Healthy Planet, Healthy People: Reconciling Global Rules to Promote Food-secure Farming

by Susan H. Bragdon
Representative, Food and Sustainability, Quaker UN Office (QUNO)


The health and survival of humanity and the planet are directly linked to the agro-ecological practices of small-scale farmers and agricultural biodiversity. Farming practices that are agro-ecological involve growing a wide variety of crops, and delivering on productivity goals without depleting the environment or disrupting communities.


Small-scale farmers are essential to food and nutrition security, climate resilience, rural livelihoods, critical ecosystem services, and the health of the global population. Yet small farmer innovation has largely been neglected or excluded from the conversation about the future of agricultural production.


The innovative activity most crucial to global food security is the ability of small-scale farmers to consistently create new and relevant plant varieties, maintain on-farm diversity, as well as mix new and traditional varieties. Such innovation and small farm management systems are critical to food security because these systems offer frontline responses to climate change.


Unfortunately most people don’t know that: 

  • Small scale farmers produce upwards of 70% of the food consumed today;
  • The agricultural biodiversity small farmers manage is an essential part of the alternative to industrial agriculture; and,
  • Both are essential to our ability to adapt to climate change and continue to feed ourselves.


The modern, industrial agriculture system that emerged after WWII is a new experiment in our 12,000-year history with agriculture. This modern system of agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, the largest user of fresh water resources and the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. An increasingly urban population, the emergence of “modern” agriculture, and supermarkets have lowered our food-literacy level and eroded our once direct connection to our food system.


Transformative policy change is blocked when people don’t understand the fundamental relationship between small-scale farmers, agricultural biodiversity, Agenda 2030, and the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the global community in 2015.


(On January 1, 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit—officially came into force. Over the next fifteen years, with these new Goals that universally apply to all, countries will mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.)


Even more problematic, an ill-informed public enables those with power to use ideological myth and economic dogma to foment fear. As framers of the public discourse they have carte blanche to set the rules of the game in the form of economic instruments, trade rules, development bank loans, or grant conditions in ways that can have devastating impacts on a given country’s choice of policy instruments.


The public and policy makers alike must be made aware of the small farmer’s pivotal role. Mitigation and adaptation to climate challenges and building resilience into agricultural production requires a transition to agroecological approaches. Small farms and on-farm agrobiodiversity play central roles. The loss of on-farm biological diversity depletes the very resources that are the foundation of the ability to adapt to climate change.


Despite Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed to promote cooperation, governance nationally and internationally remains siloed. Agrobiodiversity is rarely mentioned in official climate change negotiations and global discussions on food and nutrition security. Since constituencies are unaware of risks inherent in uniformity, ignoring agrobiodiversity gives “modern” mono-crop agriculture free reign. Crop uniformity is doesn’t just increase vulnerability to drought or salinity. It also thwarts adaptation to the changing climate.


We must face inconvenient truths. It is not enough to pull into a farmers’ market in an electric car and buy organic cheese directly from a local farmer. We have to have tough conversations if we are going to make meaningful change. We have to pay attention to what the SDGs make clear, that hunger is about poverty, inequality and other structural problems and not just the quantity or quality of food.


Addressing climate change requires having unpopular conversations about:

  • How taxes are spent e.g., subsidizing corn to fed to cows and biofuels for cars, spewing methane and CO2 into the atmosphere while replacing diversity with monocultures;
  • The policy tools taken away from countries to support their agriculture sectors;
  • Why billions of dollars are spent on supplements and moving molecules around to reinsert vitamins into a crop rather than address the structural issues that caused cheap, nutrient-depleted processed foods to become the norm.


The silver lining in this situation is that once these problems are shared, it may be easier to have the tough conversations and create the alliances needed for solutions.  While experienced unevenly, most people have been touched by climate change. The vast majority of people are aware and care, even if they are not sure what to do.


We have an opportunity to take advantage of common concerns resulting from the globalization of parts of the food system. The modern food system has essentially exported obesity which is now growing faster in developing countries than in any other part of the world. Diets are increasingly simplified, and the global burden of disease is now primarily diet-related. The poor in rich and in poor countries are struggling with similar issues where the underlying causes are also shared.


New alliances of small-scale farmers or in support of small-scale farmers both within and between countries is more possible today than at any time in history. The agricultural biological diversity developed and maintained on-farm by small-scale farmers around the world is critical to the health of our planet and our people and we must ensure our laws, policies and actions from the global to the local level recognize and support these communities and resources.


*Views are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of QUNO.