Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The FAO mask slips further

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Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme ‘Innovation in family farming’ (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.

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