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Can small farmers solve our big problems?

 

With Live Below the Line fast approaching, this guest blog, which was originally published by the Fairtrade Foundation looks at how we can move towards a fairer world without hunger.

Fairtrade Fortnight launches this year amid increasing hunger in the developing world and sharply rising food and commodity prices caused by rising food demand, poor harvests, climate change, excessive speculation and hoarding.

As concern grows over how the world will feed a rapidly rising population, it is almost taken for granted that increased food production will be supplied by big agri-business operating over large tracts of land and pushing down costs with aggressive margins.

There are, however, 450 million smallholders on whom another 1.5 billion rely on for their food and livelihood. The needs and the potential of these people are all too often forgotten in the escalating global food crisis.

Two years ago, in the light of the food price spikes of 2008, the Fairtrade Foundation released a study showing how smallholder farmers are often among the most vulnerable to increased food prices. Producers in poor countries sit at the wrong end of both chains – paying over the odds for food and fertilizers while receiving a pittance for the product of their skills and labour. A UN report on global hunger, in 2006 indicated that half the world’s ‘hungry’ were actually farmers.
 

This situation is not inevitable. It is a direct consequence of deep rooted inequality, in global society and in the food system specifically.

There is a growing consensus that something is broken in global supply chains. In January 2011 the British government, in its Foresight report ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’, acknowledged ‘a compelling case for urgent action to redesign the global food system’. The Foresight report highlighted both the need to reduce volatility in food prices and to ensure that increasing food production is matched with action to secure universal access to food.

A few months earlier, the Food and Ethics Council launched their excellent report ‘Food Justice’. This report made clear the creation of a fairer food system is central to achieving wider sustainability and health goals.

In 2009, the ‘International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’ (IAASTD), set out to respond to ‘the widespread realization that despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and environmental consequences of our achievements’. Policy options from the report for addressing food security include major investment in smallholder agriculture and ‘increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and Fair Trade products’

The Food Ethics Council report is particularly welcome as too many recent discussions about food security have focussed understandably, albeit simplistically, on the need to produce more and more food, but ignored issues of justice and equity.

We are surely shooting ourselves in the foot if, in our drive to increase food production, we leave more people unable to afford the additional food that we produce. As we stand the worlds agriculture provides more than enough food for six billion, but a high percentage of this is wasted, thrown away or adds to the growing problem of obesity while others go hungry.

A lot of discussions about food security focuses on the need to use technology and economies of scale to improve the efficiency of agricultural production. Such approaches will undoubtedly have a role to play, but a fair and sustainable food system will require an appropriate balance of investment in both small and large scale production.

In its 2011 ‘Rural Poverty Report’ the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) President, Kanayo F Nwanze, stated that:

‘It is time to look at poor smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs in a completely new way – not as charity cases but as people whose innovation, dynamism and hard work will bring prosperity to their communities and greater food security to the world in the decades ahead.’

Across the world the Fairtrade movement provides thousands of examples demonstrating how smallholder farmers can use the opportunities provided by Fairtrade to invest in agricultural improvement and diversification. This experience complements an increasing number of studies, most notably by Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, suggesting that investing in smallholder farms can be a route to:

- Substantial gains in terms of productivity per hectare
- Improving environmentally sustainablity
- Poverty reduction and improved equality of income

One of the critical factors to achieving these improvements has been effective organisation. The Fairtrade system requires smallholders to organise into cooperatives or other forms of democratic institution. This organisation can provide smallholders with greater control over price setting, access to knowledge and opportunities to capture value.

A paper by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) in 2010, reviewing all published literature investigating Fairtrade’s impact (over 80 reports in total), concluded that the published literature strongly supports the argument that Fairtrade is having positive economic and empowerment impacts for smallholder farmers and identified democratic organisation as being of particular relevance to the impact.

Of course, Fairtrade alone cannot create a sustainable food system. Much wider shifts in Aid and Trade policy will be required. As an example the recent Government white paper on Trade acknowledges the role that trade can play in development and makes a strong commitment to the ‘Aid for Trade’ programme. This is 15% of the UK’s Aid budget which is spent against a set of criteria explicitly designed to increase poor countries ability to benefit from trade.

A 2009 report by the Brussels-based Fair Trade Advocacy Office shows that, of the £155 million spent between 2001 – 2005 by the UK on Aid for Trade (based on a relatively narrow definition of ‘Aid for Trade’), only 29 projects with combined funds of approximately US$7 million were specifically designed to benefit smallholders – just 2% of the total.

While investment in large scale infrastructure is necessary, it is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure that poor farmers are able to realise the potential trade can offer. Greater emphasis must be placed on programmes with an explicit focus on reaching rural communities. There is also a need to shift the focus towards ‘soft’ interventions such as organisational development, extension services, training and communications services that. Fairtrade has demonstrated just what a catalytic effect such support can have in bringing smallholder farmers into national and global markets.

The fantastic Fairtrade sales figures for 2010 show, even in these troubled times, price is not the only thing that matters to UK shoppers. The basic principles of Fairtrade – that poor producers deserve a fair return for their labour and that there is more than one way to address ‘economic efficiency’ – still resonate. Our policy makers need to take heed!

You can take action in the fight against hunger by joining thousands of others around the world in Live Below the Line this May. Learn more and signup now - USA, UK, Australia.

Posted by Toby Quantrill (Guest Blogger) in Hunger for column Live Below the Line on Apr 27th 2011, 06:29