How to feed the world

by Kevin Cleaver
Associate Vice-President, IFAD

I am glad to see small farmers getting their due as key players in world food security in Mark Bittman’s article entitled “How to feed the world”, in the inaugural edition of the International New York Times. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN agency and international financial institution, has been exclusively focused on investment in rural people and rural areas, with a focus on smallholders throughout its existence.  In our view it is important to recognize that farming, at whatever scale, is a business. Terms like ‘peasant farming’ or ‘traditional farming’ evoke for many people the notion of subsistence agriculture, and peasants living in blissful harmony with nature. The truth is that many peasant farmers struggle, many are poor and ironically constitute the majority of the undernourished in the world.  Smallholder farmers need what other businesses need—access to finance, markets, infrastructure, technology, the tools and knowledge to grow their businesses, get their product to market and increase their incomes. That is their route out of poverty. It’s important to avoid black-and-white dichotomies between ‘big ag’ and ‘little ag’, industrial or traditional etc. Agricultural research, for example, can be of benefit to small farms as much as large.  Small farmers need new technologies, adapted to their farming circumstances.

Smallholder farming needs support; the question remains of who’s going to provide that support. There are critical roles for government, the private sector, development agencies and consumers.

Integration of smallholders into higher-value market chains calls for a proactive role by national governments in terms of food safety standards, building infrastructure, and making the policy and legal environment conducive. That includes protecting the rights of small farmers—a large proportion of whom are women who face inequality and barriers to access to land, credit, education and advice. Strong producers’ associations managed and owned by small farmers can make working with small farmers more attractive to the private sector and also help safeguard their interests. And the private sector has to come equipped not only with finance but also with respect for rural people and the local context.

To achieve food security, a sustained increase in agricultural productivity is required,  with more focus on those small farmers who tend to be the most neglected: youth, women, other disadvantaged social groups and indigenous peoples.

At the same time, climate change poses grave threats to human well-being, and smallholder farmers are among the first to be effected. A much greater emphasis on farmer adaptation to climate change is imperative. And natural threats are not the only ones increasing--food price volatility and other shocks play havoc with the well-being and lives of rural populations. Policies that mitigate such risks and enable vulnerable people to cope with them need to be implemented.

Lastly, the rural world isn’t only about agriculture. Strong farm/non-farm linkages must be fostered to create future jobs within rural areas for rural populations, so that there is an alternative to migration to the cities or to foreign countries.