A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has come in for criticism for suggesting that policymakers should give greater attention to larger production units as providers of food rather than focus on small farm peasants’ production.
Food might come from supermarkets but who, in reality, feeds the world? Who should policy-makers focus on, the small farmer or big agribusiness players? Should fishing communities, pastoralists and urban food producers be counted among farmers?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has courted controversy over these questions and eight farm advocacy organisations have shot of a protest to the FAO director general. The letter criticises the UN agency for a report titled Which farms feed the world and has farmland become more concentrated?
The letter from the farm advocacy groups, sent on 1 February says that the report has data and policy assumptions that “expose important contradictions”. Signatory organisations include Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, A Growing Culture, ETC Group, GRAIN, Groundswell International, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Landworkers Alliance and The Oakland Institute.
The letter, highlighting FAO confusion over the role of peasants in meeting the food needs of the world’s peoples has been signed by eight organisations with long experience working on food and farming issues. It calls upon FAO to examine its methodology, clarify itself and to reaffirm that peasants (including small farmers, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, and urban producers) not only provide more food with fewer resources but are the primary source of nourishment for at least 70% of the world population.
70 per cent nourishment or market value?
The FAO paper says that the world small farms only produce 35 per cent of the world’s food using 12 per cent of agricultural land. In contrast, the letter’s signatories, working with FAO’s normal or comparable databases, estimate that peasants nourish at least 70 per cent of the world’s people with less than one third of the agricultural land and resources.
The study, with FAO stamped all over it, has challenged the definition of the “family farmer” adopted by FAO and the UN decade of the family farm by excluding fishing communities, pastoralists and urban food producers and other accepted categories. It defines a “small farm” as a farm measuring less than two hectares, contradicting FAO’s own decision in 2018 to reject a universal land area threshold for describing small farms in favour of more sensitive country-specific definitions founded on the relationship between different variables.
Further, FAO paper “measures productivity by ‘value’ which, although left undefined, presumes market value,” it says, adding that “This is unrealistic. Although peasants routinely sell to the market, they also feed their families and communities outside commercial markets.”
The signing organisations have voiced disagreement with the study’s assumption that food production is a proxy for food consumption and that the commercial value of food in the marketplace can be equated to the nutritional value of the food consumed.
Small peasants serve nutrition
They argue in their letter, the paper ignores previous FAO reports that say that peasant farms produce more food and more nutritious food per hectare than large farms.
“We remain convinced that peasants not only grow a majority of the world’s food but are substantially more successful in meeting the nutritional requirements of food insecure populations,” their letter reads.
Implying the deep reach of big agribusiness through FAO’s echelons, the letter says the letter “also feeds into an agribusiness narrative anxious to play down the importance and effectiveness of peasant production in order to build support for their proprietary technologies, subsidies, and regulatory needs.”
The letter concludes saying, “There are few issues more important to get right than which system – agribusiness that sucks up more than 70 per cent of agricultural resources and only addresses 30 per cent of the people – or food sovereignty that is already nourishing 70 per cent of the people with less than one third of agricultural resources – is best able to meet the enormous food system challenges of the 21st century.”
An implicit message in the letter is that the kind of policies and farm laws seen in India of late might be part of a larger, concerted lobbying by big agribusiness players.
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