By: Saad Dagher
diversity and abundance of agricultural production in small holdings
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
This process has been going on for a long time, and the areas are getting smaller and smaller. Divided between sons and daughters when parents are gone, and each small plot transformed into a group of small areas, what was once an area of one hundred dunums is now divided into a group of smaller plots of land, and these were divided, so that more than 80% of it is now small plots, each less than ten dunums . In our country, for cultural-religious reasons, the process of dividing the land into smaller and smaller plots will continue, but sometimes it gets clustered in the hands of those who buy small neighboring pieces, after such pieces become "no longer useful" for the owners who have inherited them, because of it small area.
In each forum about land and agriculture, a question arises about the obstacles to development in the Palestinian agricultural sector. One of the most important obstacles, that is after the biggest one: the Zionist occupation of Palestine, is the reality of the fragmentation of property. It’s one obstacle that does not change and will not stop. We iterate that the fragmentation of ownership is one of the most profound obstacles, then we go ahead and continue the meeting, or the workshop, or conference! When experts in planning and strategies come to us, we repeat our answer, and continue without stopping for long to answer the question: what is needed to overcome this "obstacle"? When such question arises, the most common answers would be to form agricultural cooperatives, a solution where we haven’t witnessed any successful models proving that it’s a magical solution to this issue, or a solution that gives a satisfactory answer to an issue that we see as complex.
Do ownership fragmentation and the small size of land plots form hindrances to food production? If property fragmentation continues (in the societal context, it cannot be stopped, except by a law that has not yet been put and there is no evidence that such a law is being thought of), and if the experiences of agricultural cooperatives have by in large failed, then the central question would be: what can be done? It is the most frequently asked question on this issue, the least debated, and the least fortunate in reaching definitive answers. There is no claim here that there is a solution; only an attempt to stimulate a different perspective, based on different data. This issue needs to be tackled differently, knowing that 80% of Palestinian land holdings are small holdings of less than 10 dunums of land. Such a reality should be seen as an "opportunity" and not as an "obstacle" to agricultural development. Planning should be based on this approach, thus giving those small holdings the needed attention.
UN reports say that 70% of the world's food is produced on small farms! The remaining production comes from large farms, which mostly, is turned into animal fodder and not direct food for people (which is fine!). But the issue is about how much plant protein is being transformed into animal protein. Producing one unit of animal protein requires about ten units of fodder proteins, in addition to the environmental damage caused by capitalist commercial animal husbandry.
Most of air, soil, and water pollution is caused by large farms which rely entirely on fuel-run mechanization, as well as on the high use of agricultural chemicals, which poison water and soil, leading to desertification of large areas of arable land around the world. In the meantime, small farms either rely on fewer chemicals or they adopt different natural methods of production, so that their environmental footprint is clear and their role in greenhouse gas emission is small.
In fact, these small farms are usually not supported by governments, as government subsidies usually go to farmers with very large holdings, despite the fact that they contribute to the production of only 30% of the world food! Such large farms engulf half of the EU budget, for example. This proves that such large-scale farmers are unable to survive without the large government support they receive. These farmers are mostly farmers that rely heavily on chemical use, and on hybrid or genetically modified seeds—supposedly aiming at making big returns!! If so, why do they need all this support to continue their agricultural work? Given this fact, can this type of agriculture be considered sustainable agriculture, one that is capable of being resilient??
In contrast, smallholder agriculture relies on non-GM crops, and most importantly, does not receive government subsidies, but continues to produce. It often even adopts natural methods of production, or relies on few chemicals.
On the other hand, the majority of small holdings are managed and operated by family members. It is therefore a kind of family farming, which provides the family with its various nutritional needs with high diversity in produce, let alone the complementary integration between plants and animals. While on the other hand, capitalist agriculture in large holdings is usually monoculture, non-diversified, and adopts the production of one commodity instead of food production, without integration between plant and animal production.
The other issue is that smallholder agriculture targets local markets and consumers, and not intended for exporting, so the focus is on diversified crop production and integrated food. On the other hand, the environmental footprint is more positive because there is no need for long-distance transportation, with the resulting pollution and increase in costs.
The Beginning of Change
In light of the above facts, there is a need to reconsider the issue of small holdings in the Palestinian context, thus requiring shifting attention. Small holdings should be perceived as units of production, with high potential. They can play a key role in the production of diverse and healthy food. Such small land plots can promote familial labor on the one hand, and support the familial economy on the other.
The most important aspect when dealing with the issue of smallholdings is that the sum of what they may produce far exceeds what our large holdings can produce, as these smallholdings play a key role in promoting the concept of food sovereignty, by relying on local seeds, and more importantly, reproducing these seeds. They also depend on local inputs for production. They are also important because they facilitate the adoption of ecological patterns of agriculture in these small areas thus reducing the need for agricultural chemicals, and the dependence on agricultural mechanization that consumes oil and financial resources. Because such smallholdings are used to meet the needs of the family responsible of the small farm, they opt for diverse food production, not market commodities. All this reinforces the principle of food sovereignty.
Socio-economically, these small areas have significant share in reducing, as the head of a family can depend on an area of not more than three dunums, to earn enough income for a decent life for him and his family, if multi-crop ecological agriculture is adopted. The monoculture approach is not guaranteed, with fragile results in general. In monoculture, the single crop is often in danger of being completely damaged, thus it is inevitable for the farmer to lose; while in ecological diversification, crops are immune to different conditions. In multi-crop farming, if one species is damaged, there remain other species, so the farmer's income will continue in all circumstances, and the food production for the family will continue as well.
Ultimately, any economy should depend on its multiple leverages and small tributaries, and not on a single large economic activity. Similarly, food production should depend on agricultural diversification in small farms and holdings, which together constitute the large food production. In a holistic approach of thinking and planning, small holdings become opportunities to achieve highly diversified agricultural production and food producing, rather than an obstruction to agricultural development.
Translated by: Carol Khoury