Food crisis? Think Small!

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Food, hunger, nutrition and food security are hot topics at the moment; with civil society movements around the world putting increasing pressure on world leaders to respond to these urgent challenges. And for good cause! With close to 1 billion people facing food insecurity, global food prices increasing once more, food crises being faced in a number of areas around the world and a major drought in the US (the worst since 1956) putting paid to hopes that this year’s harvest in the US would be the largest since WW11… it is with good reason that we continue to put pressure on leaders to deal with this crisis.

This Sunday the UK will be hosting the Global Hunger event – here Prime Minister David Cameron and Vice President Michel Temer of Brazil are said to challenge global leaders to step up efforts to improve nutrition and reduce the rate of stunting among the world’s poorest children between now and the next Olympics in 2016.

 As momentum gathers for this event we would remind leaders of the importance of thinking small.

The most marginalised players in the global food system are small-holder farmers (SHF), yet on a global level Small-holder agriculture (SHA) provides 50% of the world’s food. 500 million small farms in developing countries support almost two billion people or nearly one-third of humanity. With such numbers dependant on SHA it is not surprising that this group produces food for 80% of the population of Africa. Most SHF’s, however, are not self-sufficient. Many do not produce enough food to feed their families or to produce a surplus to sell in local markets and thus make money. Indeed, many SHFs buy more food than they sell. Their inherently weak position in markets and the significant constraints they face in production mean that ironically, farmers and small scale producers are also the significant majority of the hungry. Over half the hungry people in the world are small farmers, living on plots of two hectares or less while one third of all Africa’s malnourished children live on small farms.

In light of this, it is important to tackle this group’s livelihoods issues if we want to effectively deal with food security; SHA is important not just for SHF’s to be able to feed themselves but also so that they can have viable livelihoods to be able to buy the extra food they need. It is therefore vital that policies to help small farmers focus on addressing the broader issue of promoting good livelihood strategies. This means not only being able to simply feed their families but increasing their incomes to escape poverty altogether. The 2011 IFAD Rural Development Report makes it clear that “it is time to look at poor smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs in a completely new way – not as charity cases but as people whose innovation, dynamism and hard work will bring prosperity to their communities and greater food security to the world in the decades ahead.” There is also evidence that with the right support (note, not just any support) these SHF’s have the capacity to deliver more to the food system.

 Any solution to the global food crisis needs to consider these important players; and importantly any support directed to them needs to consider the importance of power, and increasing their power within food systems. SHF’s are normally the poorest and most vulnerable in any given context – they are the least able in society to define their futures, the least able to input into policies and procedures that are going to directly impact on their lives and the least able to influence the systems which disadvantage them the most. As a result of such scenarios, the livelihoods, and consequently the food security of the poorest is adversely affected. Any attempt to address global hunger therefore needs to include careful consideration of the ways in which to empower these important economic players.

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