Why promoting small holder agriculture is good for developing countries. | Ewan Lamont | TEDxYangon

Translator: Laura Argüeso
Reviewer: sann tint Have you ever tried growing tomatoes? You know, actually planting
a seed and seeing it grow, and then keeping it alive
for more than a month? Well, I did, or I tried,
and this was the result. Not all that impressive, right? I mean, if people like me are responsible
for feeding the world, we’re in trouble. But then there’s my neighbor who did this. You know, it can be done: same seed, same conditions,
vastly different results here. I mean we could have expect that I guess, he’s an agronomist and I’m just a marketing guy, (Laughter) But today I want to tell you a story of how gardening can change the world, not just grow a few extra
vegetables for the kitchen, but how it becomes this powerful engine of economic transformation
for a country like Myanmar, and how it can unleash economic success on a scale that would put
Silicon Valley to shame. When I talk about gardening, of course
I do mean agriculture, right? and typically what you see is that agriculture plays a role
of outsized importance for many countries at an early stage
of economic development, and in this Myanmar’s no different, right? I mean you have a fast growing population,
most of whom are in the countryside, and you can just see the importance
of the agricultural sector to the overall country’s economy. The interesting thing
about Myanmar, though, is the vast potential that we have: that agriculture can be this driver
of the economy going forwards and we have this large land mass, we have fantastically fertile soil
and an amazing climate, which means you can cultivate
any number of crops all year round, But it’s funny, right, because
there’s this perception that if your country’s economy
is based on farming, well. you going to be a poor country. Or this general belief that agriculture you know, pinning
your hopes on agriculture to develop the economy
is not a smart thing to do, or it’s because of this
that Myanmar is a poor country. I say that is nonsense,
that’s just not right, And what we learn from examining
the development of economies throughout the 20th century is this: you can’t become a rich country
until you’ve got agriculture right. Now, it’s funny because all the time
we kind of ignore agriculture. In many countries it’s
this implicit urban bias, right? The presumed superiority of the city
over the countryside, of the urban over the rural,
and governments, not just here, but governments all around the world, they make policies that make
perfect sense if you’re a city dweller, but no sense at all if you are
a farmer in the countryside, which is where everybody is. So if we understand just the fundamental
importance of agriculture for our success and the success
of many other countries, I mean we can’t ignore it,
we can’t afford to ignore it. We need to be taking pride
in our agriculture, we need to be proud
of our farms and our farming, of the wealth, of the beauty
of these fantastic natural conditions. It’s funny because all too often
the reality of agriculture just doesn’t live up to the potential. I mean here we are in Southeast Asia, it’s the land of
the smallholder farmer, right? so that means you have millions
of small small plots of land, which need to feed a family and also to provide them
with some kind of an income. It’s pretty tough. Let me give you an example:
This is Ma Zin. Now Ma Zin cultivates
a three-acre plot of land just outside Magway,
in central Myanmar, right? She grows peanuts and maybe some sesame if she thinks that the rains are
going to be kind to her this year. Her farm isn’t irrigated, which means
that half the year it lies empty, because there’s no water. In her village pretty much
everyone’s a farmer, pretty much everyone’s poor. Now life here is precarious: Ma Zin knows that if she doesn’t get
the yield from the crop she needs or the crop price dips, she’s not going to have enough money to pay back the money lender
who lent her money to buy the seed and the fertiliser, and to send her child to school. Now, if that happens, then
she may well lose the farm. Now it’s the same story again and again
throughout the country. You know these are the two
biggest crops here in Myanmar, we’ve got rice and we’ve got corn, and if you are comparing
the average performance, right? the average yield from these farms, Myanmar here in red is consistantly underperforming
our neighbours or the best in class. I mean If you go back to
what I said before about, you know, taking pride in agriculture, we see these numbers and we think
we’ve got so much work to do here, right? And you say, “OK, so If I asked you; To say, what does agriculture look like
to you if it makes you proud, right? What is agriculture
that we can be proud of? What does it look like? You might think of
something like this, right ? This is pivot irrigation
in Midwest of the US or maybe something like this: this is
a 20,000 acre mega-farm in Argentina. You know all these things:
big machines, big scale. Remember the economists always
tell us the importance of scale and it’s about efficiency, right? a higher scale you can be more
