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Q&A: Brazil’s Lesson to the World: Invest in Family Farming

Mario Osava interviews KANAYO F. NWANZE, president of IFAD

NOVA RUSSAS, Brazil, Jul 29 2009 (IPS) - Kanayo F. Nwanze chose Brazil for his first official visit as the recently elected president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and was pleased to personally attest to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s commitment to family farming.

IFAD president Kanayo F. Nwanze with small farmers in Nova Russas. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

IFAD president Kanayo F. Nwanze with small farmers in Nova Russas. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

As well as meeting with government representatives in Brasilia, Nwanze, a Nigerian national, was able to learn firsthand about the lives of poor rural farmers and witness the changes being brought about by two IFAD-supported projects in the semi-arid Northeast, Brazil's poorest region.

The policy of agricultural cooperation that Brazil has begun to implement, particularly with African nations, is also of great interest to IFAD, a specialised United Nations agency dedicated to eradicating poverty and hunger in rural areas of developing countries.

Nwanze spoke with IPS during a visit to a community of family farmers in Nova Russas, a poor rural municipality with a population of 30,000 in the northeastern state of Ceará.

IPS: What does IFAD expect of Brazil regarding the transfer of technology and knowledge to Africa? KANAYO NWANZE: First of all, let’s consider the basics of the environment we are looking at: in both Brazil and in most of sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder family agriculture is the most crucial investment that you can make, one that is sure to give you benefits.

Any investment in smallholder agriculture is two to four times more effective in pulling people out of poverty. Now, in Brazil, you are looking at about 70 percent of the farmers. In most of Africa, about 80 percent of the farmers are smallholder farmers. At an average of five people per household, that is about 400 million people. That is more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa, and they produce 80 percent of the food.

The success that we have seen here, the ability [of farmers] to organise themselves, the social structure that they have put in place, the whole value chain approach from production to markets, all of this is easily replicable in the African context.

South Africans came to Brazil in November of last year. In July, Brazilians are going to South Africa. The role of IFAD is to facilitate the exchange of knowledge which has been accumulated here and can be transferred elsewhere.

I hope that African governments see the importance of commitment at the highest level of leadership, and the example that President Lula is demonstrating. He said it to us personally a few days ago when we visited with him in Brasilia: investment in people, and in smallholder agriculture, is the most sustainable safety net to social order.

IPS: What can you say about the Brazilian concept of family farming? Have you adopted this concept in IFAD? KN: It is not a concept, it is a practice. You call it family farming in Brazil, we call it smallholder agriculture, small-scale agriculture.

IPS: But the fact that in Brazil we call it family farming and not small-scale agriculture lends it a sense of community. KN: But you see, it is the same thing. When you look at the small-scale farmers in Africa, there are plenty of times that there are farms that are adjacent. And you see there is a stronger possibility of success, because it is not just individual farmers.

You have community efforts, and the integration of family values into the whole process of farming. This is where we have farming as a business, as an occupation that generates economic wealth, not just as a source of food for the family.

IPS: What do you think are the lessons from this global economic crisis for food security? KN: The first lesson, and I hope the world has awoken to this fact, is that you cannot disinvest in agriculture. Because of what happened in 2007 with the food prices jumping up, you had riots all across the world, from Egypt to Haiti. That was a result of disinvestment in agriculture, from the international community and national governments.

The percentage of ODA (official development assistance) for agriculture went from 20 percent in 1980 to less than five percent in 2007. Assistance from national governments went from about 14 percent to less than four percent. And oil prices, fertiliser prices went up. Farmers had no access to inputs, and inputs are expensive. So you have the crisis.

Agriculture is back on the agenda, and it is a clear demonstration that agriculture is the backbone of the economic growth of any nation.

IPS: So should the priority be small-scale farming or agriculture in general? KN: Both. In the communities where smallholder farmers, family farmers, make up the majority of the farms, you must invest in them. You must create opportunities for them, links to private centres. As you do for the commercial farmers, you must do for the smallholder farmer.

Investment in agriculture is not something that you stop and go, because it continues. A tree does not stop growing in the winter. It continues to grow as it does in the summer. So we cannot stop investing in agriculture because food prices are low and we think we do not need to produce more food.

