In the World’s Quest for Sustainable Development, Family Farming is Key

July 17, 2019

Rebecca Middleton, Executive Director, Alliance to End Hunger

Family farming plays a vital role in promoting sustainable development around the globe.  80 percent of the world’s food is produced by family farmers, but their importance goes far beyond ensuring that the world has enough to eat.  Socially, we find that the success or failure of smallholder family farmers have a disproportionate effect on women and children.  Empowering women farmers leads to higher education outcomes for households, and contributes to the betterment of societies and nations as a whole. Environmentally, agriculture plays a significant role in carbon emissions, soil health, water availability and potability, and land and forest management.  Economically, we find that ironically, many of the poorest and hungriest people in the world are smallholder family farmers.  Impoverished smallholder farmers who struggle to feed their families and produce enough for a viable income find their families in a stubborn cycle of poverty.  This leads inevitably to poorer health, less productivity, and struggling economies across entire nations.

For all of these reasons and more, the United Nations recognizes family farmers as a keystone of sustainable development.  The UN recently launched the Decade of Family Farming (2019-2028) – recognizing that supporting family farmers is not only important to ending poverty and hunger, but is also key to achieving the entire Sustainable Development agenda.  Further, there was recognition that building an enabling environment through policy is essential for family farming.  In fact, this building of enabling policy environments is the all-encompassing first of seven “pillars” laid out in the UN’s Global Action Plan.  These pillars provide guidance in supporting family farming through policies promoting environmental sustainability, social inclusion, household and community resilience, and more.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the North American launch of the Decade of Family Farming at the United Nations.  The message delivered from experts at the event was clear: family farming is key to meeting food security and nutrition deficiencies that are being witnessed all over the world.  Levels of hunger remain stubbornly high – at approximately 821 million people worldwide.  Further, for the first time on record, obesity is afflicting more people in the world than hunger is.  There is a massive deficit when it comes to access to nutritious food around the world, and it is indiscriminate between wealthy and poorer countries.

One other message was made clear by José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He stated that there is a symbiotic relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals and family farming. In his closing remarks, Graziano da Silva stated that we will not meet the SDGs without adequately supporting family farmers; and we will not be able to meet the needs of family farmers without holistically addressing the SDGs.

The focus on policy to empower family farmers, and the recognition of these farmers’ central role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, is encouraging.  However, as we roll out this strategy over the next decade, and debate how best to empower these fundamentally important family farmers, we cannot forget to save a place at the policymaking table for the farmers themselves.  Too often there have been projects, programs, and strategies developed to improve the lives and livelihoods of beneficiaries that fail to make these beneficiaries key stakeholders.  As we commence on this Decade of Family Farming, we need to encourage and advocate for Family Farmers to be leaders – and not just tools – in achieving Sustainable Development around the world.