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342nd meeting :“Small Farmers Secure Food: Survival Food Security, the World’s Kitchen & the Crucial Role of Small Farmers”.
Tuesday, January 17th 2012

A talk and presentation by Professor Lindsay Falvey FTSE, Former Dean of Land and Food, and Chair of Agriculture, University of Melbourne, Australia; Fellow/Life Member, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, UK

This talk introduces a book of the above title, free copies of which were provided to most of the INTG audience.

By way of introduction, a short description of a brief period in ancient Rome illustrates what happens when we forget that food comes first – in politics as in survival. Much in Roman history can sound familiar today. Cicero’s observation of civic decline mentions poor fiscal management, indigence and abuse of government positions. But it was farming that he considered the best of occupations, which he defended at law as being a ‘teacher of economy, industry and justice’. Likewise, food production was written about from Cato’s ‘De Agricultura’ to Columella’s ‘Res Rustica’ to Pliny the Elder’s ‘Naturalis Historia’. In fact, Pliny the Elder’s precursor of all modern encyclopedias was sponsored by a dynasty that had learned the centrality of food security for Rome – Vespasian’s Flavian Dynasty. 

We owe this knowledge about food and Rome to Pliny’ nephew, Pliny the Younger, who in the year 100 in a fit of rhetoric claimed that Rome was self-sufficient in grain and did not need to import from Egypt. Yet in his lifetime, food scarcity had been used as the lever for a coup d’état. During the 60s, Rome’s vast grain network in North Africa was of no value as mismanagement and conflict interrupted shipping. The great Empire had neglected its own food security in the latter period of Nero’s reign and the ensuing years of revolving Emperors and civil wars. 

It took a capable leader to reestablish the essential security of the Empire by first of all securing its food supply. Vespasian’s led by possibly withholding food to focus military attention, and then took control and secured food supply. The he set about repealing unfair laws, reintegrating Greek provinces, rewarding honesty, supporting natural philosophers and constructing the Rome we think of today – the its Coliseum and so forth. With workable administrative systems, sound organization, minimal corruption and the rule of law, he maintained respect by his own simplicity of lifestyle, in contrast to the debating senators who styled themselves as philosophers. 

This Flavian dynasty was carried on by his sons and saw a ceasing of religious persecution and rejection of expansionist warfare. Good governance produced the most economically secure period of the Empire. Nepotism was punished and unworthy senators expelled. And so, while popular with the people and the army, his son Domitian was despised by the Senate for abandoning the traditional façade of Senatorial democracy. And so eventually he was assassinated. Senator Pliny the Younger was still around and he joined fellow Senators to expunge Domitian’s public memory by writing damning histories of him as a tyrant. 

But Domitian’s successor was his close confidant who retained the established structure of good governance for a long-lasting dynasty, with food supply so secure that Pliny could naively argue that Rome was so great she no longer needed Egypt’s grain.

It is the same today. The roles of Vespasian managing food first and Pliny’s ignorance are today filled by concerned governments of food insecure countries on the one hand, and insulated rich and food secure countries on the other. 

Today wealthy countries assume food supply is secure. But ask the urban poor in less developed cities of food-deficit countries and you quickly learn that urban starvation occurred in a 2007-8 crisis of failed grain crops. The fact that it hardly featured in rich nations’ media reflects a distance from reality that is now palpable. That wealthy countries have since been preoccupied by their financial crisis is hardly an excuse. Just as parochial Roman senators misconceived their food supply, so rich countries today blithely bask in ignorance of world food realities.

I have used this potted, and biased, history to illustrate how Pliny’s fatuous claim of food security independent of agricultural reality is much the same as that of today’s policy makers who claim that free and open trade in food will solve food shortages. And just as arguing against the Senator was heretical, so the view I present here may be so seen. For the view that I espouse, and as detailed in the book, is that rather than follow the usual UN and aid approaches that mix food security with other development issues, it is absolutely critical that food security for survival be the focus and that food’s main producers, small farmers, be the target.


