Hogan: Empowering women farmers in developing countries is ‘absolutely crucial’

Paul Hogan [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Innovations instead of assistance for farming.

SPECIAL REPORT/ In a wide-ranging exclusive interview, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan shared his vision of how the EU and developing countries could greatly improve global food security togther, through innovation and sustainable farming practices.

Before becoming European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan was Minister of Environment, Community and Local Government of Ireland.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

You recently said that that EU policies have a real role to play in improving global food security and feeding the planet in a sustainable way. Agriculture is indeed crucial for reducing poverty and eradicating hunger. Can you elaborate?

Since becoming Commissioner, I have consistently highlighted that the Common Agricultural Policy has a real responsibility to contribute to the goal of feeding the world. Europe has a deep well of experience in shared agricultural governance. We have reformed the CAP, which operates in the 28 member states of the EU and its 500 million citizens, to be more dynamic and market-oriented, but also much more focused on our shared environmental and sustainability obligations. The evolution of the CAP has been a learning process for us all, and I certainly think that developing countries could learn from many of our successes as well as our mistakes.

What should the agriculture of the 21st century look like?  And what kind of agriculture is advisable for developing countries?

There is no “one size fits all” model for 21st century agriculture. The EU experience has shown that the most effective models are those whereby collective targets are met by local areas tailoring policies to their needs and strengths. That is why such large degrees of flexibility are provided to EU member states and regions in meeting their CAP targets and obligations.

Developing countries need to assess what works best for them, developing policies that allow their farmers to make a decent living from their work, while contributing to “big picture” targets in terms of production, sustainability, smart farming and food waste.

What are the innovative techniques that could help achieve sustainable agriculture for the 21st century, especially in the developing countries? What would be the environmental constraints, should developing countries for example develop GMOs, while the EU is in general reluctant to do so?

There are two areas where genuine innovation is required to drive the “sustainable intensification” agriculture must deliver in this century. The first is from the policy perspective: international structures for cooperation in the agri-food sector must be strengthened and deepened, and I am proud to say that the EU is very active in international debates. At the G20 agricultural ministerial meeting earlier this year, I supported the proposal to establish a common platform to share information and best practice in measuring and reducing food loss and waste. 

The second area is on farms and at all stages of the agricultural production process, where technology and innovation can create numerous improvements.

Empowering women is a recurrent political idea when it comes to agriculture, but also to reducing food losses. Is this a slogan, or are their practical things that the EU can do in this field?

In Europe we often talk about supporting “family farms”: agricultural holdings where most or all family members, including women, will contribute in a variety of vital ways. Empowering women to play central roles in all areas of agricultural production is absolutely crucial if developing countries are to achieve their full potential in the agri-food sector. This is not just lip service: the Commission is putting its money where its mouth is, supporting sustainable farming practices in developing countries, focusing on smallholder agriculture and women farmers, the formation of farmers’ organisations, the supply and marketing chain, and responsible private agribusiness investment. Targeting women has been a particular priority, given their traditionally central role in smallholdings.

You have mentioned the “Agri-tech revolution” as a way to overcome challenges such as increasing water shortages, and a lack of sufficient arable land. Can you elaborate?

The future agriculture will be an agriculture of knowledge. We must, for example, prioritise the development of functioning farm advisory services allowing for timely and efficient transfer of data and information.

On farms, we are entering the era of “precision agriculture” – harnessing the use of technology and data to enable farmers to do their work more smartly, and more efficiently.

The time is ripe to promote precision agriculture for improved land management, rotational grazing and soil conservation, pest management, nutrient management, crop diversity and water conservation. This is achieved primarily through the use of sensors on farms.

New hardware and software systems will improve agriculture in a multitude of ways. New ‘smart-agri’ production systems will use advanced ICT at all stages in the food chain: on the farm, through to processing and retailing. Such innovations will improve the quality of crop production, the quality of livestock health but also, crucially, the quality of life for farmers.

To give just one example of innovative thinking from the country I know best: the Irish “Herdwatch” Farming App helps Dairy & Beef Farmers keep electronic records of their cattle, ensuring easy compliance with EU rules and valuable hours saved.

What assistance can the EU provide to the developing countries in the field of agriculture, what can EU research help do together with these countries, what are the chances of their researchers to benefit from the EU programs?

EU programmes are already targeting small farmers, who represent the majority of the agricultural sector in developing countries, for vocational training to improve their knowledge base and farming techniques.

The EU also promotes scientific research in areas of particular importance to developing countries, strengthening these countries’ capacity to design and implement collective research programmes, as pioneered by the EU’s successive framework programmes for research.

The EU is also providing assistance in a number of other strategic and intelligent ways. For example, the European Investment Bank is doing excellent work developing targeted and effective financial instruments for projects in developing countries. Many of these are proceeding in a highly impressive fashion and are already yielding positive results.

How about the value chains. Will the developing countries be able to get their fair share in global trade? How can the EU make sure that its trade policies don’t harm development?

There is a delicate balance to be struck between finding new markets for our high-quality, safe and sustainable EU products on the one hand, and providing a fair share of global markets to developing countries on the other hand. This will be achieved through compromise and negotiation, leading to smart and sustainable trade agreements.

In the last number of years, the EU has negotiated a number of free trade agreements, including with the Central American countries, South Korea, Morocco, Peru, Colombia, and most recently, Canada and Vietnam.

There is also a pressing need for more joined-up thinking internationally. To give just one example, we can continue to strengthen the Agriculture Market Information System and enhance the contribution of the annual Meeting of the Agriculture Chief Scientists.

Will the Commission encourage the EU agri-business to invest in developing countries?

Yes. Incentivising EU agri-business to see the potential of investing in developing countries is an absolute win-win.  Investment in the wealth-creating potential of developing country agriculture is the most direct way to lift farmers out of poverty, thus generating the economic growth which in turn will create a new generation of consumers for European agri-food exports.

Improving agricultural governance, as well as agricultural practices in developing countries, has to be assisted by investment – notably from the private sector. I am working with my colleagues Commissioner Mimica and Commissioner Bienkowska to encourage EU agri-businesses to invest in agriculture in developing countries, given the potential for production growth and the opportunities for research and innovation.

I believe such a strategic approach to trade can be a driver for our shared future prosperity.

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