Food ShortagesGlobal Warming/Climate ChangePlant SystemsSocietySoil Erosion & ContaminationVillage DevelopmentWater Contaminaton & Loss

UN: Only Small Farmers and Agroecology Can Feed the World

Governments must shift subsidies and research funding from agro-industrial monoculture to small farmers using ‘agroecological’ methods, according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. And as Nafeez Ahmed notes, her call coincides with a new agroecology initiative within the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Modern industrial agricultural methods can no longer feed the world, due to the impacts of overlapping environmental and ecological crises linked to land, water and resource availability.

The stark warning comes from the new United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Hilal Elver, in her first public speech since being appointed in June.

“Food policies which do not address the root causes of world hunger would be bound to fail”, she told a packed audience in Amsterdam.

One billion people globally are hungry, she declared, before calling on governments to support a transition to “agricultural democracy” which would empower rural small farmers.

Agriculture needs a new direction: agroecology

“The 2009 global food crisis signalled the need for a turning point in the global food system”, she said at the event hosted by the Transnational Institute (TNI), a leading international think tank.

“Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilisers, and based on massive production. This policy has to change.

“We are already facing a range of challenges. Resource scarcity, increased population, decreasing land availability and accessibility, emerging water scarcity, and soil degradation require us to re-think how best to use our resources for future generations.”

The UN official said that new scientific research increasingly shows how ‘agroecology’ offers far more environmentally sustainable methods that can still meet the rapidly growing demand for food:

“Agroecology is a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society. New research in agroecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.”

Small farmers are the key to feeding the world

“There is a geographical and distributional imbalance in who is consuming and producing. Global agricultural policy needs to adjust. In the crowded and hot world of tomorrow, the challenge of how to protect the vulnerable is heightened”, Hilal Elver continued.

“That entails recognising women’s role in food production — from farmer, to housewife, to working mother, women are the world’s major food providers. It also means recognising small farmers, who are also the most vulnerable, and the most hungry.

“Across Europe, the US and the developing world, small farms face shrinking numbers. So if we deal with small farmers we solve hunger and we also deal with food production.”

And Elver speaks not just with the authority of her UN role, but as a respected academic. She is research professor and co-director at the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy in the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

She is also an experienced lawyer and diplomat. A former founding legal advisor at the Turkish Ministry of Environment, she was previously appointed to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Chair in Environmental Diplomacy at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta.

Industrial agriculture grabs 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funds

Hinting at the future direction of her research and policy recommendations, she criticised the vast subsidies going to large monocultural agribusiness companies. Currently, in the European Union about 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding go to support conventional industrial agriculture.

“Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world. According to the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 70% of food we consume globally comes from small farmers”, said Prof Elver.

“This is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers. As rural people are migrating increasingly to cities, this is generating huge problems.

“If these trends continue, by 2050, 75% of the entire human population will live in urban areas. We must reverse these trends by providing new possibilities and incentives to small farmers, especially for young people in rural areas.”

If implemented, Elver’s suggestions would represent a major shift in current government food policies.

But Marcel Beukeboom, a Dutch civil servant specialising in food and nutrition at the Ministry of Trade & Development who spoke after Elver, dissented from Elver’s emphasis on small farms:

“While I agree that we must do more to empower small farmers, the fact is that the big monocultural farms are simply not going to disappear. We have to therefore find ways to make the practices of industrial agribusiness more effective, and this means working in partnership with the private sector, small and large.”

A UN initiative on agroecology?

The new UN food rapporteur’s debut speech coincided with a landmark two-day International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security in Rome, hosted by the FAO. Over 50 experts participated in the symposium, including scientists, the private sector, government officials, and civil society leaders.

A high-level roundtable at the close of the symposium included the agricultural ministers of France, Algeria, Costa Rica, Japan, Brazil and the European Union agricultural commissioner.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said: “Agroecology continues to grow, both in science and in policies. It is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, in the context of the climate change adaptation needed.”

A letter to the FAO signed by nearly 70 international food scientists congratulated the UN agency for convening the agroecology symposium and called for a “UN system-wide initiative on agroecology as the central strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience in the face of water crises.”

