Politics of Poverty

What if…? Imagining the future of agriculture

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Every single person on the planet having the means to grow or buy food: How do we build that vision?

Gina Castillo is the Agriculture Program Manager at Oxfam America.

How will agriculture meet global food demand sustainably and equitably? This question is potentially controversial; it is often framed in terms of either organic versus conventional, or small farmer led versus large scale industrial farming. But don’t we all want an agriculture that provides nutritious food for everyone and that doesn’t decimate the natural resources that it uses? These are goals that should unite us, but the reality is that it often does not.

Ms. Yorn Yee (right) offers guidance and support to her fellow farmers in Cambodia. Mr. Neang Veach (left) learns more about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) agricultural system. Photo: Jim Holmes / Oxfam
Ms. Yorn Yee (right) offers guidance and support to her fellow farmers in Cambodia. Mr. Neang Veach (left) learns more about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) agricultural system. Photo: Jim Holmes / Oxfam

How can we then rise above this polarization and tap into the synergy and common aspirations? This was the question that some of us at Oxfam wanted to try and tackle. So we invited passionate people with knowledge about agriculture—from farmers, to Syngenta representatives, to the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations—to imagine and to articulate what this agricultural system could look like. In other words, we wanted to tap into the kind of stuff that gets lost when agriculture forecasts and reports are usually presented.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ~Albert Einstein

The challenge we presented to essayists was intended to tap into their creativity and imagination, and to spur a dialogue that could “crowd-source” a vision for agriculture in the future. These essays were then featured on a two-week online debate. Today we are publishing a synthesis of that discussion, as well as the original 23 essays from 16 countries. The four questions answered in the essays and discussions included:

  • What if all farmers had adequate risk management systems to deal with climate trends and shocks, as well as with price volatility in input and product markets?
  • What if fossil fuels were no longer required in any form of input to global agricultural production?
  • What if all farmers, male and female, had full and equal control over the necessary resources for farming, and over the outputs of their labor?
  • What if the ideas and innovations of resource-poor farmers leading to improvements of their natural resource base were supported by adequate access to public and private sector investments?

These questions may appear naïve and idealistic, even ridiculous to some. But don’t all good visions and change start with some idealism and optimism? Funny enough, no one we invited to write an essay told us they were silly. On the contrary, we realized people want to be involved in actively creating the future.

So what came out of the debate and the essays? Our essayists overwhelmingly agree that a lot of the technologies and practices to achieve a more equitable and sustainable agriculture are within reach, and that many farmers are inherently creative and inventive, adapting their farming practices beyond what we “experts” think. What is lacking is real political will. What is lacking are actual investments to support farmers’ creativity and foster collaborations to better link farmers to each other, to the private sector, to extension services, etc.

It turns out then that what separates the start of a vision and its actualization is getting real about the future. Our essays and discussion reveal that unlocking idealism and creativity is a key part of that.

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