Family Farming: Building a Sustainable Future

By Barbara Ekwall, Senior Liaison Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Washington-DC


©FAO-Gianluigi Guercia

A quiet revolution is taking place when it comes to the way we perceive family farming. This change of perspective has been triggered by several global challenges. The food security crisis in 2008, which happened in a record year of cereal production, opened our eyes to the fact that often hunger is not primarily an issue of food production, but that it is intrinsically linked to the way society is organized, to poverty and marginalization.  Another major transformation is the recognition that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activities. This means, logically, that human activities can also help adapt to and mitigate climate change. Family farmers are the key for this. A re-thinking is taking place with respect to sustainable, climate smart models of agriculture, building on agro-forestry, conservation agriculture, watershed management, agro-sylvo-pastoral models and a landscape approach, among others. Finally, a number of countries have experienced impressive economic growth and will be achieving the MDG target to halve the proportion of the  hungry.  But the benefits of this growth have not always been shared equally. The question remains: What about the other half? While we celebrate the recent reduction of the number of children, women and men who suffer from chronic undernourishment, this figure continues to be shocking in a world of plenty. When it comes to hunger, the only acceptable figure is Zero.

An agriculture based on family farms is emerging as a solution to address the hunger, environmental and economic challenges above. Family farms include small and medium scale farmers, peasants, fisher folk, pastoralists, indigenous people and traditional communities. From a thing of the past, they are increasingly being recognized as part of the future and a key player for sustainable development.

Family farming is central to eradicating hunger. With more than 500 million family farms in the world representing 98% of farm holdings, family farming is the predominant form of agriculture in both developing and developed countires. In developing countries, 70% of the hungry live in rural areas and depend on farming for their subsistence and income.  Improving their livelihoods through policy, institutional and legal reforms, in combination with concrete support in terms of capacity development, tools, technology,  infrastructure and access to basic services, should be a priority of national and international efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.  Targeting family farmers will make a difference in the hunger equation.

The preservation of natural resources and the diversity of agricultural activities are at the core of family farming. For family farmers, land, water, biodiversity, and soils are not only means of production, but a long-term investment that needs to be nurtured. Through local knowledge, innovative natural resources management and a landscape approach, these farmers are able to improve many ecosystem services to become adapted and resilient to changing weather conditions. They are thus at the center of a climate smart agriculture, which simultaneously pursues hunger eradication, sustainable increase in agricultural productivity and the protection of natural resources.

Family farmers often work on marginal lands, struggle with poverty and lack access to productive resources. Yet, they are efficient. In Brazil, they provide about 40% of a selection of major crops working on less than 25% of the land.  In the United States, family farmers generate US$ 230 billion in sales, or 84% of all produce, while working on 78% of all farmland. Family farmers have strong links to the rural economy. They contribute to rural employment, stimulate local markets and strengthen the value chains. They are the main investors in agriculture and the drivers of community life and solidarity networks in rural areas. Yet, in many regions, their potential remains widely untapped.  Creating a favorable environment for family farming is an investment with high returns in terms of economic, social and environmental development for rural and urban areas.

World Food Day 2014 on the theme “Family farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth”, strives to raise the profile of family farming. World Food Day 2014 strengthens and complements other efforts in this area, such as the 2014 International Year of Family Farming and the UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge.

Family farmers are a very diverse group, with different challenges, potentials and needs. As the World Food Day Network starts publishing contributions to its Perspectives Series, we look forward to learn more about the role of family farming, to listen to the stories of the farmers themselves, and to discuss ways to create an environment that is supportive of the important role of family farmers. This World Food Day we hope that by recognizing the family farmer, we will contribute to improving the quality of life of those who produce the food we eat and who take care of the world’s natural resources. They are our future. 

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