Will 2014 pave way for sustainable family farming?

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By Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan (commentary)

Our quest for achieving multifaceted sustainability and sustainable development goals during the past four decades has turned out to be a mirage. This is mainly due to the fact that so far our mainstream economic thinking and policies in all areas have been deeply rooted in zombie economics without a fundamental shift in economic paradigm. It is high time to realize that the present economic system, which is on a dire collision course with the biophysical system, is unsustainable.

As a result, a tunnel-vision growth of the economic activities has pushed the fragile Earth systems beyond a tipping point with unpredictable consequences. Now, at all levels, the state of the economy, society and environment is ever more unsettling, and we are heading for an unprecedented sustainability crisis in the human history. A new development paradigm rooted in emerging ‘biophysical economics’ is absolutely essential to avert the crisis.

In an invigorating keynote address, entitled ‘Can We Feed a Growing World and Sustain the Planet’, at the Crawford Fund 2012 Annual Parliamentary Conference, Canberra, Australia, the pointed observations made by Professor Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute of Environment at the University of Minnesota, are worth pondering.  The present world’s population of 7.2 billion is heading to an estimated 9.5 billion sometime before 2050.

This would place unprecedented demands on agriculture and scramble for natural resources across the planet. “Today, approximately a billion people are chronically malnourished while our agricultural systems are concurrently degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate change on a global scale. To meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially, while at the same time agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically.”

“How do we feed everyone now and also meet the food needs of the future without further disrupting the planet? This is a really serious because agriculture in many ways is the biggest disruption this planet has experienced, at least during the time of Homo sapiens.

One reason for that is the extensive area of land devoted to feeding the world.”

This important question posed by professor Foley must receive careful consideration while discussing the goal of achieving a more sustainable form of agriculture, particularly in the context of climate change. We can no longer ignore the impact of agriculture on climate change, and the impact of climate change on agriculture.

In this context, it is highly commendable that the United Nations has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to increase the awareness of the importance family farming in addressing hunger, poverty, food security and protecting the environment and well-being of the rural communities.

“Nothing comes closer to the sustainable food production paradigm than family farming. The preservation of natural resources is rooted in their productive logic and the highly diversified nature of their agricultural activities gives them a central role in promoting the sustainability of our food systems and ensuring food security,” says Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Furthermore, family farming plays a vital role in supporting the local economies and maintaining the social fabric of farm communities around the world. According to the FAO estimate, there are over 500 million family farms in the world, supporting the livelihoods of more than two billion people.

In particular, the small family farming is the leading force in the development of agricultural sector in most developing countries, providing employment and supporting a growing nonfarm economy. Surprisingly, despite the importance of ‘family farming model’ for a vibrant agricultural system, policies in this area have been haphazard.

Professor Peter B. R. Hazell at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, persuasively observes: “If most small farmers are to have a viable future, then there is need for a concerted effort by governments, NGOs and the private sector to create a more enabling economic environment for their development. This must include assistance in forming effective marketing organization, targeted agricultural research and extension, revamping financial systems to meet the small farm credit needs, improved risk management policies, tenure security and efficient land markets, and where all else fails, targeted safety net programs.”

This year, merely celebrating the International Year of Family Farming is not good enough to address the sustainability issues. Family farming must come to the forefront of development agendas. It is time for implementing concrete set of constructive policies to strengthen the family farming.


Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan is Emeritus Professor of Economics & Research Associate of the Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Crawford Fund, Institute of Environment, University of Minnesota United Nations Agricultural Organization of the United Nations International Food Policy Research Institute University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Canberra, Australia, Washington DC

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