Opportunities for sustainable agriculture: biodiversity, food sovereignty, security. And the crucial role of small farmers

The future: sustainable agriculture and what we can do ourselves

Consumers worldwide have the right to choose what type of agricultural model to support, by making specific day to day choices. The result will be global.
The sustainable agriculture approach promotes the ability of small agricultural producers to access and own their production resources and to use them to ensure sustenance.
Sustainable agriculture can control climate change by reducing dependency on fossil fuels and energy requirements, reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers.
Practices such as crop rotation increase the availability of food all year round and ensure greater flexibility in the case of extreme climatic events.
Small producers supply over half of the world’s food. They make up over 90% of agricultural production in Africa.


The future: sustainable agriculture is what we can create

A definition
“Sustainable” agriculture is agriculture which combines three main objectives: environmental protection, profitability and social and economical equality. More generally, the approach to sustainable agriculture includes the farmers’ ability, in particular the smaller producers and their families, to access and own the production resources they need, such as land, water, woodland, pastures, genes and seeds, and to use them to ensure sustenance, growth and development using methods and technologies which are economically, socially and environmentally appropriate.

This type of approach increases the power of the agricultural community to grow their profits and take control of their production systems, including the transformation and the marketing of agricultural produce.
Sustainable agriculture refers to the agricultural company's ability to produce food without damaging the land, the ecosystems and the "human capital" and to reduce (or eliminate) dependence on external factors such as fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

Benefits for the climate
Sustainable agriculture can control climate change by reducing dependency on fossil fuels and energy requirements, in particular reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Of global man-made emissions, in 2005 approximately 50% of nitrogen oxide and approximately 47% of methane (which have a significant impact on global warming) came from agriculture. Nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture are mainly generated by nitrogen fertilisers and the use of manure, which are often used in excess and therefore not completely used by the growing crops. Fermentative digestion by ruminators also contributes to agricultural methane emissions, along with the cultivation of rice in flooded fields.

Less use of fossil fuels
Industrial agriculture is also highly dependent on fossil fuels. The production and distribution of synthetic fertilisers contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions: between 0.6 and 1.2% of the global total. This is because the production of fertilisers requires a large amount of energy, with the subsequent emission of carbon dioxide, while the production of nitrates also generates nitrous oxide. The FAO points out that organic farming reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 48-60%, and energy consumption is 25-50% less than conventional agriculture. Practices such as composting also help to “sequestrate” carbon dioxide in the soil and increase the organic substance of the soil. Forestation and vegetation, strongly supported by sustainable agriculture, also help to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Finally, sustainable agriculture improves “resilience”, or the ability to adapt to climatic crises. Practices such as crop rotation increase the availability of food throughout the year, and diversity in production of foodstuffs and seeds offers greater flexibility in the case of any extreme climatic events.

The food waste scandal
According to a study commissioned by the FAO, around one third of the food produced every year for human consumption - more or less 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted. Industrialised countries and developing countries waste around the same quantity of food - 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively. Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost the equivalent quantity of food (222 million tonnes) as Sub-Saharan Africa's total net food production (230 million tonnes). Fruit and vegetables, along with roots and tubers, are the foodstuffs which are most often wasted. The total amount of food which is lost or wasted every year is the equivalent of more than half of the total annual global cereal production (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).
Quality standards
More specifically, large quantities of food are also wasted due to quality standards which give excessive importance to appearance. Research has shown that consumers would be willing to buy products which did not meet these appearance standards as long as they were safe and had a good flavour. Consumers therefore evidently have the power to influence quality standards and should exercise that power, according to the report. Selling produce directly from the ground without having to meet supermarket quality standards is another suggestion offered by the FAO report. This could take place through stores and markets managed by producers. We should also identify alternative uses for food which would otherwise be thrown away.
Buying more than we need
Consumers in rich countries generally tend to buy more food than they actually need. One such example comes with the classic 'Buy two get one free' offer we see so often, along with the excessive portions offered in the ready-meals produced by the food industry. Then there are the fixed-price buffets offered by many restaurants, which push consumers to refill their plates unnecessarily. The report points out how generally, consumers do not plan their food purchases correctly, meaning that unused food is often thrown away once it passes its "use by" date.
The role of small producers
Via Campesina explains, “Although agribusiness controls the majority of cultivatable land in almost every country worldwide, it’s thanks to our farmers that we have the food which is available today. Worldwide, small farmers control less than half of agricultural land, but produce the majority of the food which we consume. For example in Brazil, small producers are responsible for 87% of manioc, 70% of beans, 46% of maize, 34% of rice, 58% of milk, 50% of poultry, 59% of pork and 30% of beef, 38% of coffee, as well as countless other foodstuffs. Farmers own less than 25% of agricultural land, but they generate 40% of the country's agricultural value. Farmers and family producers see the production of food as their vocation. Agribusiness's vocation is exportation”.

