Global farming concerns

Last month, I spent two days in Milan, Italy, with farmers and journalists from all over the world. The event was part of a New Holland social media initiative and the campaign centred on 10 farmers who collectively hailed from Italy, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, Canada, Germany, France, China and the UK.

Those attending gained a glimpse into the conditions these farmers work in as well as the issues affecting their ability to farm profitably in a manner that limits their environmental footprint as far as possible. The backdrop of these discussions was the Universal Exposition, or Expo Milan 2015, themed, ‘Feed the Planet, Energy for Life’.

The experience was highly informative, and two aspects in particular stood out for me. The first was how similar the concerns of these farmers were: farming profitably in the face of rising input costs while at the mercy of big supermarkets, unpredictable climate and – surprise, surprise – politicians. Who would have thought that farmers in First World countries would report that government policies created uncertainty?

These governments, which are often voted into power by small margins, are so concerned about staying in the good graces of voters, that policy is frequently amended to keep pace with fickle public opinion.

The second aspect was an obsession with animal rights and the environment. The growing demand for food and fibre produced in an environmentally friendly manner is having a major impact on policies, with legislation and taxes forcing producers to adapt their production methods – often at an increased cost. Exhibitors at the expo showcased their technology that would contribute to food security, but the golden thread throughout was reducing the impact of food production on the environment.

Precision farming, better-yielding cultivars requiring less water and pesticide, no-till production methods, alternative food sources and cleaner energy were among the offerings. We, at the southern tip of Africa, are no strangers to these issues. However, ours is a continent of extremes and our opportunities and challenges and the impacts thereof are of an extreme nature.

Improved production methods and the use of better technologies can improve average maize yield dramatically. On the other hand, poorly thought-out or implemented policies could result in thousands of farmers losing their livelihoods. Ruling parties in African countries are mostly power-secure and this often results in the abuse of power and an arrogant approach to addressing the needs of citizens, which inevitably leads to self-enrichment, costing the country as a whole.

But corruption is not limited to the public sector or to Africa, and it is heartening to see that farmers around the world are all essentially in the same boat. The trick, however, is to take the best – and not the worst – we have to offer each other.