In a year marked by conflict, pandemics, and the climate crisis, the theme that the FAO has chosen for World Food Day is particularly significant: Leave no one behind. It aligns closely with my sensibilities as an African agronomist, as an activist-educator, and as the President of Slow Food.
In the many debates on food security in which I have participated, especially here in Africa, the voice of the farmers is not heard. In policy and planning, decisions are taken at the top of administrative and economic power, while the protagonists of the food system, the small-scale producers, are considered passive subjects, with decisions taken over their heads. Yet, according to the FAO itself, farms with less than two hectares of land produce one-third of the world’s food.
Governments often ignore them, claiming that the traditional system is archaic. Organic farmers are not often invited to planning meetings because officials think they are against progress. But what modernity are we talking about? I have seen the disaster of hybrid maize seed selected and patented by a multinational company with my own eyes, as producers are convinced by false promises of prodigious results. These small-scale producers often have no prior knowledge of the product, but corporate technicians spur them on and in so doing damage community food security as resilient, native seeds are abandoned. Many of these new hybrid seeds, produced in the Netherlands, Spain, and South Africa, are sold to the few African farmers who can afford to manage monocultures, increasing the overall fragility of the food system.
African countries spend $65 billion a year on imported food. Yet, many governments adopt policies focused on industrialized agriculture for export, in an attempt to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP and offset the balance of payments. Most of these policies, driven by foreign direct investment, support large-scale industrial production that focuses on raw materials for export. These policies have criminalized subsistence production and demoralized many small family farms, pushing them out of the market.
We need to redefine the concept of food security by shifting the focus from food as a commodity, to the communities where it is grown and produced. This perspective focuses on the social structure, the cultural significance of food, and its ties to the land, and does away with quantitative import-export figures. We cannot feed Africa if we do not start working from the community level.
A concrete example is our work with coffee producers in the highlands of Mount Elgon, in southeastern Uganda: the government was planning to distribute subsidies and chemical fertilizer to these producers. Together with Slow Food Presidium members, we set up a committee to meet with the district agriculture office and made demands for facilities for compost production, certified organic fertilizers, and training in integrated pest management. The producers made clear what kind of farming system they want to preserve on the mountain slopes to safeguard the quality of their coffee and the integrity of the ecosystem. They know perfectly well that if they go organic, without using synthetic inputs, they’ll be able to sell their coffee for a higher price.
In short, if governments want to preserve food security, and ‘Leave no one behind’, they need to listen to the voices of food-producing communities so that they can continue to practice ecological agriculture that preserves the environment while ensuring access to a varied and nutritious diet for their families.