efficient, you can make more money. But these sorts of things have actually
sparked revolutions in the past, right? Just think about
the Soviet Union or China: I mean they have this vision
of agriculture, right? the Marxists and Chairman Mao
hated these small small farms that you still see today
throughout much of Asia. They wanted to knock
all the walls down, pull all the resources and set everyone
to work in these huge state farms. You know this was going to be
the model of progressive agriculture that we can all be proud of. Well, we’ve moved on a little
from these state farms, but the thinking is largely the same, the received wisdom we have
for agriculture is scale, big farms, as few people as possible. So this chap here in Iowa, he farms
a 500-acre farm just him and his father, and, well, some rather large
machinery behind him as well. So is this the model of agriculture that
we are waiting for here in Myanmar? Is this what we want to recreate? Is this the panacea of productivity
and efficiency that we need? Well, actually no, And all the data we have
says exactly the opposite. If you’re talking about growing food
producing food from one patch of land, how Ma Zin farms is vastly more
productive than our friend from Iowa. It doesn’t make sense, right? If you’ve got a farm like this, it’s not
the most productive one you can get, actually the most productive
farm looks like this. What’s going on? Well, the thinking is this: the more you can pay attention
to each of the individual plants, the more it will reward you. Let’s go back to gardening: Your field is your garden, your crops are individual plants
that need to be nourished. When you have a five-acre patch of land,
you can actually go up into your field and you can see: “Yeah,
we need more water here because the plants are a bit bigger, over here well, yeah, I need
a little bit more nutrition, but over here there’s a bit of flooding and maybe the soil temperature
needs some changes”. All these tiny tiny details that
you can change and when you fix it, you can access these
phenomenal yield increases. You can’t do that if you’ve got
a 20,000 acre mega farm. So what’s interesting is, when you can compare
smallholder agriculture with a large scale agriculture
side-by-side, what we notice, well, I’ll show you some data
in just a moment, but go back to those state farms
alongside the big collective, you actually had these micro plots
of land which served as a vegetable garden for the guys who were working on the farm,
they produced food for them to eat so they could get through the day
of hacking away at the rice. What you see is the productivity between
these micro plots and the rest of the farm I mean it’s staggering, So in China, 5 % of the state farm
was actually these micro plots, and it produced 20 % of the food. In the Soviet Union same thing: 2 % of the land were these micro plots
and it produces 30 %, I mean, we’ve got data
from many other places: from India, from Brazil,
from other parts of Europe. It all says the same thing: there’s no correlation between the size
of a farm and its productivity. So, I mean it’s the same thing, right? how can you pay the most attention
to your plants when they look like this then if they’re in a two-acre plot
of land just outside your village? Think of the plantation. This here is a professional
plantation in Malaysia and they’re growing oil palm. What you see is that at the edge of the
plantation you tend to get smallholders who are growing the same crop and consistently, these
small holders will have better and more productive farms
than the plantation. That’s a pretty difficult message
to deliver to this guy, who’s running a multinational
corporation, and say: “I’m sorry but you’re running a less
productive farm than this guy in a cap”. But it’s worth me just clarifying that if we’re talking about
productivity and efficiency it’s really important to understand that the definition of efficiency depends
entirely on what your objective is, what you’re trying to do. These smallholders can produce the most
amount of food for a patch of land, that’s clear. But what if your objective is
return on investment? So you know: for the money
and the resources you put in, what’s the money you get back? Well, you get a vastly different picture, and if you get it right, large-scale agriculture can
be incredibly attractive, But it’s not enough to say: “well, which one makes me
the most money and let’s go and do that”. You’re missing the point. If you’re running a country, your objectives cannot be the same as if you’re running a business. It’s not about the money, it’s about people and the work that they do. Large-scale agriculture
tries to minimize labor, tries to minimize people, just because people tend to be expensive and in many economies there’s something
more productive for them to be doing. Now, for returns from the farm
if there’s a small holder system that’s spread liberally across millions
of farming families, Now, when you have
large-scale agriculture, returns, the money form the farm, goes into the pockets
of just a few people. Great news if you own that farm, not so great news if you’re
a farmer working on that farm. So if you’re running a developing country your objective can’t possibly be
