Farmers Leading the Way as the Bedrock of Our Global Food System

bowl of tomatoes served on person hand

Global ambitions will animate the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit—but farmers like us know that achieving the UN’s food-security goals will require a sharp focus on the local level.

We must remember that agricultural innovation doesn’t come from the top down. It rises from the bottom up. It begins on individual farms—the bedrock for food production—and every farmer has his or her own unique story to tell.

That may be the main lesson we drew from a pair of conversations sponsored by CropLife International, which allowed each of us to host an Independent Summit Dialogue as the world prepares for the UN’s Summit meeting in Rome and New York later this year.

We may not appear to share a lot in common. One of us is a woman who farms in the tropical climate of Nigeria; the other is a man who grows food under entirely different conditions in the United Kingdom. But we share a passion for producing food, a fascination and respect for the soil, know the joy and heartbreak of working with the weather, and we are committed to learning from each other and lending our voices to ensure the farmers’ views on how we use and translate science and innovation in the field are heard and incorporated in policy discussions. We’re also both members of the Global Farmer Network, which seeks to unite farmers and amplify our voices as we promote the benefits of trade, access to technology, sustainable agriculture, and an appreciation of sound science.

In 2015, the General Assembly of the UN approved a list of 17 “sustainable development goals” involving economics, the environment, the role of women, and more. It set a deadline of 2030 for meeting these ambitious benchmarks.

The second overall goal involves farmers directly: Ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Ending hunger is a lot to ask. Has there ever been a time in history when there was no hunger anywhere in the world? It requires global ambition and most importantly support. It requires communication that allows citizens across the world to better understand what modern farming is and the challenges it faces.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that for all of the scientific and technological progress we continue to make, including in food production, the world has a way of complicating our objectives.

Yet farmers can continue to persevere, always striving to do better. Perhaps an audacious goal can motivate us to continually improve. After all, this is a question that we farmers ask ourselves all the time: How can I do better tomorrow, or next season, or next year?

This also was the spirit that encouraged us to participate with other farmers in the Independent Summit Dialogues convened in connection with the UN Food Systems Summit.

As we listened to our fellow farmers, learning about their successes and failures as they met the challenges of our time, one thing became clear: Sustainable development must take a wide range of approaches and remain sensitive to agriculture’s incredible diversity, all while encouraging economic advancement. What works for weed and pest management in the UK probably won’t work in Nigeria, and what works in one part of Nigeria may not work in another.

Good regulation has a role to play in future food systems. It opens the possibility of effective research, encourages investment and is vital to providing access to new techniques. Get it wrong and it distorts the markets and disadvantages farmers who face an increasing challenge in their production. A global summit offers a unique opportunity to look at regulation from a global perspective to solve rather than create problems.

It’s not all about farm size but an openness to technology that will keep agriculture alive, not just between now and 2030 but as we struggle to attract a new generation of farmers who will take us into the far future. Young people embrace technology. They rightly see it as a solution to big problems. We must allow access to it, so that they can take the maximum advantage of the tools that will help each farm reach its full potential.

man in blue jacket standing in front of fruit standFinally, farmers are the bedrock of our food systems. They are trusted and must lead the way in discussion and debate. Participation isn’t enough. It’s too passive. We must take active roles in dialogues about enhancing food security as we draw lessons from our own experiences as farmers and share them with other farmers who face similar problems and with the policy makers who are tasked with developing regulation that creates the right environment to encourage investment and development.

For policy to be effective, it must be based on the farmers experience as they outline the real and not perceived challenges and offer real and practical solutions. As one of our participants observed, good government regulation provides confidence for commercial companies to invest for the long term. It reinforces the need to aim for global regulatory principles not just for trade but for investment levels by responsible multi-national companies as no government can invest and reach out to markets effectively.

We may not end hunger by 2030, but perhaps we can make the world less hungry—and we just might do it, if we allow local food systems to unleash the innovations that will encourage them to do better.

Onyaole Patience Koku

Onyaole Patience Koku

Patience's farm is located on the Jere Azara irrigation scheme, Kagarko Local government, in Kaduna State Nigeria. The farm is 500 hectares of leased land and produces two crops annually under center pivot irrigation. They grow mostly seed corn for Monsanto and corn grain for major food processing companies in Nigeria, like Flour Mills of Nigeria. She is the recipient of the 2019 Kleckner Award from the Global Farmer Network and 2018 Cornell Alliance For Science Farmer of the year. She also serves on the Cornell Alliance For Science advisory board. In her short time as a member of the GFN, she has already advocated on major stages, including at The 2019 GES summit, a side event of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Committee of World Food Security in Rome, Italy and at the Future of Farming Dialogue in Monheim, Germany.

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