Every era has its challenges. And each challenge demands specific responses.
In the 1960’s, famine threatened South Asia. New high yielding wheat and rice varieties responding well to high levels of fertilizer application and ample water availability significantly boosted food production. Developed under the leadership of Norman Borlaug, they helped launch the Green Revolution, credited for saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It was the right answer to the looming food crisis that the world faced half a century ago.
Today, we are not facing famine — but we are at a crossroads.
Around 842 million people remain chronically hungry because they cannot afford to eat adequately, despite the fact that the world is no longer short of food.
And as we look towards 2050 we have the additional challenge of feeding a population that is eating more — and sometimes better, healthier diets — and which is expected to surpass the nine billion mark.
At the same time farmers — and humanity as a whole — are already facing the new challenges posed by climate change. And the degradation of land and water resources, as well as other negative environmental impacts, is showing us the limits of highly intensive farming systems.
We need a way forward that has the same novelty of the Green Revolution but which responds to today’s needs: We cannot use the same tool to respond to a different challenge.
And so the quest is now on for truly sustainable farming systems that can meet the world’s future food needs. And nothing comes closer to the sustainable food production paradigm than family farming.
It is fitting, therefore, that the United Nations has named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. It provides an occasion to highlight the role that family farmers play in eradicating hunger and conserving natural resources, central elements of the sustainable future we want.
Support to family farming need not and should not be done in opposition to large-scale, specialized farming, which also plays an important role to ensure global food supply and which faces its own challenges, including the adoption of sustainable approaches.
But we have much to learn about sustainable practices from family farmers, a group that includes smallholders and medium scale farmers, peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folk, pastoralists, collectors and many others.
Much of the world’s experience in sustainable farming systems has been gained by family-run farms. From generation to generation, family farmers have transmitted knowledge and skills, preserving and improving many practices and technologies that can support agricultural sustainability. Using innovative techniques such as building terraces and adopting zero-tillage practices, family farmers have consistently succeeded in maintaining production on often marginal lands.
The preservation and sustainable use of natural resources is rooted in the productive logic of family farms and sets them apart from large-scale specialized farming. The highly diversified nature of their agricultural activities gives them a central role in promoting environmental sustainability, safeguarding biodiversity and contributes to healthier and more balanced diets.
Family farmers also play a pivotal role in the local production, marketing and consumption circuits that are so important not simply in fighting hunger but also in creating jobs, generating income, and in stimulating and diversifying local economies.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 500 million family farms. In a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) survey of 93 countries, family farmers account on average for over 80 percent of all holdings. In developed and developing countries alike, they are the main producers of food consumed locally, the primary stewards of food security.
Experiences in many countries show that family farmers respond well with increased production if the appropriate policy environment is effectively put in place.
Yet at the same time, over 70 percent of the world’s food insecure population lives in rural areas in developing countries. Many of them are subsistence producers who may not grow enough to meet their families’ needs. Typically they have access only to limited and often degraded natural resources and are particularly vulnerable to external shocks, including those induced by climate change.
Too frequently in the past, family farmers were considered a problem to be solved, the target of social policies with only limited potential.
That is the mind-set we need to change. Family farmers are not part of the problem; on the contrary, they are part of the solution for food security and sustainable development.
But there is a limit to what family farmers can achieve on their own. Governments, international organizations, regional agencies, civil society organizations, the private sector and research institutions have a role to play in providing this support and creating the enabling environment they need to thrive.
What family farmers need is similar throughout the world: technical assistance and policies that build on their knowledge and bolster sustainable productivity increase; appropriate technologies; quality inputs that respond to their needs and respect their culture and traditions; special attention to women and youth farmers; strengthening of producers’ organizations and cooperatives; improved access to land and water, credit and markets; and efforts to improve their participation in value chains.
The 2014 International Year of Family Farming gives us a chance to revitalize this critical sector. By choosing to celebrate family farmers, we recognize that they must be protagonists in responding to the dual challenge the world today faces: improving food security while preserving crucial natural resources.
This is the test of our era. Giving family farmers the attention and support they deserve, we can rise to meet it.
The writer is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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