On October 16th, World Food Day will call attention to the crucial role that small-scale family farmers play in creating a more sustainable global food system – and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. As the global population approaches nine billion by the year 2050, nourishing the world and preserving diminishing environmental resources presents a daunting challenge. Over the coming week, Food Tank will highlight the many ways in which small-scale farmers – both urban and rural – are growing healthy, nutritious food for their communities while protecting the planet.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of a Jamaican government campaign that has encouraged families, schools, and government facilities to become actively involved in small-scale farming – and the message of this campaign is spreading across the Caribbean.
Since before colonial times, countries in Africa and the Caribbean have had rich agricultural traditions. In the late 1900s, as measures by the World Trade Organization fuelled a surge in food imports, farmers found that demand for homegrown produce had declined, and domestic agricultural production started to recede. It was replaced by imported foods which were cheap at the time and appealed to a growing taste for foreign products.
In recent years, economic downturn has exposed weaknesses in what used to be a successful system. A U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report highlights how dependence on food imports in 30 countries that comprise the Near East Region has caused them to become “increasingly vulnerable to market and supply shocks.” This means that as global food prices spiked during the economic panic of 2008, the burden of these higher costs was felt disproportionately by countries who have developed a dependence on food imports. Countries like Jamaica report an annual food import bill of US$1 billion. Put simply by Hilson Baptiste, agricultural minister of Antigua and Barbuda, these countries “are in a food crisis.”
This explosive rise in costs has caused some governments to pursue small scale agriculture as an economically viable way to promote food security. In 2003, the Jamaican government began to heavily promote the “Grow what we eat, Eat what we grow” campaign, which aims to revive smallholder farming, even in unconventional settings. Gardens are now being maintained in homes, schools, hospitals, and even prisons. The efforts are supported by the distribution of flyers, broadcasts, and newspapers that draw public attention to events such as “Eat Jamaican Day” and cook-offs among schools that reward the winners with new farming and kitchen equipment.
In Antigua and Barbuda, the government has provided farmers with subsidized access to land, seedlings, and other utilities that are critical to agricultural production. These measures have resulted in significant progress, as Antigua and Barbuda reports that half of its food will be produced domestically in 2013, compared to only one-fifth in 2009.
The opening of borders of traditionally agricultural countries caused unintended damage to local farmers, whose produce was replaced by imported food. Now, as foreign markets no longer offer consistently low prices, these countries are beginning to feel the pains of dependency. Campaigns to restore small-scale domestic agriculture are beginning to help alleviate dependency in countries like Jamaica, and according to FAO, they have potential in many other countries around the world.