This article is part of our special report Food and nutrition security.
SPECIAL REPORT / Nearly one billion people suffer from chronic hunger worldwide. To sustainably feed a growing world population, the United Nations, farmers' organisations and numerous NGOs are calling for a new ‘Green Revolution’ that would empower small farmers – especially women.
The Green Revolution is a controversial concept in the debate over the fight against world hunger. In the 1960s, intensive farming techniques enabled doubling food production worldwide but its effects on the environment, especially in developing countries, was devastating.
To this day, critics bemoan the fact that available land and water resources rapidly became scarce while smallholders did not receive their fair share of the spoils.
"Despite billions in aid, many farmers in Africa continue to live under inhuman conditions,” said Jervis Zimba, Vice President of the World Farmers' Organisation (WFO). “The trickle-down effect that donor countries wished for did not occur. Instead of investing top-down, they should have sustainably built the capacities of the people,” he told euractiv.de.
Now, the United Nations are calling for a new start – a second Green Revolution with massive investments in small farmers.
"Policies aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity and increasing food availability, especially when smallholders are targeted, can achieve hunger reduction even where poverty is widespread," according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) yearly report, “State of Food Insecurity in the World".
The theory is corroborated by other international agencies. A recent study by the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) found that "smallholders can be at the forefront of a sustainable revolution in agriculture".
Against this backdrop, the UN Committee on World Food Security, which recently met in Rome, gave a clear signal. The meeting’s concluding report argued that small farmers must be more strongly involved in national agriculture markets and transnational agri-food value chains in order to increase food security in developing and emerging markets.
It further argued that shipping and infrastructure should be improved through higher investment from national governments, contributor countries and development aid organisations, while soil and forests should be preserved by means of sustainable farming. Smallholders should be able to work more independently and more lucratively.
The report’s conclusions were backed by 11 UN organisations, 95 NGOs and 47 representatives from the private sector.
Improving the competitiveness of smallholders
For George Rapsomanikis, a nutrition expert at the FAO, "the contribution that smallholder agriculture makes to world food security and nutrition is both direct – farm families consume what they produce – and indirect because it provides domestic markets with the main food products."
In Africa, 80% of farmers are smallholders with less than two hectares of land. Absurdly enough, it is farmers themselves who suffer from hunger in most cases. "Smallholders face specific, severe constraints, often including extreme poverty, weak property rights, and poor access to markets and financial services," Rapsomanikis told euractiv.de.
Rapsomanikis says governments and donors should channel limited public funds into areas that have been proven to be strongly supportive of agricultural growth and poverty reduction, such as agricultural research and development, rural infrastructure and education.
"Evidence from many countries shows, that investing in these areas often has much higher returns than spending on subsidies for agricultural inputs such as fertiliser. While such subsidies may be politically popular, they usually do not offer the highest returns," he says.
In Brussels, EU policymakers agree, saying small farmers are an essential link to the food security chain in the developing world. "[Smallholders] must become an inherent part of agri-food value chains in order to be able to sell their products at a reasonable price," says a food security official at the European Commission’s development aid directorate (DG DEVCO).
“Cocoa and banana farmers in South America offer a prime example: Evidently, they are able to hold their ground in the competition against large farmers. We cooperate closely with farmers' organisations. Only as a collective group, can they effectively organise themselves against agro-business and negotiate better with regard to land expropriation,” the official told euractiv.de.
Violence against women threatens food security
Most of all, the second Green Revolution should be female-focused, policymakers say. Indeed, women play a decisive role in agri-food value chains – by cultivating the family property, when goods are sold on market places, or during preparation of food for their families.
Still, violence and discrimination against women has severely hindered the fight against hunger, according to NGOs. In a joint report, titled "Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013", 21 development aid organisations point out that women have limited access to natural resources, are subject to unequal pay, barely have a political voice and are often victims of sexual abuse at the work place.
The report calls for improvement of human rights education in developing countries and for strengthening control and sanctioning mechanisms in the event of human rights violations against women.
"Up till now, the problem has been that while women work on the land they rarely own that land," said Carina Hirsch from the WFO. “Among other things, women must be able to inherit land, from now on. Additionally they should network with each other and exchange information, with the long-term goal of taking on a leadership role in the agriculture sector,” Hirsh told euractiv.de.
For policymakers, the problem is not new. The EU has tried including women in in its development aid policy for many years now, said EU Commission's food security official.
Examples include emergency assistance programmes with a gender-specific orientation like in the Country Strategy for Bangladesh (2007-2103). The strategy paper explicitly states that the EU focuses on innovative approaches and interventions "by primarily targeting extreme poor and food insecure women" who have not benefited from mainstream poverty reduction programmes in the past.
With its policy framework on enhancing maternal and child nutrition in external assistance, the EU also wants to confront chronic malnutrition of children. "Malnutrition is not only responsible for the high infant mortality rate in developing countries", the EU official said. "If food is too expensive and quality insufficient, then children will never be able to achieve their full potential later."