At the heart of Africa's agriculture are smallholder farmers, some 33 million hardworking individuals who typically farm on less than a hectare of land. Photo Credit: Wiki Common

Long live the smallholder

By Prof Arun Tiwari

[rt_dropcap_style dropcap_letter=”S” dropcap_content=”MALLHOLDER’ is a popular term in agriculture parlance and everyone – from leaders and scientists to planners – seems to be working for the farmers cultivating small tracts of land. Yet, it is a tragedy that the people who were originally self-sustaining have been reduced to fighting for their survival as capitalistic forces have turned their gaze on food and turned it into a commodity.”]

The history of mankind is not all that remote. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors settled down once they acquired the skills to cultivate their food and domesticate animals. Once the surpluses arrived, they began to trade and this manifested as human civilisation, which is not more than 10,000 years old on this planet where water formed four billion years ago, vegetation grew 470 million years ago, and humans appeared merely six million years ago.

As recently as 12,000 years ago, there were only four million people on planet Earth, and their numbers had not reached one billion until the early 1800s. It was only a century ago that there were two billion people, but now there are eight billion people and by the 2050s there will be 10 billion – 1.7 billion in India, 1.4 billion in China, and 2.5 billion in Africa, with half a billion in Nigeria alone.

So, where will the food come from? It will come from where land and water exist. And it does not exist where people live in high density – the cities. So, it is inevitable that those living on lands in villages – away from the hustle and bustle of the cities – must grow food for the city dwellers. As they don’t have the resources to do that, they must be provided with funding, technology, and above all, agricultural and business practices.

This is fait accompli; there is a food deficit that has already happened and there is no option but to cultivate arable land, wherever one finds it.This is the future of mankind, for without food there is no other future possible. Now, where is this arable land? Mostly in Africa. Who owns this land? The indigenous people, the original owners, the stewards of this planet, whom the rich and powerful call “smallholders,” while feasting on global resources. So, two roads diverge into the future from here.

One, buy them off their lands, convert them into large farms, bring in heavy machinery, and make Africa the food factory of the world. Use money, military, and political power and do it. Then recover whatever has been expended to achieve this by selling food to the needy. That is how that world has been run so far.

But there is another way. Create cooperatives of the original owners and make them business partners in growing food for the global markets – wheat for the Europeans, sesame for China and Japan, pulses for India, and so on. Ask the users to invest in their future by empowering the original owners with amenities, education, connectivity, and whatever they need to grow food. Who will do this? There is no governing body in the world.

The United States adopted a hands-off approach when the pandemic rolled over the planet. The Russia-Ukraine war has been going on for over a year. Even the food blockade in the Black Sea could not be amicably resolved. So, who is in command? India aspires to have a $5 trillion economy. It is currently a $3 trillion economy.

But Apple Inc. itself is a $3-trillion market value company. The figure for Microsoft is $2.5 trillion, for Alphabet (Google) is over $1.6 trillion, and for Amazon is $1.25 trillion. These and several other technology companies are running the world.

The richest one percent own almost half of the world’s wealth, while the poorest half of the world owns less than one percent. So, should not these technology corporations invest in food? They are knowledge powerhouses.

Instead of parking their wealth in tax havens, why not invest with the original owners of the arable land by developing just and fair technology systems that work on algorithms, and not on the whims and fancies of political leaders and casino-mentality traders? Why does not blockchain technology secure the rights of indigenous people on their lands and make them business partners rather than belittling them as smallholders today and squatters tomorrow? Religion has been relegated to people managing their hardships in good faith and living as consumers by working for corporations and using their incomes to consume more.

But this arrangement will not last long. However much one wishes, food can never become a commodity. A hungry man can be the most dangerous animal on earth. No one would, therefore, be safe amongst hungry people. Human history has reached a point of inflection. What is considered right and good will soon become wrong and harmful.

The pursuit of wealth thus far worked well, information technology as the new way of life has been amusing, even wonderful, but it must now pause for its good lest the reality of hunger bites and breaks its virtual wonderland. Reach the original owners of the land with technology. Secure their ownership of land and water and make them partners in a global food system. If this is not done, a dark future already looms large on the horizon.

Staying in bed can never delay a morning. The sun rises and stars disappear at their predetermined time. Don’t demean small farmers by defining them as those managing areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares. Hold their hands and make them your partners in the future of mankind.

Prof Arun Kumar Tiwari is an Indian missile scientist and author.

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