Big Food Debate – September 2010, Abergavenny

Speakers from all over the world at the Big Food Debate

 What made last week’s Big Food Debate an especially important forum was that it gave voice to so many farmers and producers from around the world.  Yes, there were UK pundits and experts, but there was no doubt we were all there to listen to and understand the challenges and ambitions so lucidly explained by more than twenty five producers who had come from across Africa, Latin America and Asia. 

Organised by Twin (the NGO that has 25 years experience working specifically with smallholder farmers) and Fair Trade Wales, the Big Food Debate was a logistical miracle, as getting visas and travel arrangements sorted for this many farmers will not have been easy.  The sense of unity, sharing of problems, and extraordinary persistence and resilience amongst the farmers was palpable throughout.

The Debate opened with plenary presentations from Tomy Mathew representing the Fairtrade Alliance of Kerala, Southern India, from Peter Lipman of Transition Towns Network, and from Gareth Edwards-Jones of Bangor University. They set the scene for and against consumerism and Fairtrade in the search for sustainable solutions to trade injustice and food security.

The Debate then broke into six workshops all focused on different issues farmers face worldwide and the challenges faced here in the UK in engaging civic society to support farmer-centric solutions to the food security issues we are all now becoming aware of.

In the workshop on “how farmers can move higher up the value chain” we first heard about Zaytoun. This brand of Fairtrade olive oil is a triumph of hope over adversity for Palestinian olive farmers with every possible obstacle in the way of them producing the excellent product the country has been known for over 3000 years. Dyborn Chibonga of NASFAM farmers association in Malawi described how the farmers he represents have succeeded in making more money from their groundnuts and thereby moving further up the value chain, by adding roasting and salting to their offer. Kuapa Kokoo. Like Zaytoun, was another example showing how owning your own brand in the Northern consumer markets brings so much more than extra income.

Another workshop discussed “how farmers can build the capacity to be sustainable, particularly in respect of climate change’.  Here it became clear how profound the impact of changing weather patterns has been around the world. Carmen Willems of Junta Nacional del Café coffee farmers union in Peru described recent harvests being severely decimated due to the multiple effect of very heavy rains and drought at the wrong times. Coffee cherries are either not being pollenated, being washed off the bushes by the rain, or becoming more exposed to pests and diseases.  Junta Nacional del Café has an ambitious and well-conceived adaptation programme in place but they estimate it will need $130m to complete.  So far they have raised $5m. Emmanuel Arthur of Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana explained how important it was to present adaptation solutions to farmers in terms they understand, and which relate to their experience on their farms.  It should be they, the farmers, in control of their own destinies so they need to understand the problems.  Adaptation programmes should not be imposed on farmers by manufacturers and their technical experts.  Farmers should have the training and funding to implement these programmes themselves.

The overriding themes that came out of this Debate were the need for biodiversity, the potential for further organisation, networking and collaboration of farmers, and the need for funding.  Farmers cannot be expected to fund major adaptation programmes out of FT premiums. What is very clear is that it is the farmers themselves who are best placed and most experienced in stewarding the land and keeping it productive, and they should therefore have equal control over funding and how it is used – the power should not be in the hands of the funding provider.

Note: For more about how smallholder farmers are key to the future of the world’s food security read George Monbiot’s piece ‘Small is bountiful’ here

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