Proposals for family farm based, sustainable agriculture

Proposals of Via Campesina for sustainable, farmer based agricultural production
Published at the occasion of the WSSD summit in Johannesburg 2002
August, 2002

World-wide, the prevailing neo-liberal economic system has been the primary cause of the increasing impoverishment and the displacement of farmers and rural peoples everywhere. It is responsible for the increasing degradation of nature, including the land, water, plants, animals and natural resources, having put all these vital resources under centralized systems of production, procurement and distribution within the frame of a global market oriented system. The international ’agrifood sector’ is largely controlled by transnational corporations and the governments that actively support or passively accept the market ideology as the principle on which to base all of agriculture.
This economic system treats both nature and people as a means to an end with the sole aim of generating profits. The resulting concentration of wealth and control in the hands of a small minority has created dramatic constraints on farmers throughout the world, pushing them to the brink of irredeemable extinction. Agricultural and other policies, the role of governments and industry, as well as the objectives of research and trade, must all be fundamentally reshaped to give priority to protecting biological and cultural diversity, the land and people of the land, in order to reverse the dangerous current destruction.

The major impediment to achieving sustainable ways of producing food is not the lack of appropriate technologies or the lack of knowledge of people working the land. The biggest obstacle is the way in which international and national policies, as well as the agro industry, are interfering in the food production system, forcing farmers to adopt unsustainable methods of production through a model of competition and ongoing industrialisation.

This undermines all forms of small-scale family farm and peasant agriculture which are based on the sustainable use of local resources for the production of quality food for local consumption. The current model of industrialized food production is inherently unsustainable. It makes farmers increasingly dependent on external inputs (pesticides, fertilisers, veterinary treatment, growth promoters, etc.) and external capital. This industrialized production is often very intensive, and not linked to the soil, as for example, is the case for intensive pork production in Europe and Brazil. It is often export orientated, as with big cereal producers in Europe and North America. These export oriented production systems are not geared to enhance local ecological conditions or to meet local food needs. In this model farmers lose control over production decisions.

There are a growing number of examples of this. A large number pork producers in Flanders (Belgium), facing bankruptcy, are being forced to accept very unfair contracts from the animal feed industry which divest them of the ownership of their animals and stables, and constrain them to buy feedstuffs from the contracting firm which sets all the prices but leaves the production risks (illness and animal deaths) to the producer. In countries such Brazil or the Philippines farmers are driven off their land and are reduced to ill-paid workers on plantations or big properties, having lost their autonomy as food producer. Large, investor-owned dairy operations in California and New Mexico make profits milking thousands of cows by exploiting cheap Mexican labour. Such so called "advantages" as industrialized food production boasts are gained at great cost.

These modes of production do not respect farming people, their cultures or their animals and cause extensive (in many cases, irreversible) damage to the environment. They frequently disrupt environments and livelihoods far beyond their immediate reach when surplus production is dumped elsewhere in the world. They contribute to the decline of food quality and safety. For example, the BSE or dioxin crisis in Europe and the increasing risk of salmonella poisoning from intensive poultry production in North America signal but a few of the problems generated by this mode of production. Health and safety problems with pesticide use are well documented. The economic advantages are yet to be demonstrated as this model receives most of the public financial support currently available to agriculture. Uncapped income support to large producers in the Europe and the United States along with credits for export commodities in Brazil and the Philippines illustrate how dependent on public treasuries much of the industrialized production really is. At the same time, small-scale farmers are denied any form of public support or credit in many countries. . Contrary to much of the conventional propaganda, intensive industrial methods often create more problems than they resolve and are highly expensive for society.

The model of family farm or peasant based sustainable production makes use of traditional low input methods. Farmers rely on their long historic experience with their local resources (water, soil, climate, plant and animal varieties) and are capable of producing the optimal quantity and quality of food with few, if any, external inputs. Products are mainly grown for their own families and consumers of the same region. This assures contact and transparency between farmers and consumers. Having access to land and security of tenure is the best possible incentive for individual farmers to preserve and improve soil fertility. In order to avoid dependency on external financiers, credit can be organised through credit groups or co-operatives.

