Worldwide 500 million smallholder farmers support a total of 2 billion people. A debate taking place in London next Monday (28 January) will put these producers at the centre of a discussion about ways to develop an agricultural model that will sustainably feed a growing population.

Small-scale sustainable agriculture may offer a better route out of poverty as well as a path to food sufficiency.

Dr David Nally, University of Cambridge

On Monday 28 January the second in a series of three public debates, organised by the University of Cambridge’s Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security and held in central London, will address some of the pressing issues that face millions of people around the world as the population continues to grow and demand for productive land increases.

A panel of eminent speakers from widely different backgrounds will engage with an audience in a discussion titled “Smallholder Farmers and the Future of Food” that sets subsistence farmers, whose contribution to food production is often overlooked in the race for higher yields, at the heart of a conversation that touches both on some of the world’s poorest communities and its most powerful organisations in the shape of governments and multinational companies.

The planet today is home to 500 million smallholders. Together these small farmers support 2 billion people, account for 97 per cent of agricultural holdings, and produce food for a substantial proportion of the world’s population. Most of these people operate outside the formal business economy, farming to meet their own needs for food staples and selling small surpluses for extra cash. Few if any have the resources to make their voices heard on a global level.

“Is it time to reinvest in small-farmers?” asks Dr David Nally, a co-organiser of the event and a member of Cambridge’s Global Food Security Initiative. “Recent leaps in productivity have not ended global hunger and have been made at the expense of small farmers who are pushed onto marginal lands or driven from agricultural production entirely. Small-scale sustainable agriculture may offer a better route out of poverty as well as a path to food sufficiency.”

In particular the debate will aim to draw public attention to contrasting models of agriculture by looking at the relative merits and drawbacks of intensification (increasing productivity of existing land) and extensification (extending the area of land farmed), and the social and environmental implications of these models, on both local and wider levels.

The event, which takes place in the wake of the 2013 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, will focus on the challenges facing the world’s poorest farmers and seek to set their production methods, and the livelihoods of their often fragile communities, in the wider context of significant advances in technology and large-scale agriculture.

“The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture launched last week in Davos argues that partnerships engaging a wide array of relevant stakeholders are essential to increase productivity, improve market access and reduce market volatility,” says Dr Bhaskar Vira, a Senior Lecturer in Cambridge’s Geography Department and also a co-organiser of Monday’s debate. “But we need to ask whether such partnerships will achieve the changes that are needed, without compromising the interests of smallholders, or will they be dominated by the voices of the more powerful?”

Among the topics that are likely to be discussed are the introduction of GM foods, the effects of land grabs by overseas investors, the impact of agribusiness, the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies, and the promises of intensive, commercial farming. On the one hand, these developments lead to increased yields and uniformity of crops demanded by western markets; on the other hand, they may result in loss of livelihoods for local people and a narrowing in the range of crops produced with the accompanying danger of an erosion of regional cultures.

Agriculture also has a huge impact on the natural environment and is an important determinant in the existence of habitats for vulnerable species. It is also an important factor in climate change. How food is produced, and by whom, is another key part of the bigger picture.

“Our solutions are never cost neutral,” comments Dr Vira. “It is vital that we weigh the benefits of industrial farming (lower costs, higher yields) against the ecological damage to the planet and the stream of migration from rural to urban areas.”

Members of the audience will have the chance to put their questions direct to speakers from three different continents: Sam Dryden, Director of Agricultural Development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Professor Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi; and Dr Marion Guillou, President of INRA (French Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Environmental Engineering) in Montpellier.

At the Gates Foundation Sam Dryden oversees efforts to help millions of the world’s poorest farmers to improve their productivity and incomes. He has been described as one of the most important figures in the agriculture of the southern hemisphere with a substantial budget to invest in developing countries. He was raised on a small farm in Kentucky and has an impressive career in agribusiness. He supports GM, albeit with caution, while also championing the role of the world’s millions of subsistence farmers.

Kenyan-based Professor Wakhungu is executive director, African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi.  As an African female scientist, she has achieved a series of firsts – first woman geologist in Kenya’s Department of Energy and Regional Development, first female petroleum geologist in the National Oil Corporation of Kenya, and first female faculty member in the Department of Geology at the University of Nairobi. Judi campaigns for African scientists, especially women scientists.

Dr Guillou, who holds a doctorate in physico-chemistry, has a distinguished career encompassing posts in food and nutrition, rural development and economics, as well as forestry and engineering. She joined INRA as director of industrial relations and research optimisation and took up her present post as president of INRA in 2009.  Dr Guillou is also chair of the governing board of France’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and a member of the French Academy of Agriculture.

The debate “Smallholder Farmers and the Future of Food” will take place at 7pm on 28 January at King’s Place, York Way, London N1 9AG, close to King’s Cross station. Tickets for the debate are £9.50 each (£6.50 for students) and can be obtained from the King’s Place website, Further information about Cambridge Global Food Security can be found at The third event will be held on 8 April 2013.

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