The development of rural areas, including services such as an internet connection, is necessary to stop the decline of small-holder family farming, which experts see as vital for youth employment and food security.
The 500 million or so small-holder farms worldwide are estimated to supply some two billion people with regular food. In Europe, some 95% of farms are at least partly family owned.
The United Nations has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight their importance in the food security debate. But many such farms face the risk of disappearing unless young people can be persuaded to carry on the profession rather than seek “greener pastures” in cities, one expert quipped ironically at a family farming event hosted by the farming cooperative association Copa-Cogeca on Wednesday (19 January). One third of farmers are over 65 years of age and only 6% under 35.
“Intergenerational farming is essential. It is a very obvious model that has to be part of the solution to the challenge we face, with farmers leaving the business,” said Gwilym Jones, a member of cabinet for the agriculture and rural development commissioner, Dacian Cioloş. “If they [farmers] do not earn enough they will join those cities that are creaking under the weight of their [population]”.
The agriculture groups present at the conference - including the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), the Italian confederation of agriculture, Confagricoltura, and the development agency Agricord, as well as the UN ambassador to the EU for IYFF - called for governments to take measures to make the profession attractive to young people.
Copa-Cogeca and the WFO called for access to internet and other social infrastructures "in line with the rest of society".
Roberto Poggioni of Confagricoltura, the Italian agricultural confederation, said: “We need better policies to get young people to stay in rural areas, better infrastructure [and] internet in rural areas,” he said.
Rural areas require services
The European Commission estimates that in 2008 41.7% of people living in areas of the EU with low population density had never used the internet. Only Cyprus, the Netherlands and the UK have 100% access to DSL internet in rural areas. The lowest areas of coverage are in Latvia (9%), Slovenia (11%) and in Lithuania (15%), according to the European Commission.
The theory goes that better access to the internet can provide farmers with access to innovation, training and market data. The lack of connectivity means that farmers may be unable to market their products sufficiently or access market data or agricultural research. Jones cites examples of coffee makers in Ethiopia who were able to market their products directly using technology, without relying on intermediaries, who “take away from the margins” of an already unsteady profession.
“It’s about making farmers businessmen”, a spokesperson for Copa-Cogeca said.
Commission proposals from 2009 said better ICT technology and access could play “a significant role in promoting entrepreneurship and economic progress in rural areas, this contributing to improve the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry, the quality of life and diversification of the rural economy”. The proposals have not yet been passed by the European Council of Ministers and published in the Commission’s official journal.
But the issue goes beyond internet access. Young farmers in many rural areas may feel that they do not have good enough access to services like healthcare, schools for their children and community centres.
“Farming policies should be part of a wider agenda for rural development to create an enabling social environment with services to make sure our rural areas are good to live in,” said Piet Vanthemsche, the president of the Belgian Farmers’ Union.
Social media may also be bringing more life to the farming profession, which is often viewed as dreary and lonely in the eyes of young Europeans.
The Twitter hashtag #AgriChatUK had reached the top 10 trends in the United Kingdom by October last year, with many farmers professing that social media was a “lifeline” when out on remote farms in the countryside.
"Farming can in many ways be very, very lonely. This is a great way to bring people together and enable them to communicate with each other in an easy manner," one Twitter user was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
“Most importantly, family farms plant the traditional foods of a place, which are always more adequate and desirable for the people living in a certain place than other non-traditional and imported foods could be,” said Paolo di Croce, the general secretary of Slow Food.
“Unfortunately the sector of traditional food production and agriculture has lost attractiveness … which is why less young people choose to carry on the family business in this sector or to pursue it deliberately,” di Croce added. “In many countries farming is associated with poverty and the work of farmers is often not appreciated, which is a great mistake in the system which denies recognition to the most humble and hard-working people without which a live on earth would not even be possible as we still know it.”
“It’s the predominant form of agriculture, not only in developing countries but also in developed countries, and by family farming we mean small-holders to medium-scale farmers, who practice relatively diversified farming systems as opposed to the large-scale corporate [farms], who may be highly specialised, mono-cropping,” the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Brussels director, Richard China, told EurActiv.
“One of the things that we’re increasingly recognising, including in Europe, is that the industrialised farming systems are taking a heavy toll on the environment, and we need to get the balance right between the production of food and ensuring that we do not do harm, not only our soils and our water systems, but also to the climate,” he added.
Yara, a Norwegian fertiliser company that is one of the world’s largest agricultural businesses, says that it is engaged in helping small-holder farmers. “Several of Yara’s activities and projects in different countries have the purpose of increasing the income of smallholder farmers … and to provide them access to quality inputs even if they live in poor and remote areas,” the company’s public affairs director, Natalia Federighi, told EurActiv.
“Through extension services, we promote good agricultural practices and put farmers’ needs at the center of rural development, ensuring sustainable food security and poverty reduction (i.e. …Ghana Grains Partnership).”
- 16 October: World Food Day, with an event focusing on family farming at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome.