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Joost Gorter, NewForesight strategic consultancy

Joost Gorter is Senior Consultant at <em>NewForesight</em> strategic consultancy (© <em>NewForesight</em>)
Joost Gorter is Senior Consultant at NewForesight strategic consultancy
© NewForesight

Sustainable intensification at scale

NewForesight is a strategic consultancy firm based in The Netherlands specialising in sustainable market transformation.

Over the past 50 years, there have been many widespread efforts to intensify agriculture in developing economies. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, donors invested heavily in agriculture, but ultimately created an unsustainable, agricultural sector in Asia and Latin America while having little impact in Africa. The liberal market approach of the 1980s squeezed resources out of the system at the expense of the environmental and social fibre, while building little structure to ensure growth in the long run.

More recently, the focus on standards and product labels has contributed to more environmentally and socially sustainable supply chains, however their impact remains limited and they have failed to reach smallholders on a sufficient scale. Given the pressure to produce more food in a sustainable way in the long term, new strategies are now required to promote sustainable intensification. Neither markets nor governments can achieve this alone: models and policies are needed that build on the strengths of both.

Sustainable intensification requires farmers to have access to better agricultural practices (through extension work), the right inputs, and finance. A farmer's ability to obtain such access depends to a large extent on his level of professionalism and level of organization (of a single or group of farming operations). If we examine the degree of professionalism within different farm economies we can see that huge differences exist both within and between countries and regions. This means that strategies for sustainable intensification will also need to vary to raise the level of organization and professionalism.

In good shape?

A classic 'shape' of a farming sector in the developing world is a flattened pyramid, with large numbers of poorly organised smallholders forming a wide base, and a tiny number of well-organized farmers forming a narrow top. The cocoa sector in West Africa and the cotton sector in India are some typical examples of this shape. The pyramid shape -a mix of unorganized, semi-organized and well-organized farmers- is a slightly more efficient version of the previous, as some farmers have been able to organize themselves and create economies of scale, thereby increasing their productivity. The sector is in transition. More developed farming sectors have a (pentagon) diamond shape - a narrower base of unorganised smallholders beneath a larger middle section, comprising of well organised, medium-sized farms that are able to obtain the required inputs for growth, including finance. This type of sector can exist if there are alternative livelihood possibilities for those farmers that only farm because they did not (yet) perceive of an alternative. The other condition is that farmers compete through diversification: by selling a product that is distinct in quality - or sustainability, food safety or other high market requirements. That way farmers receive a premium on the commodity market price and are rewarded for their good work.

Agricultural sectors in more developed agricultural economies have often moved beyond the diamond shape and to an inverse pyramid. The large-scale farms are the dominant players in that type of sector. Levels of productivity tend to be high but it is not necessarily a sustainable sector. The drive to greater productivity tends to lead to excessive exploitation of natural and social resources, with negative results. Competition takes place by cutting costs, not by diversifying quality.

The diamond shape, with its medium-sized, well-organized farms, represents the optimum point for sustainable intensification. The structure allows the most entrepreneurial and professional farmers absorb better farm management practices, scale up, and employ other rural workers. The moderate and flexible farm size on the other hand allows for biodiversity protection and avoids large-scale mono cropping.

Creating diamonds

The relationship between productivity and a sector's capacity to adopt sustainable farming practices and better management techniques is shown in a simplified way
The relationship between productivity and a sector's capacity to adopt sustainable farming practices and better management techniques is shown in a simplified way

Transforming pyramid-shaped agricultural sectors into diamonds depends on creating an enabling environment that allows entrepreneurial farmers to enter this medium-scale tier, while also helping other farmers to find employment elsewhere. Farming should no longer be the social safety net for people who have nowhere else to go.

Transforming pyramid-shaped agricultural sectors into diamonds depends on creating an enabling environment that allows entrepreneurial farmers to enter this medium-scale tier, while also helping other farmers to find employment elsewhere. Farming should no longer be the social safety net for people who have nowhere else to go.

Development strategies therefore need to focus on organising and professionalising farmers, helping the most professional farmers reach greater scale. Not creating economies of scale means preserving economies of poverty. Around the competitive farms, a competitive economy will flourish in rural communities of increasingly diversified nature. A beneficial cycle will create alternative livelihoods so that those farming for lack of better options will leave the sector for greener pastures.

Time for action

Fundamental reform is on the way. Developing economies are showing that they are ready to end their dependency and take their rightful place in the global agricultural economy. Donors are starting to show signs that they are heeding their call. Above all, companies have realised that sustainability means sustainable intensification. All these stakeholders know that without sustainable intensification, the world will not have the agricultural products it needs while maintaining the natural resources on which their production depends.

The article Sustainable Intensification at Scale, a Framework for Strategy Design, published by NewForesight in November 2013, contains a model explaining all the forces that shape agricultural sectors.

Date published: January 2014

 

Have your say

The way to increase income for subsistence farmers is to int... (posted by: ken hargesheimer)

Thank you so much for a great article. It put into precise w... (posted by: Maureen Silos)

Hi Gabrielle, happy to hear you found this stimulating. The ... (posted by: Joost Gorter)

HI Joost, interested in your comments around transforming py... (posted by: Gabrielle Harris)

 

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