Poor farmers vital for overcoming hunger

Adopting an agro-ecological approach, in practice, implies empowering poor farmers rather than relying on rich farmers

Syed Mohammad Ali October 23, 2014
Poor farmers vital for overcoming hunger

An estimated one billion people around the world do not get enough food to eat. Why such alarmingly widespread hunger exists in our modern world is not an easy question to answer. The factors contributing to this glaring hunger problem have to do with which crops are being produced around the world, by whom, and how.

Modern agricultural practices have increasingly changed the manner in which food is produced. Gone are the days where a majority of the rural populace would produce enough food to sustain their households, and then sell surplus food to earn extra incomes. The increasing commercialisation of agriculture and cash-cropping have severely eroded the principle of subsistence farming. Agricultural production has moved away from the basic principle of growing enough food to feed local populations, and is instead, focused on growing crops to maximise corporate profits or support export earnings.

The advent of the ‘Green Revolution’, and thereafter, the rise of agribusiness, has seen increasing reliance on large-scale mono-cropping, with increasing use of farm machinery, fertilisers and pesticides, and now also genetically modified seeds. However, these capital intensive agricultural methods have not only proven incapable of feeding all the people in our world, but have created major environmental and ecological crises, causing, for example, massive land degradation and severe water shortage.

Recognising that the growing emphasis on ‘modern’ farming has been unable to solve the problem of adequately feeding a growing world population, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has recognised the need for reforming the global food system. The Food and Agricultural Organisation at the UN estimates that 70 per cent of the food that we consume globally still comes from small and poorer farmers. However, governments in both developed and developing countries are more focused on trying to boost agricultural production relying on large-scale or middle income farmers, or else agribusinesses. In the European Union, for example, around 80 per cent of subsidies are directed in support of conventional industrial agriculture. Agricultural subsidies in developing countries, including our own, also tend to benefit the better-off farmers rather than being targeted towards the poorest farmers, who are not considered the most efficient producers of crops, including food.

Given these ground realities, it is encouraging to see the UN cite new research arguing for the need to adopt an ‘agro-ecological’ approach to address the problem of world hunger. An agro-ecological approach recognises the value of traditional ways of farming, which are less resource-oriented and more environmentally sustainable. Adopting an agro-ecological approach, in practice, implies empowering poor farmers rather than relying on rich farmers who have the resources available to invest in modern agricultural practices. Such poor farmers include not only those who own very small amounts of land, but also the landless rural masses, including women, who own no land and have to work in agriculture either as share-croppers, or daily wage or seasonal agricultural labourers.

The UN is right in calling on all governments to support a transition to ‘agricultural democracy’, which empowers poorer farmers rather than relying on a relatively smaller number of richer farmers or agribusinesses.

The UN agencies should, however, also try to convince other multilateral organisations, like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, to adopt a similar approach and devise policies to provide incentives to small farmers, rather than propagating market mechanisms to boost agricultural production which continue to undermine the above described agro-ecological principles across rural areas of much of the developing world, where the experience of chronic hunger is felt most severely.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2014.

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Syed Akbar | 9 years ago | Reply

A very important subject, intelligently researched and thought provoking

touseef | 9 years ago | Reply

Comments list show how much our people are interested in food crisis in our country. No body bothers this is the main problem.

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