JEJU, South Korea (Alertnet) – Making life better for family farmers is a key way to ensure food security in Guyana without compromising the environment, according to a top Indian agricultural expert who helped lead that country’s agricultural “Green Revolution.”
M.S. Swaminathan, who promotes sustainable agriculture that preserves biodiversity and who worked in Guyana in the early 1990s on a forest conservation project, says agricultural and conservation need not be in conflict.
“The foundations of agriculture are land, water, biodiversity and climate. A family farmer will look after the land very well. It is the agri-business people who have short term interest in land,” the scientist told AlertNet at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in South Korea.
“A family farmer has to take care of the children so it is a way of life for them so they ensure that there is soil fertility…whether it is cow dung, compost, or crop rotation,” he said.
What Guyana needs, he said, is “a new deal for the family farmers, otherwise family farming will disappear and all will become agri-business,” he said.
For the small South American nation to be a truly food secure, it must pay attention to three factors: availability of food on the market, which is a function of production; accessibility to food, a function of jobs and income, and absorption of food in the body, which is a function of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care like immunization, he said.
“You have food security in a country when all these three things are there,” he said.
INCREASING PRODUCTION NOT ENOUGH
That means a government focus purely on increasing agricultural production is not sufficient to provide food security, he said.
“That is important but it is not enough. Guyana needs a national food security system based on the availability of food on the market. That means production by the farmers. Then you ensure social protection, where the society protects those most vulnerable to hunger,” including the jobless, young children and widows, Swaminathan said.
He said that many times food security success can be measured in terms of a country’s number of jobs, not in how many millions of tons of food it produces.
“If you don’t have jobs you don’t have income and while the market could be flooded with food, there is no money to buy it,” he said.
The United Nations has already declared 2014 as the International Year of Family farmers, he said, a reminder that “farming is not just a business; it is a way of life and a means of livelihood too. The idea of an international year of family farms by the UN is to preserve this idea that you should not make everything too big, because agriculture has its own cultural value, its own emotional value,” he said.
In the Caribbean, Swaminathan said, many counties, including Guyana, have lost a lot of mangroves, creating an ecological problem that could affect food production.
“When the sea level rises you will have a lot of climate refugees. You have to understand that conservation of your coastal areas is number one,” he said.
Also, because of the colonial-era emphasis on planting cash crops such as bananas and sugar cane, countries such as Guyana need to focus on improving the productivity of major food crops, such as rice, without causing additional ecological harm, he said.
“This is what is called the ‘Evergreen Revolution,’” said Swaminathan. He called for “improvement of productivity in perpetuity.”
He warned that if farmers are pushed to double rice yields, care should be taken that prices don’t crash as a result.
To make real improvements in farming, “the first requirement is scientific skill, the second is political will and the third is farmers’ toil,” he said.
He said that care also needs to be taken with credit and insurance programs for farmers, particularly in the face of more extreme weather associated with climate change.
“If the farmer gets credit and the crop fails he is not able to repay and he will become indebted,” he said.
Building effective increases in crop production, he said, require caring for the health of soils, using water efficiently, improving technology and imputs, using credit and insurance well and ensuring markets work.
“Within these five principles, farmers will produce more,” he said.
Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said she hoped the Congress could re-emphasise the importance of finding the right balance between food production systems and the natural environment on which that food production ultimately depends.
“In the case of many developing countries, where you have got an imbalance between food production and demand and which are dependent on importing food, they have to be careful to avoid the shock of rising prices,” she said.
“I think governments have to realise that this is a political problem that they can help to address if they provide some kind of safety net to the bottom 20 percent of the population,” she said.
Johann Earle is a Guyana-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.