I believe that the world is now aware that where you have food insecurity, it can result in international insecurity.

IPS: What is the role of negotiations in the World Trade Organisation (WTO)? Should an agreement be reached? Would eliminating subsidies be good for the poor countries? KN: Of course, they have to come to the conclusion, the turnaround of this question, because without fair trade, without lifting these artificial barriers to trade… You realise that most developing countries are told not to subsidise their farmers, but we know how much is then spent in OECD countries to subsidise farmers.

So why that dichotomy? Subsidy is good for Europe, it is good for Africa, it is good for Brazil. But we are talking about smart subsidies. This is where the success is. As in the case of Malawi and the production of corn: smart subsidies giving farmers access to new technologies, helping to lead them to markets. Whatever you call it. It is an incentive to economic growth.

I don’t think it is fair for people to put artificial barriers in one region and in another region of the world…not to give them. So we are really looking at a situation where the WTO has to come to the conclusion for fair trade and fair business.

IPS: Is there a conflict between biofuels and food? KN: Brazil has been producing biofuels for how many years? Twenty-five years?

IPS: Thirty years. KN: Thirty years. Is it a conflict? No. There is nothing by its nature that can be said is wrong. It is how it is done. When you take agricultural land and agricultural food crops, corn, for example, and you put it into biofuel, you reduce access to grain. It causes an artificial hike in prices. When you take agricultural land in poor countries and you put it to produce biofuel, they are out there begging for food and subsisting on food aid.

But when a country like Brazil is taking land that is not agricultural land and is growing sugarcane, and the price of sugar is not affected and it is economically viable, then of course one must look at it in context. If Europe decides to increase its biofuel production by ten percent, and you know that to produce one litre of biofuel it takes ten times as much water as one litre of fossil fuel, then the question you must ask yourself is, is it economically viable?

So to say that biofuel is wrong… I think one must look at the context in which one is investing in biofuels.

IPS: Family farming in Brazil is increasingly incorporating what we call agro-ecological practices. What do you think about this type of farming? KN: But what is agro-ecology? Basically, when you talk about agro-ecology in Brazil, you are talking about organic farming, not using chemical pesticides or chemical insecticides. In a community where the price of chemical fertilisers or chemical insecticides is very high, why should you use inputs that are going to cost money for the farmers? But we must look at the arguments in context.

If you have the possibility of producing organic foods through family farming, here in Brazil or in Africa, and you have the markets in the North where there are premium prices for your products, why would you not encourage the farmers to continue to produce in this way, if they are able to feed themselves and generate economic wealth?

It is as simple as this: the cost of fertilisers and chemical insecticides is high, the cost of petrol is going up. Can you imagine a truck bringing a ton of fertiliser to this village, to this community? Who can afford it? So it is more efficient for them to grow crops without chemicals.

But certainly in a country where less than two percent of the population are farmers, and where you cannot get cheap labour, you will need to use other agricultural approaches to produce your food crops, for in the long run it is not sustainable.

IPS: Let’s talk about genetically modified crops. KN: I think there is a misconception in the use of the expression genetically modified crops. When you transfer genes from one species, like an animal, into a plant, for example, you are talking about transgenic crops. This is a different question.

Do not forget that human medicine has been using GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to produce vaccines for years. So your body and my body already have GMOs in them for health reasons.

There are problems in agriculture which traditional approaches have not been able to solve. There are areas where you have severe droughts and you are not able to produce a drought-resistant crop. The only possibility is to use transgenics: you have an intractable problem where technology becomes the only tool to solve the problem.

Now then, only five percent of the land in Africa is irrigated, most of it in Egypt, not southern Africa. African farmers use eight kilograms per hectare of fertiliser, when their Asian counterparts are using 1.2 kilograms. When they have not exploited simple technologies that exist already, why should they grow transgenic maize?

So I would say, let’s put the horse before the cart, not the other way around. In situations where you have an intractable problem and the only tool is to develop GMOs, yes. But it is not the solution to the food crisis. It is the solution for particular problems: pests that have become totally resistant to chemicals.

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