Justice in Farming: The Facts Speak for Themselves.

June 16, 2016 - Yohannes Tesfamichael, Regional Director East Africa

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the USA, once said ‘Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.’ Surely no time before has the theme of this quote had a higher relevance than now.

No day passes without a mention of an issue affecting smallholder farmers in East Africa where I live and work. I always wonder how much of what is said and written about the plight of smallholder farmers actually results in some form of meaningful change for the farmer.

FAO’s live website reports that by 2050 global food production needs to increase by 60%. On the same breath it adds that currently one third of the world’s food is wasted in one way or another.

In what could appear a hair-splitting to the smallholder, FAO distinguishes between food loss, defined as ‘decrease in edible food mass at the production, post-harvest and processing stages of the food chain, mostly in developing countries’ while food waste refers to ‘the discard of edible foods at the retail and consumer levels’, mostly in developed countries. This global food waste costs $750 billion per year which according to some reports is six times what is spent on aid.

What is interesting about this is that, given that about 70% of the food consumed in the world is produced by the smallholder farmer, the cost of the food loss or food waste somehow is systematically pushed to be endured by the smallholder farmer in developing countries since the European farmer is somehow shielded by carefully crafted policy instruments.

A Feedback.org video report last year reported that as much as 50% of the export oriented fresh produce from Kenya is rejected most of which ends up wasted since farmers do not have any other alternative use for it, when they are informed about the rejection at the last minute. The shocking part of this story is that the rejection reasons given to the farmer, if ever they are given properly, are usually cosmetic.

Since big businesses have the financial muscle which usually comes with the power to influence anyone to comply to their requirements, however irrelevant that may be, smallholder farmers find themselves locked in in a business deal that barely meets their basic needs. As a result despite endless number of global treaties and conferences to change the situation for the poor smallholder farmer, the outcomes are mostly leaning towards benefiting the big businesses. 

Lacking the political will or for fear of losing other fringe aid benefits, developing countries’ governments rarely venture to challenge the behaviour of these businesses. No wonder the American poet Edwin Markham once wrote about the farmer...

‘Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground, the emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back the burden of the world.’

That is why justice matters to me because I believe one way or another proper justice delivered can contribute towards alleviating this burden of the world from the back of the smallholder farmer.


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