17 October 2012

Gambia: Agricultural Cooperatives and Food Security

editorial

Another World Food Day is here. The event celebrated annually on October 16 is a movement for stakeholders in agriculture to think about the state of sustainable farming and how to adequately feed the world's hungry billion. This year, the event is commemorated with critical focus on sustainable agriculture through cooperatives to feed the world in the throes of climate change. It enabled stakeholders rethink agriculture from problem to solution with a view to achieving the right to food in a climate-constrained world.

Empirically, agricultural activities account for one third of total green house gas (GHG) emissions, the lion's share of which comes from industrial agriculture. But farmers are also among the first to feel the impacts of climate change, as harvests fail due to increasingly extreme weather. This presupposes agriculture is both culprit and victim of climate change. We need to urgently change the way we produce and consume food if we are to nourish the world's growing population while respecting nature. If we continue to squeeze the maximum out of the earth's resources, more people will face hunger and the future of mankind and the planet will be at risk.

The benefit of investing in sustainable food production systems is twofold: GHG emission reductions would slow down human contribution to climate change (mitigation) and would also increase the capacity of agriculture to cope with it (adaptation). Food produced via industrialised methods contributes considerably to GHG emissions through synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, methane from farm animals, as well as large-scale land clearing and deforestation.

We must therefore apply ecological principles to reduce emissions, but also to increase agriculture's resistance to changing weather conditions, like erratic rains, droughts and floods. Ecological production systems are more diverse and support biodiversity which increases their capacity to respond to erratic climate compared to monocropped systems which characterise industrial agriculture.

Agribusiness argues that increasing food supply via the intensification of production is the solution to the food crisis, but this fails to go to the heart of the matter. In fact, despite global population growth, today we produce 17 percent more calories per day per person than 30 years ago. The world's poorest go hungry despite 30% of food being wasted in rich countries where obesity is already a major health threat.

We can only eradicate hunger if we tackle its root causes, namely inequality and exclusion. For this we need to pay special attention to small producers, many of whom are women. They not only provide food to the majority of people worldwide, but are also those most at risk of food insecurity. This fact makes the theme for this years' world food day more fundamental. It is through cooperatives and like organisations that farmers possess the power to determine the manners, methods and outputs of their production.

What then is the role of cooperatives in this crusade? The answer is simple. Aagricultural cooperatives have a major role to play in this regard: not only can they help give farmers access to the resources they need for production, but also to markets where they can move their products. What's more, agricultural cooperatives give farmers the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, giving them greater access to land ownership and greater negotiating powers. In this way, agricultural cooperatives ultimately help to reduce poverty, ensure greater food security and eradicate hunger across the globe.

Agricultural and food cooperatives are already a major tool against poverty and hunger but they could do much more. It is time to strengthen these organisations and facilitate their expansion while creating a favourable business, legal, policy and social climate in which they can thrive. It goes without saying that cooperatives need government and governments need cooperatives. Whereas government regulation of cooperatives is important, it is equally important that cooperatives have the autonomy to govern and manage themselves.

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