Small-Scale Traditional Farming Is the Only Way to Avoid Food Crisis, UN Researcher Says

New scientific research increasingly shows how “agroecology” offers environmentally sustainable methods that can meet the rapidly growing demand for food.
Modern industrial agricultural methods can no longer feed the world, due to the impacts of overlapping environmental and ecological crises linked to land, water, and resource availability.
“If we deal with small farmers we solve hunger and we also deal with food production.”

The stark warning comes from the new United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, in her first public speech since being appointed by the U.N. in June.

“Food policies which do not address the root causes of world hunger would be bound to fail,” she told a packed audience in Amsterdam.

One billion people globally are hungry, she declared, before calling on governments to support a transition to “agricultural democracy” which would empower rural small farmers.

Agriculture needs a new direction

“The 2009 global food crisis signaled the need for a turning point in the global food system,” she said at the event hosted by the Transnational Institute, a leading international think tank. She continued:

Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilizers, and based on massive production. This policy has to change.

We are already facing a range of challenges. Resource scarcity, increased population, decreasing land availability and accessibility, emerging water scarcity, and soil degradation require us to re-think how best to use our resources for future generations.

The U.N. official said that new scientific research increasingly shows how “agroecology” offers far more environmentally sustainable methods that can still meet the rapidly growing demand for food:

Agroecology is a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society. New research in agroecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.

Small farmers are the key to a healthy future

“There is a geographical and distributional imbalance in who is consuming and producing,” Hilal Elver continued.

Global agricultural policy needs to adjust. In the crowded and hot world of tomorrow, the challenge of how to protect the vulnerable is heightened.

That entails recognizing women’s role in food production—from farmer, to housewife, to working mother, women are the world’s major food providers. It also means recognizing small farmers, who are also the most vulnerable and the most hungry.

“Food policies which do not address the root causes of world hunger would be bound to fail.”

Across Europe, the U.S., and the developing world, small farms face shrinking numbers. So if we deal with small farmers we solve hunger and we also deal with food production.

And Elver speaks not just with the authority of her U.N. role, but as a respected academic. She is research professor and co-director at the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy in the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

She is also an experienced lawyer and diplomat. A former founding legal advisor at the Turkish Ministry of Environment, she was previously appointed to the United Nations Environment Program’s chair in environmental diplomacy at the University of Malta.

The problem with industrial agriculture

Hinting at the future direction of her research and policy recommendations, Elver criticized the vast subsidies going to large agribusiness companies. Currently, in the European Union about 80 percent of subsidies and 90 percent of research funding go to support conventional industrial agriculture.

“Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world,” said Elver. "According to the U.N. Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO), 70 percent of food we consume globally comes from small farmers.” She continued:

This is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers. As rural people are migrating increasingly to cities, this is generating huge problems.

If these trends continue, by 2050, 75 percent of the entire human population will live in urban areas. We must reverse these trends by providing new possibilities and incentives to small farmers, especially for young people in rural areas.

“We are being far too kind to industrialized agriculture.”

If implemented, Elver’s suggestions would represent a major shift in current government food policies.

But Marcel Beukeboom, a Dutch civil servant specializing in food and nutrition at the Ministry of Trade & Development who spoke after Elver, dissented from Elver’s emphasis on small farms:

While I agree that we must do more to empower small farmers, the fact is that the big monocultural farms are simply not going to disappear. We have to therefore find ways to make the practices of industrial agribusiness more effective, and this means working in partnership with the private sector, small and large.

An initiative on agroecology?

The new U.N. food rapporteur’s debut speech coincided with a landmark two-day International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security in Rome, hosted by the FAO. More than 50 experts participated in the symposium, including scientists, the private sector, government officials, and civil society leaders.

A high-level roundtable at the close of the symposium included the agricultural ministers of France, Algeria, Costa Rica, Japan, Brazil and the European Union agricultural commissioner.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said:

Agroecology continues to grow, both in science and in policies. It is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, in the context of the climate change adaptation needed.

Agroecology is a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society.

A letter to the FAO signed by nearly 70 international food scientists congratulated the U.N. agency for convening the agroecology symposium and called for a “U.N. system-wide initiative on agroecology as the central strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience in the face of water crises.”

The scientists described agroecology as “a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”

More than just a science

A signatory to the letter, Mindi Schneider, assistant professor of Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, said:

Agroecology is more than just a science, it’s also a social movement for justice that recognizes and respects the right of communities of farmers to decide what they grow and how they grow it.

Several other food experts at the Transnational Institute offered criticisms of prevailing industrial practices. David Fig, who serves on the board of Biowatch South Africa, an NGO concerned with food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, said:

We are being far too kind to industrialized agriculture. The private sector has endorsed it, but it has failed to feed the world, it has contributed to major environmental contamination and misuse of natural resources. It’s time we switched more attention, public funds and policy measures to agroecology, to replace the old model as soon as possible.

Sergio Sauer, formerly Brazil’s national rapporteur for human rights in land, territory and food, added:

Agroecology is related to the way you relate to land, to nature to each other—it is more than just organic production, it is a sustainable livelihood.

In Brazil we have the National Association of Agroecology which brings together 7,000 people from all over the country pooling together their concrete empirical experiences of agroecological practices. They try to base all their knowledge on practice, not just on concepts.

Generally, nobody talks about agroecology, because it’s too political. The simple fact that the FAO is calling a major international gathering to discuss agroecology is therefore a very significant milestone.