In a year marked by conflict, pandemics and the climate crisis, the theme chosen by FAO for World Food Day is of particular importance: leave no one behind. It fits very well with my sensibilities as an African agronomist, as an activist educator and as President of Slow Food.
In the many debates on food security that I have participated in, particularly here in Africa, the voice of the farmer is not heard. In politics and planning, decisions are made at the top of administrative and economic power, while the protagonists of the food system, the small producers, are viewed as passive subjects over whose heads decisions are made. But according to the FAO itself, farms with less than two hectares of land produce a third of the world’s food.
“Leaving No One Behind” means recognizing and supporting farmers who use traditional techniques based on agroecology and a regenerative approach to land and ecosystems.
Governments often ignore them, claiming that the traditional system is archaic. Organic farmers are not often invited to planning meetings because officials believe they are against progress. But what modernity are we talking about? I have seen with my own eyes the disaster of hybrid corn seeds selected and patented by a multinational company because producers were persuaded by false promises of amazing results. These small producers often have no prior knowledge of the product, but company technicians spur them on, damaging community food security by abandoning hardy, native seeds. Many of these new hybrid seeds, produced in the Netherlands, Spain and South Africa, are sold to the few African farmers who can afford to cultivate monocultures, adding to the overall fragility of the food system.
African countries spend $65 billion annually on imported food. However, many governments are pursuing policies that focus on industrialized agriculture for export in an attempt to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP and balance payments. Most of these policies, fueled by foreign direct investment, support large-scale industrial production focused on raw materials for export. These policies have criminalized subsistence production and demoralized many small family farms and forced them out of the market.
We need to redefine the concept of food security by shifting the focus from food as a commodity to the communities where it is grown and produced. This perspective focuses on the social structure, the cultural significance of food and its attachment to the country, and dispenses with quantitative import-export figures. We cannot feed Africa unless we start working at the community level.
A concrete example is our work with coffee producers in the highlands of Mount Elgon in southeastern Uganda: the government planned to distribute subsidies and chemical fertilizers to these producers. Together with members of the Slow Food Governing Board, we formed a committee to meet with the county’s Department of Agriculture and made demands for compost production facilities, certified organic fertilizers, and training in integrated pest management. The producers made it clear which cultivation system they want to preserve on the mountainsides to ensure the quality of their coffee and the integrity of the ecosystem. They know full well that if they go organic without using synthetic inputs, they can sell their coffee at a higher price.
In short, if governments want to maintain food security and “leave no one behind,” they must listen to the voices of food-producing communities so they can continue to practice organic farming that protects the environment while ensuring access to a diverse and nutritious diet for their families.
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