Food Security: Keeping Families in the Business of Agricultural Production

25 Nov

On Friday at UN Headquarters, November 22, The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) launched the 2014 International Year of the Family Farm.

The discussions were chaired by Amb. McLay of New Zealand and featured supporting statements from the offices of the Secretary General and President of the General Assembly, as well a statement by FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva and participation by several representatives of the globally diverse, family farming community.

There were many important insights on family farming that were shared during the course of the event.  Ample discussion ensued focused on the role of family farming in “alleviating hunger and poverty, in providing food security and nutrition, managing natural resources, protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development.”  Moreover, as the FAO website noted in describing the event, “Family farmers are embedded in territorial networks and local cultures, and spend their incomes mostly within local and regional markets, generating many agricultural and non-agricultural jobs.”

In an agricultural sector currently dominated by corporate monopolies, biological monocultures, genetically modified seeds and the like, it was indeed refreshing to have a reminder of how important family farming can be to maintaining nutritional balance, sustainable farming techniques and healthier local economies.  No doubt the minds of many in the room, myself included, wandered back to their own rural experiences where life was difficult and perhaps a bit romantic, a time when fending for yourself and sharing with your community were complementary and essential activities. Places where, to paraphrase the social philosopher, Wendell Berry, people still preferred to have a neighbor than to own a neighbor’s farm.

The issue for policymakers now is partially about honoring family farmers and partially about how to ensure that farming options that have so much to do with the well-being of communities, especially in the developing world, are maintained.   This is not a sentimental longing but an indispensable option.   It is sheer foolishness for policy elites in large urban environments to remain inattentive to those who seek control over farmlands and their yields, mines and their extractions, watersheds and their life giving liquid.  If there are to be wars and armed internal conflicts in this next phase of our collective history, they will surely be fought over minerals and water more than over borders and the pride of national leadership.

One issue to which we must pay more attention, which came up during the launch and also in a publication distributed at the launch event, “Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth,” has to do with access to markets.   Rural family farmers are often in danger of being bought out or ‘priced out’ by large corporations or investors with more knowledge of and better access to agricultural markets, not to mention to the government officials who preside over such markets.   In an age of capital expanding its influence faster than governments can (or wish to) regulate, family farms are vulnerable to a host of pressures, including having their markets undercut by farmers in other rural regions.

But another and perhaps more important factor has to do with the security of agricultural workers themselves, mostly rural, often women, and in many societies beyond the reach of whatever state security apparatus exists.   The vulnerabilities of rural farmers, especially female farmers, need much more attention from the international community, especially in this International Year.

In Cameroon, our partners at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation (LUKMEF) are organizing an event, Women Conference on Peace and Leadership in Sustainable Agribusiness, which will bring women farmers from throughout the Central African region with government officials to explore these two critical matters – markets and security.    The policy paper produced by LUKMEF for this event stresses the need to address violence against women, promote their access to justice, include training in peace building and conflict prevention along with agriculture-focused workshops, and work with governments to ensure more attention to the security needs of the rural communities that literally provide our daily bread.

We think that LUKMEF has this right.  It might seem an odd linkage for an organization like GAPW otherwise committed to peace and security issues at UN Headquarters.  But there is no denying the peace and security implications of vulnerable rural communities and of the women and men who strive to keep those communities viable.  We have little hope of achieving food security for developing societies unless we are able to more effectively guarantee the security of agricultural workers.

Sadly, our habits of consumption and our rapacious appetite for control of commodities and resources are creating societies that are more and more disconnected from – and disinterested in – rural issues and processes.    If there is to be maximum value to this International Year, and we must all hope and work for the best in this regard, it would manifest itself in a comprehensive reinvestment in rural agriculture production from all security and development sectors.  Our farms are facing times of crisis.   Our farm families must be secure enough to help direct locally-based responses to these grave challenges.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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