Family farmers are key to ensuring peace, prosperity and progress

Invest ‘big farming’ gains in new opportunities for small-scale producers
By Kanayo F. Nwanze

Family farmers are the future. We need to invest in their well-being and prosperity in Argentina – and across the globe - if we are to ensure food security, peace and sustainable natural resource management over the next 50 years.

Argentina is making sound economic progress in the area of mechanized “Big Farm” agriculture, and has become a world leader in soy production. I applaud these efforts. Nevertheless, a country with an annual per capita income of around US$7500 still claims a national poverty rate of 12 per cent. In the Northeast the rate is even higher. More worrying to me are the reports that eight children died of malnutrition in the Province of Salta this February.

And rural poverty, inequality and food security are not just a problem facing Argentina or Latin America. Sustainable rural poverty reduction is a global issue, and needs to become a global priority.

The Rural Poverty Report 2011 issued by my organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), shows that around 70 per cent of the developing world’s 1.4 billion extremely poor people – that’s people living on less than US$1.25 a day – live in rural areas. The report also underlined the need to increase production, reduce risk and ensure sound natural resource management practices. In fact, global food production will have to increase 70 per cent by 2050 – with a double in output from the developing world – in order to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the earth by then.

So how can Argentina – and the rest of Latin America – increase production, all the while ensuring sustained rural poverty reduction, environmental protection and inclusion? The answer is quite simple. We need to invest in family farmers.

The scale and possibilities for these investments are massive. In the MERCOSUR – a common market that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – there are around 4.9 million farms, covering some 120 million hectares. Of these, 83 per cent are family-operated, providing as much as 70 per cent of the food for the region.

The first step is to create pro-poor policies that empower smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs to take the reins of their own destinies, and make family farming a profitable and sustainable enterprise.

I am happy to say that Argentina is making good progress in fostering proactive dialogue with family farmers. And IFAD has played an active role as an honest broker between large institutions, government and family farmers by supporting policy dialogue platforms like the National Family Farming Forum and the MERCOSUR Regional Specialized Meeting on Family Farming (REAF MERCOSUR).

In last year’s REAF MERCOSUR in Brasilia, Argentina agreed to buy more produce from family farmers for use in public institutions. I’ve seen this policy at work in Brazil, where 30 per cent of the food used in schools comes from family farmers. It’s a policy that works. And I am hopeful that Argentina will make good on its pledge and move forward with this important public policy.

But sound policy alone is not the answer. You also need to invest in productive resources, youth and women, technology and training, and natural resource protection if you ever hope to create lasting poverty reduction in Argentina’s rural areas.

Here, too, Argentina is making slow upward progress. At the end of 2009, the responsibilities of implementation of all IFAD-funded projects in Argentina were transferred to the newly created Unit for Rural Change at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. This welcome reform has allowed the projects funded by IFAD in Argentina - the North Western Rural Development Project (PRODENOA), the Patagonia Rural Development Project (PRODERPA), and the Rural Areas Development Programme (PRODEAR) – to synchronize their projects on the national level all the while ensuring demand-driven decision making by local stakeholders.

In these projects, we are seeing sound evidence that farmers are learning new skills to protect our Mother Earth and build sustainable rural enterprises. For instance, in the North East new beekeeping associations are allowing area farmers to collectively bargain and earn more money. The bees also provide much needed services to pollinate local fields and protect the forests. In the end, with most of the world’s biodiversity housed in rural areas, these family farmers will be the protectors of our natural patrimony, and we need to invest in them today if we are to see a better world tomorrow.

Also worth noting is the key role women and youth are playing. In Argentina and the rest of the world, we’ve seen that an investment in these two key agents of change will be a driving force in poverty reduction.

Investing in Argentina’s rural youth is especially important. These will be the farmers that will feed the nation 25 years from now. And creating improved opportunities in the countryside – with better training and schools, and more resources to work in off-farm industries like agricultural processing and craftsmanship – will work to stem Argentina’s urban flight, in the end, reducing urban poverty as well.

But Argentina does not simply have a responsibility to invest in rural poverty reduction and family farmers within its borders. The nation has taken giant leaps in creating new techniques and technologies in for-export agricultural production, making it a world leader in soy and beef production. These new resources and technologies need to be shared with the rest of Latin America and the rest of the world. ‘Big farming’ has resuscitated the nation’s economy. It’s time to take those resources and re-invest them in the ‘small farmers’ that will keep us whole for centuries to come.

About the author

Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze is the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution and a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to ending rural poverty. In early July, Dr. Nwanze, along with the Director of IFAD's Latin America and the Caribbean Division Josefina Stubbs, Argentina Country Program Manager Paolo Silveri, and the Director of the Office of the President Sirpa Jarvenpaa met with high-level government officials in Buenos Aires and visited the IFAD-funded PRODEAR project in Chaco and Misiones.

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This article was originally published in Spanish in Argentina's La Nacion on 13 July. Check it out online.

Spanish speakers should also check out the Testimonio Directo, from small-scale tea producer Evo Albrecht.