Family Farming for a Better Life

13 Aug 2014

When the United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, it signaled a growing understanding of what was needed to build a sustainable world and ensure enough food for everyone on the planet. Or, more precisely, who was needed.

Feeding the world sustainably
A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) survey of 93 countries found that, on average, family farmers accounted for over 80 percent of all holdings. In both developed and developing countries, they are the main producers of locally consumed food, the primary stewards of food security and among the main custodians of their communities’ natural resources and biodiversity.

Sadly, smallholder family farmers also make up the bulk of the world’s chronically undernourished people. Over 70 percent of the world’s 842 million food-insecure people live in rural areas in developing countries. They struggle to produce enough food or income to meet their basic needs.

In order for these vulnerable farmers to reach their full potential, they need technical assistance and policies that build on their knowledge and sustainably bolster productivity; appropriate technologies; quality inputs that respond to their needs and respect their cultures and traditions; support for women and youth farmers; stronger producer organizations and cooperatives; improved access to land, water, credit and markets; and greater participation in value chains.

For decades, family farmers were seen as part of the problem of hunger and poverty. However, with the right support, family farmers can become part of the solution to some of the major challenges of our times – the food demands of a growing world population, wasted food supplies, degraded natural resources, biodiversity loss and climate change, and a shortage of employment.

The preservation and sustainable use of natural resources is rooted in the productive logic of family farms. It sets them apart from large-scale specialized farming, although large-scale farming also plays an important role in ensuring the global food supply. The highly diversified nature of family agricultural activities gives them a central role in promoting environmental sustainability, safeguarding biodiversity, and contributing to healthier, more balanced diets. Family farmers also play a pivotal role in local production, marketing and consumption, creating jobs, generating income and stimulating and diversifying local economies.

Lessons from small-scale farmers
We still have much to learn about the sustainable practices of smallholders and medium-scale farmers, indigenous peoples, forest farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists and others. Whether they build terraces in the Philippines or adopt zero-tillage practices in Zambia, family farmers have consistently succeeded in maintaining production on often-marginal lands. The International Year of Family Farming does more than simply draw attention to the essential role of family farmers; it also sets goals to strive for. It encourages governments to provide more effective policy and institutional support for family farmers, and to make it a priority to ensure family farmer organizations are included in consensus-building and decision-making processes.

Experience shows that family farmers can respond well to increased production if the appropriate policy environment is put in place. With this in mind, some governments are taking action. In late 2013, for example, the Andean Parliament, representing five South American countries, approved a statement on the implementation of public policies for sustainable development of agricultural systems based on the family unit.

Our organization’s agronomists, economists, nutritionists, veterinarians and others work with governments, partners and families around the world to foster sustainable agricultural and food systems. We have seen that policy and institutional changes, combined with support at the community-level – such as Slow Food’s project to establish 10,000 food gardens in Africa – can lead to concrete results that improve the lives of millions.

African leaders have set a target to end hunger in the region by 2025, as have those from Latin American and the Caribbean. This is an ambitious goal, but not impossible, as long as family farmers are included in the effort.


José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO


This article will be published in the next edition of the Slow Food Almanac, available to all Slow Food members from October. Read the 2013 edition here. 

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