Much has been made of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) 2009 recommendation that the world will need to produce 70 percent more food to feed the projected global population of 9.1 billion people in 2050. Policymakers and agricultural investors have focused on increasing supply for the global food market. And while 925 million people worldwide today remain chronically hungry—amidst unprecedented population growth, resource depletion, and climate change—meeting the needs of the future is an enormous challenge for the world food system.
But according to Alexandra Spieldoch, Coordinator of the Network of Women Ministers and Leaders in Agriculture within Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture & Natural Resource Management (WOCAN), simply producing more will not eradicate world hunger. Spieldoch believes that the ongoing global food crisis—fueled by social unrest and climate instability—requires governments to take a comprehensive, people-centered approach to support small-scale farmers and to put access to food above overall production.
“While economic growth and debt reduction are necessary,” says Spieldoch, “the multiple crises that we are facing remind us that environmental needs and basic human rights must guide the direction and function of markets, not the other way around.” She emphasizes the need to invest in those programs that have the most positive impact on the poor, and women in particular. “This includes [investment in] appropriate infrastructure in rural areas, improved technologies for small-scale farmers, agricultural practices that do not damage the environment, better planning, women’s access to land and other resources, and more social protections for the most vulnerable,” she says.
Spieldoch cites successful national initiatives that have reduced hunger and poverty by focusing on access to food. “Brazil’s Fome Zero policy is an important example because it has reduced hunger by one-third in the country,” she says. “It includes a national program to provide cash transfers to poor families to help increase their buying power for food. It also includes a mandate that a minimum of 30 percent of the food purchased under the school feeding program must come from small family farms. So, among other things, it reduces hunger and it provides employment in the rural sector.”
“Ecuador has also passed a framework law in 2009 to implement its commitment to the right to food, which includes provisions to give small-scale farmers access to capital and resources, public participation in decision-making processes, and protection for indigenous peoples, among others,” she continues.
Spieldoch stresses the need to establish national and global policy frameworks that require investors and policymakers to prioritize small-scale farmers and access to food. She believes that governments need to move quickly to implement the recommendations made in the United Nation’s (UN) Comprehensive Framework for Action by its High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. The six-point plan calls for a reduction in agricultural subsidies in industrial countries in order to promote fair trade and agricultural development in poor countries, as well as a focus on increasing the yields of small-scale farmers.
“The newly reformed UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) holds great potential to guide actions taken to address the food crisis,” Spieldoch adds. The CFS includes active participation from civil society groups—including farmers, nongovernmental organizations, and social movements. Although she admits that it has a limited capacity, Spieldoch believes that by including the concerns and recommendations of a mix of stakeholders, the CFS can more effectively coordinate food security initiatives to support a coherent overall plan. “I am optimistic that a new framework of governance is taking shape and hope that world leaders and regular folks like me can contribute to a better world than what we see today.”
Unfortunately, a lack of regulation has allowed investors to profit while the numbers of hungry people have risen, according to Spieldoch. “Excessive commodity speculation has dangerously contributed to price volatility in global markets,” she says. “Governments need to invest in real, not virtual, agriculture markets for producers and consumers.” Deregulation in commodity markets—which include agricultural products—has essentially allowed hedge funds, pension funds, and investment banks to bet on near-future trends in food prices. This can create sudden spikes and drops in the price of food, and small-scale farmers and poor communities are ill-equipped to cope with the price volatility.
Spieldoch believes that improving support for women farmers will go a long way to reduce poverty and hunger. WOCAN is a global network of professionals that is strengthening the capacity of rural women through a mix of approaches—including leadership training, income generation, enabling environments, and advocacy. She says a major challenge that WOCAN faces is that leaders verbally support women in agriculture, but their programs do not yet reflect a strong gender commitment. “We cannot ignore the facts,” she says. “Women need access to land, resources, credit, finance, information, markets, etc. These discriminatory barriers have to be removed if we are serious about reducing hunger and promoting long-term sustainable development. Rural women also lack a political voice in decisions that are being taken on their behalf. This has got to change.”
Spieldoch explains that research is underway to learn more about women’s leadership in different countries, and she hopes that successful models can be replicated. “For example, the Hunger Project’s Epicenter Projects in Africa are working to reduce hunger by empowering women farmers through comprehensive approaches. In India, grassroots women are engaged in different aspects of agro-ecology, livestock management and rain water harvesting. In Niger, women are supplying and managing food grains banks. [And] in Kenya, women are leading the efforts in vertical farming in the slums to provide food security,” she explains.
“We can learn from these examples and many more.”
Do you know of projects or policies that prioritize access to food over the increased production of food? What ways are they benefitting poor communities and developing countries? Let us know in the comments!
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about reducing hunger by supporting small-scale and women farmers see: Innovation of the Week: Community Seed Banks to Empower Women and Protect Biodiversity, Dr. Bina Agarwal’s Gender and Green Governance, and Increased Investments to Combat Food Insecurity.