Small producers’ role in food security is underestimated
To mark World Food Day, the ICRC is highlighting the importance of small agricultural producers in ensuring the survival of people affected by armed conflict. In this interview Fabien Pouille, a senior agronomist with the ICRC, explains how the organization supports small farmers the world over.
Why is the ICRC interested in small producers in times of armed conflict?
For some decades now experts and politicians have been focusing mainly on the bigger producers, but their capacity to increase the quality and quantity of their production is limited. At the same time, however, there are 500 million small farms throughout the world, and their scope for increasing their production is enormous. The ICRC, whose mandate is to bring assistance to the victims of armed conflict, naturally developed expertise from working together with these small producers and local livestock farmers.
In what way are these small producers important?
In a period of conflict, food is often vital for the people suffering the consequences – whether because there is not enough food on the market, or because its price has become prohibitive. When this happens, families either have to rely on local farmers or try themselves to cultivate every single piece of land available. In cities, green areas, balconies and roofs are transformed into vegetable gardens, while in the countryside the tiniest remaining plot of arable land is made the most of. So small producers play a major role not just in ensuring their own survival, but also in providing for their communities. It is interesting to see that, for States, since the 2007-2008 food crisis the existence of these small farms is back up at the top of the agenda.
So what is the ICRC’s approach when working with small producers?
We carry out a systematic analysis of the household economies as they were before the armed conflict. What we aim to do is to bring these families back up to the level they were at before the conflict and, if possible, improve their situation. But our intervention doesn’t follow a set pattern: each individual situation calls for a suitable approach. In Sudan and the Central African Republic, for example, we help groups produce high-quality seed and make it available to other families. In the Democratic Republic of Congo we encourage the production of cassava varieties that are resistant to a new virus. In the Philippines we supply buffalo, to speed up the preparation of rice paddies when groups of displaced people return home, and in Colombia we work on promoting new agricultural commodities, such as cocoa.
Does the ICRC support farmers’ cooperatives?
Sometimes, if that’s how the producers have decided to organize themselves. But it’s not a magic formula for us: we let groups and communities choose their own way of working. The ICRC can provide information on different ways of organizing, but it doesn’t advocate any one type over another.
Armed conflicts are tending to drag on and humanitarian crises are becoming chronic. Has this affected the ICRC’s approach to supporting small producers?
I’ve been doing this job for the ICRC for over ten years now, and I’ve seen how crises are getting more and more chronic, and the background situations less and less alike. Often, in the same country, some areas grow relatively calm while others are flaring up. We now have an increasingly varied range of programmes in the one place, which means that we have to be more accurate in our analysis, faster in implementation and more effective in our follow-up. Rather than directing, our engineers try to fit in with the strategies adopted by the groups we support. Also, when dealing with chronic crises it’s vital for the ICRC to be able to keep a presence in a place over the long term, if it’s to be able to combine emergency intervention with restoring people’s livelihoods.