Small-holder farmers the key to world food crisis

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 16 Oct 2009

There is enough food grown in the world for everyone. And yet we remain stuck in a food crisis. Half the world’s food is lost as waste while a billion people – one in every six of us – cannot access enough of the other half and so go hungry every day.

Our leaders have another chance to put that right. They meet next month at the UN World Food Summit in Rome to talk about ending hunger. Australia is sending a delegation led by Agriculture Minister Tony Burke. The summit will run for two-and-a-half days, during which time 60,000 people will die from hunger-related causes, 70 percent of them children. That alone should be enough to focus leaders’ attention on doing the right things.

Performance so far has not been very encouraging. The Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by 2015 will not be achieved without more action – and now a new pledge will be tabled to eradicate hunger totally by 2025.

To do so, leaders must concentrate on helping poor farmers who have been left to fend for themselves on the front-line of hunger, poverty and climate change. Three out of every four poor people depend on agriculture, so that is where global poverty must be tackled. In addition, small-scale farmers hold the key to increasing global food production in a sustainable way that could cope with climate change. Here’s how it could work.

All countries must invest more in small-scale agriculture. Rich countries must increase their agricultural aid spending to at least 1980-levels of around 17 percent of total aid. Australia currently spends about 6 percent of its aid budget on rural development.

Developing countries must commit more of their national budgets to agriculture. African countries, for instance, have promised 10% of their budgets to agriculture. Vietnam invested heavily in its farming sector when it looked for economic growth and food security, and in 12 years turned itself from a country that had to import much of its food to being a major exporter. Last year poverty in Vietnam fell to below 15% of the population compared with 58% in 1979.

This year’s G8 summit pledged $20 billion over three years to poor farmers and consumers. This sounds generous, but it equates to around $6 per hungry person per year, or less than two cents a day.

However, the problem of hunger and poverty in a climate-changing world will not be solved simply by throwing more money at fertilizer, higher-yielding seeds and big irrigation schemes. These things are important but are not always sustainable or what small-scale farmers actually need.

We cannot maintain increased food productivity in a low-carbon and resource-scarce world by further intensifying today’s farming industry. Agriculture needs to be rebuilt along entirely different lines and poor farmers and countries need to be central to that change. Countries must invest in farmer-driven extension schemes and social safety nets to help the poorest people buy food locally. 

Meanwhile, climate change is already causing massive shifts in seasonal growing patterns, especially in the tropics where most poor people live and farm. Agriculture contributes 14% to global carbon emissions, therefore changing the way that farmers use land and forests will be important in how we cut emissions and help people to cope with climate harm. Poor farmers must not be left bearing the costs of these changes, which is why climate finance is such a deal-breaker at December’s climate change talks in Copenhagen.

Along with more investment, we need better checks on “boom-and-bust” speculation in food and fuel markets. The current Doha round of world trade negotiations must correct the rigged rules and double standards in global agricultural trade. We need new information systems and technologies that are appropriate to small-scale farmers – particularly women – and regulate companies to ensure their value chains work in the interests of global prosperity and safety. Developing countries must be in charge of their own policies to promote sustainable local production and consumption, and to access the export dollar.

The World Food Summit must hold all governments to their promises. We need an International Public Register of Commitments to record every country’s commitments and monitor what they deliver.

Finally, we need a new global partnership that can capture the power of the G8, guarantee the participation of poor country governments and civil society, develop global policies and coordinate the mish-mash of powerful influences on global agriculture.

As Agriculture Minister Burke said earlier this year: ‘With food security, the economic crisis and climate change, the challenges are huge and the relationships are complex. All people, especially the most needy, are relying on us to get this right. As a global community we need to prove that we are worthy of the challenge before us’.

By James Ensor

Director of Public Policy, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial first appeared in the Canberra Times on 16 October 2009.