Making Food a Priority – The International Year of Family Farming

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By Raili Roy

“WAKE UP BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE” reads the title of the report released in September by UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. “Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate,” it urges. Judging by the United Nations’ November launch of their campaign declaring 2014 the Year of the Family Farm, somebody is listening and agreeing with the 50-plus authors of the report that something is drastically wrong with the way we feed ourselves.

According to the report, despite the global production of almost twice as much food as our population requires, a billion people chronically suffer from starvation and another billion are malnourished; a quarter of us aren’t getting enough. Despite amazing leaps in technology that allow relatively few humans to cultivate enormous areas of land, it’s costing us more in energy now to produce a calorie’s worth of food than it did when we used simple tools, animals, and human labour. Our increasing reliance on finite energy resources—which themselves are now showing rapidly diminishing returns on investment—is going to end, one way or another, and UNCTAD and the United Nations see fixing the food system as a priority.

The 2014 International Year of Family Farming has been launched to stress the vast potential family farmers have to eradicate hunger and preserve natural resources. This year international research, humanitarian efforts, education outreach, and round-table discussions will focus on over 500 million family farms in both developed and developing countries in an effort to find out what works, what is needed, and what supports can be created for the world’s diverse population of smallholders who, the UN believes, have the power to lift themselves and their communities out of hunger and dependence.

The interesting thing about the UN’s declaration for 2014 is not what it says about family farming, but what it doesn’t say on the subject of the established system as it optimistically—and gracefully—promotes what it’s identified as a way forward. If “sustainable,” “family,” “non-specialized,” and “diversified” are the words the UN uses to describe its ideal system, how far to the opposite end of the spectrum are the words it doesn’t use to describe the system we’ve got, the ones summed up so starkly by the title of the UNCTAD report?

Wake up before it is too late.