With over 70% of the world’s food production reliant on small family farmers, what represent the vast majority of agriculture worldwide, both in developed and developing countries. Protecting their farmers’ rights should be paramount to the eradication of hunger and ensuring food security and adequate nutrition. However, there is a widespread agreement rooted in a view that considers small farms as inefficient: efficiency and productivity in agriculture, it is argued, can only be delivered by consolidating land, using advanced technology, investing in large-scale irrigation and massive fertilization, and encouraging monoculture over wide expanses of land.
With over 70% of the world’s food production reliant on family farmers, this type of farming represents the vast majority of agriculture worldwide, both in developed and developing countries. Most of these farmers own less than two hectares of land, and cultivate only a small share of the world’s farmland. Protecting their rights is paramount to the eradication of hunger and ensuring food security and adequate nutrition.
There is an estimated 500 million family farms worldwide, many of which currently face increasing challenges that are undermining agricultural production, including soil erosion, increased water scarcity, deforestation, climate change, globalisation of the food sector and an ever-expanding monoculture for export and large corporations. Family farming is based on tradition, and forms the social fabric of many societies playing a key role in protecting the world’s biodiversity and promoting the sustainable use of natural resources.
Women, who account for some 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, play a crucial role in enhancing food security and nutrition in the household as well as increasing agricultural output and every effort must be made to ensure that they are afforded the same rights and access to necessary resources as their male counterparts.
However, much of agricultural policy is rooted in a view that considers small farms as inefficient. Efficiency and productivity in agriculture, it is argued, can only be delivered by consolidating land, using advanced technology, investing in large-scale irrigation and massive fertilization, and encouraging monoculture in big-scale farms.
After 50 years of applying these practices globally, this dictum of conventional wisdom on agriculture is being questioned more than ever before. Simply adding to the pile of food and promoting monocultural crops will not end hunger or malnutrition. Efficiency and quantity-based agricultural policy alone might solve acute hunger for a while, but cannot eradicate chronic and hidden hunger forever, let alone move towards sustainable resource use, food security, and social and economic equity in a dramatically unequal world.
The world is increasingly hungry and malnourished because small farmers are losing access to farmland. According to a new report by GRAIN, Hungry for Land, small farmers produce most of the world’s food but are now squeezed onto less than 25% of the world’s farmland: ‘The overwhelming majority of farming families today have less than two hectares to cultivate and that share is shrinking. Corporate and commercial farms, big biofuel operations and land speculators are pushing millions off their land.’ The report claims that small farmers could feed all nine billion people expected to be on the planet in 2050, provided they have the land, support, participation in decision-making, financial, and technological power. But the current global food system is not set up to support them or designed to feed the greatest number of people, but rather to provide fuels and food for Western markets.
Fortunately in recent years the important role of small farmers in relation to food security is finally being acknowledged in the US and Europe. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, celebrated the year of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.
Even in the US—where global agroindustries dominate, the USDA~United States Department of Agriculture, has undertaken several initiatives to support local and regional food systems. Know Your Farmers, Know Your Food Initiative coordinates government policy, resources, and outreach efforts related to local and regional food systems.
Besides high nutritious value and reduced fossil fuel use, the ‘local food’ movement from Oregon to Vermont is creating an exciting new laboratory for agricultural innovation. Small farming is even becoming profitable, with recent financial crises prompting many young Americans to return to rural life as they faced difficulty in finding jobs and housing in cities. The rural sector provides food. In a sustainable world, the rural and urban sectors must support each other. With modernity and industrialization, urban areas experienced unprecedented growth, while rural communities, dependent on agriculture, were left behind. A large portion of the rural population migrated to cities, which overwhelmed the infrastructure of many cities. Especially in the developing world, rapid urbanization poses huge environmental challenges.
To reverse such a trend, governments and civil society should encourage rural life. Young farmers should be given subsidies to enable their return to the countryside. Although it is difficult for most governments to oppose the logic of competitive markets skewed to favour the big agroindustries, it is clear that a food policy based on everyone—except the most powerful, becoming food importers is neither just, effective nor sustainable. It is time to break with failed practices and refocus agricultural policy towards supporting those who produce the majority of world’s food: the small-scale farmers.
I urge all states to show a more meaningful commitment to the development of social and economic policies specifically targeted at smallholder and family farms. I call on all governments to do everything in their power to ensure that the rights of family and smallholder farmers working worldwide to eradicate hunger and sustain natural resources are protected.