A Global Village
Issue 5 » Resources

Beyond Big Ideas

Searching for the Middle Ground in Agricultural Development

Calum Handforth & Katy Wilson, Imperial College London

Success in the agricultural sector can have wide reaching benefits for hunger and poverty alleviation, climate change mitigation and environmental resource management. However, the potential for agriculture to be part of the solution is often unmet due to polarisation and a focus on extremes that stifles genuine debate.

In advocating for the middle ground, we are seeking to provide developing country farmers with fair choices, informed by clear and strong evidence, to ensure their participation and success in agricultural development. The middle ground in this debate, however, is often difficult to reach and even harder to maintain. By moving beyond the dialectic of big ideas and utilising the successes of the middle ground, we believe agriculture can play a crucial role in tackling the perfect storm of difficulties that the world faces1.

The world faces a myriad of challenges, including climate change, declining environmental resources, fluctuating food prices, a growing population and the ever-existent problem of huge numbers of poor and hungry people. Organic farming has been suggested as a way of increasing the resilience and sustainability of farming systems without damage to the environment. Despite this opportunity, the back-and-forth disagreement between organic and conventional farming complicates development decisions, and suppresses the potential that exists midway between the two ideas.

The debate is also subject to misconceptions and confusion, a common theme when extremes are vehemently supported. One oft-cited claim that does not stand up to scrutiny highlights the prohibition of pesticides in organic farming. In fact, organic farming does use pesticides, albeit not synthetic pesticides despite many synthetic chemicals being highly beneficial (e.g. antibacterial drugs). In contrast, a range of natural chemicals including arsenic and nicotine are recognised as significantly damaging2. The acceptance of such ill-founded arguments can further complicate genuine discussion and analysis.

disagreement between
organic and conventional
farming complicates
development decisions

Both in the developing and developed worlds, the discussion surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) food is also representative of the reactionary and regressive actions that prevent genuine and beneficial innovation in the agricultural sector. The GM debate has become uneven, devoid of scientific content and intrinsically negative, stoked by the ill-founded hysteria of the media and general public. A clear balance is necessary, with GM food recognised as being neither apocalyptic nor a technological panacea.

In fact there are some aspects of farming that the general populace accepts as fact that can actually be counterbalanced by science. For example, conventional large monocultures are thought of as unsustainable, unstable and bad for the environment, and in many cases this is true. However, there exist certain plant species that rely on monocultures to survive, such as phragmites, wild wheat and mangroves. Not only are there very few certainties in science but our understanding of ecological systems is constantly changing, making extremes difficult to justify3.

Ideologies Can Be Blended
The way forward, after decades of discourse, appears to be the blending of the two disparate ideologies. Although organic farming is commonly thought of as being holistic (and conventional farming as reductionist) this is false, given that organic farming routinely dismisses certain farming aspects. As an alternative and perhaps the elusive middle ground, integrated farming, combining traditional farming with selective use of modern technology, has emerged. Detailed analyses of site-specific conditions, requirements and environmental (as well as output) oriented goals are emphasised in integrated farm management, as too are pragmatism and flexibility. Indeed, conventional mixed farming in smaller plots and intercropping, can benefit wildlife to the same degree as organic farming, but at a lower cost to the consumer as conventional yields are maintained. Organic farming has been found to yield 75 to 90% the amount of output from conventional farms4.

The middle ground in this case takes part of its ideology from organic farming, and its four principles of ecology, health, fairness and care, and part from the cost-effectiveness of conventional farming to the end that the majority benefit rather than the elite. As reaffirmed by Elliot and Mumford, ‘the debate is polarised yet the history of science is replete with such polarities resolving themselves somewhere in the middle’5.

The GM debate has 
become uneven, devoid 
of scientific content and 
intrinsically negative, 
stoked by the ill-founded 
hysteria of the media 
and general public

Science Must Be There to Provide Balanced Evidence
It is not only organic farming that is often argued as an alternative to conventional farming. Conservation farming, or zero-tillage farming, is advocated as a way of addressing widespread soil erosion and depletion of organic matter that more conventional farming systems, reliant on the plough, can induce. Some of the benefits conservation farming is believed to bring include increased rainwater use efficiency, more stable yields, lower production costs, soil carbon sequestration and conservation, and higher labour productivity. Yet there is very little scientific evidence to support these claims and the widespread belief that this system can help a diverse range of smallholders is unclear6.

In reality, conservation farming has been shown to be negative for yield of clay-poor, structurally weak soils in (semi-) arid areas, notably areas that are widespread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Where conditions are humid, have high rainfall or poorly drained soils, the reduction in water loss brought about by conservation farming can lead to waterlogging and lower yields7. In this case science is important in helping to decide where conservation farming is and is not appropriate, as opposed to attempting to prove which argument is correct. Ultimately, science must be used to inform and educate, and not to polarise.

