Smallholder farming is the future

There was a disappointing three-day UN World Food Summit in Rome earlier this week. Given that around a billion people are malnourished and suffering the effects of high global food prices, the summit could have been a great opportunity for rich countries to pull together and make real commitments to eradicate world hunger.

Instead, Silvio Berlusconi was the only G8 country leader who even bothered to attend the summit. The director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, made headlines when he expressed disappointment at the outcome of the summit, and criticised rich countries for managing to mobilise trillions of dollars to combat the financial crisis while neglecting to tackle food security.

It is disappointing because in July this year G8 leaders pledged to put £12bn into boosting sustainable agriculture in poor countries, and now that money is failing to materialise. Agricultural development aid seems to be falling by the wayside once more.

Yet, small-scale, sustainable agriculture is the future. Investing in smallholder farming will not only support the two billion people who depend directly upon it, it is our best chance of feeding the rest of us in the long term.

The world currently faces a range of massive problems as a result of fossil fuel intensive industrial farming methods: from climate change to fresh water shortages, from soil erosion and pollution to over-consumption of key crop nutrients like phosphorus. Most dangerous of all is that fact that the amazing productivity of industrial farming has been purchased at the cost of a deep dependency on oil, and it is likely that our demand for oil will begin to exceed the possible supply in the next ten to twenty years.

Small-scale, labour-intensive, polycultural farms are the answer to peak oil and the excesses of industrial farming. They are more productive, resilient and flexible than large-scale monocultural farms. Smallholder farming is where all the exciting stuff is happening.

Two examples:

The Fairtrade movement, driven by civil society and consumers in rich countries, has thrown a vibrant lifeline to millions of smallholder farmers in the South at the mercy of world markets and big business. Like most poor people, smallholders are not in a position to take risks. By guaranteeing a fair and stable minimum price for crops, Fairtrade protects them from the intolerable risks of fluctuating prices, allowing them to grow, innovate and diversify. The emphasis of Fairtrade is on people, but this leads naturally to sustainable farming and environmental stewardship.

Across West Africa, an exciting movement to domesticate a wide range of species of wild fruit tree is blossoming. These Cinderella fruit, with wonderful names like chocolate berries, ebony fruit, gingerbread plums and sweet detar, are transforming rural lives. In Cameroon, a domestication programme over the last decade has seen smallholder farmers being trained in horticultural techniques to develop superior varieties of fruit tree, according to their own priorities rather than those of agribusiness. Now there are hundreds of farmer-run fruit tree nurseries across the country and these fruit might crop up in Western supermarkets before too long.

Whereas the last great round of crop domestication was the high tech green revolution of the 1940s and 50s, this new round is a low tech peasant revolution largely ignored by science and big business.

It is these sorts of interventions that point the way towards a sustainable agricultural system and real global prosperity. They imply a different approach to food production, one that aims to feed people rather than make money. Countries will need to be nationally self-reliant, only trading food internationally – on fair terms of course – when its value is high relative to the environmental costs of production and transport. Food production must use polycultures that mix crops, trees and animals and take the lead from the diversity of natural ecosystems, and this will require intensive use of skilled labour.

It is clear that governments and big business are not yet taking the steps that are needed. It is people’s movements around the world, like Transition Towns, Via Campesina and Fairtrade, which are taking real action.

Working out how to feed the world's hungry is the same problem as solving our overheating climate and dwindling supplies of oil. And it is the peasants who will lead the way.