Research Article: Reconsidering non-traditional export agriculture and household food security: A case study in rural Guatemala

Date Published: May 24, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Josée Méthot, Elena M. Bennett, Frank Wieringa.


As the production of non-traditional export (NTX) crops by smallholder households in developing countries expands, there is a compelling need to understand the potential effects of this type of agricultural production on household food security and nutrition. We use two household surveys with a sample of 52 households, interviews, and focus groups to examine whether smallholder farmers who produce broccoli for export in a rural Guatemalan community have different household food security than farmers in the same community who are still growing traditional maize and bean crops. We explore and compare the food security status of broccoli farmers (adopters) and traditional farmers (non-adopters) across four dimensions of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability. Adopters earned significantly more income (40%) than non-adopters, but higher incomes did not coincide with improvements in food availability, food access, or food utilization. Results indicate that adopters and non-adopters alike struggle with access to food, while the intensity of broccoli production may be undermining the ability of local agricultural systems to naturally control pests and regulate nutrients. More systematic approaches to food security assessment, especially those that consider all four dimensions of food security, are needed to better target interventions designed to alleviate food insecurity among rural smallholders.

Partial Text

The increased commercialization of agriculture and diversification into non-traditional export crops (NTXs) by smallholder farmers has been touted as a growth-oriented strategy to reduce rural poverty and combat food insecurity [1]. NTXs include high-value, labour intensive fruits and vegetables that are not part of the customary diet of a local farming population, and are not traditionally farmed for export in a given country [2,3]. Global production of NTXs is booming in response to policies aimed at using NTX production to combat poverty and food insecurity: between 1992 and 2001, the worldwide trade in non-traditional vegetables rose sharply, from 7.6 million tonnes in 1992 to 13.9 million tonnes in 2001 [4]. By 2001, 63% of these exports came from developing countries and this share is growing quickly, driven by a recent upsurge in production in Central America and the Caribbean [4,5].

We used a combination of household surveys, focus groups, and interviews to assess all four dimensions of food security for two types of smallholder (farming less than 2 ha) households: ‘adopters’ (households that farm broccoli in addition to corn, bean, and other secondary crops) and ‘non-adopters’ (households that farm traditional crops like corn, bean, and other secondary crops).

The general characteristics of households–including household size, agricultural land holdings, the average number of children per household, and the ages and literacy levels of female and male heads of household–were not significantly different between adopter and non-adopter households (Table 4). Access to education in Chilascó is limited; 69% of female heads of household, and 42% of male heads of household, were illiterate. The primary occupation of male household heads in adopter households was household agriculture, whereas significantly more non-adopters relied on local agricultural wage labour as the primary occupation of male household heads (Chi-square, X2 (3, N = 52) = 7.23, p = 0.065, V = 0.380).

In our study, the food security of NTX adopters mostly did not differ from that of non-adopters, except for the dimension of food access, which differed due to increased income for NTX adopters. While adopters earned significantly more income (40%) than non-adopters, there were no significant differences in other measures of food availability, food access, or food utilization for adopters relative to non-adopters. Adopters used significantly more agrochemicals than non-adopters, which may be associated with declines in the regulating ecosystem services of biological pest control and nutrient cycling over the long-term.

Sweeping arguments are often made either for or against the potential for NTX agriculture to improve the food security of smallholder farmers in developing countries. However, the results of our study–the first to systematically compare the food security status of adopters and non-adopters across four dimensions of food security–indicate that these arguments may be lacking in necessary nuance. Our results show that the food security status of adopters and non-adopters in Chilascó varies depending on the dimension of food security considered. It is therefore critically important to consider how NTX production may affect all four dimensions of food security, while recognizing that different indicators paint different pictures of household food security. Our research moves beyond a dualistic understanding of food security outcomes (better/worse) toward an analytical framework that considers food security within a matrix of interactions and potential trade-offs. As the commercialization of smallholder agriculture expands across Guatemala, understanding these interactions has important implications for the food security and wellbeing of the rural poor.




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