Sustainability: A First World Problem

Due to my old-school version of note taking—by hand and chronologically, in a little notebook—I unfortunately cannot recall the full context in which session staffer Stephanie Hanson of the One Acre Fund talked about sustainability, but I’ll give it the good old college try.  Ms. Hanson stated that the question of sustainability – with regard to agricultural development in developing countries – is a “First World question.”  She stated that it is unethical for us “First Worlders” to debate the sustainability of agricultural practices in countries where people are hungry and suffer from poverty.

Let me give you some context for this comment.  Ms. Hanson was the One Acre Fund’s representative for last Wednesday’s (10/15/2014) CFS side event entitled Linking Smallholders to Better Markets: Lessons from Working Models.  The One Acre Fund is a not-for-profit organization that serves smallholder farmers in “remote places” by providing them with agricultural packages or “service bundles.”  The One Acre Fund is a self-proclaimed (the organization’s founder is a former management consultant) business model that serves its “clients” (a term actually used by Ms. Hanson herself) with the following bundle of services:

  1. Distribution of seed and fertilizer,
  2. Financing for farm inputs,
  3. Training on agricultural techniques, and
  4. Market facilitation to maximize profits from harvest.

This four-part bundle includes the exclusive use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizer, and the promotion of monoculture production and export economies.  While they are now investing in a slightly more diverse array of hybrid crops, hybrid maize was initially the only seed provided in these service bundles.  This bundle is inherently unsustainable; it is producing a regime of farmers that are and will continue to be both fiscally and ecologically dependent on input-intensive agriculture.

A member of The Development Fund (Norway) asked outright why the One Acre Fund is promoting unsustainable practices. Ms. Hanson’s response was the previously mentioned comment on the unethical nature of the question.  Ms. Hanson followed up by saying that the One Acre Fund model was not a long-term solution and insisted that this model is strictly used to raise smallholder farmers out of poverty.  When asked about the One Acre Fund’s long-term solutions, Ms. Hanson failed to offer anything legitimate.

At the end of the day, this model is great – for a business. Raising people out of poverty, however, should not be a business. We in fact do need to think about sustainability when approaching poverty and food insecurity. When intervening, organizations need to learn from mistakes made in the past and promote self-sufficiency for small-scale food producers. The cycle of dependency needs to be broken and this most certainly will not happen with the current One Acre Fund service bundle. Ms. Hanson mentioned that there is a lack of “competition” in terms of business models within the agricultural development arena and continued by saying that the One Acre Fund is working hard to develop alternative long-term strategies. Because of their existing stake in many communities throughout the world, the One Acre Fund is well positioned to develop and promote a system that enhances the livelihoods of their clients in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, including initiatives such as carbon offsetting by CarbonClick.

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