A Change of Focus for the UN

You are excused if you do not know that this year is the United Nations International Year of Soils in the same way that you would be excused if you were not aware that 2014 was the International Year of Family Farming. It has not been terribly well advertised. This is certainly true if you live in the UK, a country in which people know very little about our farmers and food production, even if the farming community itself is vibrant and connected. It is true that internationally some countries did better than others in highlighting the plight of ‘family farms’ (which could by definition range from small subsistence farms to large multinational ‘family owned’ agribusinesses). In the Philippines for example discussions went as far as looking at policy engagement to improve the plight of family farmers in that part of the world. In the UK on the other hand we only went as far as the odd mention on countryfile or BBC Farming Today on Radio 4. Other initiatives that raise the profile of family farms take place every year anyway, such as the highly successful ‘Open Farm Sunday’, centrally organised by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), which this year will take place on 7th June nationwide. We remain a society in which 1 in 5 has never visited a farm before and therefore cannot fully understand where the food we eat  actually comes from and the methods are to grow it.

Despite the prevalence of multinational agribusiness 70% of the food we produce internationally comes from family farms and it is vital that we continue to defend their interests. It is not necessarily greater yields that will help to fight against world hunger, it is protecting fair distribution and family farms that lend themselves towards protecting distribution, more than agribusinesses who have to sell to large scale retailers and distributors, mostly in wealthier areas. Hunger rates have been growing, from 788 million in 1995 to 925 million in 2010 to well over a billion today. At the same time the amount of land being managed by agribusiness at the expense of small and family farmers has grown. In the United States for example the number of small farms has decreased by 40% in the last 25 years while the number of large farms has increased by 243%. Neoliberal free trade agreements have made poorer nations dependent on cheap imports. For example, 30 years ago, Haiti produced 80% of its own rice, today it has to import 80% of it. It is very unlikely that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or the Trans-Pacific Partnership will  improve this situation.

The G8′s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is another example of a worrying trend where power will shift in the direction of big business away from communities and family farmers. The initiative will ease export controls and tax laws to make it easier for large companies to buy up large amounts of land that have been ringfenced for ‘investment’, to the detriment of local farmers and food security. The governments of Malawi, Ethopia, Nigeria and Ghana have already pledged to put aside land for the initiative. It appears that many investors will use the land for non-edible cash crops, primarily for the export market, such as cotton, rubber and biofuels. Food security is likely to be one of the key issues of our time, intrinsically linked to climate change. We have already seen a 70% decrease in agricultural biodiversity and yet we continue to create policies that forget the small and focus on the big. National governments, which by their nature focus on the large scale, seem obsessed with drawing ourselves even wider apart, to a scale whereby it is impossible to remember and protect the individual. Liberalism continues to move away from individual freedom towards freedom of the conglomerate. No matter how many people shout about the issues, governments continue to ignore them, comfortable in the systems that protect them and their own power structures. They have seemingly paid no attention to E.F Schumacher.

In 2015 the UN has shifted its focus towards the resource that I take a particular interest in – soil. Whether you think that the 2014 allocation for family farming has been successful or not it has certainly encouraged people think about and discuss family farming. My great hope is that this will happen for soils as well. As the FAO Director General has said:

“The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production.” –José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General.

According to their website the specific objectives of the IYS 2015 are to:

  • Raise full awareness among civil society and decision makers about the profound importance of soil for human life;
  • Educate the public about the crucial role soil plays in food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, essential ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and sustainable development;
  • Support effective policies and actions for the sustainable management and protection of soil resources;
  • Promote investment in sustainable soil management activities to develop and maintain healthy soils for different land users and population groups;
  • Strengthen initiatives in connection with the SDG process (Sustainable Development Goals) and Post-2015 agenda;
  • Advocate for rapid capacity enhancement for soil information collection and monitoring at all levels (global, regional and national).

I applaud this programme and very much hope that it sees successes. Nonetheless the cynic in me cannot avoid thinking about the real problem. In reality, in conventional agriculture few of us do a good job at looking after our soils sustainably. This is largely because of the methods we have adopted and those we have stopped altogether. In the largely stockless part of England that I come from it is impossible to get hold of enough muck to apply to the land, having detrimental effects on soil structure as well as the biochemical profile of the soil itself. Percentage of organic matter in many soils has fallen rapidly over the past generation but I cannot see the IYS programme working to tackle this significant issue – the conventional lobby and the conventions of current practice are too entrenched to encourage significant change today. It will be up to the next generation of farmers to take the bull by the horns and make the changes required. The will to act must be encouraged this year, in a way that it really hasn’t been within the current generation, a generation that has grown up in a paradigm of increasing intensification as a strategy to curb world hunger – a strategy that clearly has not worked.

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