Small Farmers, Victims of Food Marketing Companies

Human Wrongs Watch

New York – Smallholder farmers, who produce up to 80 per cent of all food in some areas, mainly in Africa, “face the risk of exploitation under contract farming arrangements with processing or marketing companies,” according to UN top “right to food” expert.

Women are the most experienced small farmers | Photo: UN

Contract farming locks farmers into one segment of the food chain, said UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, who presented his annual report to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which focuses on social, humanitarian and cultural affairs.

It will be very difficult for farmers to move up the value chain into the processing, the packaging, the marketing of their food if all that is expected from them is to produce the crops that then the commodity buyer shall buy, transport, process and sell on the global market”.

We need to allow small farmer to climb up the value chain by encouraging farmers to develop cooperatives which themselves could process, package and market the food that they produce,” he added.

Disempowered Labourers on Their Own Land”

We must allow them to have access to local markets in order to ensure that they are not excessively dependent on one commodity buyer that has access to the global market and essentially acts as a gatekeeper for access to the high value Northern countries.”

In his annual report to the UN, De Schutter highlighted the pitfalls of contract farming agreements in which the balance is often tilted against the small-scale farmer.

How much benefit can this arrangement bring the farmer if the buyer can dictate the terms of that contract? If they are not careful, farmers end up as disempowered labourers on their own land,” he warned.

De Schutter stressed that “fair contracts should include minimum price guarantees, the provision of inputs at or below commercial rates, and should have built-in dispute settlement mechanisms. They must also allow the farmer to set aside a portion of land for food crops to meet family and community needs.”

Farm Debt

He also pointed that the lack of checks and balances in contractual farming arrangements often “left the door left open for produce to be summarily rejected, for farm debt to spiral, for labour to be sub- contracted without regulatory oversight, and for a region’s food security to be undermined by production of export-oriented cash crops at the expense of all else.”

The UN expert urged governments to scrutinize the contracts to ensure that farmers are not being cheated. “They must also put greater knowledge, information and services at the fingertips of small-scale farmers. If farmers can access technical know-how, inputs, distribution circuits and markets only via investors, then they become trapped in an unhealthy cycle.”

Land Grabbing

Just three weeks before presenting his annual report on October 24, De Schutter warned that “the practice of “land grabbing,” exemplified by biofuel production, large-scale infrastructure projects, carbon-credit mechanisms and speculation, is threatening food security for hundreds of millions of people by imperilling small-scale producers.”

The threat of land grabbing has reminded us how vital access to land is for 500 million food-insecure households around the world,” he said on October 3, urging all parties to agree on guidelines for the tenure of land, fisheries and forests.

Land Rights

Land rights are the first building block on the road to achieving food security, and without international consensus on how land should be governed, the interests of vulnerable land users will continue to be swept aside,” he added, stressing that climate change and population growth will further complicate the problem by exacerbating tensions within and between countries.

The security of tenure of smallholder farmers, nomadic herders, and fisherfolk are all “gravely threatened by current commercial pressures on land, if Governments overcome differences in the last round of pre-summit negotiations,” he said.

If countries do not face international monitoring and are not encouraged to report to their national civil societies about the progress achieved, much of the added value of the voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests will be lost,” he stressed.

The Dangers of Speculation

De Schutter stressed that harmful investments to the detriment of local populations can only be warded off by securing the underlying rights of farmers, herders and fisherfolk, and he called on States to be wary of the dangers of speculation over land and concentration of ownership when land rights are transferred to investors offering to ‘develop’ farmland.

We must escape the mental cage that sees large-scale investments as the only way to ‘develop’ agriculture and to ensure stability of supply for buyers,” he said.


2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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