In our new GROW campaign, we argue that small-scale food producers (farmers, herders, fishers, and/or laborers) will be key to feeding a world with 9 billion people sustainably, equitably, and in a way that builds resilience to increasing economic and weather-related shocks.
Smallholders are small-scale family farmers; many grow food mainly for their own subsistence while others sell their produce at market (both national and sometimes internationally). Often they live in resource-poor conditions operating with few purchased inputs - like seeds and fertilisers - and with limited access to high-tech equipment. These are the farms in which women and the rural poor work and rely on for food.
So, why are small-scale food producers so critical?
The increasing fragility in the food system, as a result of things like increased droughts, largely impacts women and men living in poverty. They spend a large percentage of their income on food and this makes them vulnerable to food price spikes. About 80% of hungry people live in rural areas, most of them working as small-scale food producers. Thus, although smallholders are the majority of food producers globally, they also are the majority of those who go hungry.
What about industrialized agriculture?
Some people point to industrialized agriculture as the solution to ending hunger, claiming that it is more productive and efficient than small-scale agriculture. And, in the past, industrialized agriculture has indeed provided large yield gains.
However, the increases in productivity of industrialized agriculture are beginning to decline: yield growth has fallen to just over 1% per year, well below rising demand. While large-scale agriculture has a role to play, it is not the complete picture
Increasing crop yields
On the other hand, there is much room for yield improvement on smallholder plots. Current low smallholder yields are a function of limited access to resources, not inefficiency. Also, they currently do not enjoy the access to markets, land, finance, infrastructure and technologies that large farms do.
So, investing in increased access to and sustainable use of resources by smallholders will increase production and close the yield gap. For example, studies across eight countries on the System of Rice Intensification (developed to help smallholders boost productivity and reduce reliance on inputs) found average yield increases of 47 per cent and average reductions in water use of 40 per cent through this technique.
On top of yield improvements, focusing on smallholders can build sustainability, resilience to climate shocks, and increase equity. When smallholders are able to produce more food through techniques that are better for the environment, they are less vulnerable to future shocks (both economic and climate-related).
For example, in northeast Thailand, jasmine rice farmers have been adapting to their changing environment (increased drought due to climate change) by coming up with innovative ways to use water resources to improve their yields and help them in the future when drought strikes. Have a look at the animation below for more about this.
Investment in helping these farmers to share their innovations has helped improve the resilience of many of their neighbors. And, access to resources, information, and training (particularly for women) helps to level the playing field that currently restricts their equal participation in food markets. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, connecting honey-producing smallholders (mostly women and landless people) with technology inputs and training, and helping them to organize their production, enabled them to quadruple their output and begin selling certified organic honey on international markets, which raised their income levels.
Ultimately, investing in small-scale food producers offers a crucial opportunity to address the global challenges of sustainable production, resilience, and equity. That is why they will be the key to eliminating hunger.