Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Family farming: nourishing the world

This year’s World Food Day is celebrating the contribution family farmers make to food security and sustainable development, writes José Graziano da Silva*


Al-Ahram Weekly

The fight against hunger forges ahead around the world, but with about 805 million people who still do not have enough to eat, a lot more still needs to be done.

Sixty-three developing countries have already reached the Millennium Development Goal hunger target of halving the proportion of chronic undernourishment by 2015. What their stories tell us is that to win the war against hunger we need political commitment, a holistic approach, social participation and family farming.

Throughout the world, family farmers play a crucial socio-economic, environmental and cultural role which, amid serious challenges, needs to be cherished and strengthened through innovation.

Recognising this, the United Nations designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. The theme of this year’s World Food Day also celebrates the contribution family farmers make to food security and sustainable development: they feed the world and care for the earth.

The facts presented in the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) annual State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report clearly justify the emphasis being placed on family farming.

Around 500 million of the world’s 570 million farms are run by families. They are the main caretakers of our natural resources. As a sector, they form the world’s largest employer, supply more than 80 per cent of the world’s food in terms of value, and are often the main producers of fresh food and prosper in dairy, poultry and pig production.

In the Near East and North Africa family farming provides livelihoods for most people living in rural areas, where the vast majority of the poor are concentrated. Estimates show that agriculture in the region employs a third of the total labour force in the region: more than 60 per cent of the labour force in Morocco, and over 35 per cent of the labour force in Sudan and Mauritania.

Nearly all this employment is generated by family farms that are an important source of household income for many countries in the region. Just to name a few examples, family farms represent about 15 per cent of the total in Egypt and Yemen, about 10 per cent in Morocco and Algeria and 4-5 per cent in Lebanon and Tunisia.

However, as a result of population increases and due to progressive land fragmentation, the size of family farms is steadily decreasing in the region. As a consequence, while nearly 84 per cent of land holders in the region are family farmers, they only control 25 per cent of the total cultivated area.

This also happens because family farmers still don’t have proper access to land, credit and technology and they are not yet organised in strong organisations able to provide them with all the services they need to make a substantial contribution to the food security of their countries.

Yet, these figures do not only appear in the region: at a global level many family farmers, especially subsistence producers, are part of the 70 per cent of the world’s food-insecure population who live in rural areas. This means that family farmers still have a great potential they can fulfil with the right support. The SOFA report points out the challenges the sector faces and how we can work together to overcome them.

Over the last few decades profound changes have happened in the way food is produced, traded and consumed. Meanwhile, agricultural productivity has dramatically increased, thanks also to scientific and technological progress. A growing and increasingly urbanised world population is relying on food produced by a much smaller percentage of farmers compared to that of the post-Second World War period. The marketplace for agriculture and food products has become globalised. The diets of the vast majority of the people in the world rely on just four commodities.

Family farming and the support it receives need to adjust in ways that can respond to these changing conditions. Innovation is the key to make this happen: family farmers need to innovate in the systems they use; governments need to innovate in the specific policies they implement to support family farming; producers’ organisations need to innovate to respond better to the needs of family farmers; and research and extension institutions need to innovate by shifting from a research-driven process predominantly based on technology transfer to an approach that enables and rewards innovation by family farmers themselves.

Additionally, in all its forms innovation needs to be inclusive, involving family farmers in the generation, sharing and use of knowledge so that they have ownership of the process, taking on board both the benefits and the risks, and making sure that it truly responds to local contexts.

Clearly, family farmers need to produce enough food not just for themselves, but also for people in rural areas not involved in farming or city dwellers. They also need to generate income – money to buy inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, but also to guarantee decent livelihoods including paying for their children’s education and other needs.

When family farmers are stronger, it is a win-win situation: more food available locally translates into more food security and into the possibility of producing and buying food for and in local markets. In turn, this means fresher and healthier meals that respect local culture and values, contribute to better nutrition and make more money flow in local economies, helping them to flourish.

The list of potential benefits does not stop there and includes, for instance, the possibility of linking local production to school meals and the opportunity to stimulate industries that can support flourishing production.

These efforts lead to sustainable territorial rural development, something that everyone – farmers, communities and governments – should invest in. When we combine productive support with social protection and other public support such as better access to health facilities and schools, we can create a truly virtuous sustainable development cycle.

In the joint effort to promote environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economic growth, women and young people deserve special attention. Women play a crucial, yet not always duly recognised, role throughout the food system – from producing and marketing food to ensuring adequate nutrition in families.

At the same time, we need to stem the exodus of rural youth, who are often forced to look elsewhere when wishing to improve their lives. We need to create the conditions for the youth to view a life in rural areas as a future of opportunities, and this includes training programmes that can allow them to tap into their entrepreneurial potential.

As we rapidly approach the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals, we are working together to forge the sustainable, hunger-free future we want. Family farmers are protagonists in this effort.

*The writer is the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

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