The scientists described agroecology as “a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”

More than just a science — a social movement!

A signatory to the letter, Mindi Schneider, assistant professor of Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, said: “Agroecology is more than just a science, it’s also a social movement for justice that recognises and respects the right of communities of farmers to decide what they grow and how they grow it.”

Several other food experts at the Transnational Institute offered criticisms of prevailing industrial practices. Dr David Fig, who serves on the board of Biowatch South Africa, an NGO concerned with food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, said: “We are being far too kind to industrialised agriculture. The private sector has endorsed it, but it has failed to feed the world, it has contributed to major environmental contamination and misuse of natural resources. It’s time we switched more attention, public funds and policy measures to agroecology, to replace the old model as soon as possible.”

Prof Sergio Sauer, formerly Brazil’s National Rapporteur for Human Rights in Land, Territory and Food, added: “Agroecology is related to the way you relate to land, to nature to each other — it is more than just organic production, it is a sustainable livelihood.

“In Brazil we have the National Association of Agroecology which brings together 7,000 people from all over the country pooling together their concrete empirical experiences of agroecological practices. They try to base all their knowledge on practice, not just on concepts.

“Generally, nobody talks about agroecology, because it’s too political. The simple fact that the FAO is calling a major international gathering to discuss agroecology is therefore a very significant milestone.”


Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author, and international security scholar. He is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and The Guardian where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, among many others. His new novel of the near future is Zero Point.


  1. Okay, elephant-the-room. alert. It’s animal agriculture that is using a significantly outsized share of resources. It’s sad that organizations cannot address this fact of life head on. The world (and particularly North America) needs to consume less meat. Period. We cannot meet the demand today for animal products without industrial animal agriculture. Unless we reduce overall meat consumption, we’re going to continue on the devastating path to massive climate change. And although small farms with grass fed animals cause less damage, they still consume vast quantities of water.

    Here are the stats:
    – Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transportation combined.
    – Livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
    – Livestock is responsible for 65% of all emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas 296x more destructive than carbon dioxide and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.
    – Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) water use ranges from 70-140 billion gallons annually. Animal agriculture use ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons of water annually.
    – Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. One hamburger requires 660 gallons of water to produce – the equivalent of 2 months’ worth of showers. 477 gallons of water are required to produce 1 pound of eggs; 900 gallons of water are needed for cheese.
    1,000 gallons of water are required to produce 1 gallon of milk.
    – The meat and dairy industries combined use nearly 1/3 (29%) of all the fresh water in the world today.
    – Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.
    – Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US.
    This doesn’t include the animals raised outside of USDA jurisdiction or in backyards, or the billions of fish raised in aquaculture settings in the US. A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people.

    1. Vegetarian diets are the worst by far for the health of the planet, because of industrial agricultural soil erosion, which is by far the worst environmental issue globally cascading away from us with no broad acre solutions anywhere for crop production, then there is the transportation energy consumption and pollution issues. Vegetables never walk themselves to market but quite a few animals can.
      Integrating animals into well designed small farms is the ONLY CHANCE we have and anyone who has actually worked on real soil creation and soil fertility while producing high quality nutrient dense food knows this is a fact.
      If vegetarians grew their own food it would such a big problem and they would quickly learn that it is not easy to keep soil fertile even in a small garden without animal inputs so their own human wastes would help and reduce their work load and increase their yield return for their effort. The main problem here is most vegetarians do not grow their own food and most live in cities and for obvious reasons feel disconnected and fear is fed by misinformation. Luckily the real examples are still available to be shared.
      Like cows we drink water and pass it through as and improved product for the soil called urine.
      We need to take our place in the world as top predator, top designer top manager.

      1. I’m afraid your argument against vegetarianism isn’t supported by the facts and is simply another twisted narrative to support our continued gluttonous consumption of meat.

        “We need to take our place in the world as top predator, top designer top manager” It’s THIS attitude that has caused massive species extinction, planning of pesticide-ridden monocrops for livestock that cause soil erosion, water depletion, habitat descruction, deforestation and ultimately climate change.