So let’s look at views of food today. The philosophical underpinnings of debates about food may be grouped into three arguments:
1) food viewed as a commodity, and hence tradable like any other good;
2) food as a product of nature to be balanced with other products natural ecosystems yielding fresh water and biodiversity and culturally-determined aesthetic values, and
3) food as a human right. 

These diverse approaches are brought to the development table by donors influenced by their own domestic pressures and responsibilities and so, even with the best of intent, can produce only biased statements of food security. For example, that of FAO, which by mentioning access to food and nutritional matters, omits reference to food production. This has allowed re-interpretation by some donors to orient funds to their domestic interests through such issues as obesity. It begs the fact that most food is produced and consumed in Asia.

Here in Asia where more than half of the world lives, more than 90% of world rice, 40% of cereals and 40% of meat are produced and are mainly consumed in the country of production. After 30 years of economic growth and significant reductions in poverty, Asia still contains more than half of the world’s poor in the monetary terms that agencies use to define ‘poor’, mainly in rural areas. Such facts are usually used to justify general agricultural development to also meet the objective of poverty reduction. Relative success in this approach has led to food security being subordinated to a combination of agricultural and rural development supported by trade of cheap food. This only works in countries with one or both of a food surplus or valuable goods to trade; and even in the second case, the ability to purchase food relies on food being available. Middle Eastern countries were more than surprised in 2007-8 when they learned this lesson – this is why they have returned to the Joseph-like conservative food governance, production and storage policies of Genesis.

How things really work

The difference I am talking about between current aid approaches and how things really work is illustrated by the crossed-out dotted lines in the figure. Aid usually assumes that agricultural and rural development can directly produce development and poverty alleviation. The way it actually works is that food security underpins national stability, which with good governance can produce development and poverty alleviation. 

Globally, food security is said to exist for some 4.7 billion persons with another two billion being food insecure in terms of sub-standard diets that impair physical and intellectual capacity. If global population stabilizes at nine billion around 2050 as optimistically predicted, food demand will probably rise to an equivalent of 12 billion of today’s persons due to such factors as affluence-induced food preferences and food wastage in urban supply chains. Unless food security is realistically defined as basic food for survival, it is not achievable without major changes in our worldviews.

The current worldview of ‘donors’ – we who feel secure – is that we allocate the role to solve food insecurity to aid agencies, and so assuage any feeling of guilt and take comfort in being insulated from any negative effects like starvation in foreign parts. But that time has passed. Just as food was the first principle of security in ancient Rome, so it remains today in a globalized world. Where starving rural dwellers once quietly shriveled and died, today’s marginalized in cities riot – and rapid communication exacerbates the impact leading to such other events as lawlessness, war and emigration. Such matters then attract the attention of the ‘insulated’ rich. The diagram tracks food prices and food related protests and riots (from von Braun, IFPRI 2009) through the recent crisis – a crisis of a significance exceeding the West’s current preoccupations yet hardly noticed.

Food prices & riots


Why did food prices (grain is used as a proxy as it is the major food source in the world) rise? We are used to hearing of the advances in food production – a sustained miracle of science. Indeed, wheat prices have declined over the century that population has trebled because past research generated ever-new technologies. So did the price of all grain really rise? To answer that question we must look at the earlier graph to see it did – but not as much as rice. And rice is predominantly the food of Asia.

In ASEAN, Thailand and Vietnam (outside ASEAN, India is second to Thailand) sell rice surpluses – Myanmar may to rejoin this group in coming decades – but the proportion sold is small compared to that consumed domestically. And this introduces another forgotten fact: >90 percent of all the world’s food is consumed domestically, never crossing a national border. 