The small producers are feeding the world
Three quarters of the world’s poor and 70% of those suffering from hunger live in rural communities where small scale agriculture provides sustenance and a food source. Small producers supply over half of the world’s food. They are responsible for over 90% of agricultural production in Africa and the majority of the maize, beans and potatoes grown for internal consumption in Latin America.

According to data provided by Action Aid, around 2 billion people in poor countries rely directly on agriculture to survive. Women represent the overwhelming majority of the agricultural workforce and produce most of the food which is consumed locally. Of approximately 525 million agricultural companies worldwide, around 404 million are small scale agricultural companies with two hectares of land or less.

What do we mean by a long chain?
The intermediation between agricultural producers and the end consumer can be vast and - as we have seen - involve several parties. These included wholesalers, international stock exchanges, multinational food companies and large distribution chains. At each stage, the value of the produce is transferred from the producer to the other links in the chain. The result is economic non-sustainability for small producers, but often also genuine exploitation. The quest to ensure a profit right along the chain is the driving force for a production system which is based on intensive agriculture, international commerce and a failure to protect the environment. In order to increase profit, the very quality of the product itself is reduced, to the detriment of the consumer, who pays the majority of the price of financing the advertising and marketing campaigns.
What do we mean by a short chain?
Reducing the number of stages between the agricultural producer and the end consumer offers significant advantages. As well as the price, most of the value is left in the producer's hands, meaning they can ensure their economic and legal sustainability. The direct producer-consumer relationship increases trust between the parties, ensuring quality produce and respect for the agreements made. A short chain also reduces impact upon the environment, because there are fewer transfers and less waste as well as increased respect for biodiversity and food sovereignty.
90% of the human race's diet of animal origin comes from just 14 species of mammal and bird, and just four species - wheat, maize, rice and potatoes provide the organism with half of its energy from plant origin. The FAO estimates than in the last century, three quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have disappeared. What's more, of 6300 species of animal, 1350 are at risk of extinction or are already extinct. Modern agriculture has encouraged many farmers to use the same high yielding species of plants or animals, but when food producers abandon diversity, varieties and species can disappear, along with their specific genetic characteristics. For poorer farmers, biodiversity may offer the best protection against starvation. Consumers may also benefit from the possibility of a wider choice of plant and animal foodstuffs, meaning they can enjoy a nutritious diet, which is particularly important for local communities with little access to markets.
More than 40% of land is used for agriculture, and therefore its farmers are the most responsible for protecting biodiversity. Through the use of techniques such as agriculture on untilled land, reduced use of pesticides, organic farming and crop rotation, farmers can maintain the fragile balance between their land and the surrounding ecosystems.

Food sovereignty
“Food sovereignty is the right of a population to healthy food which is culturally appropriate, produced using sustainable and ecological methods, supported by their right to define their own food and agriculture policies”; this is the definition of “food sovereignty” provided by the Nyeleni Forum 2007 (Mali).

Food sovereignty offers a strategy for resistance and the demolition of the current food commerce system sustained by corporations, a strategy which is directed towards food, agricultural, pastoral and fishing systems centred around local producers and users. It also gives priority to local and national markets and economies; it promotes transparent business which ensures equal profits for all, as well as the right of the consumer to control their own nutrition. It ensures that the right to use and manage land, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who actually produce the food. Finally, food sovereignty “means new social relationships free from oppression and inequality between men and women, populations, ethnic groups, economic classes and generations”.


Community purchase groups
All over the world, people are developing alternative food produce distribution methods to those which we know so well (supermarkets and shopping centres). In the search for better products at limited costs, groups of citizens are coming together to work with agricultural producers in the areas where they live, and to buy their goods. These groups favour local and organic farming, in a kind of social farming experience.

This mechanism is beginning to take the place of the traditional chain: consumers and producers agree on the type and the quantity of food required, establish a price in advance and guarantee prepayment to the producer. Distribution is shared, with less impact on the environment.


Shopping list #1 - What to buy and what not to buy

  1. Favour self-generation, recovery and reuse
  2. Read the label
  3. Use the seasons as a guide
  4. Avoid waste
  5. Avoid packaging
  6. The criteria against which we should buy: organic, short chain, Km0, biodiversity, “social” food, cruelty free, “Pizzo” (extortion) free

Shopping list #2 - Where to buy and why

  1. Favour small organised distribution over GDO
  2. Look for your nearest community purchasing group
  3. If possible, use organic companies which deliver to your home
  4. Visit shared gardens
  5. Favour direct sales and farmers markets
  6. Choose fair, community-based commerce