Empowering Farmers to Achieve Food Security

28 Jun 2011Kavita Prakash-Mani

Appetite for Change discusses one of the most critical challenges of our time – Food Security. In other words, how do we feed a growing and prospering population without going beyond ecological limits and ensuring that farming communities thrive? This multi-faceted challenge is further complicated by the vagaries of nature, market speculation and agriculture’s interconnected to other inputs like energy.

The solutions currently being developed tend to focus on the market and consumers. This can be seen by the thousands of different standards and certification being developed – all with good intention but now in an unhealthy competition and creating confusion for consumers. These standards are then pushed down the supply chain until they reach the farmer who has to interpret all these requirements into how she manages the farm. Often this results in higher expenses, more time investment and labour, more oversight and management – with no guarantee of payback.

So how do we put the farmer front and centre and look at the issues from her perspective?

Farming as a business

Farming is a business. We should not romanticise it as anything else. Farmers meet an essential need and deserve to earn a profit. To meet global demands for food, feed, fibre and fuel they have to increase production. For this they need access to the right inputs, knowledge and information, and finance. And then they need to be able to bring the produce to market and earn a living – needing links to customers, infrastructure from storage to road and rail transport, and the right trade policies. This is as true for the large farms as well as smallholder farmers.

Smallholder farmers

Of course, the 500m smallholder farms in the world (supporting more than 2 billion people) are more in need of support on all these dimensions. They currently produce 25% of the global food but will need to more than double their output to meet the need of 9bn people by 2050 (with most of the population growth coming from developing nations). And they need to do this while also adapting to a changing climate and erratic weather.

These are not issues that any one stakeholder group can address. As the Appetite for Change report says, it needs a mosaic of collaboration and action: unusual and usual suspects coming together to provide a complete solution.

The best solutions are partnership based. E.g. Syngenta provides agronomic advice to farmers in India via Nokia Lifetools. Syngenta Foundation works with insurance company, UAP, and Vodacom in Kenya to provide weather based micro-insurance. Unilever partners with Oxfam to work with vegetable farmers. PepsiCo develop contractual relations with smallholder farmers. And so on.

Environmental sustainability

On the other hand, in the developed markets, we see more concern around environmental sustainability of agriculture and not without cause – agriculture uses 70% of global freshwater, 40% of global land and accounts for a third of the greenhouse gas emissions when land use change is included.

The majority of the standards mentioned above have a strong environmental dimension to them. While the need to measure these impacts is clear, how they should get measured and who will pay for that is still unclear. More initiatives are now under way to consolidate these standards and to agree a single measurement protocol. There is also hope that the climate negotiations will enable agriculture to be included in carbon credit market, thus enabling greater investment in sustainable agriculture.

However, environmental impacts are not that straightforward. They include impacts:

  1. On the farm (e.g. impacts on water, soil, air and biodiversity);
  2. In the value chain (i.e. post-harvest loss and consumer waste); and,
  3. Via land use change towards or away from agriculture.

The key is to have a common view on how we manage and measure these impacts. While the focus tends to be on climate change, the impacts will be felt through water availability, temperature change, etc. Responses usually constitute what would be sensible farming practice e.g. better water management.

The focus of any analysis must be on outcomes and impacts rather than on inputs. Which farming system and approach is better depends on what ultimate impacts it has on things we care about – e.g. environmental sustainability and rural economic growth – rather than inputs.

Food Security at Syngenta

At Syngenta, we are thinking carefully about these issues and the role the company can play in furthering Food Security, in being a collaborative player and in meeting its aim of Bringing Plant Potential to Life. We aim to provide Better Solutions, enable Resource Efficiency and contribute to Rural Economies. This is why we are participating in multi-stakeholder partnerships like the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) and the various other partnerships being developed by World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture in Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico, as well as engaging in developing integrated solutions like TEGRA for smallholder rice producers in Asia and PLENE for sugarcane growers in Brazil (see videos here).

I welcome the addition that Appetite for Change has made to this discussion – in particular its call for a system wide approach, more investment and partnerships, better policies and technologies and the need for equity in the system. Companies would do well to keep these basic tenets in mind as they develop their own contributions to a sustainable food system.

Kavita Prakash-Mani is Head of Food Security at Syngenta International, a member of the SustainAbility Council, and former Vice President of Client Services at SustainAbility.

For more information, download Appetite for Change from our Library. To speak with us about how your company can lead the way to greater sustainability in the food sector, contact biringer@sustainability.com.

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