2014 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Family Farming. It is estimated that there are over 500 million small-holder/family farms worldwide and that these farms provide food for up to 2 billion people (the majority in the developing world). Some 85% of smallholder farms operate on no more than about 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of land. Yet, these small-scale operations occupy about 60% of the world’s arable land. With such a significant presence it is obvious that small-scale, family, farming is very important not only to food provision, but also to ensuring biodiversity and the protection of natural resources. What is the future of the family farm?
International Year of Family Farming
The UN declared 2014 to be the International Year of Family Farming ostensibly to remind the global community of the importance of small-scale farming operations to food security. The UN’s goal is to ‘reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies’ of nation states in the hope of preserving an institution that is under considerable threat. Following the UN’s declaration, over 50 national committees which represent farmer organizations across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania met in Abu Dhabi in January 2014. At the meeting, organized by the World Rural Forum (a global rural development body), representatives agreed upon five ‘demands’ that would be raised throughout 2014 with national and global decision-making bodies.
Importantly, before releasing their demands, those meeting in Abu Dhabi made the revealing and sobering claim that despite the importance of family farming, public support for its continuation was ‘non-existent today in most countries’. I’m not sure if this supposed to mean ‘public support’ or ‘public sector support’ or both. But the important issue is how will it be possible to fortify an institution for which there is little public empathy, yet is viewed as crucial to the future of humanity? To strengthen the family farm sector, five demands were made. In summary form these were:
- Each nation should have the right to develop and control its own food production – as a first step in achieving national food sovereignty
- Governments must assume as an urgent priority the implementation of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests
- Those nations in which the majority of people are active in agricultural pursuits must provide an adequate allocation of financial resources to national agricultural budgets
- There needs to be equality of rights between men and women family farmers, as the first step in overcoming the discrimination faced by women in seeking access to productive resources such as land, water, credit and extension services
- Young people need to be drawn to and remain in farming. Family farming must be made attractive to them.
Taken together, these demands appear to be politically ‘neutral’ in that they seem uncontroversial: it is desirable that nations look after the food needs of their people, it is important that land tenure laws are clear to all, it will be beneficial if farm women have the same rights as men, and that young people are attracted to farming, and so forth.
However, when we look more deeply, the demands represent a not-so-subtle attack on global neoliberalism and corporate agribusiness. Take the first ‘demand’. The assumption, here, is that the best way for nations to feed their people is to take control of their own food agendas and to aim to achieve ‘food sovereignty’. Food sovereignty embraces the right of all peoples to choose the foods they eat and the agricultural systems from which that food is produced. It gives priority to local farmers producing crops and animals in ecologically-sustainable ways. This is in contrast to the free-trade agenda of the World Trade Organization whose principles of ‘comparative advantage’ endorse the large-scale, world-wide, movements of food and whose policies tend to lead to a division between those nations exporting food, and those importing food. This is seen to be a serious threat to family farming in the food-importing nations. In fact, the meeting argued that agriculture should be excluded from WTO agreements and other bilateral agreements. The FAO should take on the responsibility for trade in agricultural products so as to counteract dumping and to instigate a fairer trade regime. The organizations meeting in Abu Dhabi noted the ‘aggressive attempts by a handful of multinational companies to control and design world food production’, indicating that this undermined attempts to achieve greater food security via food sovereignty. They recommended that family farm producers should form cooperatives to increase their bargaining power. They argued seed banks should be established to strengthen local varieties and counter corporate attempts to control seeds via intellectual property.
The second demand – for better governance over the tenure of land, fisheries and forests – is about providing equitable access to resources to achieve both rural poverty alleviation and greater food sovereignty. It is also an attempt to counter large-scale acquisitions of farm lands (so-called land grabbing) by foreign investors. The phenomenon of financial firms seeking to maximize returns to shareholders by direct investment in farming is being stimulated by a number of factors including the decreasing per capital availability of good farming land, growing demand for crop-generated biofuels, burgeoning middle-class consumer demand in nations like India, Indonesia and China for western-style diets, and straight-out speculation. What has been of particular concern is the supposed identification of ‘idle lands’ in developing nations, where governments desperate for foreign investment are turning over land cheaply to those wanting to ‘modernize’ agricultural production. One consequence has been the removal of subsistence and family farmers from lands which their families have farmed for generations and over which they believed they had tenure. Clearly, those who gathered at Abu Dhabi want to halt the expropriation of lands in an attempt to counter dispossession and subsequent ‘de-peasantization’.
Allocating financial resources to national agricultural budgets – the third demand – makes excellent sense if agrarian reform can be guided, in a beneficial way, by farmer access to low-interest credit, the promotion of agro-ecological and other sustainable production methods, and support for climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Those at Abu Dhabi also stressed the importance for bilateral and multilateral donors to find ways of assisting family farmers in developing nations. The fourth demand was to end discrimination between men and women family farmers, allowing equal access to important resources such as land, water, credit and extension. The meeting acknowledged that little would improve for women unless they share in the ownership of farms and share responsibility for decision making. Improved education for women is also viewed as an essential element in bringing about a fairer system of family farming. The fifth demand – that ways be found for young people to enter farming – is clearly aimed at providing a long-term basis for reproducing family farming. The meeting sought possible ways of attracting youth: governments, businesses and farm groups joining forces to convince youth that farming is a viable and societally-important career path; integrating agriculture throughout the school curriculum; development initiatives aimed at making rural life attractive to young people; and, identifying ways of facilitating generational change – allowing young people to gain access to farms (particularly via tax incentives).
It is obvious that much of what has been ‘demanded’ requires government intervention (in relation to regulation, agricultural investment, education, and taxation, for example). Yet, global neoliberalism is premised upon the removal of government from such activities in the belief that free market forces will be the best means of guaranteeing resource and labour efficiency and will also, ultimately, determine the size and financial viability of the farms producing food. If these settings lead to corporate farms, or larger-than-family-farms, then what does this matter, so long as food production meets growing demand? But there is an important question emerging here. Are we viewing an inevitable confrontation between global corporate agribusiness/finance ideology and practice, and the nation state-focused food sovereignty movement? Will public sector support for family farming be forthcoming – or will it continue to dwindle, as it has in the west, with farm numbers decreasing and the majority of family farmers remaining being subject to the vagaries of volatile markets, being beholden to financial lenders, relying on the increasingly expensive agribusiness inputs to farming (and subsequent cost-price pressures), and having to cope with more severe weather events as a result of climate change?
While the year of family (and smallholder) farming aims to celebrate farming’s role in overcoming hunger and poverty, enhancing food security, protecting the environment and being a key to broader rural development, there is growing evidence that the continuing deregulation of the global agricultural marketplace is posing a major threat to the long-term future of the family farm and, with it, global food security. Will the ‘demands’ of the farmer groups at Abu Dhabi be enough to make a difference – to change the present trajectory of WTO-style agricultural policy? For those supporting the principles of food sovereignty and who believe a family-farm future is the key to food security, this is a genuine hope.