2013_Invest_bannerHow can we get investment that primarily improves food provision and livelihoods instead of just increasing corporate profit, that supports ecological and biodiverse production rather than degrading the environment, that is based in land and seed rights not in dispossessing them?

How can we ensure that small-scale food producers and those most vulnerable to hunger are heard in making decisions on investment in agriculture?

How can we resist corporate driven projects such as the G8’s New Alliance?

At the start of 2014, the UN’s Year of Family Farming, these were the questions discussed at a UK Food Group conference. The report was co-sponsored by the EuropAfrica campaign, and builds upon a 2013 report by three African farmers networks, ROPPA, PROPAC and EAFF, on investing in agriculture: Family farmers for sustainable food systems.

Read a summary of the event by LWA member Rebecca Laughton

Hot on the heels of the exciting ORFC, a few of us from LWA attended this equally inspiring event, where Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, was the key note speaker, and gave us reason to hope that common sense does exist in the corridors of power.  He was supported by other empassioned presentations from Mamadou Goita  of ROPPA (a network of West African small farmers) ; Elizabeth Mpofu, Zimbabwean Farmer and head of Via Campesina; Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foudation; Nora McKeon of Terra Nuova; and Heidi Chow from the World Development Movement.

Olivier De Schutter cleverly began his talk by reminding us that the productivist aims of agriculture have their origins in the 1950s’ and 60’s, when the prodominant fear was of global population growth (2.5% at the time) out stripping food supplies.  As a result of advances in agricultural technology, production increased annually by 2.1% every year for the second half of the twentieth century, while population growth has slowed to the more sedate rate of 1.4% per annum.  Yet, despite what is heralded by many as a success, Olivier went on to discuss the failures that we are all so familiar with:

  • Hunger is not significantly reduced.
  • Failure to integrate nutritional concerns with the production of food, resulting in 400million obese people, with another 400million overweight due to focus on quantity, not quality of food.
  • Degradation of the production environment.
  • Inefficient use of natural resourses
  • Industrial livestock production and the need to reduce the amount of meat we consume to 33kg per year (current UK consumption 95kg/person while in US this figure is 120kg and in China 60kg).

He then succinctly took us through the history of the neglect of small farms in the South by development support and investment, trapping them in subsistence and poverty. This lead to the dismantling of local food systems, as impoverished farmers migrated to cities to be fed on cheap foods produced in Northern countries benefitting from agricultural subsidies.  Between 1990 and 2008, the average food bill for poor people living in cities in southern countries has increased between 400 and 500%.  The poorest people in the world are the most vulnerable to the instability of food prices brought about by commodification of food staples.

Turning to solutions, De Schutter led us through his top priorities for how to address the situation we find ourselves in:


1)     Shift to sustainable production – resource efficiency should be a key priority.  Agroecology is the agriculture of the future! (especially for the poor farmers of the global south)

2)     Shift to sustainable consumption – De Schutter focussed here on overconsumption of meat and the demand for biofuels, both of which pit land (and water) use for food in southern countries against demands for luxuries in the North.

3)     Reduce waste – We currently waste 1.3billion tonnes food per year, 50% in the North and 50% in the South, for different reasons.  In the North, food waste occurs in the food processing industries and at household level, while in the South it is due to problems in harvesting, storage and distribution.  Investment in the South is needed to reduce the mismatch between supply and demand.

4)     Reduce povertyReshape food systems so they are more hospitable to small farmers.  Where small farmers want to be part of the food chain, give them access to markets, better seeds etc.  However, many small farmers want to use their own seeds to feed their own communities and families, and they should be allowed to do this.

The talk was rounded off with a discussion of the leverage points, which will enable these changes to happen, and here De Schutter pin pointed the rebuilding of local food systems, in both cities and rural area as being vital.  He identified a number of “lock-ins”, meaning policies in rich countries that make such changes difficult.  These included:

  • Infrastructure projects which reward agri-business, commodity production and long food chains;
  • Social/cultural obstacles, such as the fact that so many people have forgotton how to cook; and
  • Social/political obstacles, where dominant people/organisations occupy roles which can veto positive change.

The solution to these “lock-ins” is greater democratisation in food systems.  We need national policies that enable local food systems to rebuild and thrive.  The “Ministry of Plenty” must transform itself into the “Ministry of Wellbeing”.

He ended with the salutary note that while democracy can be achieved in food security, on the UN Committee on World Food Security, on which he presides, there is great competition for supremacy.  It will be up to his successor to determine who wins the contest on what food sovereignty is about.  Olivier De Schutter will be publishing a written report on the Committee on World Food Security in Mid-March, when the end of his second term as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food comes to an end.