        I run a farm and am well aware that manure can fertilize the soil. However, there’s a growing body of evidence that non-animal sources do equally good of a job. Small farms will never, ever be able to service our outrageous current appetite for animal products. We need to significantly cut down on consumption of animal products, end all subsidies and policies benefitting industrial animal agriculture and educate the population how their dietary choices have major impacts on climate change.

        1. You need to look at “how wolves shape rivers” for a lesson in trophic cascades.
          Then look at the unsustainable levels of crop production world wide, especially soy, wheat and maize all major soil erosion contributors, with soy making no sense as a major food at all with its energy requirement for processing, just a Henry Ford dream crop.
          Yes a lot of these crops feed factory animals and also now cars with ethanol, but we are not talking about that, we are talking about “Only Small Farmers and Agroecology Can Feed the World” right? So in that case large inter-active diversities of crops and animals integrated into a well designed systems create the healthiest food for local people and increases soil fertility and builds increases soil in quantity on farm, which is the real measure of sustainability. That we can do and it is well proven and quite easy to achieve, but we will need people to realise we don’t need big agriculture in fact it should be illegal, and the real solution is in fact a very seditious revolution.
          If you want run a small farm without animal inputs you can do it but you will never be as efficient as one that integrates a diversity of elements including animals.

          1. I believe that it IS important to have only small farms to compete with the hunger situation! I would like to see large farms (commercially run farms) divided up and made into small individual farms!They also encourage more new small farms and all of these small farms will be able to research and raise the food much more nutritiousely than the huge commercial ones! I would also like to see SOME cows again on farms to accommodate the fertilizer situation!

          2. Geoff Lawton you have just become my hero. have understood for years what was missing was a teacher and leader. I think Bill Mollison saw you would have the drive and intellect to get the job done. I am going to check methods of alternative financing so I can take your PDC, I missed the current course, when is the next? Agribussiness will not serve the people or planet, only profit centers and only for a short time. I need to be part of the solution, everything I have done and learned in my life has been prepping me for this.

              1. Hi Tommy, Geoff has recently posted this on another comment

                “We can get you in now if you want, it is set up so you can easily catch up.”

                So there should be no issue in getting into the course.

      2. Well put Geoff! I am getting fed up with CAFO being compared to well managed ruminant agricultural practices such as Holistic Land Management.

      3. Thank-you! Plant foods that are imported and forced to grow out of season are products of the same industrial agriculture that brought us factory farmed meat, eggs, dairy etc. The idea that we must eliminate all animals products from our diet to save the world is ludicrous. Pastured grazed animals are part of an efficient Eco- friendly farm. All foods are seasonal including meat products. Watermelons should not be available in NYC during winter months. Meats and dairy products should be. What do you tell people who live in areas with a very short growing season? Only someone who always has the convenience of having industrially grown plant foods at their fingertips could suggest this.

    1. Just another small piece in the big beautiful diverse inter active picture of well designed permanent sustainable systems. A nice little piece but just a very small part of an earth saving combatants tool kit.

      1. Even though one may decide to not eat meat, which is fine by me, I am not sure if I would mix that policy with one that does not see an opportunity for regeneration with animals, instead thinking they are just an obstacle.

        Topsoil preservation and regeneration are vital to a healthy future for the planet’s current residents. There are ways to produce food that do not waste the topsoil, and, in fact, through compost, can build it. In a system without animals, organic matter will build if allowed, but with animals, managed carefully and in symbiosis, we can accelerate the soil regeneration. Animals (and don’t forget humans and our humanure…) are walking composters. Strategically utilized, our grazing and manures would help to build soil faster than cover crops, scything, brush and food scrap compost piles, alone (yes, let’s do all those too).

        We don’t have to slash down the Amazon for cattle ranches, we don’t have to cram dozens of animals in an unbearable space, we don’t have to eat them. But do we have to solely see inherent negative consequences in them?

        Affluenza has got a sizable part of the population eating more meat than is necessary, at a cost that’s enormous as detailed in a previous comment. This must change. Does that mean farming with animals should be stopped altogether?

        Perhaps we may are the most voracious animal species being farmed on earth? I find humor in this.

