October 27, 2014

5 Not-so-tidy Steps to Feed the World

Eva Fillion, EcoAgriculture Partners

A roadmap for feeding the world

On October 22nd National Geographic and the FAO co-hosted the 2014 World Food Day discussion Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth. The event, which took place at the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, DC, brought together global leaders from the food and agriculture sectors to discuss the state of family farms around the world and in the United States, and to start the conversation about solutions. Family farms were defined by keynote speaker Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram as being up to five hectares and run by at least two family members. Using these metrics there are roughly 500 million family farms around the world, involving over 200 billion people. A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,  written by Jonathan Foley in the National Geographic special series on food set the backdrop for the afternoon’s discussion by doing just what the title promises: laying out five concise steps for increasing yields and addressing world hunger.

  1. Halt agriculture’s ecological footprint
  2. Produce more on existing farms rather than expand production to new land
  3. Use resources more efficiently
  4. Change diets
  5. Reduce waste through technology and creative reuse

Panel members and keynote speakers were all quick to point out that these goals are certainly lofty and will require massive shifts in infrastructure and rhetoric, but were also optimistic about the fate of the family farm. Several themes emerged as participants dug deeper into Foley’s five steps, including improving family farms’ access to resources such as credit, land tenure and technology. Discussion participants emphasized the importance of strong communities and networks that support farmers in terms of knowledge sharing, resource use and plain old emotional support as they take on the back-breaking daily tasks of agriculture.

Family farms, such as the one pictured here, will need to adapt in order to maintain and increase production while lessening their ecological footprint. Photo by Gerry Dincher of Hope Mills, NC.

Family farms, such as the one pictured here, will need to adapt in order to maintain and increase production while lessening their ecological footprint. Photo by Gerry Dincher of Hope Mills, NC.

Community is key

Community-wide networks can serve as lifelines for farmers who rely on their neighbors for structural and emotional support, like Hannah Smith-Brubaker of Village Acres Farm who participated in the panel discussion on family farms in the US. Smith-Brubaker noted that much of her farm’s produce is sold through a community-supported agriculture program that connects customers directly with her farm and ensures upfront payments for produce. She also expounded upon the benefits of her close relationship with neighboring farms — she provides storage space for many of the nearby Mennonite and Amish farms that do not have the necessary infrastructure. Collaborative relationships such as this one not only provide practical support, but also create the sense of community that can help farmers keep spirits up and cement them as the vital community members that they are.

Discussion members, who ranged from farmers to policy makers to scientists, noted that while Foley’s five steps are a great place to start, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Yes, farms – large and small, family-run and corporate – must strive to ramp up production while reducing environmental impacts. But each continent, region and farm will have to find the best way to do so. This does not mean that these farmers are on their own to find solutions. If family farms are given support from local governments and institutions that allow them access to resources such as markets, improved technologies and land tenure, they will be far better positioned to meet the growing demands of the world’s ever-increasing population in a responsible manner.

Focus must be on women and young farmers

Participants at the event also added their own considerations to Foley’s list. Experts on global family farms as well as specifically US operations brought female farmers and youth to the forefront of the discussion. Females make up the majority of farmers yet face specific challenges such as disenfranchisement and lack of access to necessary resources compared to their male counterparts. Some discussants argued that this gap must be addressed on the ground and through policy changes. Others noted that youth are the future of farming and must be encouraged to either stay in the profession on their own family’s farms or as newcomers, bringing with them their own knowledge and experiences. Today’s youth can also become involved in agriculture by drafting supportive policy, heading NGOs or providing research on innovative technologies.

Dr. Rajaram spoke about the possibilities of new technologies to aid in increasing agricultural yields. He cited examples from Mexico and Nepal, where hybrid varieties of corn were introduced that yielded up to 60% higher harvests than traditional varieties. Here is where a shift in diet will play a key role. As farmers adapt to growing new crop varieties, consumers will need to supply the demand. Introducing a new variety, particularly in cultures where traditional varieties have been the norm for generations, will require certain adjustments and may require new knowledge when it comes to marketing and preparing these varieties. It is important to remember that the onus does not lay wholly on farmers, but also on scientists, policy-makers and consumers.

When all is said and done, the tidy five-step plan presented here certainly hits on key changes that must occur. Bringing these changes to fruition, however, is anything but tidy. Perfectly prescribed solutions simply do not exist. Farmers around the world can benefit greatly from sharing knowledge and technology but must be supported at every step of the way if we expect any of these goals to be accomplished.

Eva Fillion is a communications intern at EcoAgriculture Partners. Her experience in agriculture includes a season introducing agriculture to inner-city youth on Randall’s Island Urban Farm in New York City.
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  • Tom Franklin
    October 27, 2014 at 11:45am

    Thanks for the interesting article. I enjoyed the photo, but that farm wouldn’t fit the previous definition of a family farm. I would be interested in how many family farms there are in Canada/USA based on this definition (up to 5 hectares, 2 people min).

  • Joern Fischer
    October 27, 2014 at 9:09am

    Thank you for this interesting blog post. I am really pleased to hear that those — very useful! — points raised by Jon Foley were taken as starting points, rather than as a roadmap or something more concrete. One of the key challenges I see is that we need to get past technology/economic-driven thinking, towards locally relevant ways of solving problems. Global markets have failed in distributing the food that is already available worldwide — and unless issues of access, equity (and, indeed, gender) are addressed, there is very little point in producing more. Leading thinkers like Jon Foley recognise this, I think, but still, there could be more of a shift in emphasis (to my mind), even stronger towards the issues that are the underlying causes of global inequities.

    To readers interested in this topic, please check out our recent critique of “sustainable intensification”. It is summarised here (including a link to the journal article):

    Thank you!

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