Rice differs from other major cereals. It is mainly produced by smallholders, and as it is consumed locally, it is managed nationally as a strategic commodity. It is not traded as openly as, for example wheat, which means that hoarding, precautionary purchases or panic buying, and prohibitions on export can disproportionately affect price – as occurred between November 2007 and May 2008 when rice prices doubled. Some events on the rice price path are presented in following figure adapted from Headley’s IFPRI Paper 0889. It seems that drought reduced India’s wheat production at the same time that export demand for Indian rice increased, leading India to restrict rice exports. Interestingly this was the first time such a ban had been imposed and it led to price escalation as foreign buyers were forced to negotiate with other suppliers. This in turn raised wider domestic fears and led to export prohibitions in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Egypt, and panic buying by such food-deficit countries as the Philippines. India had until that time exported some 20% of world rice, being second only to Thailand. As a shortage of staple food in a populous country could be catastrophic, India’s export ban is entirely logical and by sensible measures would be seen as a sign of good governance. It is noteworthy that India exempted Bangladesh from the ban, and continued exports to rich countries of the luxury rice, Basmati.


Yes, it is good governance to feed one’s people. It allows them to be governable – it is the first priority in national security. Yet the aid world, caught up in an ideology derived from non-essential commodities in the Western world issued statements such as unless [food] trade is kept open and relative prices are allowed to reflect market scarcity, severe consequences will emerge. One wonders what implications to take from such comments! I am not being selective when I use this quotation – other agencies have similar negative comments.  

Standardised Rice Price

The disconnection from reality that allows such policies to be espoused, has at the same time promoted a related fallacy – that small third-world farmers are an inefficient way to produce food. The opposite is the truth. Of the world’s 530 million farms, 85% are less than two hectares and only 0.6% more than 100 hectares. The small farm sector of poor countries involves some two billion people – it feeds them and provides a surplus for non-producers in towns and cities. In round figures, small farmers feed half of the world, more if we only considered essential food for basic lifestyles, which would exclude such luxury foods as out-of-season produce and grain-fed livestock. Small farmer yields under these intensive conditions are often higher than under the extensive broadacre systems common in rich countries. And where research has been oriented to small farms, yield increases among innovators have exceeded broadacre yield increases. 

Why would an aid agency remove small farmers to a city where transport losses increase his food total demand and to consolidate his often marginal land into larger holdings that produce lower yields? The reason seems to be that – excepting ill-informed mistakes in such policy – most of the actions of such agencies are based on unchallenged assumptions derived from Western high-labour-cost situations simply because that is what modern universities teach to the urbanized elite who gain employment in aid agencies.

In the book there is a section entitled ‘the arrogance of ignorance’, which reproduces an haiku by Klausner quoted in my earlier book on ‘Thai Agriculture’ that illustrates the separation of the elite urban educated society from the source of their food: 
sitting on top of the rice heap
marveling how distant peasants toil

Thailand in this respect differs little from the few other major food exporters of the world and should not be counted as anything but a rich country in the real assets for survival. Its land is used at levels below capacity, and its public investment in agricultural technology development is relatively low, simply because it doesn’t have to produce more; the same applies to such other large exporters as the USA, Argentina, Australia, Canada and the EU – and now Brazil. But closer to home, the real lessons come from populous nations that invest heavily in the sector, led by China.

Other details are presented in the book, including the need for a sensible balance between broadacre and small farms based on efficiencies of production of essential food at the lowest overall cost for the greatest overall food production. It would work against rural emigration with its high welfare cost. Food supply would be self-sufficient on most small farms and those with commercial potential would sell surpluses to provide a higher food output than other scenarios. This situation would allow a resumption of past trends of continual reductions in the proportions of persons starving. 

The future also includes non-agricultural foods, which find little market while natural foods are sold cheaply as they are at present. Unlike some agriculture, these food production processes suit industrial economies of scale and hence the availability of such foods would depend on largess from food owners. As these products can theoretically offer the gift of basic food for reasonably healthy survival, they must also be factored into any discussion of future food. But that is a subject for another time.

