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10K Farmers, 18 Countries, 8 Commodities & 4 Ways to Co-Create an Equitable, Sustainable Food System

For all the time and money spent examining challenges in global agriculture, little is spent understanding farmers’ perspectives. The Small Farmer Atlas is a starting point for companies and policymakers to center the perspectives of small-scale farmers in the design of sustainability and procurement policies.

The story of global agriculture is largely one of small farms. Small-scale operations account for 90 percent of the 570 million farms around the world; they are responsible for a notable share of the world’s food, feed, fiber and other products. Yet in spite of their prominence, the majority of smallholder farmers are sidelined in sustainability discussions. Solidaridad’s Small Farmer Atlas represents a first effort to elevate the voice of small-scale farmers to the global stage.

Debates and discussions on sustainability often become mired in details and data — income gaps and productivity rates, service models and land size. For all the time and money spent examining the challenges, relatively little time is spent understanding the perspectives of farmers themselves.

The Small Farmer Atlas is an opportunity for companies, governments and NGOs to hear farmers’ perspectives, needs and priorities when it comes to sustainability. The Atlas is based on a wide-ranging survey of 10,000 small-scale farmers in 18 countries on 3 continents with input on issues ranging from prosperity and income to bargaining power and land use. The result is a data-rich resource focused on eight commodities: coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, cotton, oil palm, soy and sugarcane.

Signs of progress & lingering challenges

Over half of the farmers interviewed expressed confidence in their ability to meet basic needs. This indicates that sustainability interventions and work with farmers have had a positive impact — even through the pandemic and the related economic downturn, when the survey was conducted.

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Yet, most are ill-equipped to handle price volatility or climate shocks. Women, in particular, are concerned with their ability to achieve a fair income, to find market support and produce in harmony with the natural environment.

Image credit: Small Farmer Atlas

Across all regions, farmers indicate they are concerned about issues related to sustainability.

  • Over 50 percent of those surveyed indicate that they could not cover basic expenses if prices they receive dropped by 25 percent — a regular occurrence in commodity markets.

  • More than half lack access to markets, financing and information that would allow them to realize their full potential.

  • And women experience a heavier burden and more inequality than men. Overall, female farmers were more negative than male respondents in their answers.

And yet, the impacts of a changing climate loom as their biggest concern. Nearly two thirds of farmers struggle with a lack of resources needed to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, across all 18 countries covered, farmers express grave concerns about deteriorating soil quality and water scarcity.

Opportunities to improve together

While the results vary by product and country, gender and farm size, the Small Farmer Atlas allows us to better understand the specific priorities and perspectives of the farmers we work with. Overall, the Atlas illustrates the need for systemic change that prioritizes the perceptions of small-scale farmers and grounds interventions in their needs.

This means working more closely with small-scale farmers to co-create approaches that recognize their perspectives and practical know-how, and work alongside them to build greater access to market or sustainability platforms. Here are four concrete examples of listening and inclusion that elevate the voices of farmers:

Facilitating knowledge exchange among women in coffee

The Small Farmer Atlas revealed that women experience a heavier burden and more inequality than men. Overall, women farmers’ responses to survey questions were more negative than male respondents. Women farmers share similar challenges around the world.

Facilitating in-person exchanges among women farmers builds solidarity and provides an opportunity to learn about new ways of working. GIZ, the Honduran Coffee Institute and Solidaridad brought a group of women farmers from Honduras to Cauca, Colombia — where they had the chance to learn about the local context, technological developments, organizational models and innovations in the Colombian coffee sector. The Honduran delegation shared their experiences in marketing, differentiated products and sustainable business models.

Partnering with the government in Ghana

Oil palm is a tremendous opportunity for small-scale farmers. It grows in the tropics, it’s productive; and when sustainably managed, oil palm can provide a reliable income with a smaller environmental footprint. Similar to other commodities, proactive government policy can set the stage for better value distribution that supports better practices.

In Ghana, Solidaridad — under the RECLAIM Sustainability program — worked with the Government of Ghana to develop a pricing mechanism that yielded a minimum price for fresh fruit bunches. Stable, predictable prices help farmers better plan production and build trust among producers and buyers.

“In the past, my minimum income was tied to the benevolence of the aggregators or mills and was often erratic. This made it difficult for me to plan,” said Martin Ola, a farmer in western Ghana. “Under this current arrangement, I can predict my minimum income and effectively plan with it.”

Image credit: Solidaridad

Facilitating farmer participation in global sustainability discussions

The European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive stands to have a massive impact on global trade. The directive will require companies to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence across their value chains. Though the directive has potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of farmers, workers and their families, there is also a risk that small-scale farmers — who lack resources to improve practices and are subject to unfair trade and human rights violations — will lose access to markets and be further marginalized.

Supporting farmers to engage in dialogue on policies and directives that impact them is critical to ensuring better outcomes for all. In February, Solidaridad teamed up with Fairtrade International, the Fair Trade Advocacy Office and Rainforest Alliance to bring small-scale farmers to the European Parliament to share their experiences and contribute to policy development.

“We welcome new legislation; but please ensure that the extra costs are not borne by farmers. Shared responsibility, investment and cooperation are crucial,” said Pison Kukundakwe of Uganda’s Ankole Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative.

Supporting farmers so they can contribute to policy dialogue or attend conferences and trade shows is one way we can ensure that farmers’ perspectives are better represented.

Rural extension & technical support reducing deforestation

The majority of Latin American economies depend on agricultural production; yet in many rural areas, access to rural extension and technical support services is limited. This has a clear negative impact on farm productivity and livelihoods; but it also leads to increased pressure on the local environment. An increase in quality extension support can contribute to best practices and a reduction in deforestation.

A rural extension and technical assistance model in the Brazilian Amazon resulted in a 40 percent increase in cocoa productivity and a 22.2 percent increase in breeding livestock. This model mixed free assistance and offered additional training for a fee as farmers grew in their expertise. The average farmer saw a gross boost in income by 31.4 percent and a 74 percent reduction in deforestation among participating farms.

“The lack of good information is what impoverishes farmers the most,” said Clóvis Rios, a 37-year-old cocoa farmer in Brazil. “When we have information, we are able to dream big — to look further ahead.”

Sustainability begins with farmers’ perspectives

The Small Farmer Atlas is a starting point and an invitation to companies and policymakers to center the perspectives of small-scale farmers in the design of sustainability and procurement policies. It represents an opportunity to move beyond the quantitative to a qualitative perspective that includes the ideas of small-scale farmers as they grow their way forward.