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‘Colombia has lost a lot by not supporting small-scale agriculture’

'Colombia has lost a lot by not supporting small-scale agriculture'

The economist Albert Berry was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2004 for his theory of economic growth based on a sustainable field, supported by small family units that develop employment.

His research has revolved around agricultural development, income distribution and informality, topics that he deals with in his book “The key role of small family farming in Colombia.” In recent days, Berry spoke with Portafolio about his theory and how he perceives the policies of the Gustavo Petro government in this area.

(In microcredit there will be new usury rate).

What are the main challenges in the agricultural sector?

The global situation and that of Colombia are similar. The challenge of producing a sufficient amount of food is difficult with an increase in population, technological change and the advancement for better seeds or fertilizers not very fast in recent years.

Another component is that in various regions the concentration of income is very high. With rising food prices, the poor are in a difficult position.

Added to this is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has hindered the production and transportation of inputs, which has helped to increase food prices. There is also the problem of climate change, agricultural experts are just beginning to understand how to deal with it. We have a very big challenge worldwide.

(‘Colombia is good place to produce seeds’: Bayer).

How has this crisis impacted the countryside in the country?

The world situation applies to Colombia as well, but another special element of Colombia is that small-scale agriculture has not grown at a desirable level and that sector is, of all the country’s economic sectors, the one that has the capacity to reduce poverty in directly faster.

This is because the families produce their own food, sell it, and achieve a very high level of land production. Colombia, unlike African countries, has lost a lot by not supporting small-scale agriculture sufficiently. The importance of the sector in tackling poverty has not been realized.

Could reinforcing this model be the solution to poverty and inequality in Colombia?

I think not currently. If we had had this discussion 60 years ago, I would have said yes, that it was the obvious path: rapidly increase the production capacity and income generation of small-scale agriculture. But the sector has diminished and that is why now it cannot be the total solution.

Increasing the productivity of small-scale agriculture is still the easiest main element to carry out as an economic policy, it directly affects a fifth of the country’s population and indirectly another 20%, because the alternatives to reduce poverty are basically two.

(Inputs, the headache of producers in the country).

One is to increase the productivity of the informal, non-agricultural sector, for which it is more difficult to design policies to increase income because the activities are multiple and the entrepreneurs few, or very different from one another.

And the other element is direct social policies: better schools, food subsidies. Colombia has made progress, but not far enough to reduce poverty.

How do you see the government’s policy to improve agricultural productivity?

I think it is a matter of regions and the agricultural subsector that is being discussed. I am still learning the details of this government’s plan, in general terms it has important elements, but regarding the financial effort I cannot yet comment on to what degree it could quickly cover the needs.

Progress is being made in many areas, such as assistance to small farmers, but it is still not enough. The challenge is to expand that effort in terms of people, resources and knowledge, because Colombia is a country with varied regions. What offers promise in Cauca does not in Bolívar, for example.

Colombia has a lot of human capacity, it is necessary to develop that and take advantage of the knowledge of small farmers, which is a major failure of many countries, governments assume that they understand but do not interact with them.

(Increase in inputs keeps agricultural production on edge).

The Government talks about reviewing land use and promoting rural reform, what do you think about it?

I would have to come back in a couple of years to answer better. There are challenges in Colombia regarding small-scale agriculture and its potential contribution, one is to increase the productive capacity of agriculture that already exists, which is low because it is in the hands of absent owners. It is important that the percentage of land in the hands of small farmers increases, and this automatically raises the total productivity of the sector, because on average small farmers are more efficient in terms of land use than large farmers.

It is easier to raise the income of low-income people in smallholder agriculture than in almost any component of the non-agricultural informal sector. And the indirect impact is that it uses a lot of labor productively and takes pressure off the informal non-agricultural sector, which is swamped with people, making it impossible to increase its ability to provide higher incomes to the poor in the short term.

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