‘The First Active Agent in Human Society’
Putting Farmers at the Heart of Food Security Policy
A statement of the Bahá’í International Community’s
United Nations Office in Geneva
Marking the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit
Geneva 29 October 2021
“It is fitting to begin with the farmer in matters related to economics, for the farmer is the first active agent in human society.”
the Bahá’í holy writings
At the heart of the United Nations Food Summit, and indeed any conversation on food security, is a well-known paradox. On the one hand, quantities of food sufficient to feed the entire global population are produced every year. On the other, food systems continue to fall short of providing food security for all humanity. Why this is the case, and what can be done to change it, are questions that have received significant attention. Yet that process of inquiry has largely excluded a set of actors unparalleled in their proximity and insight into the actual realities of food production: farmers and their rural communities. Ensuring their potential is harnessed must become a priority if the international community is to deliver on the promise of a hunger-free world.
The way farmers and other smallholder agricultural actors are viewed is complex. Their work and livelihood constitute an indispensable foundation on which virtually all other productive processes rest. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization notes, for example, that agriculture is “the world’s biggest employer”, the “largest economic sector for many countries,” and that it provides “the main source of food and income for the extreme poor.” Beyond productive capacity, the knowledge and experience of farmers and rural communities serve as necessary complements to the information generated through modern scientific inquiry. While the value of highly sophisticated centers of research is undeniable in investigating the ways and requirements of a food-sufficient world, farmers witness firsthand the utility of specific techniques and practices as well as the social and environmental implications of adopting them. The farming systems that produce much of the world’s food, especially smallholder farms, have also been built in large part on methods and practices that were developed by indigenous farmers over thousands of years. Yet the bulk of decisions on agricultural policy and food security take place far from rural settings and those on-the-ground realities that shape how policies will be implemented in practice.
When deliberations related to agricultural innovation are not inclusive of relevant actors and are left to a privileged few, decisions often become primarily based on strict profit motives or are divorced from local realities. Consequently, the exploitation of workers and natural resources, or the further deepening of inequalities, persist. Many modern innovations, for example, have required farmers to purchase significant amounts of external inputs, which can lead to dependencies that ultimately disempower local communities. The pressure to adopt certain technologies without adequate consultation has often resulted in the degradation of once fertile plots of land. One way to address these challenges is to create conditions that allow for the perspectives and experiences of farmers to be connected and interlinked with the knowledge generated through centers of research and technological innovation. Mechanisms and structures that are then devised as a result of this integrative approach can help smallholder farmers improve yields and sustainability while bolstering their agency to determine and advance their path of development in ways that allow them to retain important elements of their cultural heritage.
Laying the foundations for such arrangements calls for a profound and widely inclusive process of learning and knowledge generation that prioritizes experiences emerging on the ground. At the local level, developing new systems and community structures tasked with systematizing insights gained through agricultural research—assessing results, identifying and describing patterns, and applying lessons learned to subsequent endeavors—will be critical. Equally important will be efforts to build capacity among those directly engaged in food production to become active designers in related processes. At the international level, mechanisms will need to be created to both encourage and allow for this source of insight to directly inform policy making. Traditional assumptions of the top-down diffusion of techniques and information, whether from North to South or urban to rural, will need to give way to a far more multidirectional paradigm characterized by reciprocity and joint endeavor.
Humanity has yet to devise an environmentally sustainable system of food production and distribution that responds to the needs of all. Bringing about an arrangement that ensures the just production and distribution of food for every member of the human family will require a more sophisticated approach to the generation of knowledge and the formation of systems that are tasked with supporting community prosperity. When policy considerations are shaped by a concern for humanity’s well-being, rather than by the interests of a few, more equitable solutions become apparent. The inclusion of a wider range of sources of insight will create possibilities for sustainable and resourceful approaches that are more reflective of local and global realities. By taking concrete steps along these fronts, the central paradox of food security can begin to be addressed more holistically and productive capacity be translated into universal prosperity.
Last updated 14 January 2022