A fascinating snapshot of family farms across Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia is revealed in a background paper published by FAO for its upcoming Regional Conference for Europe (Bucharest, 2-4 April 2014).
Delegates to the Conference will be examining ways of helping family farms to achieve their potential – as rural employers, as contributors to food security, and as stewards of biodiversity, land, water and other natural resources.
Family farming in the region is central to agricultural industry and the rural economy, the FAO paper states, with a large part of the rural population relying on family farms for their livelihoods.
An estimated 97 percent of agricultural land in the Caucasus is operated under family farms and accounts for 97 percent of agricultural output. The figures are high in Central Asia, too: 71 percent of farm land is under family farms, accounting for 88 percent of agricultural output.
In other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, a larger share of land is farmed by corporate entities. Yet family and corporate farms co-exist. In Western Europe, family farms predominate without a doubt.
Here is a striking fact: only 34 percent of agricultural land in western Commonwealth of Independent States countries is operated as individuals farms, but those farms produce an estimated 62 percent of agricultural output.
Household garden plots are not included in the “farming” statistics but the paper also underscores their importance as food sources for rural families across the region.
“Much of the world’s experience in sustainable farming systems has been gained by family-run farms,” in the words of FAO Director-General Jose’ Graziano da Silva. “From generation to generation . . . 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 United Nations system – with FAO in a leading role – is promoting family farming as critical for future food supply and natural resource management. It has designated 2014 as The International Year of Family Farming, and is supporting national and regional dialogues with farmers, nongovernmental organizations, private companies and governments to address the realities that work against family farming.
Family farmers have to compete with corporate farms in the food chain, but policies sometimes favour larger corporate farmers, and are often influenced by multinationals.
Even in Western Europe – where agricultural policy over decades has supported the overwhelming predominance of family farms – there is still room for more family farming-friendly policies, according to FAO.
Climate change, aging rural populations, inadequate roads and distant markets are some of the other problems faced by family farms.
Yet opportunities exist. A recent regional dialogue on family farming in Europe and Central Asia noted that farming farms could better market their traditional local specialties to consumers, by taking advantage of EU schemes such as “protected designation of origin,” “protected geographical indication,” and “traditional specialty guaranteed.”
The formation of cooperatives and informal networks of small-scale producers can also offer a way forward for competing with large-scale farms, but for historical reasons attitudes towards cooperatives in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are often skeptical.
The International Year of Family Farming in Europe and Central Asia is scheduled to be taken up by the FAO Regional Conference for Europe on Thursday, 3 April.
More information about Regional Conference Week.