to use as few people as possible. I mean you’ve got a whole
countryside full of them, and honestly, what else
are they going to do? Where are we going to
find jobs for them to do? How are we going to create
these jobs in the cities? And can we really accommodate another
few million people coming to these cities? I mean It already feels as if we’re reaching some kind of
infrastructural crisis in some cities, and it’s just not right that we should be encouraging
a few more million people to be coming to the city
to try and find a job. Think about those whole communities who, after decades of conflict,
finally laid down their arms. They don’t want to live
a marginal existence in the cities. They want to go back to their village, they want to go home. So you encourage people
to stay in the countryside and be as productive as they can in doing what they’re doing, which is agriculture. Now I said at the beginning, I said you know, no country can become a rich country until it’s got agriculture right, Now I want to take
that just a step further and say that actually how you do
agriculture is just as important. So it’s either smallholder
based or it’s not. Most interesting is that here in East Asia over the last 50-70 years you’ve got broadly two
groupings of countries: Now Northeast Asia you’ve got some of
the richest countries in the world, right? Now they implemented land redistribution and had smallholde- friendly
policies for agriculture after the Second World War. Now in Southeast Asia, typically they went for larger scale
plantation based agriculture, mostly as a hangover
from the colonial experience. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Southeast is lagging
behind Northeast Asia in this respect. At this point I have to admit, you know that it’s not enough for me to stand
here and say to all the farmers: “You can be wildly productive
if you put your head down and focus on growing better tomatoes,
cabbages, or whatever you’re growing.” There’s some significant infrastructure that you need to make
this transformation happen. Now, this first question of land, it’s a thorny one, okay, and I’m not going to go into it
today but just suffice to say, if you have an asset, your land, you’re not going to invest in your asset
unless you know it’s your asset. Training: growing a better crop. I mean, if there’s people
like me growing the food, guys, we’re in a lot of trouble. Financing: how do you get the cash
to buy the seed and the fertiliser, and what you need to grow a crop. And finally, when you’ve
grown a great crop, how do you know that you can get it
to market or get a fair price for it? So let’s assume that our venerable leaders
are here today or they’re big fans of TED, they see the talk and they say: “Huh, let’s do what the British guy said”. So they do all of this. Great! Okay, fast-forward a few years, actually what you see is that
as the productivity goes up, the number of people you
need actually goes down. So people are freed up,
and now they have a choice. Well, maybe they want to go
to the city and find a job, you know, they can come back to
the farm at harvest time, they get twin streams of income, one from the farm and one from the city, if they lose their job in the factory, weil, they can come back
to a productive smallholder farm and await the next opportunity. Just think of the resilience that
that creates for a rural economy. Or, alternatively, they
stay where they are, I mean, just because
you’re in the countryside doesn’t mean you need to grow stuff, doesn’t mean you need to be a farmer. There are many things you can do, right? from breeding ducks to selling
fertilizer to milling rice and using the profits from a farm
to invest in your rural enterprise. People, this is rural entrepreneurship. This is where it starts. Let’s be clear: farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs, I mean they’re not sitting down
tapping away on their laptop No, but effectively, they’re doing
exactly the same thing, right? They’re using their assets, land and
their labor to run their small business. Now many of us see the plight
of these smallholder farmers. And you know we feel we want to help them, we want to donate, we wan to do something, but let me tell you:
farmers don’t need that, They just want to get on
and run their business. One final thought: In many countries we’ve reached
the stage of development, where we simply do not understand
the value of our farmers. right? We delegate the most fundamental
responsibility of our lives, which is to feed our family,
to a group of people who live in some of the most
difficult conditions imaginable. We are free to live our lives and chase our goals and our ambitions simply because we don’t have to
worry about growing food every day. These farmers are not to be pitied,
they’re not to be ignored. They are to be recognised as a fundamentally
important part of society, the foundation on which
all of our success is based. Let’s face it: without farmers, we would all be naked,
hungry and sober, And I say that’s a sad place to be. Thank you very much. (Applause)


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