A Eulogy for Family Farmers on World Food Day

WFD 2014: Year of the Family Farmer

WFD 2014: Year of the Family Farmer

Tomorrow, October 16, 2014, is World Food Day.

On the 69th World Food Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has chosen to celebrate The International Year of the Family Farming (IYFF).

It’s a noble gesture on the FAO’s part – considering the historical and current efforts made by family farms, worldwide, to nourish, sustain and help society grow and evolve as it has today – though it feels to me, ironically, a bit like speaking kindly about a distant relative at their funeral, or perhaps, expressing overdue gratitude to a long-lost friend on their deathbed.

I’m not trying to be cynical (though it does come naturally, I’ll admit). But family farmers, worldwide, would tell you themselves, it’s getting harder and harder to be a family farm under the restraints of today’s neoliberal markets and agriculture policies, competing against large-scale and corporate agriculture.

Sixty-nine years since ‘World Food Day’ was born – on October 16, 1945, with the inaugural meeting of the FAO and 42 countries coming together to take “another important step forward in man’s perpetual struggle against hunger and malnutrition” (never mind ‘women’s perpetual struggle’) – the family farm around the world has been eroded by neoliberal trade policies into practical non-existence and, most certainly, irrelevance.

“I’m just a bit of dust under the boot,” a family farmer from Ontario, Canada, told me with a sad laugh. “Current trade agreements are giving the balance of power to global corporate interests – not [family] farmers.”

1EN_WFD_Banner_02Over the years, the FAO has continued to celebrate its ‘old boys club’ birthday party on October 16th, as international trade policies, restrictions, negotiations and outcomes, have made it increasingly difficult for family farms to do what they do best: “Feeding the world, caring for the earth” (somewhat ironically, the FAO’s chosen slogan for this year’s WFD).

1984 - Women in Agriculture

1984 – Women in Agriculture

In 1981, the theme was “Food Comes First”, in 1984 it was “Women in Agriculture” and by 1990, the slogan was “Food for the Future”.

During these years, as the FAO blew out the candles on their ‘World Food Day’ birthday cakes, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were busy with campaigns of their own: putting restrictions and “structural adjustments” on countries in the Global South (namely Asia and Latin America) to open their markets for global trade (the terms bent, of course, in the favor of G8 countries).

The IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program of the 1990s made poor countries agree to make dramatic changes to all sectors of society, including agriculture, in order to receive loans.

The loan terms often involved slashing government services and protections for small farmers (the family farmers), deregulating markets, while removing import tariffs (so G8 countries could ‘dump’ staple grain crops on the markets and profit).

Green Revolution in India

Green Revolution in India

During the early 1990s in India, the aforementioned global institutions were heralding (and financing) the “Green Revolution” which focused on converting family farms (often small-scale, organic and biodiverse) into large-scale, mechanized agriculture. This occurred by land grabbing ‘vacant land’ (which was often communal land used by family farmers for grazing livestock, gathering fodder, firewood and wild foods). It also occurred in the market, which no longer protected family farmers and ensured fair price returns for their crops.

The new global farming preference of the 1990s did, indeed, change ‘Food For the Future’ (as the 1990 World Food Day celebrated) in India and other countries of the Global South.

Policies pushed peasant and family farmers off the land and into the urban slums of India. The rate of urbanization of family farmers into urban centers, including Mumbai and Delhi, accelerated rapidly in the 1990s – a direct result of the Green Revolution. Today, the rate of urbanization into Mumbai is 4.1%, one of the highest rates in the world.

Nor were family farmers in North America immune to neoliberal global trends.

Family farms are fewer and larger in Canada.

Family farms are fewer and larger in Canada.

They, too, suffered from global trade policies of the 1990s and shrank in numbers, unable to weather market volatility and compete with large-scale farms. Sadly, by 2011, the number of family farms in Canada diminished by 24% percent. Yes, today 90% of Canadian farms are family-owned, but the average farm size has increased by 200 acres (6.9% increase). That means family farms in Canada are fewer and larger than in the 1990s.

According to the 2011 Census of Agriculture, the average farm size jumped 15.1 per cent to 1,668 acres in Saskatchewan, the largest increase in the country. No doubt, that has to do with the ‘great Canadian prairie land grab’ and rapid privatization of the prairies.

WFD 'Right to Food' Campaign

WFD ‘Right to Food’ Campaign

Meanwhile in 2007, World Food Day was celebrating “The Right to Food”, while numbers of global hunger and malnutrition had never been higher. Ironically, the majority of those who were hungry and malnourished were also family farmers (or displaced family farmers) struggling to get by in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

The FAO’s ‘Right to Food’ campaign failed to critique the impact of the 1990s policies, including structural adjustment, on family farmers around the world. The omission in the FOA’s analysis in 2007 seemed to suggest that ‘everyone’ had the right to food, but not ‘everyone’ had the right to grow food, or to be a farmer.