This model is labour intensive (a resource that is available in abundance in most regions of the world) instead of capital intensive. The production is linked to the soil. It has been demonstrated to be sustainable over thousands of years in diverse ecologies. Although in the neo-liberal theory the model of industrial production is "sold" to the public as the most efficient one, the contrary is true. Studies show that the capacity of food production per hectare is higher on small farms than on big industrial farms if the measurement is not restricted to monocultural production. For example, the traditional rice paddies in many southern countries afforded a whole range of other products besides rice: fish, shrimps, straw, herbs, medical plants etc. Where this highly effective production system was replaced by high yielding rice varieties of the so-called "green revolution" using a lot of expensive pesticides and fertilisers, these varieties gave little extra yield, short straw and far fewer other food products.

Furthermore, drought and disease resistance decreased. Careful research is revealing a host of other examples where an abundant variety of production is successfully integrated within one system achieving greater efficiency along with long-term ecological sustainability. Genuine and sustainable development in agriculture will have to abandon the dominant model of intensive, high-input industrialized farming in favour of models which are more attune to nature and peasant culture. A truly future orientated way of farming must be based on the traditional knowledge of the people working the land who are able to make full use of local resources while respecting the environment. This does not mean that all new technologies must be rejected or that no food exports can be permitted. But it does mean that new technologies must support and further develop sustainable peasant based food production instead of destroying it and that international trade must be organized to benefit farmers and consumers instead of a handful trans-national corporations and their stake holders.

1. Choices in agricultural production techniques, consumption patterns and safety regulations: Potentials and threats to sustainable agriculture.
Production techniques Concern Currently, production techniques imposed on farmers are increasingly standardized world wide, disregarding local situations. With the adoptions of these techniques farmers become more dependent on industry. While agribusiness corporations promise increased production, farmer profits and hunger eradication with their technology packages, including genetically engineered seeds, the results to date are increased corporate profits and farmer losses. Farmers become more dependent on corporations and credit with need to buy seed and inputs annually and more financially vulnerable. One harvest failure can mean the loss of the farm.

Meanwhile, local production systems are destroyed, often resulting in greater food insecurity in the community. The excessive and uncontrolled use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides along with the heavy machinery of the industry driven model provoke harmful secondary effects on the environment, such as erosion, loss of tilt and fertility in the soil, damage to biodiversity, degradation of natural resources and contamination of water resources. Only production techniques rooted in local communities, controlled by these communities and sensitive to local ecology can best use and preserve local resources over the long term. Such production techniques are most likely to produce good quality food, respect people and their cultures and strengthen local economies. These are some of the key elements which must characterize a truly sustainable food system.

Family farm and community based systems respond much better to the needs of the (local) populations than do corporate dependent systems, achieve a higher and more diverse output and are, in most instances, the best guarantee in achieving food security. The current pressure on small-scale production and the displacement of farmers is leading to more poverty in the rural areas, more adverse effects for the environment and increasing food in-security.
Proposals: That the governments and other international bodies undertake an objective evaluation of industrial, large-scale food production compared to family farm production based on local resources including criteria such as: production output, stability of production, adverse effects on the environment, risks involved for the producer, employment, quality of the product involved, affects on the food security of vulnerable populations. That all governments implements policies which limit the adverse effects of industrial production and effectively support, family farm based sustainable farming practises.

Sustainable use of resources Concerns A very grave concern is the privatisation of natural resources. Agricultural and non-agricultural biodiversity is being patented or brought under severe breeders rights regulations. Both undermine farmers’ rights to free access to erstwhile common genetic resources and the right to develop and market their own seed varieties. Genetic resources are the result of millenia of evolution and belong to all of humanity. Agro biodiversity represents the careful work and knowledge of many generations of rural and indigenous peoples. Farming communities have the right to freely use and protect the diverse genetic resources, including seeds, which have been developed by them throughout history. Water resources are also falling increasingly into the hands of private industrial interests. This is another major threat to sustainable food production. Industrial, high input, agriculture is guilty of terrible wastes of precious water resources because of increased need for irrigation. Some of the major irrigation projects required by high input production have cost the displacement of thousands of farmers and the loss of large food production areas. The adverse effects of industrial production have to be fully recognised and assessed in terms of environmental impacts, inefficient resource use, and creating food insecurity.

The solutions are not likely to be more of the same i.e. more intrusive technologies, such as genetically modified organisms. Genuine solutions will require a fundamental change of the dominant industrial model, a change of attitude towards the role of farmers and their rights, the role of industry, a redefinition of "efficient food production" , and the necessary changes of policies to implement the new direction.


