For more than a century, farmers’ organizations have assisted agricultural producers in accessing credit, negotiating for needed inputs, and ensuring a higher price for farm goods. In the face of climate change, these organizations may also be vital to helping farmers improve their environmental stewardship practices, and mitigate world hunger.
“Most studies on farmers’ organizations look at income, and on that measure the outcomes are clear: just about half of the assessed organizations do improve incomes. But we need to know how to support sustainable practices while helping smallholder farmers as well,” said Livia Bizikova, Director of Sustainable Development Goal Knowledge for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). “In the studies focused on Farmers Organizations, the environment is often seen as a commodity that’s part of the production, rather than as something that has a life of itself and that you have to care for long-term if you want to continue reliable production in the future.”
Bizikova is team leader for the Farmers’ Organizations research team for Ceres2030, a joint project of IISD, Cornell University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Eight research teams have worked to systematically evaluate existing literature on agricultural production, seeking evidence-based interventions to support smallholder farmers and achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ending global hunger by 2030.
Farmers' organizations research team
Currently, 690 million people experience chronic hunger, most of them in developing countries. Climate change is already worsening the problem, causing droughts, fires, and floods that devastate crop cycles, and push people to migrate as refugees. Efforts to mitigate climate change are crucial to supporting the wellbeing of smallholder farmers.
The farmers’ organizations team initially reviewed 8,000 papers, then carefully studied 234 focused on smallholder farmers in India, which has a long tradition of farmers’ cooperatives, and the 24 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
The research team found that some farmers’ organizations are already achieving success adopting sustainable practices, such as cooperatively sharing livestock grazing land, while protecting forests, negotiating water management and irrigation to ensure access and reduce pollution, and pooling training and resources related to organic certification, which brings a premium price for producers while reducing environmental impact.
Cooperatives have also helped lift families out of poverty, reduced the rural-urban income gap, and increased the economic independence of women in developing countries — the Amul Dairy milk cooperative in India, for example, is the largest milk brand in the country, while offering milk collection points no more than 10 miles from any farmer’s home.
Farmers organizations are not without their problems: corruption in administration, at local or national levels, has derailed many cooperatives. And, the Ceres2030 researchers found, improved incomes for smallholder farmers did not necessarily translate to improved food security.
“We only find a very limited number of studies that actually looked at the direct food security benefits of farmers organizations,” Bizikova said.
“Because additional income may be spent on other household needs, such as health care and education fees, rather than food.”
Extension-like training of producers, via farmers’ organizations, could help address issues of food security and nutrition, as well as environmental practices, she said.
Rama Mohana Turaga is an Associate Professor in the Public Systems Group at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and a member of the Ceres2030 Farmers’ Organizations research team. He sees Farmers’ organizations as critical in supporting farmers and addressing hunger in developing countries, especially in the face of climate change.
“Successful adaptation to climate change at the local level requires a combination of traditional forms of local knowledge that the farmer communities accumulated over generations and the more formal scientific knowledge being generated by scientists working on climate change,” Turaga said. “External actors, such as governments, think tanks, and donors should recognize this and, instead of imposing top down policies, they should strive to act as facilitators.”
For example, Turaga suggested external actors could help by enabling access to capital, supporting extension services to update Farmers Organizations on the latest science and new technologies, and regulating the input and output markets to reduce power asymmetries between the farmers and the other market players.
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