Opinion

Small farms, big results

World hunger is best treated with local growers and crops

Grassroots international
Gilberto Silva, a Brazilian small farmer, holds up a cassava root that will yield almost five pounds of food. Silva is a member of the Popular Peasant Movement, which runs the Creole Seeds Project.

FOR THREE decades the UN World Food Day on Oct. 16 has offered a ready-made opportunity to tackle hunger’s causes and solutions. Unfortunately, the conversation often focuses narrowly on ways to increase the food supply with purchased technologies originating far from farmers’ fields.

This focus isn’t working. The world produces more than enough for each of us to thrive. Yet the number of hungry people has hit all-time highs, now nearly 1 billion.

Globally, our core problem is not a lack of quantity of food but rather the destructive quality of human power relationships: The gross imbalances from the village level to that of international trade create hunger no matter how much we produce. So, what if we widened our focus? What if we began to see that much of the solution to hunger - along with an answer to a big piece of the climate conundrum - lies with some of the world’s poorest people, the small farmers themselves?

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A half-billion small-farm families grow 70 percent of the world’s food, yet rural people also make up about half of the 925 million people going hungry. Evidence mounts that, even when starting with poor soils, many of these farms are dramatically increasing yields and income by using local resources and agro-ecological practices that build healthy soil and conserve water.

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A recent overview by GRAIN magazine concludes that agro-ecological practices so enrich the soil’s carbon-holding capacity that, if widely used, could offset as much as a third of current global annual greenhouse gas emissions within 50 years.

Critical for ending hunger, such small-scale farming using agro-ecological approaches also begins to redress power imbalances: It frees farmers, and those who eat their food, from dependency on suppliers of commercial inputs. Using locally developed seeds, for example, farmers are freed from vulnerability to oligopoly power and price swings in a volatile global market where only 10 seed companies control 57 percent of sales.

Consider Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, where small farmers have literally “turned back the desert’’ through agroforestry, nurturing the growth of 200 million trees, many bearing fruit and fodder and stabilizing soil on 12.5 million acres while securing food for 2.5 million people. Or Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state long known as the pesticide capital of the world. A village-level and women-led “nonpesticide movement’’ is rejecting genetically modified seeds while diversifying crops, increasing farm income, and growing local jobs by making natural anti-pesticide potions. And in Brazil’s central plateau, farmers are field-testing to identify and produce the best local seeds. Known as the Creole Seeds Project, it’s proving that local seeds are more productive, resist insects more, and yield better-tasting crops than costly hybrids and genetically modified seeds.

With all this in mind, our anti-hunger agenda changes. Fixation on scarcity eases, and the questions become: How do we enable more equitable power relationships so that small farmers can prosper? How do we create inclusive policies so that urban people can afford what their rural neighbors grow?

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Answers include major investments in farmers’ knowledge of agro-ecology, such as their participation in the Farmer Field Schools of the United Nations’ agricultural arm; fair marketing opportunities for small farmers; and on-farm food storage (since one third of food is lost in the Global South largely because farmers are too poor to afford proper storage).

Equally critical are sensible policies for building global grain reserves and remaking trade rules that put poor farmers in the Global South and family farmers in the United States at a disadvantage. Financial rules also need to be redesigned so speculators can’t dominate commodity markets, which contributes to hunger-making food price swings. Ending hunger also means halting “land grabs’’ by foreign speculators, who have grabbed about 560 million acres in the Global South in the last decade.

In all, our role in the Global North shifts from that of pushing costly technologies abroad to removing obstacles in the way of the world’s real food and climate heroes, the small farmers and farm workers.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of 18 books, most recently “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want’’ and co-directs the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge. Nikhil Aziz is executive director of Grassroots International in Boston.