Let science serve farmers

Development Policy07 Dec 2009Fabio Kessler Dal Soglio

Over the past decades, agriculture modernization programs accelerated, based on a “scientific” research and development (R&D) perspective. This R&D perspective was disconnected from family farming knowledge, and led to the widespread adoption of models of unsustainable agriculture. These models took firm ground in Latin America, where you can see large-scale clearing of tropical rain forests for mono-cropping agriculture producing commodities for the world market. Such agriculture does not aim to feed the world’s hungry human populations, but instead feed the hunger for profit of oligopolies such as companies or rich families. In the process they do a lot of damage to the world. They damage the environment, such as replacement of the richest forests with mono-crops, they are expensive in terms of agro-chemicals and seeds, and make food production dependent of financial capital. But worse are its societal impacts: industrial agriculture reduces flexibility of agroecosystems in view of societal and climate change. The result has been a social, economic and ecological crisis in agriculture. Prices of agriculture inputs and food prices go up and down, and IAASTD, an international study of agriculture, showed that a land area the size of Brazil (!) is degraded and all major rivers are polluted, and that 70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas. This multi-faceted crisis is linked to food insecurity, to the rising cost of food due to investments on “agrifuels”, and to climate changes. The poorest people are hit hardest, among whom the family farmers who get marginalized in the economic whirlwind governing agriculture.

At the same time, against all expectations and restrictive policies, family farming has been able to reproduce itself, remaining an important activity for rural families, for production of food and novelties. Local experiences of agro-ecosystem management, with a diversity of farming styles, show the power of family farming to survive and respond to the crisis in global agriculture. Family farming thrives, even without the support of specific public policies. These experiences, as the ones presented by the LEISA magazine (now Farming Matters) serve as a demonstration of the force of family farming. They show its potential to ensure food sovereignty around the world, respecting local cultures and local ecosystems, especially for vulnerable populations. The technologies generated by the family farmers in general are better suited to the socioeconomic and ecological local conditions, and therefore are appropriate for a sustainable development. However, participatory methodologies can help family farmers link local and scientific knowledge and build better sustainable agriculture methods. Farmers’ participation in R&D programs allows the development of locally adapted solutions with lower investment levels and reduced environmental cost, and increases the chance of rapid adoption of the novelties by communities. Thus, family farming can transform agriculture into a human activity that contributes to the solutions for the needs of planet Earth, reducing hunger, mitigating and adapting to climate change, keeping the world’s land productive. In short: family farming is the key to the world’s sustainability.