Centering Smallholder Farmers’ Experiences to Advance Food Equity in the Global South

Avery Sirwatka with translator and farmer in India, August 2019.

Avery Sirwatka with translator and farmer in India, August 2019

By Jessica Scates and Avery Sirwatka

Published October 23, 2019

Agriculture provides the livelihoods for approximately one-third of the world’s labor force. However, urbanization, globalization, and extreme weather events are placing their livelihoods at risk. By 2050, for example, wheat yields are expected to fall by 13% and rice by 15% due to temperature rise.

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Farmers in Western New York and India face challenges related to extreme weather events, development, and local government policy, which contradicts an academic tendency to define individuals within the rural areas and the Global South as the ‘Other.’

The University at Buffalo Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab is committed to ensuring the voices of farmers in communities across the United States and around the world are influencing the policies and structures that affect them. Planning for Regenerative, Equitable Food Systems in Urbanizing Global Environments (Plan-REFUGE) is one project supported by the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE), that aspires to understand and mitigate food inequities experienced by small-holder farmers in the Global South.

Smallholder farmers cultivate food on two hectares or less of land; out of the 2.5 billion people in the Global South living directly from the food and agriculture sector, 1.5 billion live in smallholder households. In July 2019, with support from CGHE, Avery Sirwatka traveled to Kerala, a state in the southwest of India, to understand the persistence of smallholder farmer operations in changing landscape and livelihood contexts. His project provides direct insight into how individuals do (or do not) have agency over different daily living practices necessary for agricultural cultivation, as well as how local government policy and planning hinders or supports food equity. Avery conducted interviews with 10 smallholder farmers to understand climate-related effects in southern India, as well as smallholder farmers’ ability to access and utilize agri-food supply chains. Avery also interviewed other food system stakeholders, such as wholesalers, retailers, and distributors, to further map out smallholder farmers’ experiences in local (and global) supply chains.

Unlike much of the food systems planning work within the Global South, making an explicit decision to include the direct voices of smallholder farmers ensures that individuals who are most affected by planning decisions (i.e., smallholder farmers) have a seat at the table. Further, the interviews provided two unique insights into the field of food systems planning. First, Avery focused on the potential of smallholder farmers’ access to localized supply chains, rather than the globalized, export-led model that has been increasingly prominent throughout the Global South. Second, his questions on climate resiliency sought to highlight the assets and adaptations smallholder farmers are currently making in order to showcase the agency of smallholder farmers in the face of global challenges such as extreme weather events.

From this experience, Avery is now better able to engage in writing about and analyzing data from Kerala because he understands the local context of the state, and was able to speak directly with smallholder farmers and local food system stakeholders. As a former farmer in Western New York, Avery quickly noted the parallels between agriculture in Kerala and Western New York.  Farmers in both contexts face challenges related to extreme weather events, development, and local government policy, which contradicts an academic tendency to define individuals within the rural areas and the Global South as the ‘Other.’

For Avery, the most memorable aspect of his work was collaborating with students in Kerala.  He enjoyed building capacity within local contexts, and especially at universities, in order to prepare the next generation of planners and architects to address questions of equity and justice in their own work.

The Community for Global Health Equity and Avery would like to share a special note of thanks to Thanal, Radhika Kumar, College of Engineering Trivandrum, and College of Architecture Trivandrum.

This project was a result of work developed at the 2018 Global Innovation Challenge

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