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Introduction to Week 4

Matthew Fielding and Dr. Dennis Wilchens from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia discuss agriculture’s role in food systems.
Hello and welcome to Food and Our
Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia. My name is Matthew Fielding and I’m the Lead Educator on the course. Today we have another one of our informal chats with an expert from one of the issues raised in the course. And I’m delighted to welcome Dr. Dennis Wichelns with us today. Welcome, Dennis. Thank you, Matthew. Perhaps you could tell the learners a little bit about yourself. Surely. Thank you. I’m Dennis Wichelns. I’m a senior research fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute based here in Bangkok at our Asia Centre. I’m a specialist in agriculture and natural resources.
I work primarily on water issues, also on energy issues to some degree, with a focus on livelihoods and poverty and food security, particularly here in Asia, with some experience also in Africa. I’ve been living and working in Asia for about seven years now on a full time basis with various organisations. And I’m delighted to visit with you today, and to have this opportunity to describe some of the issues that we’ll discuss in the next few minutes. Thanks, Dennis. So we’re going to talk broadly around urbanisation, livelihoods, and food systems. And so my first question is between these.
If we say a rural, an urban, and a peri-urban context, do you feel that actors in each of these various contexts actually see food systems and challenges of food systems differently? It’s possible. To some degree I think it’s important to keep in mind as we discuss food systems in the region that agriculture is really the key to food systems, generally. But it also provides the engine that not only produces the food, but also provides the income for a large part of the population to participate in the free markets and to purchase food.
In the rural areas, many of the smallholders who produce the agricultural products that enter into food chains and into the value chains, are actually net purchasers of food. Just as are folks who live in the peri-urban and urban areas. Agriculture then is an engine of income that supports food security in rural areas, but also in peri-urban and urban areas through the jobs that are provided along the value chain, as food is processed and as food is marketed.
It’s interesting to keep in mind though I think that even in rural areas where we’ve got the food producers– because often they’re focused on one crop, be it rice or cassava, or even a mixture of crops– what they need in terms of food security involves not just the calories, but nutrition as well, and some portfolio of food products. And so they’re very much purchasers in the system, just in the same way that residents in peri-urban and urban areas are. There will be different perspectives and there will be different roles that people play at various parts of the value chain.
But again, at one level, it often comes back to agriculture as that engine of both the production of food and also the generator of incomes for folks along the value chain.
You mentioned something very interesting that the each of the– in the both the rural, urban, and peri-urban context, these farmers are net food purchasers. So would you say then that what’s the potential for actually improving the profitability of agriculture in these sectors? Pick one of them. Because I’m aware it’s different between the three. But is there any way using a food system framing could be helpful in seeking profits from agriculture? I think so. And I think it’s important to keep in mind also the role that agriculture has played historically in our food systems. And also the way in which agriculture has evolved over time.
That is, in particularly in the developing countries today, where we still have many, many smallholder farmers. We have some large scale corporate farmers and large family operations, but by and large, much of the agricultural production in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is still conducted by smallholders. One way to improve the profitability of agriculture is for those small farms to consolidate to some degree over time. Such that the number of small farms will continue to decline in Africa and in much of Asia. And with that decline in numbers, then the farms become a little bit larger and the farmers are able to take advantage of some economies of scale so that their costs of production are smaller.
And they’re able to generate more revenue per household that’s in agriculture. That’s certainly a helpful part of this transition that takes place. In addition, government can help in terms of providing the technical assistance and providing some of the training that’s needed to assist smallholder farmers in improving their productivity. So that again, they can earn greater revenue.
It’s important also I think for our food systems and food security perspective to think about the fact that when prices rise due to shifts in international markets or pressure on supplies globally, but often these smallholder farmers, although they might receive higher prices for their crops, because they’re net purchasers of food, they’re still harmed by these sharp price shocks in much the same way that non-producers of food are harmed in both the peri-urban and urban areas.
So I think the government does need to pay some attention to the profitability of smallholder agriculture and assist this transition as well, from many, many smallholder farmers to fewer farmers by also providing greater opportunities along the food chain, into the marketing and into the processing in peri-urban and urban areas. In addition, to helping directly with support in the form of training and education and those types of interventions that will improve productivity on farms. And what could smallholder or smaller scale farms actually learn from larger, more commercial farms in the same country, in the same region even? What are the specific elements you feel that where there is knowledge that could be shared to the benefit of the smaller farmer?
Well, I think we’re making pretty good gains in technology. Beginning with cultivars– that is crop varieties that farmers can grow. We need to be looking at new varieties, in terms of resistance to the changes that will take place with global climate. We need to look also at technological interventions, in terms of some of the equipment. As labour is shed, or as labour leaves the rural areas, farmers are left with the conundrum of how to continue successful production. One of the real challenges in Asia and Africa now in rural areas is this movement of labour into the cities in search of income. My guess is in some of your other modules in this course, you’ve look at gendered aspects of agriculture.
And you’ve already discussed some of the challenges that women farmers face, for example. That challenge is really even broader than just the gender aspects. In a sense that quite a bit of labour is moving away from rural areas into the cities. That’s creating the need then for farmers to be more technologically expedient, in order to replace that labour in some way, in order to continue the productivity gains that they’ve achieved in recent years, and that they will achieve in future. Also from the larger farms, the smallholder farmers might learn more about risk management. And really, managing risk even without climate change is a fundamental task at the smallholder level.
Often we like to think about helping farmers maximise yield or maximise their income. When in reality the goal we need to seek is how do we manage risk in the best possible way? We may need to forgo some revenue each year in order to manage that downside risk, which is often the source of the crushing blows that can keep smallholder farmers poor for a very long time. Very interesting. Thank you very much. My pleasure. Thank you. And remember, the discussion doesn’t have to stop here. You can continue in the comments section of the page with any questions or observations you have. Thank you very much for watching.
Welcome to Week 4 of Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia.
To begin this week, our Lead Educator, Matthew Fielding, sits down with Dr. Dennis Wichelns, of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia Centre. They discuss the role of agriculture in food systems in rural, urban and peri-urban areas, and consider food system outcomes for farmers in Southeast Asia.
We are introduced to some of the profitability and operational challenges facing smallholder farmers and potential ways to help overcome these. A number of important questions are raised in this discussion: What can smallholders learn from larger-scale farms? Is there scope for knowledge-sharing and technological interventions? What role can governments play in increasing the productivity and improving the livelihoods of farmers?
Last week we learned about the various levels of food system governance in Southeast Asia. This leads us to consider different possible food system outcomes, and to ask whether food systems are managed in ways that deliver desirable outcomes for people, society, and the environment.
This week, we will look at food systems outcomes: from food security, to diets and health, to livelihoods. Throughout the week, keep in mind the lessons from previous weeks, as well as the complexity of food systems. Also consider: Who are the winners and losers? Who can and should be responsible for change?
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Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

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