In 2010, the US and G8 countries began pushing for the Second Green Revolution – this time focusing on Africa. They call it the ‘New’ Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition; of course, it’s not very new, or innovative in any way. It’s a flashback to the Structural Adjustment Program of the 1990s. Help African countries ‘modernize agriculture’, dump hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and encourage African governments to approve GMO seeds.

Oh, and one critical element of the New Alliance: partner with the private sector for ‘sustainable strategies’. It’s no surprise that the world’s largest seed companies are on board to ‘partner and participate’ – Monsanto, Dupont, Sygenta, the list goes on.

85% of Ugandans are subsistence to small-scale family farmers.

85% of Ugandans are subsistence to small-scale family farmers.

In Uganda, nearly 85% of the population practice subsistence to smallholder (family) agriculture. The president recently commented in his address to parliament: “Subsistence farmers are the cause of great poverty in Uganda”. It’s clear that Uganda is planting the seeds to make way for increased agribusiness, foreign investment and large-scale agriculture – very much in line with the New Alliance’s vision. It’s clear that these policies do not put family farmers at the center of their planning; in fact, they’re doing the opposite.

As Vandana Shiva says about India’s contemporary agricultural system and policies, the same can be said about Uganda: “The government wants a food system without small farmers”.

To some, that may appear like a way forward, or ‘development’ for Ugandans – getting off the land and relying on the land. Yet there are no jobs waiting for them in the towns and cities, where they’ll have no gardens, no consistent access to food (and certainly no control over rising food prices). As Wendell Berry writes (with a kind of sad sarcasm):

“Farmers are better off when they lose their farms. They are improved by
being freed of the “mind-numbing work” of farming. Mexican migrant field
hands, like Third World workers in our sweatshops, are being improved by our
low regard and low wages.

And besides, however objectionable from the
 stand point of “nostalgia,” the dispossession of farmers and their
replacement by machines, chemicals, and oppressed migrants is “inevitable,”
and it is “too late” for correction,”

The Death of the American Family Farm.”

So forgive me if I am struggling, today, the day before the FAO celebrates their 69th birthday, in honor of ‘Family Farming’, to take their “lip service” seriously.

Why are we celebrating family farming around the world – seventy years too late?

Tomorrow, we’ll see and hear the following in the media: NGOs using the opportunity to highlight their grassroots success stories, politicians taking the time to listen to farmer’s issues and concerns, and family farmers being thrust, if for a day, to share their successes and failures, their frustrations and ideas. We’ll see beautiful photographs of farmers from around the world. We’ll write positive messages of support for farmers on social media. We’ll share stories and links. If for a day, we’ll give family farmers their due respect.

But it ends as that, as it does, sadly, on every World Food Day.

A glance back at the last thirty years tells us that, no matter the rhetoric and success stories from the UN, FAO and NGOs, global market trends and policies have worked (and are working continuously) against the empowerment and evolution of the family farm.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe the world (and people who make policies) is waking up to the fact that family farming does, indeed, feed the world and care for the earth. The UN reports that small, organic farming is the way forward to producing food and adapting to a dramatically changing climate. Yet, the national and international policies being put in place in the Global North and Global South do not reflect or honor the UN’s findings.

Land grabs, patents on seeds and biodiversity, control and massive consumption of water, pollution of waterways; unjust trade relations and direct and indirect violence displace family farmers from the land. This is the reality that family farmers are facing, worldwide.

Tomorrow, go ahead and celebrate the value of family farmers in contributing to community and environmental health. But get to know the issues, the deep issues that are making it harder and harder to be a family farmer. And then advocate, alongside family farmers, to allow them to grow and distribute food, and to tend to the land as stewards.

A good place to start is with La Via Campesina, an international grassroots network of family farmers that is also using World Food Day to advocate for political change and resist the injustice put on family farmers around the world.

Finally, I am proposing the FAO consider choosing: “Undoing the Global Food System” as a celebratory theme for their 70th birthday. Obviously, it’s bound to be a big one.

But if the FAO loves and honors family farmers, as they claim to do in 2014, changing the global trade policies that are creating poverty, hunger and malnutrition is the only thing that will save them from making that sad, inevitable eulogy at their funeral.

Let me end my WFD rant with some words of wisdom from Vandana Shiva, a true ally and advocate for family farmers:

“Growing food, processing, transforming and distributing it involves 70% of humanity, eating food involves all of us. Yet is it not culture or human rights that are shaping today’s dominant food economy. It is speculation and profits.

There is no place for hunger in a sustainable, just and democratic society.”

(Making Peace with the Earth: Beyond Resources, Land and Food Wars, 2012).


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