The message of the book is simple: securing food for healthy survival – a minimal level of reasonable existence – should be a central development objective. At present, it exists as a watered down version of food preferences and is confused by multiple conflicting objectives. This makes current approaches unworkable. At the same time, individual countries such as China and India reject development agency directives and advice when faced with food shortages, and in so doing act out human behavior that has been consistent since before civilizations arose and ever since. A refocusing on food for reasonably healthy survival leads directly to the main food producers, small farmers, who feed two billion of themselves and a some of those swelling megacities. In such cities, food shortages can now inflame riots and anarchy even more than they have through history. This confirms that basic food security is a first step towards good governance and socio-economic development. It shocks some with entrenched views to find that China and India offer lessons not derivable from the West in terms of the primacy of well-directed research and policies concerning small farms and survival food security. Nothing is guaranteed – except insecurity for us all from emigration to wars – if essential food is not put first in populous poor countries. 


2.3. COMPLEMENT to the MINUTES of the January 17 meeting (Courtesy of an INTG Correspondent):
2.3.1. A Luang Prabang correspondent (and hopefully a future speaker) sends this piece of information as food for thought and as a complement to Lindsay’s talk he could not listen to. Basically, his text refers to a talk by Andre Drenth on The Impact of Globalisation and Plant Diseases on Food Security. Andre Drenth’s informative talk is audible at  http://www.apsnet.org/publications/webcasts/Webcasts/ADrenth/player.html
Lindsay’s advice concerning this talk will be found in § 2.3.2.

At an AIST (Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology) seminar last November, Andre Drenth (University of Queensland) gave a talk entitled The Impact of Globalisation and Plant Diseases on Food Security. This was a fascinating history of agriculture, input technologies, trade, biosecurity, pathogens, and the importance of crop protection.  

The lessons from the talk are summarised in a slide which stated:

  •           By far the most efficient way to improve production to be able to feed the world we need to reduce crop losses, currently estimated at 42%.
  •           Agricultural production needs to increase 2.3% a year to just meet global food demand (at present we increase it by 1.5% a year).
  •           We are facing the greatest global challenge ever as a discipline.

I asked Andre if I can send the talk to Pestnet members. Rather than the PDF file which is rather large, and there are some copyright issues, he has suggested people who are interested in this subject can go to: http://www.apsnet.org/publications/webcasts/Webcasts/ADrenth/player.html
Andre made a similar presentation on food security and plant pathology at an APS meeting in the US, and it has been made into a webcast.
It is well worth watching!

Grahame Jackson - 24 Alt street  - Queens Park - NSW 2022  - Australia

www.pestnet.org - www.ediblearoids.org - www.terracircle.org.au

2.3.2. Lindsay’s reaction to Andre Drenth  & Grahame Jackson stance: 

Fine with me.
Grahame Jackson’s comments from Andre Drenth’s talk emphasizing the need to reduce crop losses and to continually increase agricultural production as ‘the greatest global challenge ever’ are apposite and entirely consistent with the book that my talk summarized. It highlights that the research need is constant, and in the terms that I mention in the book, ‘Small Farmers Secure Food’ (see <http://lindsayfalveysbooks.yolasite.com/small-farmers-secure-food.php>) needs to be oriented to overriding policies of national food security, and objective approaches to efficient small farmers.

Best wishes


Prof Lindsay Falvey FTSE has worked in international agriculture for 40 years, especially in Thailand. He has led his country’s largest Faculty of Agriculture as Dean at the University of Melbourne where he was also Chair of Agriculture, and has advised all major aid and development agencies and several governments. A Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering and a Life Member & Fellow of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Falvey has three doctorates (one honorary from Thailand) all relating to agriculture, as do many of the honors bestowed on him for his international contributions, including being a Kitimasuk of the Thai Agricultural Science Society Under the Patronage of H.M. The King.

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