© 2013 Diana

Powering up Smallholder Farmers to Make Food Fair

From “A Fairtrade International Report – May 2013”


By Harriet Lamb, CEO, Fairtrade International


Imagine a world without many of the foods we increasingly take for granted every day – without coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, bananas. How would our lives change? The fact is the trade in these tropical agricultural commodities is heavily reliant on smallholders, many of whom struggle to earn the sustainable cost of production. Their vulnerability – and the need to find lasting solutions – should serve as a wake-up call to all of us.

Smallholders grow 70 per cent of the world’s food – in cocoa, as much as 90 per cent. But many farmers are trapped in a cycle of poverty, made worse by decades of price volatility and underinvestment in agriculture, and now facing new threats from a changing climate. This phenomenon is threatening the very sustainability of many of the products we enjoy on a daily basis.

It is a scandal that half of the world’s hungriest people are themselves smallholder farmers1 , The fact that so many hungry people are food producers shows just how unbalanced our global food system has become. Hunger, undernourishment and poverty continue to scar the lives of millions, while consumers in rich countries waste as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.2 Recent World Health Organisation research reveals that, for the first time ever, the number of years of healthy living lost globally as a result of over-eating outweighs the number lost by people eating too little. Our global food system is dangerously out of control: out of control for consumers, out of control for farmers and out of control in the way food is traded and distributed. We know there is enough food for everyone, but everyone is not getting enough food. 2013 is the year that we need to put the politics of food on the public agenda and find better solutions to the insanity of our broken food system.

Since 2009 both staple food and commodity prices have remained highly volatile. This puts the livelihoods of commodity producers at risk and threatens the food security of a huge number of people in the developing world, many of them smallholder farmers. Millions were plunged into poverty due to high food prices in 2010 and 2011.4 International bodies predict that food prices are likely to remain high and volatile for the next decade, at the very least posing grave concerns for the future of smallholder farmers.5

After decades of neglect, the issues of food security and smallholder agriculture are again starting to receive more serious attention from world leaders and institutions. There are new calls for reinvestment in small-scale farming. Major new private sector sustainability initiatives are seeking to increase the number of smallholders in their supply chains.

This report draws on Fairtrade’s experience of working with smallholders in five principal agricultural commodities: coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar and bananas, as well as wider evidence and research. It explores the realities of the challenges facing smallholder farmers, as well as the role that farmers themselves can play in building a sustainable path towards greater food security.

Fairtrade’s experience has been in working with farmers who earn their incomes through sale of cash crops to local and international markets, rather than subsistence farming which requires different solutions. Our agenda focuses therefore on action to support the role that cash crops can play in supporting farmer livelihoods.

Our report argues that five fundamental principles – putting farmers first, ensuring fair share of value chains and fair access to finance, building futureproofed farming and increasing the focus of government funding – should inform the policies and practices of governments, donors, multilateral agencies and private sector actors. Of course, we must listen hard to smallholder organisations themselves. It is they who know what the problems and solutions are, who pioneer improved farming practices, and who put their own money and working lives into growing staple food and commodities. As Beatrice Makwenda from the National Association of Small Farmers in Malawi (NASFAM) once told us ‘the person wearing the shoe knows best where it pinches’.

Smallholder farmers are not a ‘problem’ neither are they passive ‘beneficiaries’ of aid-driven solutions. Indeed, FAO figures show that smallholders themselves already invest US$170 billion a year into their own farms, four times more than investment from all other funding sources put together. If the power imbalances that hold smallholders back can be addressed now, and within supportive policy environments, they will drive down hunger and build prosperity for hundreds of millions.



1 International Assessment of Agricultural Science Technology for Development (IAASTD) Global Report ‘Agriculture at a Crossroads’, 2008

2 GLOBAL FOOD WASTE NOT, WANT NOT, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, January 2013

3 Small Farmer, Big Solutions, Fairtrade Foundation 2009

4 World Bank, Food Price Watch, February 2011

5 OECD-FAO, Agricultural Outlook 2011-2020, http://www.agri-outlook. org/pages/0,2987,en_36774715_ 36775671_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

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