[Trade liberalisation’s] main agenda is to divest power from communities, and even governments, and place it in the hands of huge multinationals, who already have too much money and influence.
Food security is one of the most pressing global issues of the day. What could be more important than making sure people have enough to eat? Despite huge advances in agricultural technology over the last half-century, people – in their millions – are dying from hunger-related causes. By the end of this year, more than three million children will probably have died as a result of poor nutrition.
2014 has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Family Farming. This might seem counter-intuitive at first. If people are starving, surely more efficient, large-scale farms would be a better solution? In fact, as agriculture has become more concentrated in the hands of huge transnational agribusinesses, hunger rates have actually increased: from 788m in 1995 to 925m in 2010. Essentially, the problem is not production levels but how food is distributed, which is affected by volatile market forces. Regulated small-scale and family farming can more easily be tailored to meet the demands of their local communities.
Why the focus on family farming?
Despite the prevalence of huge multinational agribusinesses, 70% of the world’s food is still produced by family farmers. Therefore, because of their number and potential for increased yields, to successfully combat hunger and make agriculture more sustainable, it is vitally important that family farmers are given the support and protection they need to produce enough food and to be able to sell it at a reasonable price.
What’s more, some 2.5bn people are involved in family farming and three out of four of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas. Making family farming economically viable will therefore have a positive impact on poverty alleviation and development. In fact, GDP growth generated in agriculture is twice as effective at reducing poverty than in any other sector. In addition, women account for up to 80% of the agricultural workforce in developing nations, so enabling family farmers to flourish should also be a boon for women’s rights and future prospects.
Last year, the UN produced a report compiled by more than 60 independent experts, ominously titled Wake Up Before It’s Too Late. Its conclusion was clear; small-scale farmers hold the key to solving not only food security, but also reducing the impact of climate change on agriculture, making the industry more sustainable, less wasteful and with greater biodiversity.
The report states: “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification approach”. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.” [emphasis added]
What are the challenges for family farming?
The greatest threats to family farming are a typical story of neoliberalism. It pretty much boils down to trade “liberalisation” in a marketplace of uneven development. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, under the quintessential neoliberal premise that free trade is mutually beneficial and has a trickledown effect both within and between economies. It set the standard for how future multi and bilateral trade agreements would take shape and we can continue to see its influence in the controversial and currently contested free trade agreements of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). As spiralling global inequality – which in the last 30 years has become greater than it was 1850 – demonstrates, trade liberalisation generally concentrates wealth in the hands of the big boys. In agriculture it’s no different.
Not only can large transnational agribusinesses undercut local small-scale producers because of their massive size advantage (simple economies of scale), they don’t even play on a level playing field. Government subsidies in the US and Europe, enshrined in the Farm Bill and Common Agricultural Policy respectively, unevenly support large companies to the detriment of smaller farmers, both locally and on the global marketplace. This is a typical feature of “trade liberalisation” under neoliberalism; big companies only support laissez faire free trade when it suits them and are only too happy to lobby for government subsidies. In the US the number of small farms has decreased by 40% in the last 25 years, while the number of large farms has increased by 243%.
On an international level, government subsidies have allowed large agribusinesses to partake in a practice known as “agricultural dumping”’ which essentially means exporting food to international markets and selling it at below the cost of production. When you factor in the advantages of scale big businesses already have, it’s no surprise that this practice completely decimates local farmers in the poorest regions of the world, by massively undercutting them.
Agricultural dumping has led many poor nations that were previously self-sufficient to become completely dependent on cheap imports. Take Haiti, for instance; 30 years ago, it produced 80% of its own rice, today it has to import 80% of it. Over-reliance on imports can be catastrophic when prices rise as a result of external factors and the local agricultural infrastructure has simply disappeared as a result of being priced out.
The G8′s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is another troubling example, and nowhere near as benevolent as it sounds. The initiative will ease export controls and tax laws to make it easier for large companies to buy up big stretches of land, ringfenced for “investment”, to the detriment of local farmers and food security. The governments of Malawi, Ethopia, Nigeria and Ghana have already pledged to put aside land for the initiative. It appears many investors will use the land for non-edible cash crops, primarily for the export market, such as cotton, rubber and biofuels.
Zitto Kabwe, chairman of the Tanzanian parliament’s public accounts committee, told the Guardian: “It will be like colonialism. Farmers will not be able to farm until they import, linking farmers to [the] vulnerability of international prices. Big companies will benefit. We should not allow that.”
The Ghanaian parliament is currently considering the Plant Breeders Bill, which violates local farmers’ ancient right to keep and exchange seeds, instead forcing them to purchase their seeds at inflated prices from big businesses such as Monsanto and Unilever. Duke Tagoe of Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG), a grassroots advocacy group, said: “The economic impact on the lives of farmers will be disastrous. The origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain”.
FSG claims that International Monetary Fund (IMF) funds are being “held hostage” in order to see the bill pass through. This is another typical feature of the neoliberal agenda, using the promise of IMF loans, or the threat of their removal, to enforce privatisation of public assets and trade liberalisation. The World Development Movement is currently running a campaign against the Plant Breeders Bill.
What can be done
First and foremost, trade liberalisation agreements must be resisted at all costs. As campaigners against the TIP and TTIP will know, their main agenda is to divest power from communities, and even governments, and place it in the hands of huge multinationals who already have too much money and influence. It is also vital to recognise that while the plight of family farmers in Africa or South America might seem far removed from a trade agreement between Europe and the US, these issues are deeply interconnected. Family farmers the world over must not only connect with each other to overcome similar barriers, other victims of neoliberalism must also join the dots.
As Western consumers, we must seriously reconsider our eating habits which are unsustainable and bad for the planet. The prevalence of transnational agribusiness has led to an over-reliance on huge single-crop farms. This has triggered a 70% decrease in agricultural biodiversity. Cross-breeding indigenous crops makes them more resistant to disease than the likes of corn or wheat and fewer pesticides need to be used, which has positive environmental outcomes.
Ultimately, family farmers need support and investment, which for too long has instead been used to line the pockets of their multinational counterparts. Checks also need to be put in place to stop the speculative market trading on foodstuffs as “commodities”, as a volatile and fluctuating marketplace is one of the major causes of hunger, rather than the amount of food produced.
As the world population grows and climate change begins to bite, food security is going to become even more important in the decades that follow. We cannot leave an issue as important as feeding the world in the hands of a concentrated elite of profit-grabbing agribusinesses.
Image: The site of an undisclosed palm oil plantation in Indonesia, owned by multi-billion-dollar multinational, Cargill. Image courtesy of Rainforest Action Network, used under CC BY-NC 2.0.