Countries like Myanmar would benefit from a farmer advocacy group writes Federated Farmers Arable Industry Group Chairperson Karen Williams.
More needs to be done to help developing nations form farmer advocacy groups, if those countries are to ever get ahead economically, and have the ability to achieve desirable social and environmental goals.
I have just returned from the World Seed Partnership (WSP) Conference in Myanmar where I was lucky enough to represent the World Farmers' Organisation (WFO) and see how farmers in Myanmar operate and live.
For those of you who don't know, the WFO was established in 2011 and aims to strengthen the voice of food producers on the global scene and enhance their economic, social and environmental relevance on the world stage. WFO represents 1.5 billion farmers from 54 countries. Federated Farmers (FF) President Katie Milne is the Oceania representative on the WFO Board.
Myanmar is a beautiful country with a gentle, intelligent and tenacious population, coupled with a complex history of colonisation and invasion over generations. The ancient architecture is mind-blowing, the food outstanding, but the disparity between the rich and poor is very apparent.
Read more from Federated Farmers here.
Before giving my presentation, I was fortunate to travel through the country with my husband for about 10 days, see the farms and meet with local farmers. It gave me a tremendous insight to farmer challenges so that my presentation didn't focus on things like 'precision agriculture' or 'environmental sustainability' - rather my key message was about enabling and supporting Myanmar farmers.
Like in New Zealand, research undertaken by NGOs in Myanmar showed that the greatest adoption of positive change on farm is informally by admiring what your farming neighbour is achieving over the fence, (or more formally through discussion groups and field days). And yet there was no industry group to represent farmers as a whole, or a programme to develop farming leaders such as we have with Nuffield Scholarships, or programmes run through the Agri-Women's Development Trust, or Kelloggs.
During my time in Myanmar I commonly saw farmers use ox and ploughs and I saw very few tractors operating. The use of personal protective equipment was not evident at all, and I saw workers transporting produce by hand to the main road because the internal road was damaged – that action alone chewed up half of the farmer's income.
In the 2017 World Bank ranking for GDP per capita, Myanmar ranked 152nd out of 184 countries, with New Zealand at 19th.
Much of the farming is subsistence or enough to supply local daily markets. Farmers' day-to-day focus is about looking after the crop. We saw very little livestock grazing. In an area around Mandalay, the average farm size was three acres, with farmers making about $1000 US an acre. That's their income for the year. There is no money left to invest in new infrastructure or machinery.
They considered they needed about $6000 US a year to cover family medical expenses and to be able to have a family holiday. At times the Government directs farmers on what they can grow, where they can grow it, and whether the irrigation water will be available for them that year or their neighbour.
What Myanmar needs is a version of Federated Farmers – they need a group that can lobby every level of governance the country has for fair rules around land and water use, improve infrastructure, ensure farmers' health and safety, and enabling monetary policy so they can access funds to grow farm sizes and on-farm efficiencies.
Coupled with that, they need assistance to develop farming leaders so that they are at the table representing fellow farmers, rather than the government and aid agencies coming up with good ideas.
The role of farmers needs to be taken seriously on a global scale, not as subsistence farmers eking out a meagre living but as entrepreneurs, employers, stewards of the land, community leaders and feeders of a burgeoning global population. The World Farmers' Organisation can play an important role in how to develop Myanmar farmers. I hope the WFO is up for the challenge.
Also, a belated happy "World Food Day" for 16 October. Let's think about how we can appropriately celebrate this next year.