After decades of failed attempts to eradicate hunger, development agencies, international research institutions, non-profit organizations, and the funding and donor communities now see family farmers as key to alleviating global poverty and hunger.
Recent estimates show that currently, 1.2 billion people in the world live in extreme poverty, and at least 870 million go to bed hungry every night.
As the world gears up for the International Year of Family Farming in 2014, The Food Think Tank and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are highlighting effective ways to provide family farmers the tools they need to really nourish the world.
FAO's High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) reports that approximately 96 percent of all the agricultural holdings in Africa measure less than 10 hectares.
FAO Agricultural Census data shows that around 80 percent of agricultural holdings in sub-Saharan Africa and 88 percent of those in developing countries in Asia measure less than two hectares.
Family farmers play a crucial role in resolving world hunger, but they're also those most likely to fall victim to hunger and poverty. An estimated 800 million people living below the global poverty line work in the agricultural sector.
In China and India alone there are respectively 189 million and 112 million smallholder farmers with plots measuring less than two hectares.
And yet, smallholder agriculture has great potential to reduce overall national poverty levels.
According to a landmark World Bank report, an increase of one percent in agricultural GDP reduces poverty by four times as much as the same percentage increase in non-agricultural GDP.
The Food Think Tank is working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to highlight the important role that family farmers play in the food system.
Over the next two years, both organizations will work to shine a spotlight on how family farming can enhance soil health, protect water supplies, improve nutrition, and increase incomes.
Small-scale, family-run farms not only form the base of rural communities in both the developing and developed world and provide a large number of jobs, but they are also at the center of sustainable production.
"Most of the world's farmers are smallholder and family farmers. But their knowledge and practices are not getting nearly the research and funding they need. Policymakers and business have focused on quantity over quality and have forgotten the important role family farming can play in improving nutrition," says Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank co-founder.
Small-scale farmers can contribute significantly to the transformation of agriculture by managing land and water responsibly, protect water supplies, preserve and enhance biodiversity, and contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation.
A large study examining smallholder agriculture by the Department of Biological Sciences and Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex covered 286 projects, over 37 million hectares in 57 developing countries, and found that when sustainable agriculture was adopted, average crop yields increased by 79 percent.
"By working with family farmers to build on their knowledge in the development of sustainable agricultural practices, we can improve resilience in the food system - including resilience to climate change, food price shocks, conflict, and natural disasters," says Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Programme Officer at FAO.
Food Tank and FAO present five effective ways for NGOs, the funding and donor communities, and policy-makers to invest more effectively in family farming:
1. Promote sustainable agriculture methods
New farming methods, such as agroecology or ecological intensification, increase yields while reducing environmental impacts.
In an analysis of 40 projects and programs, sustainable techniques like agroforestry and soil conservation were found to increase yields for African smallholder farmers.
The Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC) has partnered with Farmer and Nature Net (FNN) to promote the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which has been shown to increase yields and improve soil fertility while reducing the use of chemicals and maintaining local ownership of seeds.
2. Assist family farmers in adapting to climate change and short-term climate variability
Climate change will have large-scale effects on agriculture everywhere, and particularly on poor farmers in developing countries.
According to IFAD, in Africa alone, because of climate change 75 million to 250 million more people will experience increased water stress by 2020.
Year-to-year climate variability in the form of drought or flooding already has large-scale effects on food security today.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Farmer Field Schools teaching smallholder farmers sustainablepractices in land and water management have proven highly effective in managing input such as pesticides more effectively while increasing yields and incomes.
3. Promote policies to provide smallholders with legal titles to their land
At least one billion poor people lack secure rights to land. Securing legal land rights for family farmers can increase productivity, investment in land, and family income.
Landesa works with countries to design and implement land rights programs, and has helped 100 million farmers obtain or secure ownership over their land.
4. Increase access to local markets
The small-scale production volumes of family farmers require value chains of appropriate scale. Farmers markets or Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) can provide a great venue for family farmers to sell their products directly to consumers.
For example, the organization GrowNYC manages 54 markets in New York, providing a sales channel to 230 farms and fishermen.
5. Close the gender gap
Women farmers do not have the same access to credit, land, inputs, and extension services as their male counterparts.
According to FAO, closing the gender gap in agricultural inputs alone could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger.
The Latin American and Caribbean Center for Rural Women (Enlac) serves as an organizing voice for marginalized, rural women, calling for equal access to land rights, and, boosting access to clean water, and conserving native seeds.
If public and private sectors direct funding toward family farmers and research that would support them, smallholder agriculture can get the push it needs to nourish both people and the planet.
The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org),
founded by Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson, is a think tank focused on feeding the world better. We research and highlight environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity and poverty and create networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.