FAO’s Phraseologies Of World Food Day

FAO Director General  

On Thursday, October 16, 2014, director general of Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Mr. Jose Graziano da Silva, released a statement to mark World Food Day, as has been the tradition since the days of his Senegalese born predecessor Dr. Jacques Diouf.

According to Gambian dictator-owned Daily Observer newspaper, the FAO boss said “In The Gambia more than 90 per cent of farms are based on subsistent farming run by families and many subsistent family farmers, globally, are part of the world’s food-insecure population.” Graziano da Silva was further cited saying that  90% of family farms in The Gambia provide 60% of the food for the family; they care and protect the natural resources as well.

Yet many family farmers, especially subsistence producers, are part of the 70 percent of the world’s food-insecure population who live in rural areas,” he said. “This means that family farmers still have a great potential they can fulfill with the right support.”

The theme for this year’s World Food Day is in honor of the so called family farms, curious enough. According to the newspaper daily observer, the FAO boss also said that “Statistics indicates that 63 developing countries have already reached the Millennium Development Goal hunger target of halving the proportion of chronic undernourishment by 2015.“ There was no indication of whether The Gambia is counted among these 63 countries. What Graziano da Silva was quoted saying the figure indicates was that “to win the war against hunger, there is a need for political commitment, a holistic approach, social participation and family farming.”

The tone, as well as the content of the FAO boss’s speech conforms to the standard jargon of spokesperson’s of United Nation bodies be they the FAO, WFP, WHO, UNDP, or you name it, for decades now. But continue reading through Mr. Graziano da Silva’s choice of words and you will find something to raise your brows. “Throughout the world, family farmers play a crucial socio-economic, environmental and cultural role which, amid serious challenges, needs to be cherished and strengthened through innovation.”

Yes, the catch-phrase here is “family farming.” One wonders if the phrase is an allegory to a radical change in UN, donor-community or international thinking as far as agriculture is concerned. Shifts in such thinking are almost always discretely made and have to be unmasked through looking in between lines, the order of how words are positioned,  what is left out and shouldn’t or what is selected and ought not have been, etc, etc.”

The FAO boss continued to be cite saying that “it is in recognition of this crucial role that UN designated 2014 as the ‘International Year of Farming’. The theme of this year’s World Food Day, ‘Family farming: nourishing the world’, also celebrates the contribution family farmers make to food security and sustainable development. The facts presented in FAO’s annual State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report clearly justify the emphasis being placed on family farming. SOFA report indicates that around 500 million of the world’s 570 million farms are run by families. Family farmers are the main caretakers of natural resources. “

“As a sector, they form the world’s largest employer, supply more than 80 per cent of the world’s food in terms of value, and are often the main producers of fresh food and prosper in dairy, poultry and pig production,” Graziano da Silva was quoted saying.

But since when did this revelation start dawning upon the minds of our international technocrats? It seems like only yesterday when their war cry was commercializing agriculture and their faith deeply buried in the supremacy of the market. Reaganomics, Thatcherite economic policies championed by gurus from the Chicago School of Economics and others were actually preaching for the rolling back of traditional community safety nets as well as modern welfare nets, to sharpen the bite of poverty so sharp that the “lazy” will spring up to work, the worker would toil harder and the few would become richer, the statistics more presentable and everyone much happier.

In their thinking even family ownership ought to be discouraged because the ultimate motor or dynamics of human development lie in the will and determination of individuals not groupings. Family-farms distort the very notion of ownership as known everywhere today and hinder reinvestment and the potential for development. Family farms can hardly be collateral to access commercial loans for on-farm development. The rewards fetched from work on family farms are often not shared equitably but filially, thus often a source of conflict or disincentive. The international technocrats would quote from Smith, Hobbes down to Hayek to prove their points.

They argued and theirs influential fans in fact still do, that agriculture can only proper and flourish when commercialized. Subsistence farming has not brought about any sustainable growth in agriculture anywhere. Its like Soviet-style collectives, eat as much as you like but do as little as possible. It simply can’t work. Only commercialization can bring about the over-production seen in Western countries by less than a tenth of populations and family farms are the biggest obstacle to the introduction of commercial agriculture, Graziano da Silva and colleagues used to preach.

Now, all of a sudden, they seem to be preaching from another book altogether. Now the rallying cry is not for the eradication of family farms but for their “innovation.”  What such people failed to realize is that a hungry man must eat in order to be able to make it to the market.  The farmer battling with efforts to get enough for self and family is not yet ready for the market.

