No sustainable world without a living income for farmers

With the UN Food Systems Summit just around the corner, journalist Devinder Sharma asks himself: can we even begin to dream of a sustainable world if we refuse to pay our farmers a living income? Spoiler alert: no, we can’t.

In the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit aimed at achieving more sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said: “A well-functioning food system can help prevent conflict, protect the environment and provide health and livelihoods for all.” 

“In food, there is hope.”

Laudable words, indeed. As the world faces a growing risk of food shortages due to climate change, with several studies warning for the dismal scenario ahead when production of staple crops is expected to contract by almost a third by 2050 if temperature rise continues unabated, transforming the global food system to meet future needs of the people is certainly a timely issue. More so at a time when increasing desertification, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, and the devastation intensive farming practices have wrought to soil health and environment have set the alarm bells ringing for long.

“We can’t afford to feed you anymore”

With growing corporate control over agriculture pushing small farmers to the margins, and monocultures leading to destruction of natural resources, only time will tell whether partnerships between different stake-holders and commitments from national governments will help to radically transform the existing highly unsustainable food system. This becomes more difficult to achieve given that high levels of income insecurity is either leading indebted farmers to take the fatal route or abandon agriculture to move to the cities, and those who are left on the farm seem to be somehow surviving against all odds.

While there is no denying that food provides hope, as the UN Chief said, unfortunately the people who produce food do not see any hope. “Every genuine farmer is now struck unfairly on a treadmill with accumulating debts to meet unless he goes bankrupt, commits suicide or finds another source of income”, a British farmer had summed up the plight of the agrarian community. A banner put up recently by dairy farmers in Northern Ireland loudly announcing – We can’t afford to feed you anymore – is a telling sign of the crisis that they are faced with. With prices remaining more or less static for eight years in a row, dairy farmers are unable to cover the cost of production.

Sliding farm gate prices

For the same reason, 93 per cent of the dairy farms in America have closed down since the 1970s. Not only dairy farmers, but small farmers in general have quit agriculture in large numbers. With median incomes in the negative for almost a decade now, and saddled with a huge bankruptcy, farmers have been forced out, hastening the decline of rural America. Mary Rieckmanns is one such farmer, whose family has been raising cows in Wisconsin for generations. “I sometimes feel they are trying to wipe us off the map”, she told TIME magazine.

In early March this year, French farmers had hung suicide dolls on trees outside Parliament drawing attention to the economic hardship they are faced with. In neighbouring Germany, farmers too have been protesting, expressing their anger by driving tractors to the cities. In most other European countries, farmers have time and again demonstrated against the sliding farm gate prices, which have rendered farming unprofitable. “What is the point of being in debt all the time, and toiling for no reason? We are being sacrificed, so the consumer is always happy with low prices”, Dominique Metenier, a French farmer had lamented, as quoted by Narratively.

Concentration of power

Concentration of power in the hands of a few multinational companies has resulted in unfair trade practices hitting livelihoods of millions of small farmers and workers in Latin American and African countries. Take the case of chocolate, which is a dominant player in the $210 billion global confectionary industry. While the industry rakes in huge profits, hundreds of thousands of cocoa producers in Africa live on meagre incomes. With child labour rampant in the cocoa plantations, the Cocoa Barometer 2020 has shown that the average income per day for a large percentage of small cocoa farmers is less than the retail price of a chocolate bar. 

In case of bananas, the most eaten fruit in Europe and North America, for growers in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic, from where the fruit is mostly imported, their earning is anything between 5 to 9 per cent of the end consumer price. The situation is no better for coffee growers, of whom a majority live on less than the extreme international poverty line of $1.9 per day.

To draw attention to the deplorable economic conditions that growers are living with, the World Coffee Growers Forum had roped in the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs who has proposed a global fund of $ 10 billion a year to help pull growers out from the clutches of extreme poverty.

One-third of global greenhouse gas emissions

In India, which has the largest population engaged in agriculture globally, for almost ten months now tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting at the borders of New Delhi. While the protesting farmers are calling for a repeal of the three farm laws that the government had brought in September last year, which facilitate the entry of free markets in agriculture, farmers are also demanding a law that provides a guaranteed price. Meanwhile, the latest report of the Situational Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households 2018-19, an extensive and elaborate nation-wide survey, shows that the farm incomes have been steadily on a decline. Increasingly, non-farm income occupies a bigger share of the average farm incomes, with earnings from crop cultivation alone dropping to a paltry Rs 27 (US$ 0.37) a day.

What becomes clear is that farming no longer is a viable livelihood. While farmers grow food for the world, they themselves live in hunger. To expect the same beleaguered global farming community, already reeling under indebtedness, suicides and exploited ruthlessly by the markets, to be the strong pillar buttressing the proposed transition towards a sustainable food system will remain a dream. And with that very same food system accounting for no less than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s obvious that we do need each and every farmer on board to meet our climate goals. Global focus therefore – also at UN Food Systems Summit – must be to first come up with structural transformation required to provide farmers with an assured and guaranteed income.

Or else, we’ll continue hoping against hope.

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