Small farmers are the world’s largest suppliers of food. It is imperative that we listen to them, not the big companies.
“Most farmers can no longer produce enough food to support their families,” said Vladimir Chilinya. “Profitable units control our food systems … including seed production and distribution.” Chilinya is the Zambian coordinator of ‘FIAN International’, an organization working for the democratization of food and nutrition.
The majority of small farmers in the world are facing declining crops, barren land and rising food poverty, especially in the southern hemisphere. Wheat prices have risen 59% since the start of 2022. In May, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the number of people living in famine has increased by more than 500% since 2016. More than 270 million people in the world today live in extreme food insecurity.
Although this crisis has been exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of world grain exports or 12% of traded calories), climate change and capitalism are the primary drivers of the global economy.
The IPCC estimates that world average food production will fall by more than a fifth by 2030. In Zambia, the Ministry of Agriculture expects maize harvest to be a quarter lower in 2022 due to the drought and lightning floods between 2019 and 2021. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan experienced in March and April the highest recorded temperatures since records were recorded 122 years ago. was started. India has since banned grain exports (after the government bought too little grain to cover its food security program), further exacerbating the global grain shortage and rising food prices.
But the climate and food crises are not isolated phenomena. They are the result of a global capitalist system – and a neoliberal agenda – that puts large corporations’ profits in agriculture above people and the planet.
Industrialization of agriculture
This process took shape in India during the so-called Green Revolution in the late 1960s. The movement was a collaboration between India and the USA (with USAID and the ‘Ford Foundation’ as main actors), and was dependent on agrochemicals and the intensive cultivation of plants. High-performance hybrid crops were introduced – the most important being IR8, a rice variety – in addition to the use of fertilizers, pesticides and a lot of groundwater (these high-yielding crops need much more water). High calorie foods were considered more important than nutritional richness, and these foods require expensive inputs.
This shift to economies of scale and more profitable monocultures made smallholder farmers more dependent on expensive fertilizers and forced them to incur larger debts. In India, at least 10,677 agricultural workers committed suicide in 2020 – many of them drowned in debt due to the high cost of these agricultural inputs.
The shift to economies of scale and profitable monocultures forced small farmers into larger debts.
Unfair trading conditions and global lending – imposed by multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – are to blame. Structural adjustment programs (SAPs), introduced by the World Bank following the debt crisis in Latin America and Africa after the oil crisis in 1979, forced poorer countries to privatize their public sectors and phase out their welfare mechanisms.
Strict adherence to imposed policy packages in virtually all major sectors – from agriculture, to education to health care – became a mandatory condition for obtaining future bank or IMF loans. GSPs meant that indebted countries – across the South – had to largely switch from indigenous crops on which the local population depended, to producing cash crops for export. The result was that local populations and farmers became more vulnerable to food shortages due to the negative ecological effects and the decline in access to food.
Zambia: Privatization of seeds
In Zambia, for example, the structural adjustment agenda involved the privatization and liberalization of the seed system. It started with the liberalization and deregulation of ZAMSEED in the mid-1990s, which led to a reduction in support for agricultural cooperatives. In addition, the prioritization of maize as a cash crop led to a decrease in the variety of crops, which meant that the local population had fewer food resources available.
FIAN documents how companies’ control over agriculture weakens food security. Seed systems were run by cooperatives (which give farmers much more influence and fair prices), but are now controlled by large companies (which prioritize profits). “In Zambia, farmer-led seed systems have been replaced by commercial seed systems,” confirms FIAN’s Chilinya. “Most small farmers cannot buy seeds at the commercial price and therefore cannot grow food.”
These commercial seeds are also more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. “Most people focus on cash crops at the expense of other crops that are more resistant to extensive weather changes. In the wake of extreme weather changes such as those that occurred in 2020 and 2021, the country is experiencing a food shortage, “Chiliniya added. According to the World Food Program (WPF), 48% of Zambia’s population cannot meet the minimum calorie requirement.
Kenya: food crisis
According to Kenya’s food justice activists, who are currently experiencing a severe food crisis, “soil degradation is having a major impact on food production in the country due to the over-consumption of chemical fertilizers,” said Leondia Odongo, co-founder of social justice organization Haki Nawiri Africa.
As in Zambia, the catastrophic legacy of the GSPs is responsible. In 1980, Kenya was one of the first countries to receive a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank. The loan was conditional on the phasing out of significant subsidies for agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers. This process prompted a shift towards the cultivation of cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, rather than essential raw materials for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.
“Agricultural inputs, which were previously provided free of charge to farmers, ended up in the hands of private entities under the guise of efficiency,” Odongo explains. “This has left small farmers published by transnational companies in the seed and agrochemical industries who are fooling farmers with misinformation about seeds and chemicals.”
A recent report from ‘Save the Children’ and ‘Oxfam’ showed that 3.5 million people in Kenya today are suffering from crisis levels of hunger – and that is likely to rise to 5 million more. Meanwhile, only 2% of the $ 4.4 billion in humanitarian aid needed (for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia) has been funded effectively.
Structural adjustments have made Kenya a food exporter, while malnutrition in the country is alarmingly high.
Structural adjustments have made Kenya a food exporter. Meanwhile, malnutrition in the country remains alarmingly high – 29% of rural children and 20% of urban children are hampered in their development. Despite shortages that threaten the food security of the population, Kenya remains a vital food exporter exporting tea, coffee, vegetables and cut flowers on a large scale.
Keep it small and local
Small farms occupy less than 25% of the world’s arable land, but small farmers provide 70% of the world’s food. In Kenya, Haki Nawiri Africa opposes the industrialization of agriculture by assisting local farmers with technical knowledge. By teaching them practical skills, they enable smallholder farmers to regain their land and crops.
In Zambia, FIAN helps smallholder farmers return to original farming methods and seeds to improve food security and build resilience. By diversifying food systems and abandoning monocultures, smallholder farmers can continue to produce enough food to feed their communities at a lower cost.
The movements of these small farmers are opposed to ‘Big Philanthropy’, the basis of the great philanthropists, such as the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), funded by the ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’, which promotes a green Revolution with a promoter ‘ business first-strategy ‘. Still, they hope that their fight to ‘decompress’ the earth and build a lasting relationship with the country can help achieve the UN’s second goal of sustainable development: stop hunger by 2030.
This article was previously published in Opendemocracy.