For farmers everywhere, small is (still) beautiful
There is battle raging across the world over who can better feed its people: small-scale farmers practicing sustainable agriculture, or giant agribusinesses using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
It was small-scale organic farmers growing rice for themselves and local markets in the Philippines who first convinced us that they could feed both their communities and their country. Part of what convinced us was simple economics: These farmers demonstrated substantial immediate savings from eliminating chemical inputs while, within a few harvests—if not immediately—their yields were close to or above their previous harvests. From these farmers, we also learned of the health and environmental benefits from this shift.
Moving up from what we learned in the Philippines to examine other countries, we have concluded that small-scale farmers practicing different kinds of what is now called agroecology can feed the world. Agroecology extends the organic label to a broader category of ecosystem-friendly, locally adapted agricultural systems, including agro-forestry and techniques like crop rotation, topsoil management, and watershed restoration. (For more details on our research and conclusions, check out our “Can Danilo Atilano Feed the World?" in the current Earth Island Journal, the magazine of the California-based Earth Island Institute.)
Eager to learn more and network with others from across the globe, Robin accepted an invitation from the Transnational Institute and the International Institute of Social Studies to speak about our Philippine research at a global conference in the Netherlands on alternative approaches to food and hunger.
She came away even more convinced that small-scale farmers are our only hope. She also came away excited to have met an impressive range of experts on the subject, including a bold champion for small-scale farmers: United Nations “Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food” Olivier de Shutter. Modest and articulate, de Schutter looks more like the Belgian law professor he is than the outspoken proponent of small-scale agroecology he has become.
A UN report may sound like dry reading but de Schutter’s is filled with zingers. Case in point: “Recent [agroecology] projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.” Indeed, de Schutter’s December 2010 report pulls together studies from all over the world that analyze small-scale farmers practicing agroecology.
The result is powerful stuff. As de Schutter concludes, “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.” As he put it at the conference, “Each region must be able to feed itself.”
De Schutter’s work reinforces not just our findings, but what another conference’s speaker, U.S. food expert and firebrand Frances Moore Lappé, has been arguing for decades: We already grow more than enough food to feed the world’s people. The problem is not yields or production per se; it is that conventional plantation agriculture, combined with a development model that prioritizes cheap exports over food crops, have pushed millions off their fields. The nearly one billion people who are hungry are in that situation primarily because they no longer have land to grow their own food or because they are too poor to buy food.
The conference also featured Martha Robbins, an impressive young Canadian woman who, along with her parents and siblings, runs a family farm. Robbins spoke as a member of Via Campesina, which represents about 200 million small-scale farmers in 70 countries in a movement that promotes “food sovereignty,” by which they mean “defending small-scale farming, agroecology and local production.” Robbins focused many of her remarks on Via Campesina’s work with other young farmers: “We’re seeing a paradigm shift,” she emphasized, with “youth increasingly interested in farming.”
De Schutter made it clear that his UN report builds on such on-the-ground experiences as Robbins’ and also on the rich body of work on agroecology by scholar-practitioners. Notable among these are other conference speakers such as Berkeley’s Miguel Altieri, Food First’s Eric Holt-Gimenez, who works with the Campesino-a-Campesino movement, and conference organizer and Philippine peasant expert Jun Borras—all champions of small-scale farmers and agroecology.
So, what is the take-away from all this? Well, as individuals and communities, we have a lot to do with influencing the future of farming. At a minimum, we need to “vote with our forks,” to use the phrase of the “slow food” movement. This means buying local, organic, and whole-grain products and limiting our consumption of meat, as Tony Weis stressed at the conference. But beyond that, we need to raise our voices and collective power to convince governments, international organizations, and philanthropists such as the Gates Foundation to stop supporting and subsidizing chemical agribusiness and global trade, and instead shift incentives to local farmers and domestic production.
But let us not be naïve: The fight against giant agribusiness and chemical firms is a major one. Indeed, a key immediate battle where we need to raise our collective voices, outrage, and action is over Monsanto’s incursion into Nepal. Even as we write, the U.S. government is working with Monsanto to push farmers there to adopt chemical agriculture using imported Monsanto seeds.
Whether one is worried about hunger and global social crises, or climate change and other ecological crises, the answer is the same: small-scale organic farmers. Their future is central to whether the battle to end hunger can be won.
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.
Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.
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