Agricultural Systems

AgrSysLogoDeveloping Smallholder Agriculture: A Global Perspective, R.L. Tinsley, AgBé Publishing, Brussels, Belgium (2004). 440 pp., US$49 (Softcover), ISBN 981-05-0873-50.

In this book, the author relates his vast experience with agricultural issues accumulated from working 30 years in developing countries. The author’s experience is circumscribed mainly to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. As such, this book collects the author’s personal reflections on the realities of smallholder agriculture in developing countries in those continents. One of the added values of this book is that it provides historical snapshots of conceptual frameworks supported by several development agencies in the past. Two implications of this approach are that there are few external references and coverage of issues that the newer development literature has shown to be significant in explaining poverty, hunger, food insecurity and the resilient responses of smallholder producers and households in developing countries.

In Chapter 1 ‘‘Characteristics of Smallholder Producers”, the author provides a brief introduction to agricultural smallholder (and household) characteristics such as having limited resources, poverty traps, hunger, educational limitations, innovation and smallholder enterprise fragmentation. In this chapter, the author introduces a recurring theme, which is discussed in other chapters of the book, where producers miss the narrow window of opportunity for optimal planting times. In most cases, the author contends that this is an outcome forced by resource constraints. Literature has shown that this behavior, rather than being an outcome may actually be a strategy to diversify risk. Worthwhile noting is that the author recognizes, in one of the generally useful text boxes, that there is an understanding that households may be headed by males or females. Furthermore, the author indicates that the book attempts to achieve gender neutrality in its discussions. It may be argued that a deeper and broader coverage of gender issues, as related to the characteristics of smallholder decision making, may be warranted in this and other books.

Chapter 2 ‘‘Determinants of Smallholder Agriculture” is a quite useful chapter as it covers a broad spectrum of topics, where the author describes the biophysical and social determinants of smallholder agriculture. This chapter, in conjunction with Chapter 3 ‘‘Land Tenure, Labour and Efficiency of Production”, will give a very complete description of the different components of smallholder farming systems. Chapter 4 ‘‘Supporting Smallholders” covers different mechanisms used by both the public and private sectors to provide services to the smallholder community. As this is somewhat a historical recollection of institutional arrangements experienced by the author, the emergence of newer arrangements such as public–private partnerships is not covered. Furthermore, it may be useful for the author to provide readers in future iterations of this book with his insights in terms of what his views are about how newer and older support approaches compare to each other. In Chapter 5 ‘‘Transferring Technology to Smallholders”, the author describes alternative approaches to technology transfer, all the way from the ‘‘Training and Visit” to informal extension. This is a chapter that would benefit from the inclusion of a broader discussion of new methodologies and developments for technology transfer.

Chapter 6 ‘‘Sustainability of Smallholder Agriculture” is one of the most complete chapters in the book in terms of the broadness of the discussion on smallholder farming systems and sustainability issues. In this sense, the title of the chapter may be a little bit misleading as in fact sustainability issues are actually discussed at the end of the chapter. For future iterations the author may consider splitting this chapter into two distinct components including the farming systems and a much more expanded discussion on sustainability issues. Furthermore, the book would benefit if the farming systems discussion was moved to the beginning of the book. One issue which may also demand more discussion is that of Farmer Field Schools. Although FFS may have originated as an attempt to ‘‘bypass the inefficient extensions systems. . .with the expectation that the school children will enlighten the parents” as described by the author, significant changes have occurred over time and Farmer Field Schools have become producer training and capacity strengthening activities in their own right.

Both Chapter 7 ‘‘Mechanization for Smallholders” and Chapter 8 ‘‘Irrigation for Smallholders” are very comprehensive, but somewhat techno-centric discussions, on two technologies relevant to smallholder agriculture and agriculture in general. What are missing from these two chapters are pitfalls and negative impacts that intensive use of machinery and irrigation adoption caused to smallholder producers in developing countries. Chapter 9 ‘‘Practicalities of Smallholder Farming” is a chapter which may be introduced earlier in the book as it deals with practical issues related to smallholder decision making. Personally, I would recommend extracting the HIV/AID and merge this issue with other social and biological constraints to smallholder agriculture, such as malaria and other diseases, in order to create a new chapter. This is one of the two chapters where livestock is discussed in some detail. However, this discussion needs to be expanded as the role of livestock in supporting and improving sustainable livelihoods has been amply demonstrated in the literature.

Chapter 10 ‘‘Assisting Smallholders” is where the vast and accumulated experience from Prof. Tinsley shines. Several policy issues are discussed in this chapter. However, my only concern is that readers probably will require more and broader discussion of issues than what is contained in this chapter. The author may consider expanding the discussion to an additional chapter where the author provides his insights in terms of new developments and issues facing smallholder agriculture. This forward looking exercise, which perhaps should permeate throughout the book, will benefit all agricultural development practitioners, as we would benefit from the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by Prof. Tinsley.

In summary, since the book is indeed a collection of personal experiences, it lacks an explicit and formal unifying theme. The author introduces the idea of farming systems and succeeds in describing its components, yet the concept is not fully exploited to unify the different chapters in the book. Thus, the author may consider for future revisions the incorporation of a formal conceptual framework such as the sustainable livelihoods conceptual framework and/or expansion of the existing (especially in Chapter 2) components of a farming systems approach in developing countries included in the book. In addition, the book may enhance our understanding of smallholder farming systems by expanding the discussion of such issues as gender, collective action, power structures and institutional and political issues that impinge on agriculture, currently not as well covered by the author. Finally, the role of livestock is not addressed sufficiently in the book. This is probably a consequence of the author’s experience with crops. In fact, the author seems to have an underlying bias against livestock in general in spite of the multiple evidence that indicates that livestock has a positive livelihood impact in many smallholder production systems.

This book, in my opinion, is highly recommended for staff and personnel from development agencies and donors, persons interested in doing field work in developing countries, especially those interested in working with smallholder agriculture in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In an academic setting, this book is recommended as an excellent companion for more conceptual/ theoretical textbooks by providing practical experiences that differentiate smallholder agriculture worldwide. I would expand on Prof. Tinsley dedication to include policy analysts and decision makers, as well as donor and development community, who many times also need significant guidance in understanding the realities of smallholder agriculture worldwide.

José Benjamin Falck-Zepeda
Research Fellow, Leader Genetic Resources Policies Theme,
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 2033 K Street,
NW, Washington, DC 20006-1002, United States
E-mail address:

Last Revised: 3 Nov 2008

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