En route to sunny spain, for my 7 week research trip to learn the secret to the success of the long term co-operative movement, I stopped in at the UK Food Group conference in London. 'The Producers' was an afternoon of presentations and debate focused on small scale producers: Most food in the world is grown, raised and harvested by small-scale food producers. The conference looked at the real questions of how small-scale production can respond to the challenges of providing food in ways that eradicate hunger, improve equity and restore the environment.
Some really interesting issues were raised by the three main speakers and in the questions and answers put to the panel.
Mamadou Goïta, a development socio-economist from Mali and currently the Executive Secretary of ROPPA (West African Network of Farmers' Organisations), talked about co-operatives in Mali that are paying fair prices but also making enough to re-invest in the co-operative as well as local services and able to keep the food affordable.
Ikal Angelei from the pastoralist community of Northern Kenya also talked about co-operatives as a solution for small producers. She talked about the important role of them giving the farmers credit when no one else will and the lasting relationship of trust that this creates.
Concerns were raised by the speakers about the sustainability of the approach of giving aid by agencies. Ikal talked about the negative impact of the creation of dependency and people stopping learning how to survive. Graciela Romero (War on Want) highlighted the problem with charities/aid agencies agreeing to the governments 'business as usual' approach to aid working with multi-nationals such as Monsanto and therefore, among other issues, supporting GM and the industrialisation of farming - which is disaterous for small producers. While it was acknowledged that it is a difficult issue when there is an immediate problem of starvation all of the speakers felt that this approach was damaging and unsustainable in the long term.
The speakers gave some interesting (though pretty straight forward slightly depressingly in terms of the fact that this isn't how it already works!) examples of how they would advise the aid agencies to address this issue including:
- allowing people to farm in the way they already do - e.g. campaigning for policies that support small producers, and playing a role of making the markets more accessible
- show that these production systems work much better than industrialised farming - that small organic producers create more jobs, contribute to the local economy, are environmentally beneficial (statistics, research, campaigns).
- engaging local people more (in the communities that would receive the aid), and asking them what they think should be done (providing good information about the different options and impacts of each on first) rather than telling them what they need.
The UK Food Group website has the audio version of various bits of the conference up there, so have a listen if you want more info.