“How is it that despite all the efforts made, in the 20th century in particular, to marginalize peasant farmers, despite all the land grabs, despite the huge public subsidies paid to industrial agriculture, despite the free trade agreements, despite the standards written by and for the industry and against peasant farmers, how is it that we are still here and that we still play such a fundamental role in feeding people, in the South of course, but also in Europe?”Morgan Ody, La Via Campesina at the FAO in January 2024
In a passionate speech delivered at the Food and Agricultural Organization on January 23, 2024, Morgan Ody, the General Coordinator of La Via Campesina, put forth a fierce defense of the peasant way of life and the urgent necessity to defend peasant farming in the face of global crises.
(Transcript in English).
I’m a peasant farmer, growing vegetables in Brittany, in the west of France. I also have a few sheep and chickens for my own consumption, not really declared to the authorities; otherwise, it would be a lot of hassle. I sell my vegetables to a consumer cooperative, which comprises families in my commune, and also at the market in the nearest small town, 10 km from my farm. I don’t receive any CAP payments because, with 1.3 hectares, my farm is considered too small, so all my income comes from selling my vegetables locally. Together with my parents and sisters, we make wood on the farm, which helps to heat us in winter. Officially, this isn’t part of the farm’s activities, but in reality, with the rise in the price of fuel and electricity in recent years, it’s important.
I also work with other neighboring peasant farmers. Every Monday, we go to a colleague’s farm to do some harder work. It’s not an official thing either, even though mutual aid is tolerated for peasant farmers by the French administration, and for me, this collective work gives a lot of meaning and pleasure to my daily life as a peasant farmer. When my greenhouse was blown away by a storm, everyone came to rebuild it. This sense of community is the basis of small-scale and family farming.
I think it’s important to start with these very practical details because if you just look at the figures for my farm, there’s no rational basis for its continued existence. According to some economists, my farm is unprofitable, and I’d earn a much better income if I went and worked anywhere else as a salaried employee, and even worse if I had to take into account the hours I work. We are still peasant farmers because this way of life meets our need to produce food, cut wood for heating, maintain links with our animals, maintain neighborly solidarity, and provide insurance for the whole family in times of hardship, as was the case during COVID.
According to the criteria of the dominant economic analysis, peasant and family farming should have disappeared long ago. And yet it is still there. Even in Europe, at the heart of capitalism and the modern Western world, it is still there. And it persists well beyond the official figures, in Europe too, through millions of families who continue a peasant activity that is essential to economic, social, and cultural life. In every region of the world, small and medium-sized peasant farmers continue to be essential in providing food for the vast majority of the population.
I believe that the question “Is peasant agriculture destined to disappear?” is not as relevant as this other question: “How is it that despite all the efforts made, in the 20th century in particular, to marginalize peasant farmers, despite all the land grabs, despite the huge public subsidies paid to industrial agriculture, despite the free trade agreements, despite the standards written by and for the industry and against peasant farmers, how is it that we are still here and that we still play such a fundamental role in feeding people, in the South of course, but also in Europe?
There are the individual strategies of each peasant farmer to try and keep our farms afloat economically. The prevailing view is that we need to grow bigger to produce more and thus compensate for the fall in the real price of agricultural products. This often involves taking over a neighbor’s land and investing, with exorbitant levels of debt and often an exhausting workload. It’s a process that is leading to the gradual disappearance of small-scale farming. Far from the triumphant discourse on these new agricultural entrepreneurs, the reality is often very harsh for those involved in this industrial agriculture, and the demonstrations in the Netherlands, Germany, Romania, and France in recent weeks express the distress and economic fragility of those who have made these choices and who are crushed by debt, rising production costs, and low prices.
