Mon, Oct 30, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The developing world's small-scale farmers are hungry for change

Since the UN last pledged to help reduce world hunger, an extra 25 million people have joined the list of the world's undernourished. Now small-scale farmers are insisting on being heard

By Patrick Mulvany and John Madeley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

When governments meet today and tomorrow in Rome to assess how far they have gone towards meeting their pledge to halve hunger by 2015, the mood will be somber.

The goal is moving out of sight. New figures from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will show not a reduction but an increase of more than 25 million chronically undernourished people since 1996.

The figure now stands at more than 850 million, and is testament to how current global policies, far from working, are consigning the hungry to stay hungry.

So what is going wrong? Let's go back to 2002, when the UN World Food Summit pledge was last reviewed. Then, the parallel Forum for Food Sovereignty, organized by non-governmental groups representing small farmers and people around the world at the sharp end of hunger and farming, concluded that the problem was not a lack of political will, as the FAO asserted, but the opposite -- too much political will.

The advances of trade liberalization, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering and military dominance, it said, were now the main causes of hunger.

Since then, the situation has gotten worse. The world's food system -- from the seed, livestock and agrochemical industries to transport, processing and retailing -- is now controlled by even fewer corporations, which take an ever larger share of the price paid by consumers.

Farmers worldwide are being forced to accept lower and lower farm gate prices until they can no longer go on. As a result, there is now an epidemic of farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides in many countries.

The problem is being exacerbated by the way we use diminishing land and water resources. The appetite for industrially produced livestock -- fed on grains and starchy vegetables -- consumes millions of hectares of land that could be used for food production. Equally, vast areas of land in developing countries that were used for intensive farming in the "green revolution" that started in the 1960s are now poisoned by pesticides, as well as salinized by poor irrigation.

Now yields are stagnating and the pressure is mounting to convert land to produce biofuels for the affluent.

British Environment Minister David Miliband has recently spoken of the need for "one planet farming." This minimizes the impact on the environment of patterns of food production and consumption, and maximizes its contribution to renewal of the natural environment.

Miliband's backing of such a scheme perhaps heralds a shift in policy, and last Tuesaday a vision of how this might be achieved was published in a conference report reflecting the views of small-scale farmers -- views that, unfortunately, are largely ignored, neglected or actively undermined by the international development community, despite their local food systems being so vital for alleviating hunger.

Michel Pimbert, program director for agriculture and biodiversity at the International Institute for Environment and Development, one of the report's authors, listened to smallholder farmers in France, Indonesia, India, Peru, the Philippines, Senegal and the UK over a three-year period.

"All the small-scale producers I met asked that their voices be heard in the choice of policy for food, farming, land and water use. That is why we organized the conference," he said.

The farmers -- from 30 countries -- who participated in the conference were eloquent about how farming for small producers is much more than just a food production system.

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