Nourishing the world – The role of smallholders and value chains

  • Hans R. Herren, Foundation President of Biovison, Zurich, Switzerland and President of the Millenium Foundation in Arlington, Virginia USA

If we want to nourish our planet’s more than nine billion people by 2050, we need a fundamentally new approach to agriculture and food production. We must change from a productivist and exploitative form of agriculture to a sustainable and regenerative one known as agroecology. Overall, we already produce about twice as many calories as we really need in order to nourish everyone, but we waste or lose about half of them ​*​ and there are still 795 million​†​ people starving today. Today, smallholders and family farms – 72% of which cultivate less than one hectare of land – still produce about 80% of the food consumed worldwide.​‡​ To ignore the needs and the capacities of these farmers, especially in developing countries, means putting food security at risk.

The key drivers of the globalized, industrialized food system have been the push for food security and cheap food. It has now been proven that the approach has failed. This was demonstrated by the explosion of food prices in 2008 and since then, by strongly fluctuating food prices. These events are the result of adverse climate developments and weather events, as well as changes in demand and the production of biofuel.

Agriculture should change from being a producer of commodities to being a producer of nutritious food, and it should switch to ecologically adapted and culturally appropriate crops and livestock. In newly industrialized countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, the large-scale production of soybeans and maize, mainly to be exported as feed, incurs huge but externalized costs, including damage to human health and the environment. Since this generates a long-term economic burden, such crops should be replaced by the production of healthy and nutritious food for local and regional consumption. Livestock should be fed what is appropriate for its health, rather than what promotes rapid growth at the expense of environmental and human wellbeing. The problems are seen in the development and spread of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as well as the resistance to antibiotics caused by their wide abuse in the livestock production.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) contained a highly detailed analysis of the agricultural food production system over the past 50 years. It concluded that, while there were some benefits in the short term, in general the Green Revolution failed to address the key issues of hunger and poverty, which form an inseparable nexus. As it was based mainly on the increased use of synthetic inputs, upon which the new plant varieties were totally dependent, the increased level of production had disastrous effects on the environment, polluting ground and surface waters. The use and abuse of insecticides and herbicides has resulted in arthropod pests, diseases and weeds developing resistance, thereby leading to the now familiar treadmill.

The push for hybrid seeds and GMOs is eroding biodiversity, although this is a badly needed resource for climate change resilience. The super varieties introduced during the Green Revolution were also very thirsty and hungry: they needed ever more water and nutrients to keep producing the expected yields. Such a trend cannot be sustained, and only serves to strengthen the case for a more natural and regenerative type of agriculture. It is notable that the latest iteration of the Green Revolution, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ as promoted by the World Bank and a number of other foundations and development partners, simply continues the trend of reductionism and symptom treatment. Meanwhile, the real solution clearly lies in a complex and holistic approach to agriculture and the food system. This can only be achieved through the inclusion of smallholders and family farmers, and by building up local and regional supply chains.

Providing enough food for everyone is not only a question of productivity. It is also about producing the relevant food in the right places (developed and developing countries), by the right people (smallholders and family farmers). It is about growing the right kinds of food (diversified and adapted to local cultural and ecological needs; crops and livestock), using sustainable agronomic practices (ecological, organic, agro-ecological, regenerative). And it is about creating regional supply and value chains.

A powerful concept for food security is described by the term ‘food sovereignty’. Local by definition, food sovereignty is driven by both local production and local consumption. We would not dispute the need for global food reserves to cater for major disasters or wars, but such reserves cannot be the solution to food and nutrition security.

Market access is another crucial factor when it comes to guaranteeing small-scale farmers a decent livelihood and ensuring fair prices for their products. This, in turn, ensures that farming is an attractive option. The UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge, which promotes affordable food and nutrition for all, is a step in the right direction.​§​ The way the system works today, with rich countries over-producing and flooding the markets in developing countries with their highly subsidized products, has a massively disruptive effect and ruins local production and markets.

Rural areas would benefit greatly from the introduction of food storage and processing facilities. For one thing, this would minimize losses while adding value, and would thereby raise incomes in rural areas. This, in turn, would enable rural populations to afford to buy food when the need it.

By applying agro-ecological practices, farmers do more than produce food for the community. They also ensure that biodiversity and associated ecosystem services remain intact, because they use their own seeds and they protect water and the environment from agro-chemical inputs. Agroecology also results in healthy soils, which are maintained or restored with biological methods and contain more carbon per hectare than conventionally managed soils.​¶​ This is yet another crucial factor that helps protect the world from climate change, at the same time as increasing the resilience of the whole system.

Agroecology and other sustainable agricultural practices are knowledge-intensive and empowering. Farmers have to learn good farming practices and then apply them. The important point is that farmers need access to information on agroecology, to training in regenerative agricultural practices, and to related research results. At the same time, they must become actors themselves in the research, extension and production continuum. Once the know-how has reached the smallholders and family farmers, they can improve not only their own livelihoods, but also those of the people around them by producing enough healthy food for all.

A key element is investment in human capital: it is important to develop capacities and skills, and provide access to the information highway where people can acquire and spread knowledge and innovations. There are, after all, many innovations in the field of sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Many good examples exist of programmes to help farmers acquire skills and technologies, from the FAO’s farmer field schools, to the Farmer Communication Programme of the Biovision Foundation in East Africa. The latter complements actual field training with a monthly magazine on organic agricultural practices, as well as weekly radio broadcasts, an SMS service and local knowledge hubs from where extension officers visit farmer groups to support and educate them. There is a huge amount still to do in this respect, given that despite today’s major efforts, only a small fraction of the 500 million farming families have yet benefited from such transformative support. Without that assistance, efforts to change the course of agriculture and of food systems, and as such the course for humanity, will progress only slowly.

The responsibility rests mainly with national governments who should support their farmers and farming communities in the transformation to sustainable production. They should do so by investing public funds in research, capacity and institution building in the areas of agro-ecological, organic and regenerative agriculture.

However, one of the most powerful tools that we could deploy to control the devastation caused by industrial agriculture would be true pricing – in other words, the internalization of all externalities into the final price of products. This would effectively render large-scale industrial production uneconomical, given its destructive impacts on soils, water, pollinators, biodiversity and, last but not least, on human health. At the same time, true pricing would give a great advantage to sustainable agricultural practices, which provide services and benefits in all areas of sustainable development. As such they are still true to agriculture’s multi-functionality, as is already explained in the IAASTD Report.

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