But another group of peasant farmers is looking for other ways. They are looking for market segments where the price paid for their produce is better and more stable. That’s why many peasant farmers, myself included, have decided to produce organically and through short distribution channels: the prices are much better than if I had sold to industrialists or supermarkets. However, this strategy of seeking out ‘niches’ with remunerative prices, in which many people believed in the past decades, also has its limits. Manufacturers and supermarkets have developed organic ranges and are even developing short distribution channels, each time launching price wars. It’s often a similar story for cooperatives: these tools are useful, but in competitive markets where intermediaries are always looking for the lowest possible price to increase their margins, cooperatives have very few options for remunerating their members fairly.
This is the limit to all our individual initiatives: alone in the face of the “market” we are crushed.
Input prices are skyrocketing, and the prices of our products are stagnating. Many peasant farmers, whether in peasant or industrial models, are being driven to suicide. This is why we are organizing ourselves to collectively demand public policies to support and protect family farms. Only market regulation policies that guarantee that the prices paid to peasant farmers are higher than the costs of production can ensure that our farms prosper and that many young people take up farming. Only public policies can ensure that land and water are shared fairly and stop land grabs and the concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy investors. Only public policies can ensure a change of scale to massively expand agroecology. Only public policies can move towards full implementation of the peasants’ rights recognized in UNDROP.
That’s why, all over the world, when peasant farmers mobilize, it’s to defend or demand structuring public policies, a protective political framework in the face of the market: the major mobilizations by Indian peasant farmers in 2021-2022 called for minimum intervention prices and public stocks; in Latin America and Indonesia, peasant farmers are demonstrating for a comprehensive agrarian reform to redistribute land; in Europe, peasant farmers’ actions are taking place just about everywhere to maintain strict regulations against GMOs. Strangely enough, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen peasant farmers demonstrating to demand ‘projects’, digitization, or carbon markets on land. You have to wonder why.
But do governments really want to support peasant and family farming? A few months ago, I heard an economist say: “In the 20th century, the main concern of those in government departments dealing with agriculture was: how do we get rid of all these peasant farmers? Now we’re looking at the decline in the number of farmers and wondering “how will we manage without them? Perhaps, in the face of the environmental crisis, geopolitical conflicts, social inequalities, and the immense malaise being expressed in the streets everywhere, from Berlin to Dakar, from Delhi to Quito, from Jakarta to Nairobi, the time has come for governments to stop wanting the end of peasant farmers and to take our peasant demands seriously.
Because we’re not just fighting for ourselves, for our incomes, and for our families. Our peasant project, based on food sovereignty, peasant rights, agroecology, agrarian reform, and peasant and popular feminism, our peasant vision is a vision of hope for all humanity. As we said at our 8th Via Campesina conference: “Faced with global crises, we build food sovereignty, to ensure a future for humanity”
The Decade of Family Farming, through its Global Action Plan that expressly recognizes the fundamental nature of UNDROP and its National Family Farming Committees, therefore offers an ideal framework for the creation of these public policies and an implementation that is horizontal, decentralized, and inclusive. Through its national organizations, La Vía Campesina is participating in the Decade in 17 countries, not to mention the many initiatives that, although not developed under this program, are nevertheless contributing to the achievement of its objectives. Despite these positive results, we very much regret cases where peasant organizations have been excluded from these National Committees: it is therefore essential to reiterate that the participation of all national family farming and peasant organizations is essential if the Decade is to be truly effective.
The FAO and IFAD, in cooperation with farmers’ organizations, must help to better identify which policies are harmful to farmers, in order to eliminate them, and which policies are beneficial, to encourage them.
The FAO and IFAD must support governments in putting in place structuring public policies to ensure that farmers everywhere make a decent living from their activity. For us, this is what the Decade of Family Farming is all about.
While we are gathered here today at the FAO, one of whose slogans is “a world without hunger,” according to the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme, 2.3 million people in Gaza are at absolute risk of starvation. Thousands of lorries full of food are blocked at the Rafah checkpoint. La Via Campesina is making an urgent appeal: let these aid-trucks through, stop the massacres, support the reconstruction of Palestinian agriculture. Let’s not let hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children die when the food is there, just a few kilometres away. We appeal to the FAO and its ability to intervene as a UN agency with a mandate to fight hunger.