Mamadou Goita of ROPPA, a network of peasant and producer organisations in West Africa, was unfortunately only able to join us via video link, due to having been refused a visa to enter the UK. He highlighted how smallholders in Africa are under threat for many reasons because of the opening of food production to corporations. The organisation of corporate food production is excluding family farms.

  • There is a need to work on other initiatives to enable smallholders access to resourses, to invest in family farms to improve the way they produce, process and market produce, and encourage adoption of ecological production.  Such public investment is key to enable family farms access to natural resources (eg land, water etc).  At present investment is not going to family farms.
  • We cannot rely on the international market to improve livelihoods.  Look first to local markets, then regional markets, and only then international markets.
  • Invest to manage natural resourses in a sustainable way and ensure that family farmers have access to them

Goita concluded that farmers need to be involved in the governance of agriculture in rural development.  Change is needed from being a top down system to a bottom up one.

Elizabeth Mpofu was inaugurated as head of the whole of Via Campesina at the gathering in Jakarta in 2013, and spoke here of the challenges faced by African farmers and on behalf of small farmers world wide.  She began by asking, “How are we going to achieve food security if our land is dragged from us by land grabs?” and highlighted the threat to indignous seeds corporate investment and legal controls.  “We are not going to step down and expect people to fight for us, but TOGETHER we will win!”

“If our governments want to invest in agriculture”, Mpofu asked, “why can’t they give resources to small farmers to conduct research on how to address the challenge of climate change?”. She pointed out that the majority of food production takes place in rural areas, and many farmers are women.  Yet few women in Zimbawe are in positions of leadership.  We need to support farmers in Zimbawe to ensure that land is not given to investers.  She declared “We’ll travel/fight against land grabbers in Africa!  Let us mobilise more organisations to build a very big network”.

After a valuable Q and A session and opportunity to network over tea, we returned to hear four more brief presentations, which added detail to the points made earlier.  Teresa Anderson of the Gaia Foundation, spoke movingly of their work on seed saving in traditional communities.  Knowledge of seed varieties is usually held by the elders, often women, as the younger generation have adopted modern varieties and look down upon their elders, who’ve been driven to keep their knowledge secret.  By valuing the knowledge of the the elders, Gaia researchers cultivated a curiousity and thirst for the knowledge among the younger generations.  They learned about how important diverse landraces of seed are to food security, due to the adaptation of seeds to local climate and soils, cultural cooking practises (eg how long varieties need to cook/how much water they need).  Research techniques included mapping ecosystems amd creating “eco-cultural calenders”, in which seeds, crops and biodiversity are recorded in concentric circles around the year, so that crops are shown in relation to the weather, the stars and other crops.  She recommended the films, “Seeds of Freedom” and “Seeds of Sovereignty”.

Kenneth from Friends of the Earth, who was standing in for Josie Cohen of Global Witness to talk about land grabs, showed a shocking film about a farmer in Uganda who’d had his land taken to be turned into a palm oil plantation.  Europe’s demand for biofuels is one of the big drivers of land grabbing. FoE are focussing their land grab campaign (www.foei.landgrab) on where the money is coming from to support land grabs.  It has been hard to trace, though is clear that pension funds are a key provider of capital, since it is a way of making a high return on investment.  FoE’s campaign is focussing on local authority pension funds, since the Freedom of Information Act makes it easier to trace pension money than in the private pension sector.  He also pointed out that the report from the principles from the Committee on Food Sovereignty, which will be ratified in October, can be used by campaigners, and must be used to make it worthwhile.

Nora McKeon from Terra Nuova

Heidi Chow from the World Development Movement spoke about challenging corporate power.  The G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which aims to mobilise private capital for investment investment in African agriculture is being resisted by small farmers, who brand it as a new wave of colonialism.  WDM are campaigning to challenge the UK government on this agenda, as people’s lives are being threatened by resistence to corporate power.  The UN Conference on Trade and Development have written a very helpful report, highlighting the value of agroecology.

The conference was attended by a wide range of people, many from development charities, but some from conservation organisations or campaign groups and a sprinkling of academics.  Hence, question and answer sessions were of a high quality, provoking discussions on issues such as the schitzophrenia of the UN, which on the one hand has such enlightened leaders as Olivier De Schutter, while on the other promotes agribusiness as a way of tackling food security.  Key themes running through the day were that food security relies on farmers having access to natural resources (land, water, seed etc) and investment to help them manage these resources sustainably, and the need for democratisation of agriculture, with small family farmers being given a voice in the development/investment process.

However alongside the technical discussion of investment and agroecology, there was a strong sense of a coming together of different organisations, who were understanding that corporate control is an obstacle to food sovereignty.  “Together we will resist and succeed”, and “Resist, mobilise and transform the food system” were both sentiments upwelling from a diverse range of NGOs, making the conference feel like a significant step in the much greater journey that we are all on.