Inequalities in Agriculture: A Threat to Sustainable Development

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Dennis Rangi, Director General – Development at Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) discusses the issues affecting our ability to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how to create a world that leaves no one behind.

Today, injustice still prevails. The richest 20 per cent of the global population receives more than 80 per cent of global income, and 10 per cent of the population in many countries receive half of the total national income.

This is why the SDGs are so important. They help address imbalance, foster equality and provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges including poverty and hunger (SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 2: Zero Hunger). Hunger is a serious challenge to equality because an adequate and nutritious diet is the bedrock upon which all other achievements are built.

We need to level the playing field of food production, but we cannot address the inequality of food security without first addressing inequalities in agriculture.

Environmental inequality: giving farmers access to natural resources

Firstly, there are environmental inequalities such as water scarcity, climate change and invasive species, addressed by several of the SDGs (SDG 6: Clean Sanitation and Water, SDG 13: Climate Action and SDG 15: Life on Land and). Poor people are more dependent on natural resources than those with access to capital and/or greater infrastructure in more urban areas, making SDG 15 all the more important. This SDG seeks to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, which is essential for poor, rural communities.

Resource-poor farmers are dependent on what nature delivers. While wealthy farmers have access to resources, poor farmers struggle to raise capital because of land tenure issues and, with no subsidies from governments, are less able to invest in drought resistant crops or access the knowledge and resources needed to fight crop devastating pests.

Knowledge inequality: sharing more knowledge and information

Secondly, there are knowledge inequalities to be addressed (for example, in SDG 4: Quality Education). Smallholders lack access to advice, best practices, data and information.

There is a triple divide of urban/rural, men/women and digital/non-digital. There are many barriers to the use of digital technology: access to devices in terms of finance as costs differ between and within countries and infrastructure, such as 2G, 3G and 4G coverage as well as varied access to electricity. Then there are gaps of literacy, digital literacy and trust in technology.

People talk about ‘digital’ as a way in which farmers can access knowledge, but there is a danger in this. Studies show that different groups access advisory services in different ways. Men are normally able to access a larger number of formal sources, while women rely on informal sources. In Tanzania, our research showed that even with a conscious effort to engage women in signing up to a SMS service, only 30% engaged.

Big Data and digital tools are therefore only part of the solution. We need to deal with fears about the use of Big Data, for example, addressing what will happen to the information. More attention needs to be paid to FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Re-Usable) data principles and data sharing agreements in order for Big Data to be effective everywhere.

Economic inequality: finding the financial support

Thirdly, there are economic inequalities, such as barriers to financial services and complex land rights, addressed by a number of SDGs (e.g. SDG 1, SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, etc). In Africa, for example, land has been taken from commercial farmers that still belongs to the state. They cannot use it as collateral to get loans or similar services.

And amongst all of these inequalities, women and young people are even more disadvantaged. Women comprise half or more of the agricultural labour force in many African and Asian countries (FAO) but are often not in decision-making roles and lack access to agricultural education and information. Importantly, SDG 5 addresses gender equality and aims to end discrimination against women and girls.

Levelling the playing field, solving inequality

To address environmental inequalities, we need to help farmers become climate smart. CABI’s global Plantwise programme has reached over 30 million farmers in 34 countries with practical plant health information. Our plant doctors help smallholders adapt to climate change by recommending drought resistant crop varieties, and alerting national plant protection organisations to outbreaks of new pests, such as fall armyworm. Plant health knowledge shared at plant clinics helps farmers reduce their use of pesticides, an important element of SDG 12: Sustainable Production and Consumption.

To address knowledge inequalities, we must build smallholders’ capabilities. The best way to do this is to invest in agricultural advisory or extension services. Extensionists help farmers build the knowledge and skills they need to become better equipped to deal with the challenges facing them.

Tackling economic inequalities requires a concerted effort, not just by the public sector and NGOs. The financial sector must make more micro-credits and micro-insurance products available to smallholders. Organisations like One Acre Fund have provided financial products to 800,000 farmers – a successful model that boasts a 97 per cent farmer repayment rate.

Finding solutions to address inequalities in agriculture is a challenge that can only be tackled in partnership with other NGOs, Governments and smallholder farmers, which is why CABI is committed to reinforcing the sustainable development goals through partnerships. We must work together to address inequalities in agriculture, in order to build a world that leaves no one behind and helps 500 million smallholder farmers grow more and lose less. Share

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