contexts. The capacity for large-scale local adaptation in turn requires new policies and approaches to supporting change in farming practices.

Commercialization has been successful in environments with relatively favorable and uniform production conditions. Markets drive the orientation of large-scale farms, so productivity and income have clear primacy for commercial farmers, even when pursuing these goals places high costs on society at large. Commercial farmers are likely to be specialized, due to the coupling of production decisions and market demand. As a cause and consequence of their links to markets, commercial farms have the resources and opportunity to invest in inputs that enable their managers to smooth environmental variability. The modern research systems serving commercial agriculture focus on improving and delivering technologies that contribute to smoothing performance, and on technologies with wide adaptation that can be distributed by relatively centralized providers. These production systems then provide substantial markets for agricultural inputs. AEI for industrialized agriculture tends to focus on improving input-use efficiencies, e.g., more precise timing and location of the application of fertilizers to coincide with crop uptake; and to shift, when possible, from input-derived services to agroecologically-derived ones, e.g., pest management based on biological interactions, rather than on the application of pesticide. (12)

AEI of smallholder farming poses a different set of challenges and constraints than AEI of industrialized agriculture. It is important to consider what "performance" means for smallholder farmers, with some reflection on how the...

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