  • That governments make the sustainable use of natural resources their highest priority to be realised through support for a family farm based low (external) input agriculture.
  • That governments make long-term investments of public resources in the development of socially and ecologically appropriate rural infrastructure.
  • That governments establish and support decentralized rural credit systems that priorize the production of food for domestic consumption to ensure food sovereignty. Production capacity rather than land should be used as security to guarantee credit. The privatisation of water resources has to be stopped.
  • That governments and international bodies act to stop the privatisation of natural resources necessary for food production to prevent and reverse the corporate ownership and control of these resources.
  • That the patenting of life forms be forbidden as well as the use of technologies that produce sterile seeds (GURTS (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) like the "terminator technology). Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) should be banned from agricultural production. Farmers should maintain or regain the full right to grow, multiply and sell their own seeds.

Consumption patterns Concern
The distance between farmer and consumer is increasing. This leads to unsustainable practises such as increased transportation of vast quantities of food and increased processing and use of preservatives in food by the industry. An important problem created by this increasing distance is the lack of transparency in the production chain. This can lead to anxiety about food safety and a variety of food crises such as BSE, hormones and antibiotics in feedstuffs, the attempt to force GMOs down the throats of consumers, the ’mad cow’ disease scare, to name only a few. The cultural impact of changes to the food system must also to be considered. Food and its production is often a defining part of a people’s culture and identity. This has to be respected as such.


  • That governments, financial and trade mechanisms implement policies which promote the trade of good quality food to the nearest consumers, avoiding unnecessary transportation and processing and giving the highest possible degree of transparency to consumers. Product labels should always contain the origin of the product as well as content.
  • That governments and international agencies, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization recognize that food is a basic human right. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity. Each nation should declare that access to food as a constitutional right and guarantee the development of the primary sector to ensure the concrete realization of this fundamental right.

Safety regulations and regulation to promote sustainable practises Concerns International policies, especially those formulated within the WTO, undermine the possibilities of national governments implementing safety regulations to define sustainable practises according to their own standards. This is a clear threat for the development of sustainable agriculture. An obvious example of this concern is the ways in which genetic engineering is being imposed. In a recent move the United States and the European Union tried to bring the discussion on bio safety and GMO’s – in essence, whether any country has the right to protect itself against the importation of GMO products – into the WTO through a "Biotechnology working group". If this succeeds it will circumvent the more broadly based discussion of bio safety protocols under the Convention of Biological Diversity.


  • That the international forums develop and commit to policies which respect the right to safe, culturally appropriate food for all people and support the right of countries to regulate food safety and impose import restrictions on the basis of clearly defined safety and quality requirements as well as on the impact of any imports on sustainable domestic food production practises.

1. "Globalisation, trade liberalisation and investment patterns" economic incentives and framework conditions to promote sustainable agriculture.
The liberalization of trade and its economic policies of structural adjustment have globalized poverty and hunger in the world and are destroying local productive capacities and rural societies. It is unacceptable that the trade in foodstuffs continues to be based on the economic exploitation of the most vulnerable — the lowest earning producers — and the further degradation of the environment. Destruction of food production capacity in some regions is coupled with surpluses in others. Structural adjustment programmes, shifting domestic production to intensive production for exportation, are accelerated under the terms of the WTO and are forcing millions of peasants, small and medium-sized farmers and indigenous peoples into bankruptcy .

In India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, more than 400 producers of cotton committed suicide during the winter of 1998 due to the financial failure brought on by their adoption of agro-industrial technology and the attendant debt. The WTO policy, which permits dumping, drives intensive production deliberately creating surpluses in some regions while in others it produces social disasters such as unemployment, rural exodus, social degradation, violence and suicides.

It is also leading to irreparable damage to the environment including loss of soils, biodiversity, contamination of land, water and air. There are many examples of food dumping, especially on the part of the United Sates (USA), European Union (EU) and other industrialised countries into less-industrialised countries. This disruptive practice is legalised in the "Blair-house" agreement of the WTO. Equally damaging is the dumping, often in the form of social dumping, of products that characterises the trade from some Southern countries.

