Most smallholders diversify crops by default, why governments should always consider this in policy
A recent study by Africa RISING in northern Ghana is calling for agricultural policies that are conducive for crop diversification as a means of easing smallholder farmers’ market participation.
The study was published in the January 2020 issue of the World Development journal by researchers Mauricio Bellon of Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Bekele Kotu of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the University of Naples Federico II. It presents evidence that indicates benefits of crop diversification go well beyond the documented risk-coping strategies for smallholders and provides a strong and very legitimate entry point for fostering agricultural innovation by opening up market opportunities for smallholder households, while still contributing to household food needs.
By examining the relationship between crop diversity, self-consumption of food crops, and cash income from crops sold by smallholder farmers; the researchers found that 95% of smallholders in northern Ghana grew between 3 to 8 different crops in their farms. Maize, rice, groundnuts, and yams were a more common denominator of the diversification observed amongst the 637 randomly selected households which were sampled. Other crops forming part of the farmers’ diversification included pearl millet, sorghum, finger millet, beans, soybean, pigeon pea, chickpea, cowpea, Bambara nut, okra, onion, potato, and sweetpotato.
Results also confirmed that crop diversity is better correlated with cash income from sales than with the amount of food crops destined for self-consumption. This is because farmers who practice diversification have a continuous flow of income from crop sales because several types of crops can be harvested at different times of the year. The continuous cropping buffers price-related income shocks arising from dependence on having a few crops with similar cropping cycles.
Furthermore, the increased amount of monetary income derived from specialization may not be enough to purchase all the foods households obtain from production for self-consumption that they would forego with specialization. For example, based on the average imputed and gross monetary incomes observed among these farmers, monetary income would have to increase at least by 155% to purchase the foods produced for self-consumption.
Since successful agricultural development interventions address the needs and priorities of their target beneficiaries, if crop diversity is an important component of farmers’ strategy to manage their agricultural systems and livelihoods; then incorporating diversification into the analysis, design, and implementation of agricultural interventions becomes crucial to positively impact their well-being. The idea is to recognize the farmers’ normal behaviour and the incentives they have in the contexts in which they operate, i.e. their natural behaviour ‘‘without intervention,” in order to enhance the effectiveness of development programs.