Will the International Year of Family Farming slow the “cancerous” growth of industrial farming?

The 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, declared 2014 to be the International Year of Family Farming” (IYFF).  Family Farming, according to the U.N., is the dominant form of agriculture throughout the world with over 500 million family farms.  These farms range from small and medium size holdings, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, and pastoralists.

The U.N. claims that family farmers should continue to be an important part of the solution to free the world from poverty and hunger. If this is to be the case, real policy changes will be needed to stop the multinational investors from continuing to acquire large tracks of land in both developed and developing nations.  A recent report titled “Land is Life” by La via Campesina documents the struggles of farming families to retain access to land in the face of escalating “land grabs” by the multinationals. According to this report…

“Land grabbing re-emerged during the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which pushed an additional 115 million people into hunger, leading to a total of almost one billion suffering from hunger by the end of 2008.  Today, global food prices remain high and volatile, particularly in developing countries. National ‘offshoring’ for land and food production, increased speculation in food markets, the ‘meatification’ of diets and the push for agrofuels are major trends that are fuellng the global land grab.”

Land speculation by corporate investors drive land values up and are seen as potentially profitable in a world where food will be in increasingly short supply.  This benefits both the investors and the industrial farms that will grow food in place of millions of small family farms.

But aren’t large, efficient farms the solution to hunger?

The multinational agribusiness and investment sector justifies the purchase of land in developing countries with reports stating that the only way to feed the world is through industrial scale, chemically-intensive and corporately-controlled farming operations.  The threat of escalating world population and increased consumption of meat in India and China are used as a rationale for putting peasants off land they have farmed for centuries.  Peasant agriculture and family farms are framed as inefficient and non-productive from a business perspective.

Nevertheless, the U.N. calculates that over 70 percent of food insecure peoples live in rural areas of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Near East.  Putting these people off their land to satisfy the corporate demand for cheap, raw foodstuffs to feed the industrial production of processed foods and biofuels will do little to alleviate global hunger.  Concentrating production in the hands of fewer and fewer multinationals will only make the entire planet more vulnerable to crisis.  Seemingly, the government of Australia recognized this trend was not in their national self-interest when they blocked the purchase of GrainCorp by Archer, Daniels Midland Co.

The self-proclaimed “supermarket to the world” expressed their disappointment with the following statement from CEO Deborah Woertz; “we are confident that our acquisition of GrainCorp would have created value for shareholders of ADM and GrainCorp.”  The proposed acquisition was not about growing more food.

In fact, the corporate food business has never been about feeding hungry people.  Despite wave after wave of promises to “feed the world” from the corporations that seek to control the global food supply, the worth of industrial farming is measured only in return on investment. The business of growing food has been financialized to the point that the health of rural communities, the quality of rivers and streams, public health and food safety have been sacrificed to maximize corporate profits.  Deregulation of government protection of the environment, small businesses, and public health, especially in the United States, has reached a radical extreme.

There is no reason to believe that continued industrialization of farming will ever “feed the world.”  Agribusiness is more of a cause than a solution to world hunger, as industrialization accelerates poverty and hunger among the displaced peoples of developing nations.  Perhaps it is time to balance industrialization with an effort to help family farmers feed the world.  (NOTE:  this is not to say that large farms should not be part of the solution to world hunger, but they would have to be regulated to prevent harm to rural communities, public health, food safety and environmental quality).

In addition to efforts to stop the “cancerous” growth of unregulated corporate farms, a supportive policy environment for family farmers might allow them to deploy their productivity potential.  A 2010 report from La via Campesina claims that indeed sustainable family farms can make a major contribution to ending world hunger.  By supporting rather than displacing farmers on the landscape, the world might create a more resilient food production system, less vulnerable to crisis.  The U.N. statement of support for Family Farming claims that:

“Facilitating access to land, water and other natural resources and implementing specific public policies for family farmers (credit, technical assistance, insurance, market access, public purchases, appropriate technologies) are key components for increasing agricultural productivity, eradicating poverty and achieving world food security”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a policy shift so extreme that the World Trade Organization (WTO) would agree to an agricultural policy that prioritizes local and regional trade (which supports family farming) at the expense of the global import/export business.  To date, any policy that threatens global trade (such as environmental protection) has been sacrificed to the financial bottom line of the multinationals.

What about family farms in the United States?

In spite of the support for this effort by the National Farmers Union in the U.S., the track record of U.S. policy has been anti-farmer for the past 60 years.  Wenonah Hauter writes in Foodopoly, “After World War II, farmers became the target of subtle but ruthless policies aimed at reducing their numbers, thereby creating a large and cheap labor pool.  In more recent times, federal policy has been focused on reducing the number of farms as labor has been replaced by capital and technology.” 

U.S. federal farm policy has been markedly pro agri-business and anti family farmer, in spite of the rhetoric of U.S.D.A. administrators.  While this policy has resulted in cheap food (consumers in the U.S. expend less than 10% of their income on average toward food) the effect on all other aspects of society such as public health, environmental quality, rural community vitality, and the economic viability of the family farm has been decidedly negative.

The business of growing and distributing food in the U.S. is owned by only a few major corporations.  This is not the result of “free trade” and fair competition but rather public policy.  Consolidation of the food industry is supported by the same politicians that benefit from corporate contributions to election campaigns.

It will take a remarkable turn around in public policy in the U.S. if we intend to participate in the celebration that is the International Year of Family Farming! 


Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.  Go here for more of my World.edu posts.

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