Science Is Not the Only Consideration
Scientific evidence can be used to clarify many conflicting arguments, reflecting the variety, unpredictability and irregularity of the natural world, and can therefore not be solely relied upon to resolve debates. Furthermore, it is not only the scientific evidence base that is relevant to debates surrounding the appropriateness and adoption of conservation farming: socio-economic issues and personal farmer preference must also be considered. For example, crop residues or mulch are preserved on the field under conservation farming but mulch is typically not conserved on smallholder farms: it may be burned to reduce the incidence of pest outbreaks, used or sold as livestock fodder, or even eaten by termites. The decision to conserve mulch for crop cover will include consideration of the benefits and costs of these potential uses.

In some cases the 
extreme views held 
in agricultural 
debates are false

Indeed the concept of conservation farming may be too idealistic in that smallholder farmers cannot always commit to the investments needed to make large changes to their systems, particularly given the risk of failure, nor can they readily access land, labour and other inputs. Low adoption can also be attributed to the vast and simultaneous changes to the farming system smallholders must carry out. Extremes, perhaps, are only the content of debates, rather than practiced, given their transformative requirements.

Sometimes Extremes Are False
In some cases the extreme views held in agricultural development debates are false. The central role of agriculture in the development process intrinsically links the concept to the political and economic spheres and their associated debates. An important question therefore focuses on the role of the state versus the market in promoting and maintaining agricultural development. Markets are regarded as facilitating competition and innovation through incentives, and as key promoters of economic efficiency and individual participation. The state, by contrast, is concerned with redistribution, market regulation and providing an enabling environment for civil society and the private sector to flourish.

Although the above are ideal type concepts, the divergence between support for state governance versus a complete reliance on markets is false. Markets cannot function without the regulating and facilitating role of the state and the way forward may again be a blending of ideologies, as recognised by the increased utilisation of public-private partnerships. The former partner providing an enabling environment for investment and protection for the most vulnerable members of society, the latter bringing funding, business acumen and the goal of profitability, aiming to ensure the sustainability of new markets.

All Options on the Table
Central to debates regarding agricultural development is the challenge of increasing incomes for smallholder farmers as a route out of poverty. Large-scale farming is often believed to be the most applicable for poverty reduction due to the economies of scale it benefits from. This leads to lower production and transaction costs per unit of food produced. Large-scale farming has been successful in developing such industries as fruits, vegetables and intensive pigs and poultry, principally industries that require large investment8. Smallholders, however, can be highly efficient, producing more per hectare than large farms and there are some instances where large farms have not been successful9. In this case evidence supports both extremes, but under different conditions. The key to agricultural development is choosing the most appropriate option in each circumstance10.

Extremes, perhaps,
are only the content
of debates, rather
than practiced, given
their transformative

The Middle Ground
Focusing on extremes can be harmful to advancement in agricultural development. This progress is crucial for the 400 to 500 million smallholder farmers in the world for whom increasing productivity, stability and equitability is crucial to their livelihoods. Impediments to agricultural development can be attributed in part to the relatively weak link between the academic sphere and the business sphere. The former thrives on debate while the latter is focused on action. Better communication channels through organisations that straddle the two spheres are needed.

If agricultural development is to rise to the challenge of feeding a population of around 9.2 billion by 2050 all actors need to work together alongside civil society. Academia will play a key role in educating the public and private actors, through a balanced display of evidence, while the private sector along with government and NGOs can effectively implement prescribed courses of action after evaluation of socio-economic factors. To do this successfully all parties will need to agree on the best course of action. The most effective method of attaining agreement is through finding the middle ground, a strategy we believe is often the most beneficial.

Calum Handforth is former Communications and Administrative Officer at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London.
Katy Wilson is current Editorial Officer at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London.

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[1] Sample I. (2009) World Faces Perfect Storm of Problems by 2030. (Quoting Beddington J. at Sustainable Development UK Conference 2009).
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[3] Trewavas A. (2001) Commentary: Urban myths of organic farming. Nature. 410: 409-10.
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[5] Elliot S. L. & Mumford J. D. (2002) Organic, Integrated and Conventional Apple Production: Why Not Consider the Middle Ground? Crop Protection. 21: 427-9. (Quoting Mayr E. (1997) This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World).
[6] Giller K. E. et al. (2009) Conservation Agriculture and Smallholder Farming in Africa: The Heretic’s View. Field Crops Research. 114: 23-34.
[7] Rockström J. et al. (2009) Conservation Farming Strategies in East and Southern Africa: Yields and Rain Water Productivity From On-Farm Action Research. Soil and Tillage Research. 103: 23-32.
[8] Poulton C. et al. (2004) Competition and Coordination in Liberalized African Cotton Marketing Systems. World Development. 32: 519-36.
[9] Wiggins S. (2009) Can the Smallholder Model Deliver Poverty Reduction and Food Security for a Rapidly Growing Population in Africa? (Background paper: How to feed the World in 2050. Rome).[
10] Conway G. (2010) On Being a Smallholder. Conference on New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture, International Fund for Agricultural Development. Rome. (25/01/2011).