Opinion: Food policies should support small-scale producers

Ramping up food production via large-scale farming operations alone is unlikely to eradicate world hunger

Ten years ago, a spike in food prices ignited a global food crisis that compromised the ability of the world’s poorest people to access an adequate diet.

Governments around the world responded by supporting the expansion of large-scale agricultural production, based on the idea that producing more food in this way translates into lower prices and a reduction in hunger.

As farmers in the Prairies will know, the world is in the midst of a major glut in grain production and prices are sagging. But world hunger has remained stubbornly high even in this context.

The latest estimates indicate that 815 million people are chronically undernourished, up from 777 million in 2015. While the causes of global hunger are deeply complex, these numbers suggest that ramping up food production via large-scale farming operations alone is unlikely to eradicate world hunger.

The 10th anniversary of the global food crisis is an appropriate time to reconsider the dominant narrative that has been driving food and agriculture policies around the world for at least the past decade, and in many cases much longer.

The latest edition of Ottawa-based ETC Group’s report Who Will Feed Us? provides a good starting point. It amasses an enormous amount of data from scientific studies to make the case that small-scale food-production systems outperform large-scale ones on many fronts.

The report’s most striking finding is that the dominant food system, based on large-scale industrial agricultural production, uses over 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural resources (including land, fossil fuels, and fresh water), but feeds only around 30 per cent of the world’s population. This statistic begs the question: who is feeding the other 70 per cent of humanity?

According to the report, the answer is the “peasant food web,” which it defines as small-scale food producers, including peasant and small family farmers, pastoralists, hunters, fisher folk, and urban food growers. With less than 25 per cent of agricultural resources at their disposal, these small-scale producers feed a much larger share of the world’s population, with a smaller ecological footprint, than the dominant food system.

The difference in the capacity of these two systems to feed people is remarkable, especially given the contrast in the resources available to each. According to the report, only 24 per cent of the total calories produced in the dominant large-scale system are eaten by people directly. About one-third of total production is wasted, and most of the rest is used for livestock feed and biofuels.

The report notes that the “industrial food chain” also imposes costs onto others. According to its data, for every $1 consumers pay for food provided by that system, $2 in costs are incurred by society. For example, around 90 per cent of the greenhouse gases associated with agriculture are linked to industrial forms of food production. Most of the food that system provides is also highly processed, making it less healthy to consume.

By contrast, the “peasant food web” provides food through many mechanisms that are highly diverse. It uses nine times less fossil energy to produce one kilogram of rice, and three times less for maize. It is also more resilient in the face of climate change, and performs essential services such as the preservation of agricultural biodiversity. These latter outcomes, in turn, help to deliver a nutritionally varied diet and ensure the availability of “famine foods” in times of ecological stress and scarcity.

For those persuaded by the analysis presented in the ETC Group report, the implications are enormous. For years, governments around the world have pursued policies that overwhelmingly favour large-scale agricultural production over the peasant food web. In so doing, the report suggests that they have directed resources to a production system that not only is wasteful and costly, but also presents a threat to small-scale food production by starving it of resources and weakening its environmental base.

Achieving a policy shift that better supports small-scale producers is no easy task. The report does not provide a detailed analysis of the strategies required, but its analysis of the problem provides an important intellectual foundation for those seeking this policy transformation.

Jennifer Clapp is a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. She wrote this article on behalf of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It was originally published in the Hill Times newspaper.

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