Of course these practises militate against the development of any form of sustainable agriculture. Increased ruthless expulsion of rural people from the land into cities.. There is heavy pressure for deregulation of international investment policies. Such a policy will be disastrous for the management of natural resources necessary for food production. Governments will no longer have the possibility of managing land tenure and land use which will facilitate the corporate take over of land further limiting access for farm families and indigenous communities. World-wide millions of peasants have been forced to leave the land including two million in Brazil alone in recent years.

As the main basis of sustainable agriculture are the people working the land and taking care of the natural resources the adverse effects on sustainability are clear. Through the World Trade Organisation, corporations are imposing genetically engineered organisms and hormone fed animal products on consumers. For example, European markets are being forced to accept genetically modified soya from Monsanto and hormone fed meat and dairy products against people’s wishes. Some countries and corporations are seeking legislation allowing biopiracy in the WTO through imposing patents on life "Intellectual Property Rights « on genes from plants, animals, parts of human beings.

Everywhere in the world from Brazil to Europe there is heavy corporate lobbying for this right to control life forms. Neo-liberal policies push countries into cash crop export production at the expense of domestic food production. These policies contribute to low commodity prices that are far lower than the real cost of production. Developing countries are forced to adopt these policies in order to pay their external debt. Trade and production decisions are increasingly dictated by the need for foreign currency to meet high debt loads. These debts place a disproportionate burden on rural peoples. These countries are also constrained to open their borders to the importation of food, which leads to even greater debt. The governments of the rich countries are giving massive subsidies without limit per farm in order to compensate for low prices, which allow the transnational corporations to buy cheaply. In this way public funds are an indirect support for industry more than a support for farmers.

Food is a basic human right.
This right can only be realized in a system where food sovereignty is guaranteed. Food sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity. Farmers have the right to produce food in their own territory. Food sovereignty is a precondition to genuine food security. The concept of food sovereignty has to be part of the concept of sustainable agriculture. Farmers should be able, within the context of the agricultural policies to generate their own production models, according to their conditions and possibilities. Trade policies must be subsumed under the priorities of food sovereignty and sustainability. Food is first and foremost a source of nutrition and only secondarily an item of trade. Food imports must not displace local production nor depress prices.

This means that export dumping or subsidized export must cease. Peasants and small farmers have the right to produce essential food staples for their countries and to control the marketing of their products. Food prices in domestic and international markets must be regulated and reflect the true costs of sustainably producing that food. This would ensure that peasant and farmer families have adequate incomes. Peasants and small farmers must have direct input into formulating agricultural policies at all levels. The United Nations and related organizations will have to undergo a process of democratization to enable this to become a reality. Everyone has the right to honest, accurate information and open and democratic decision-making. These rights form the basis of good governance, accountability and equal participation in economic, political and social life, free from all forms of discrimination. Rural women, in particular, must be granted direct and active decision-making on food and rural issues.

In international trading agreements governments have to :

  • Conduct a world-wide audit on the serious consequences resulting from the inclusion of agriculture in the GATT/WTO agreements and an immediate correction of existing injustices.
  • Immediately cancel the obligation within the WTO of accepting the minimum importation of 5% of internal consumption. All compulsory market access clauses must be cancelled.
  • Remove all negotiation in the areas of food production and marketing from the WTO and from all regional and bilateral agreements and to create genuine international democratic mechanisms to regulate food trade while respecting food sovereignty in each country.
  • Secure food sovereignty in each and every country giving priority to food production for its people, social aspects and the environment.
  • Give each country the right to define its own agricultural policies in order to meet internal needs. This includes the right to prohibit imports in order to protect domestic production and to implement Agrarian Reform providing peasants and small to medium-sized producers with access to land. 
  • Stop all forms of dumping. To protect the production of staple domestic foods. 
  • Prohibit biopiracy and patents on life (animal, plants, parts of the human body) including the development of sterile varieties through genetic engineering. 
  • Allow countries the right to establish food quality criteria appropriate to the preference of its people.

2. Best practices in land resources management to achieve sustainable food cycles.
Concerns Millions of farmers do not have access to land, and because of the neo liberal policies their number is increasing rapidly.