For the FAO boss, “family farming and the support it receives need to adjust in ways that can respond to the changing conditions confronting it.” How is such need to adjust is expected to filter out to the families out in the fields failed to be spelt out in the Graziano speech. Is such information to be transmitted through meetings with family heads, all family members, whole clans or does the choice depend on the particular social setting? Is this not something running parallel to or even counter to the practice of agricultural cooperatives?  Cooperatives are horizontal organizations while families are sharply vertical can one substitute the

“Innovation is key to make this happen: family farmers need to innovate in the systems they use; governments need to innovate in the specific policies they implement to support family farming; producers’ organizations need to innovate to respond better to the needs of family farmers; and research and extension institutions need to innovate by shifting from a research-driven process predominantly based on technology transfer, to an approach that enables and rewards innovation by family farmers themselves,” he said.

But with the deficit in literacy, numeracy, resource and sufficient orientation among family farmers is this a reasonable objective?
Graz iano  continued, “innovation needs to be inclusive, involving family farmers in the generation, sharing and use of knowledge so that they have ownership of the process, taking on board both the benefits and the risks, and making sure that it truly responds to local contexts.”

How is this to be managed, through workshops, classroom teaching, village meetings? What process is Mr. Graziano speaking of?The FAO boss said there is a need for family farmers to produce enough food not just for themselves, but also for people in rural areas not involved in farming or city dwellers. But that is the whole question, isn’t it, can any group of farmers anywhere feed any other through subsistence farming?

He added that the family farmers also need to generate income – money to buy inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, but also to guarantee decent livelihoods including paying for their children’s education and other needs. That is it now, how else besides commercialization?
The above citations all go to indicate a shift in the thinking on the prospects for agriculture by the FAO boss and perhaps the whole coterie of international bodies working on agriculture-related projects or institutions all over the world. If this is so, it should be welcomed, because a re-think is always refreshing.

Our only problem is that it looks like the FAO having dumped its commercialization philosophy is now groping in the dark, searching for a replacement, stumbling into one, is now embracing it as the right one, without much sober assessment. The family unit is the element most vulnerable to change and modernization. Everywhere is being challenged and has steadily shrunk in size over just the last two generations. There was time when families were production units, now they are more like social extravaganzas’. Before they were welfare networks, now they are viewed more as social traps. Before they were the moral correctors now they networks for conspiracies against the state and all others.

The tendency everywhere now is that families tend to shrink in size, might and influence and therefore not so dependent as platforms for long term agricultural projects. Families are not hot beds for free and fair discussions on farming or related issues, there is little accountability and even the crave for it. This is why we doubt such new policy is not the result of sufficiently sober assessment.

Instead of the bright prospects that Mr. Graziano envisages we foresee families going to blows because a member has diverted funds meant for seeds and fertilizers into acquiring a new wife. Where he sees new innovated family farms, we see families divided over the share of farm products or cash earned from it; farm-lands fragmented into smaller and smaller lots and families divided against themselves.

As usual the FAO like many other internal organizations are coming late to the idea of recognizing the importance of family farms in agriculture worldwide. But they may have come too late to be able to reverse the trend. Family farms are dying out and in some places like the Gambia where it is almost all gone what one can speak of is household farms meaning nuclear family farms, not extended family farms of earlier generations. The large extended farms have now been apportioned to members. They are largely overused and in bad need of inputs that the impoverished families cannot afford. Some communities have adopted dual approach where extended family farms are cultivated side by side with household farms.

But the total acreage of extended family farms cultivated has been in rapid decline recently in The Gambia, surveys have shown. Even for the smaller household the possibilities of etching out a means of living, for the average family, are very slim. For Graziano da Silva when family farmers are stronger, it is a win-win situation as more food will be available locally which will translate into more food security and there will be the possibility of producing and buying food in local markets.

These international organizations are managed by technocrats who love conjuring up ideas  in the cool and comfort of their offices make phraseologies out of them that soon become common placed platitudes for all to mimic. For his part, Gambian minister of Agriculture,  Mr. Samuel Owens, keeping up the chorus while highlighting some salient points, stated that  the theme focuses world attention on the significant role of family farming in eradicating hunger and poverty.

Statistics indicates that an estimated 26% of the world’s children are stunted due to malnutrition and 2 billion people suffer from one or more micro-nutrient deficiencies. He added that over seventy percent  of the food insecure lives in the rural areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Near East.

The Agriculture Minister said many of the food insecure people are family farmers and smallholders themselves. “For that matter these family farmers feed the world, yet they are hungry themselves,” Mr Owens said. “The question must therefore be asked why are farmers, who produce food for the world, go hungry themselves.”

Mr Owens said the answers to these questions are complex, but it is easy to see that by focusing on the needs of these family farmers, the global hunger problem could be reduced significantly. Many family farmers lack access to good seeds, adequate storage for their crops, transportation, well-functioning markets, financing, and policy support, Mr. Owens said.

“Supporting family farmers in these areas can improve productivity; reduce food losses and increased farmer’s income,” the Agriculture Minister said.

We must commend the minister for his wise and frank statement but we urge him to take note of the fact that we are approaching the groundnut marketing season, let Mr. Owens tell his boss to keep his hands off it to give these family farmers a break.


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