Politics of Poverty

The Farmers Behind the Brands

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Small-scale farmers have enormous potential, but food companies are missing the mark.

Erinch Sahan is a Private Sector Policy Advisor at Oxfam Great Britain.

Badou Allouko on her farmland, where she grows cocoa to sell and vegetables for personal consumption, in Sankro, Ivory Coast in January. Photo: Peter DiCampo / Oxfam America

In a world where demand for agricultural production is growing, but supply is failing to keep up, small-scale producers are critical to our food security. With the right investment and inclusive business approaches, small-scale farmers can be immensely productive and a reliable source of supply.

Small-scale farmers are also becoming critical to the ‘Big 10’ food and beverage companies. Oxfam assessed how the policies and commitments of the Big 10 stack up in our Behind the Brands report. We found that most of the Big 10 are missing the mark in ensuring a fair deal for small-scale farmers. This is a missed opportunity, not only because small-scale producers are central to the supply-security concerns of the Big 10, but also because rural economic development is so strongly linked to small-scale agriculture.

Here’s the development case. While the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, 900 million people go to bed hungry each night. 80% of these hungry people live in rural areas, mostly working as small-scale producers. As Bill Gates said in 2009 at the World Food Prize ceremony:

“Helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty.”


There are over 400 million small-scale farms on which 1.5 billion small-holder and landless farmers earn their livelihoods and grow their food. Some of these farmers are able to crack into the global supply chain. Too often, these ‘lucky’ few are left baring disproportionate levels of risks and costs. The vast majority are left behind, excluded by business models that fail to invest in and adapt to the realities of small-scale agriculture.

Among the Big 10, Unilever tops Oxfam’s Scorecard on farmers with a score of 7 out of 10. Mars and Nestle come equal second, with a score of 5. Unilever is distinguished mostly by its Sustainable Agriculture Code, which sets out guidelines and requirements for suppliers of Unilever to meet. As most of the Big 10 don’t deal with small-scale farmers directly, it’s the standards they require of their suppliers that matters most. Unilever’s code asks suppliers to work with producer organisations and provide training to small-scale farmers, as well as having specific clauses dealing with profit margins and local market opportunities for small-scale farmers. However, most supplier codes of the Big 10 do little nothing to single out any support or protection for small-scale farmers.

Oxfam hopes to see the Big 10 improve their policies and commitments to small-scale farmers in their supply chains. It starts with understanding the needs of these farmers and knowing where they are. Small-scale producers too often bear disproportionate risks and costs, but profits fail to trickle down. The Big 10 need to use their power and influence to stop this injustice. Most critically, the Big 10 need to make absolutely clear that they expect small-scale farmers to be treated fairly by all suppliers. Taking a strong stand on this in their supplier codes is an important step we hope more of the Big 10 take.

Who among the Big 10 will challenge Unilever for the top-score on farmers? Bragging rights is up for grabs.


This post by Erinch Sahan is part of a Behind the Brands blog series on Politics of Poverty that examines the seven issues relating to poverty and big food companies’ supply chains. Read more on landwomentransparencywaterworkers, and climate change!

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