        I would adjust Geoff’s comment to say “Anyone who eats vegetables, let alone meat”. So destructive any of our eating habits (for most people) tend to be, eh? Perhaps we should weed our own roots out of the ground…

        I appreciate the dialogue and passion that echoes around this website. Peace to yall and share that smile while you can :)

  2. From Venezuela, promoting #venezuelaagroproductiva a pilot project, with the crisis of food shortages we live; shortage for not being self-sufficient in our production. Being a country with 200 million hectares to farm, abundant water potential, and about 3 million unemployed. My humble comment is to reflect rather than to advise. Society needs #socialreengineering. Priority changed paradigms consumption and eating habits. We are in the final en route to self-destruction of human life on planet earth. Just I’m in this goal by making our country Venezuela in a self-sustaining food and happy life find models and synergy in experiences and resources. Thank you. @wtbotta

  3. Crop selection in the 21st Century has to emphasize the Gaiatherapeutic necessity of atmospheric aerosol terpene production. Since half of the boreal forests and marine phytoplankton are dead, there’s only half the terpene concentrations in the stratosphere as there used to be. That’s why twice the UV-B is making it through to warm the planet and increase the solubility of aqueous mercury, arsenic and selenium compounds. Cannabis is the best choice for terpene production, as it also produces complete nutrition and sustainable biofuels from the same harvest. Google “global broiling” to understand why ‘time’ is the limiting factor in the climate equation, and Cannabis is essential, not “illegal.”

  4. Hi! This is a suggestion !
    We The People could propose a revolutionary, peaceful and fresh idea : create a green world currency, an international additional currency indexed to the growth of healthy living biomass. It could be called « The crocus ».
    What if all that is green could “save the world”? It is proved that soils and plants, natural as well as agrarian, can sequester the atmospheric CO2 and help cooling the planet.
    The monetary vector may be the trick that will bring together the world’s energies, acting as a catalyst which has been dramatically lacking on earth so far.
    For the situation is urgent! If we do not quickly diminish global warming, agriculture will become increasingly difficult, its efficiency increasingly erratic. Added to this are the increase of diseases, and the decline of bees, resulting in the downfall of our civilization, the end of mankind, apart from a few pockets of survival, here and there.
    The living biomass :
    – Allows excess atmospheric carbon to be trapped
    – which therefore reduces global warming
    – Stores solar energy
    – Provides everybody with food and drinking water
    – Brings work to anyone looking for one
    – And therefore increases the people’s autonomy (especially women’s), solidarity and happiness.
    It’s time to explain to humans that they must regulate their activity within the earth-system, from a thermo-dynamic point of view. And it is quite possible! How? Through increasing healthy living earth biomass!
    It could be proposed to the International Climate Change Conference (COP21) which will be held in Paris in November 2015 !
    Important dates :
    – The World Day of soils (December 5).
    – 2015 is declared the International Year of Soils (IYS), which aims to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.
    Thank you for your attention.
    Hélène, from Paris region, France

  5. Our world churns in economic means.
    We, conscious food producers, need to get truly “sustainable” products into the market so that the option is THERE for the public/consumer to vote with their dollar, whilst realizing that there is actually a “sustainable” alternative to the crap they they are buying.
    The global economy is a rip-roaring wildfire that will consume all resources on earth in no time… But I do believe that, somehow, we can reign in and consolidate that fire to a more concentrated and efficient one… And maybe use that heat to boil some water! or something with purpose

    1. Benson, grow hemp for future. Food, fuel, fiber and medicine, all from one plant. Time to take the shackles off the one crop that can make a difference in the world. If hemp is not included in the mix, sustainability will remain an unattainable pipe dream.

  6. No one here has mentioned hemp. It has the ability to heal the soil, produces the most nutritious seeds on the planet which is being turned into oil high in protein, omega 3 and omega 6 in the correct balance for human consumption. Hemp can be turned into bio diesel, ethanol, and biodegradable plastics. Hemp makes an ideal building material for healthy, energy efficient homes. If we don’t take the time to educate ourselves about hemp, we will never find a path to agricultural sustainability. As Jack Herer said, “I don’t know if hemp is gonna save the world, I do know it is the only thing that can.”

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