#10 hunger
Shenggen Fan

Small Farmers’ Potential: Reducing Hunger and Malnutrition

In developing countries especially, hunger and its consequences are a problem of many. Small farmers can contribute significantly to reducing hunger and improving nutrition. We should support them.

Extremely alarming: malnutrition and obesity

Much progress has been made in reducing global food insecurity in recent decades. However, hunger and malnutrition still persist. Nearly 870 million people are currently undernourished – roughly one in eight individuals –, as figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization show. Roughly 98 per cent of these individuals live in developing countries. According to IFPRI's 2012 Global Hunger Index, over 50 countries have levels of hunger that are "extremely alarming," "alarming," or "serious," many of which are in Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia.

The triple burden of malnutrition – calorie deficiencies, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity – affects many throughout the developing world. More than 2 billion people suffer from a lack of micronutrients, such as iron, vitamin A, and iodine, which are essential to healthy diets. Again, a large portion of this falls on Africa and Asia. In Africa, 68 per cent of preschool-age children and 57 per cent of pregnant women are affected by anaemia, and 66 per cent and 48 per cent respectively in Southeast Asia, according to data from IFPRI's HarvestPlus.

Obesity is another troubling and growing component of malnutrition. Due to demographic, economic and dietary transitions throughout the developing world, obesity and related morbidities are increasingly a concern. These changes are most notable in urban areas and higher-income groups, but have also increasingly become a major concern for poorer populations. For example, the number of overweight and obese children aged five and under is expected to increase nearly fivefold in Africa (4.5 to 22 million) and double in Asia (12 to 24 million) from 1990 to 2020, according to United Nations estimates.

Focus on smallholders

To significantly improve global food and nutrition security, we must pay attention to smallholder agriculture. This is especially true since small farmers make up a significant portion of the world's poor and hungry and account for 80 per cent of food production throughout Asia and Africa south of the Sahara. Moving forward, it is important that policies and investments harness the full potential of smallholder agriculture. Concrete actions in the following areas will be imperative.

"Small farmers account for 80 per cent of food production throughout Asia and Africa south of the Sahara."

Boosting small farmers' productivity through sustainable intensification is extremely important for reducing hunger, poverty, and malnutrition, while at the same time promoting environmental protection. Increased investments in agricultural research and development, in rural infrastructure, as well as in improved access to inputs – such as high-quality seeds and fertilizer – and services – as for instance financial, insurance, and extension services – are crucial. In particular, support for technological innovations that are smallholder friendly, resource-efficient, and climate-smart will be of paramount importance.

Leveraging smallholder agriculture for improved nutrition is important. With the right policies and investments, such as the ones outlined above, small farmers can help to accelerate improvements to both producers' incomes and consumers' nutrition. The development of more nutritious varieties of the staple food crops that poor people consume (biofortification) can significantly improve diet quality and at the same time boost the incomes of poor small farmers. The promotion of nutrition-sensitive value chains can expand the supply of accessible and affordable nutritious foods and increase the demand for and acceptability of these foods.

Small farmers need to participate profitably in markets in order to contribute to key development goals and eventually move out of subsistence agriculture. They must be linked to high-value markets for commodities like fruits, vegetables, livestock, dairy products, and fish. These items are often sold through specialised markets, which are generally difficult to for them to access. Linking smallholders to high-value markets will require both innovative institutional arrangements, as for instance producer cooperatives and contract farming, and investments in transportation, storage services and communication. These innovations and investments help small farmers to increase their bargaining power and access to markets, obtain technical assistance and information on market demand, and lower their transaction costs and price risks.

"Households who participate in the programme have a higher probability of being food secure, borrowing funds for productive purposes, and adopting modern agricultural technologies."

To reduce the vulnerability of small farmers to shocks, greater investments in social safety nets are required. Productive and better-targeted social safety measures are needed to cushion smallholders against short-term weather, health, financial, and price shocks that can compromise food security. They are also essential to improving long-term productivity through access to credit, extension, and technology. These include public works programmes and cash or food transfers, among others. Evidence from Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme shows that adequately targeted social safety programmes can be effective in achieving these goals, as households who participate in the programme have a higher probability of being food secure, borrowing funds for productive purposes, and adopting modern agricultural technologies.

From rhetoric to action

In conclusion, small farmers can contribute significantly to the reduction of global hunger and malnutrition if we move from rhetoric to action. At the same time, they can help to advance other development goals such as improved nutrition and environmental protection. Making these goals a reality will be key. As we move towards the fast approaching 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals, the elimination of global hunger and malnutrition must remain at the top of the development agenda. A post-2015 development agenda must also maintain increased emphasis on global food and nutrition security.

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