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Food Security

Small farms crucial for food security, say NGOs

Incentives for major investment in agriculture are not reducing hunger in the developing world, say non-governmental organizations that monitor food stocks. They want more support for small, family-run farms.

According to recent studies, some one billion people worldwide are starving. The majority of them run small family farms producing food for themselves and their communities. Marita Wiggerthale, an expert on food and global trade issues at Oxfam Germany, says that the reason is clear.

"Small farms get little support when it comes to improving their access to land or water. They barely get any advice, or credit, or seeds," Wiggerthale told DW. "The big companies and subsidy givers involved in the industry are increasingly focusing on improving the situation for major, private investors, instead of involving small farms in the process."

As part of Green Week in Berlin, government and business representatives from around the world came together to discuss the challenges facing the world's hungry at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture. There, the German Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection identified cooperation between public and private investors as the key to developing the worldwide food situation.

The press conference of this year's Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin. Foto: Stephanie Pilick/dpa

The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture met again this year - but are their solutions the right way forward?

The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development published a document on promoting small farmers in early 2012, in which it recommended that investments should mainly be made in areas "which support farmers to access markets, improve their qualifications and financial aid." The ministry wants to see an improvement in the business activity of small farmers and of what it calls "rural value chains" - the process that brings goods to market.

Politicians focusing on big business

But Oxfam says this is wishful thinking. "There are some small farm owners who are in the position to integrate themselves into modern value chains, but mostly that’s not the case," says Wiggerthale. What is really needed, she argues, is for the state to ensure better access to markets, credit and seed.

Instead, state aid in this sector focuses on big business. Members of the G8’s "New Alliance to Increase Food and Nutrition Security" or the "German Initiative for Agribusiness and Food Security in Emerging and Developing Countries" include companies like Bayer, BASF, Monsanto, Nestlé and Syngenta.

The aim of these groups is to improve worldwide food security in countries that need help. However, the result is often the exact opposite, according to Gertrud Falk of the human rights organization FIAN Germany.

"Companies invest in agriculture only when they know that they are legally secure," Falk says. "That means that developing nations are changing traditional legal systems into formal systems, so that land titles are created which can then be purchased. The poor, the hungry, often don’t have the money to buy these title deeds."

This development is particularly harmful to women in developing nations, many of whom work on small farms.

A question of distribution

Falk insists that the answer to the problem of worldwide hunger is not to increase production levels in the agricultural industry.

"There is enough food being produced worldwide to feed nine billion people," Falk told DW. The problem lies more with moving food to where it is needed and access to local markets. Uganda, a fertile country which could be supplying its neighbors with food, is a classic example: "The farmers don’t have the infrastructure. Large amounts of milk are just thrown away, because there's no electricity to keep it cool so that it can be brought to market."

A farmer watches on in Ethiopia as land is cleared for a large, industrial-scale farm. (Photo: Ludger Schadomsky/DW)

Landgrabbing is already impacting heavily on small landowners in the more fertile areas of Africa

A problem which is getting worse is land-grabbing, where big investors buy up the land of local people with the support of governments.

The agricultural industry may provide much-needed jobs in rural communities, but often, according to Falk, the money "is much less than what they could be earning if they were running their own farm."

UN wants to improve farmers’ rights

Worldwide some 500 million small farms currently provide two billion people with food. The UN Human Rights Council is now working on a declaration guaranteeing the rights of farmers and others who work in rural areas.

It's based on a resolution the organization passed last September, against the wishes of the EU and the USA.

"We hope it has a similar effect to that of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," says Falk. "It should lead to a change of attitude so that the rights of farmers and rural communities are respected in future."

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