This opinion piece was written by José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO, and published in Al-Ahram (February 6 2014)
“Support for family farming need not and should not be done in opposition to large-scale, specialised farming, which also plays an important role to ensure global food supply and which faces its own challenges, including the adoption of sustainable approaches.
But we have much to learn about sustainable practices from family farmers, a group that includes smallholders and medium-scale farmers, peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folk, pastoralists, collectors and many others.
Much of the world’s experience in sustainable farming systems has been gained by family-run farms. From generation to generation, family farmers have transmitted knowledge and skills, preserving and improving many practices and technologies that can support agricultural sustainability. Using innovative techniques such as building terraces and adopting zero-tillage practices, family farmers have consistently succeeded in maintaining production on often marginal lands.
The preservation and sustainable use of natural resources is rooted in the productive logic of family farms and sets them apart from large-scale specialised farming. The highly diversified nature of their agricultural activities gives them a central role in promoting environmental sustainability, safeguarding biodiversity, and contributes to healthier and more balanced diets.
Family farmers also play a pivotal role in the local production, marketing and consumption circuits that are so important not simply in fighting hunger but also in creating jobs, generating income, and in stimulating and diversifying local economies.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 500 million family farms. In an FAO survey of 93 countries, family farmers account on average for over 80 per cent of all holdings. In developed and developing countries alike, they are the main producers of food consumed locally, the primary stewards of food security.
Experiences in many countries show that family farmers respond well with increased production if the appropriate policy environment is effectively put in place. Yet at the same time, over 70 per cent of the world’s food insecure population lives in rural areas in developing countries. Many of them are subsistence producers who may not grow enough to meet their families’ needs. Typically they have access only to limited and often degraded natural resources and are particularly vulnerable to external shocks, including those induced by climate change.
Too frequently in the past, family farmers were considered a problem to be solved, the target of social policies with only limited potential. That is the mindset we need to change. Family farmers are not part of the problem; on the contrary, they are part of the solution for food security and sustainable development.
But there is a limit to what family farmers can achieve on their own. Governments, international organisations, regional agencies, civil society organisations, the private sector and research institutions have a role to play in providing this support and creating the enabling environment they need to thrive.
What family farmers need is similar throughout the world: technical assistance and policies that build on their knowledge and bolster sustainable productivity increase; appropriate technologies; quality inputs that respond to their needs and respect their culture and traditions; special attention to women and youth farmers; strengthening of producers’ organisations and cooperatives; improved access to land and water, credit and markets; and efforts to improve their participation in value chains.”