UN decade of family farming puts spotlight on food insecurity

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Family farm. Photo: Gerry Dincher/Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations has declared the years 2019 to 2028 as the UN Decade of Family Farming, citing the need to stem hunger and work toward food security. The official launch of the decade will take place in May.

The UN has identified a number of key issues, including public policies, that promote the development of family farms, the protection of biodiversity, forests necessary to supporting family farms, sustainable fisheries and agroecology.

While 2014 was officially the year of family farming, the UN states that, by creating a decade dedicated to family farming, it aims to draw attention to the fact that the people who produce more than 80 per cent of the planet's food paradoxically are often the most vulnerable to hunger. 

My hope is that the UN decade will expose and emphasize the real causes of hunger on this planet -- how the creation of hunger is directly linked to environmental degradation and land grabbing; the loss of family farms and farmland to speculation and concentration, an increase in genetic manipulation and loss of control over seed stock. Perhaps this decade will help expose the myth that good farming practices should be measured only by yield or output.

The UN has a lot on its plate this decade -- but then so do we all.

When it comes to food, hunger and agriculture, the more skeptical we are about the promises of industrial agriculture and its well-propagated myths, the more we can learn about the role of family farmers the world over and their role in reducing hunger -- their own, their families', their communities', and the globe's. Family farmers are key to encouraging healthy and nutritious foods, and in the preservation of the environment and mitigating climate change.

Our world is filled with contradictions, myths, and yes, sometimes even outright lies -- and we need to work our way through them if we are to support policies that actually benefit those who need the most support.

Roots of hunger and poverty

Recently I came upon the Ottawa Food Bank's 2018 annual report on its website. The organization's executive director needs to be commended for having the courage to remind us of the roots of community food banks.

The Ottawa Hunger report, published in the last quarter of 2018 by the Ottawa Food Bank, is entitled "Food banks do more, as governments do less."

The first paragraph of the report begins with a letter from Executive Director Michael Maidment:

"My regular nightmare is the growing use of emergency food banks in Ottawa and across Canada. It wakes me and fills me with worry for the future. Food banks were created in the early 1980s as a temporary solution until governments could improve supports to people affected by a severe downturn in the economy. Now, almost 40 years later… "

I, too, remember when food banks first came on the scene in the 1980s. And I remember as a young journalist having conversations about whether we should support these initiatives or whether to do so was simply allowing governments to shift the responsibility for income disparity and poverty onto the backs of individuals and the charitable sector.

And here we are some 40 years down the road. The fact that an executive director of a food bank is writing this message tells us something about what is going on -- something about a huge problem that requires fundamental change. The message is about why people are hungry -- about the roots of hunger and poverty.

Don't get me wrong, I think people at the food bank are doing a great job. For one, the Community Harvest Program where volunteers help grow fresh produce on 80 acres of land near Ottawa is a great initiative on a number of fronts. And it can also help empower those who are food insecure by equipping them with the knowledge and tools to grow their own food.

But what does it say when a food bank depends on volunteer land and volunteer labour to grow food for people who are part of the working poor? What does it say about the minimum wage and what does it say about our food system? What does it say about our society and how, amid all the plenty, food banks and their clients have grown over the years? Food banks are now a mainstay instead of a temporary measure to alleviate hunger. And what does it say when, as food bank clients grow in number, we have fewer and fewer family farmers here in Canada and around the world?

How can it be that the urban poor do not have enough to eat, and that family farmers across the country are having a tough go of it staying on the farm and in some cases, trouble feeding their own families? (Until, of course, they sell the farm -- asset rich, cash poor.) At the same time, a younger generation of agrarians wonders how they might get access to land to continue farming.

Meanwhile, some of the food that we purchase in our stores is now being shown to be the root of many illnesses. The legal cases against Monsanto grow, and identifiable amounts of glyphosate branded as Roundup are now being found in children's cereal. The same companies manipulating genes and linking pesticide use to seed are also pharmaceutical companies. They are contributing to food becoming increasingly less nutritious and ready to sell you medicine to "improve" your health when it fails.

Across the world there are more obese people than ever before, alongside a growing hunger crisis where more than 800 million people are chronically malnourished and more than 1 billion people face some form of malnutrition.

Making food accessible to all

The UN and the Ottawa Food Bank have it right -- nutritious food is a human right, but we need to find ways to ensure it is accessible to all -- whether it be family farmers around the world who are also food insecure or the urban food insecure.

As noted in my previous column, the Canadian federal government tinkered around the edges of food and agriculture policy in its March 2019 federal budget, but there has been no fundamental change in direction. Will the UN Decade for Family Farming awaken Canadian policymakers?

I have a recurring nightmare as well -- and it is that as the ranks of the urban food insecure increase, we will continue to lose family farmers because governments do not have the foresight, insight, or just plain courage to make policy that will recognize people's right to food.

During this UN Decade for Family Farming, we need to consider access to land for family farmers, curbing speculation on agricultural land, ensuring farmers have access to seed without having to pay royalties, encouraging seed saving, and supporting organic sustainable practices. There is more, but that would be a good beginning.

If we do not move quickly on these issues, many more of us will be having recurring nightmares.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Gerry Dincher/Wikimedia Commons

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