Much of the best land has been withdrawn from small-scale farmers and taken over by large land owners and TNCs in order to produce (high input and therefor unsustainable) cash crops for external markets. Land tenure in communal systems is threatened everywhere. In countries like Mexico it was abolished under pressure of the NAFTA agreement. If small food producers do not have access and long term control of the land they work on, the development of sustainable practises is impossible. The "Popular Coalition to eliminate hunger and poverty" (with main actors the World bank, IFAD and the FAO) pays much attention to land reform. However the main tool they want to develop is the privatisation of the transfer of land. This means a strengthening of the current neo-liberal policies which will create yet more landless farmers.


  • That truly agrarian reforms are carried out by the governments which will not only distribute the land to the peasants and farmers, but will also provide means, resources and facilities to turn such land productive and additionally offer protection and legality to the land distributed. Sustainable managment of natural resources and the preservation of biological diversity can only be undertaken successfully from a sound economic basis with security of tenure. Farmers’ access to land needs to be understood as a form of guarantee of their cultture, autonomy of community and with the purpose of preserving natural resources for future generations. Land is a good of nature that needs to be used in a sustainable way for the welfare of all, including those yet to come.
  • Women play a central role in household and community food sovereignty. Hence they have an inherent right to resources for food production, land, credit, capital, technology, education and social services, and equal opportunity to develop and employ their skills.

3. Knowledge for a sustainable food system: identifying and providing means for education, training, knowledge-sharing and information needs.

Research Concern: International and national agricultural research is mainly financed by corporations and rich countries. This research mostly supports the industrialisation of agriculture based on increased use of inputs and dependence of external, international markets. It leads to mono-cultures and a loss of agro biodiversity. It is focused primarily on increasing yields. It tends to develop production techniques that can be applied on a world wide scale without respecting and making use of the unique local resources. Its orientation often favours the production of raw materials to feed industry instead of the production of good quality food for nearby consumers. Research on genetic engineering, mainly conducted through TNCs fits within these parameters.

In addition, genetic engineering bring a whole category of new risks into the food system without producing any benefits to consumers or farmers. Through patenting industry is increasing their control over food production and making farmers (and consumers) more dependent on their inputs and the commercialisation of the products through their channels. The risks of genetic pollution and loss of biodiversity, the threat to food safety and quality, and the anti-democratic corporate control over an essential good combine to make genetic engineering a technology which undermines the key components of sustainable agriculture.

In general agricultural research should be resource orientated and not input orientated. This research should be farmer and consumer driven as opposed to the current industry driven model. It should start from the local production system, trying to improve it respecting the objectives of the people that depend on it. Agricultural research (by farmers and other bodies) should be decentralised, and financed and supported through governments with public purpose rather than private profit as a motivation. Research to improve environmental sustainability would lead to a de-intensification of current input-intensive agriculture. It must contribute to a strengthening of existing farmer based sustainable production systems. Family farm based organic agriculture is one of the options that needs more support.

Training and education Concerns
Current training and education programs are nearly exclusively focused on the promotion of industrial agriculture, do not respect the knowledge of farmers themselves and do not support efforts to maintain or improve the sustainability of family farm based production models. A program which assumes that farming and indigenous people of the land are "the problem" due to lack of formal education and training is for the most part misguided. The gravest environmental problems have consistently been created by the negative interference of national and international policies that have denigrated local, traditional knowledge and replaced it with "modern" technologies. Education for sustainable practises must begin with listening and learning from farmers rather than imposing models formulated by industry. The policies of the World Bank and the IMF reduce the capacity of governments in developing nations to provide basic services. Instead of finding a lasting solution to the debt crisis those policies have only worsened the situation. Many of these debts are unpayable. These debts should be written off and the destructive structural adjustment program be discontinued in favour of investment in basic services like training and education, rural extension and credit programs.


  • Develop and improve the skills and exchange of experiences among the different regions of the world, considering the experiences of the Program Peasant to Peasant, which is successfully carried out in Central America and the Caribbean.
  • To promote women to attain the leadership to which they are entitled in the struggle for social equality, forming an active part of the economic and social life and contributing with their capability and intelligence to decision making. 
  • To allow the development of farmers organisations in order to promote economic relations of equality and social justice, protection of land, food sovereignty, sustainable and equitable agricultural production based on small-scale farming operations. 
  • New technologies in education should not be imposed on farming communities. The need for their use will emerge from the communities and organisations themselves if they are allowed to strengthen themselves. Training methods, offering new information or technology, should respect the local knowledge of farmers by supporting and enriching it instead of degrading and denying it.