Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Transforming Research and Development Practice to Support Agroecological Intensification of Smallholder Farming

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Transforming Research and Development Practice to Support Agroecological Intensification of Smallholder Farming

Article excerpt

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. …

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