AgroNoticias Latin America & The Caribbean

Cover Story

Family Farming: Going back to the source

Supporting family farming is an important contribution to eradicating hunger and protecting the environment – two issues that are key to global development. Nevertheless, there is something seemingly paradoxical about the fact that in order to move forward, it’s necessary to take a look back, recalculate the route, and reconnect with the true essence of agriculture. Revaluing the primitive connection between human beings and the land, which has been cultivated over time and space, to reinforce sustainable development and ensure the world’s food supply. How can this be done in the 21st century?

In recent years, Latin America and the Caribbean have made advances in the fight against poverty and hunger; however, the more progress that is made, the clearer it becomes that we need a sustainable solution to catalyze and balance the problem’s three major dimensions: the economic, social and environmental facets. For years, experts and international organizations have looked to family farming as the solution to this problem based on its primitive form of organization and management, its impact on the distribution of roles, and its clear connection to the land and its resources.

Of the 570 million farms throughout the world, only approximately 500 million are run by families. Today, family farming is a concept that is closely linked with considerations regarding agriculture across the FAO’s 5 objectives, and is explicitly mentioned in 3 of its 15 regional initiatives. The FAO defines family farming as a means of organizing agricultural production that is managed and operated by families, recognizing the connection between the family unit and land management – a complex relationship intertwining economic, environmental and social aspects, in addition to cultural and reproductive facets.

The symbolic dimension of family farming therefore transforms it into a metaphor for societies in and of themselves. The family unit is the final beneficiary of the development of the communities to which they belong – whether it be one of prosperity and growth, or of scarcity and conflict. This equation also provides the key for implementing development plans: in order to achieve an effective impact on these communities, the solution lies in getting to the heart of said communities – the small farmers, shepherds, harvesters, and fishers. Women and men. The greatest challenges can only be addressed by reinforcing the smallest scales of production.

As the rural sector is faced with the greatest risks of poverty and exclusion, Latin America and the Caribbean clearly have a major challenge ahead. These risks are aggravated by the added risk of climate change, which especially affects family famers due to their dependence on the land and their limited capacity for overcoming adverse climate conditions. Within this context, women, young people and indigenous communities are even more vulnerable. The discrimination they face is not only a constant obstacle for advances in the region’s development policies, but also implies that an essential economic and social asset is being overlooked.


Large-scale farming is not the answer

70% of the agricultural products consumed globally are produced by family farmers. It therefore seems logical to conclude that a greater impact could be achieved by providing effective support for family farming rather than for large-scale farming, although the latter produces less expensive, more accessible products. Some studies maintain that the smaller the farm, the greater the land’s yield, which would lead one to believe that large-scale farming may essentially be wasting resources. It may also occasionally lead to a loss in the biodiversity of crops and, consequently, an adverse effect on the environment.

Yield is not the only major advantage of family farming over its large-scale counterpart. There is also an undeniable link between rural economies and family farming, which is the predominant form of agriculture throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries. In fact, it represents the overwhelming majority in developing countries: 2.5 of the 3 billion rural inhabitants in these countries are families working in agriculture, half of whom are women. Therefore, supporting family farming has a more direct impact on the collective wellbeing of communities and is more effective in fighting poverty. Policies that support the social protection and wellbeing of family farmers generally lead to improvements in local economic circuits.

There is also an environmental dimension associated with this form of farming. Family farmers employ agricultural systems based on crop diversification, prioritizing local, traditional products. This diversification contributes to protecting biodiversity and maintaining a balance among the different ecosystems. Furthermore, the preservation of these agricultural systems is an important cultural aspect, as the techniques and methods of producing traditional food products are essentially a valuable intangible cultural expression.


Formulas for family farming support

The greatest problems facing family farmers today have to do with their access to natural resources, policies and technology. The scarcity of water, low quality of seeds, and progressive soil erosion due to improper use are factors that, when considered on a family-sized scale, have a dramatic impact on determining their subsistence. Guaranteeing small farmers’ access to natural resources would mitigate this problem, consequently allowing them to focus their efforts on other aspects of their work.

The development of specific policies to explicitly support and protect these communities, especially for women, youth and indigenous communities, is equally necessary for favoring egalitarian, sustainable rural development. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, an important objective is working towards supporting indigenous land rights, one of the region’s historically unresolved issues.

Making technology more accessible to family farmers is also a crucial factor, since it favors the incorporation of new knowledge about ancestral farming techniques. This would not only prepare these communities to face adverse weather events, but also open the door to greater innovation, creativity and more effective, productive planning. Adapting technology to traditional agricultural systems has a positive effect on the entire production chain: improving methods for storing, processing and transporting food, which consequently results in a reduction of postharvest product losses.


An increasingly visible role

2014 was declared the International Year of Family Farming, which placed the spotlight on creating a dialogue between small farmers, non-governmental organizations, governments, international organizations, and agroindustry in order to activate lines of support for family farming all over the world. Another major objective was to provide greater visibility to these communities by incorporating them at the top of the global agricultural agenda.

“By choosing to celebrate family farmers, we recognize that they must be protagonists in responding to the dual challenge the world faces today: improving food security while preserving crucial natural resources,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva confirmed. This is no small challenge, but it is definitely realistic. If the necessary support is received in a favorable environment, there is no doubt that family farmers have the potential to increase agricultural productivity, thereby contributing to eradicating poverty and consolidating greater food security.


Newsletter image: Saturnino Herrán - La Cosecha (1909) CCO

Photo 1: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo 2: Ubirajara Machado/MDS via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo 3: Ubirajara Machado/MDS via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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