October 9, 2019

Luckily, Family farmers and social movements are ready to transform U.S. farm policy.

Family farmers are vital for the future. Not only will we need family farmers to produce healthy food for more people, but we need family farmers to do so by transitioning to a food and agricultural system that works with nature and builds resilience to climate change. That’s why the recent launch of a new United Nations (U.N.) Decade on Family Farming is so critical.

A Decade to Defend Family Farms

The Decade, which begins now and runs through 2028, is an important initiative to support family farmers everywhere by mobilizing governments and civil society organizations to implement international policies and guidelines in their own countries. The Global Action Plan for implementing the Decade on Family Farming is made up of seven pillars, ranging from supporting women and youth in farming to improving farmers’ socio-economic wellbeing to promoting biodiversity and climate-resilient food systems.

This effort comes at a critical moment when family farmers – and family farming itself – are facing serious threats. Agribusiness companies are driving an unsustainable and destructive model of industrial agriculture that pushes families off the land, destroys the soil, pollutes the water, and produces commodities for the market instead of for people’s nutrition.

Supporting Family Farmers Means Ensuring Peasants’ Rights

This is why family farmers organizations and peasant movements like La Via Campesina are working hard to ensure that the Decade on Family Farming actually supports family farmers and the solutions they want to see.

For La Via Campesina, one of the clearest and most direct ways to implement the Decade on Family Farming in ways that truly support communities is by implementing the newly adopted U.N. Declaration on Peasant Rights. The Declaration on Peasant Rights is groundbreaking and recognizes the unique and important human rights protections that rural and peasant communities need, such as the right to seeds, the right to natural resources, the right to biodiversity, and the right to political freedoms. Implementing the human rights of peasants and rural peoples is common sense in order to protect family farming. However, La Via Campesina denounces an ongoing effort to de-politicize and co-opt the Decade on Family Farming to support an agribusiness agenda instead of the peasant agenda.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” – Attempts to Co-Opt the Decade

We saw this conflict on display at the Washington D.C. launch event for the Decade on Family Farming this past August. The event ­was sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Alliance to End Hunger, and was meant to show how government, the private sector, and civil society could work together to achieve the goals of the Decade. To that end, the panel featured speakers from the Trump Administration, a multinational agribusiness company, and an international nonprofit that provides chemical fertilizer to farmers in Africa. However, their views were starkly contrasted by the only farmer organization on the panel the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), which represents 30 small and medium-sized family farmers in 42 states in the U.S. and is a member of La Via Campesina.

Instead of limiting the power of agribusiness companies or supporting agroecology, the representatives from the U.S. government and the private sector wanted more farmers to participate in agribusiness supply chains and have more access to chemicals and expensive seeds. Instead of farmers getting paid more fairly, they wanted farmers to produce more cheaply. They supported “climate smart agriculture” – which is seen by many, including ActionAid, as greenwashing since it is a vague concept that makes room for GMOs and toxic agrochemicals – and bashed agroecology, which the U.N. and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change both see as critical to ensuring food security and addressing the climate crisis. These views were completely at odds with family farm organizations and represent the potential to co-opt the agenda of the Decade.

Like their counterparts in other countries, NFFC’s member farmers need protections against large, agribusiness companies that take advantage of them. They need financial and technical support to transition to sustainable and ecological models of agriculture. They need to be paid fair prices for their crops. Moreover, U.S. farmers are in severe trouble, and a farm crisis is ravaging rural areas of this country.

How we can transform U.S. farm policy  

Two of the most important ways we can make impact agricultural policy in the U.S. are to amplify the voices of family farmers, farmworkers and rural communities and to create space for their organizations. That is why ActionAid USA devotes so much energy to creating and holding space for grassroots voices here in the U.S. and at the U.N., and it is why our theory of change is needed more than ever.

The Decade on Family Farming is critical, not just for family farmers or rural people, but for everyone, and even for the planet itself. But it will only work if we center family farmers and their organizations and recognize how critical transforming our food system and our rural world is.