Stories tagged: smallholders

How Nutrition-Smart Agriculture Can Help Build Resilience Against the “Three C” Crises of Climate, Conflict and COVID-19

Arun Baral, CEO of HarvestPlus – CGIAR’s flagship programme on staple crop biofortification – discusses how biofortification can help bolster food systems resilience in the face of global crises.

We hear a growing chorus of warnings from members of the food and nutrition security community about the dire consequences of the war in Ukraine on global rates of hunger and malnutrition. Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, noted recently that threats in numerous countries to food production and availability from the “Three C’s” — climate, conflict, and COVID-19 — are rapidly being compounded by the “Three F’s” — spiking food, fuel, and fertiliser prices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the number of undernourished people worldwide could increase by 8 to 13 million this year alone.

Even households which may not be particularly dependent on imported or purchased foods — including hundreds of millions of smallholder farming families in Africa and Asia — are likely to feel the effects of the downward spiral of global trade on their ability to produce food. This is in large part due to higher prices for key farming inputs — particularly fertilisers — which were already on the upswing prior to the war in Ukraine and are now increasing even more quickly.

Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers are likely to feel the impact of global trade issues. Photo credit: HarvestPlus

Preparing for future crises

The war in Ukraine has once again turned the spotlight on the increasingly fundamental, longer-term vulnerability of our food systems during crises as pressures from the “Three C’s” are likely to persist.

The question is: How can we sustainably increase the resilience of the world’s most vulnerable families to food system shocks, and ensure that they are able to afford and access enough nutritious food? Even prior to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, an estimated three billion people could not afford a minimally healthy diet. This is a structural problem as much as a crisis-driven problem, which requires sustainable responses.

As food prices rise and income-generating opportunities are impacted during crises, people tend to reweight their food consumption toward more-affordable items, notably staples, and away from more-nutritious but more-costly items such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source foods.

This is particularly the case for lower-income households, for whom food is a significant share of their budgets. Staples are also a predominant share of the crops grown by smallholder farming households. This is not only because they are less expensive to grow, but also because they are less perishable than fruits and vegetables and more readily stored for parsing out consumption over time.

The problem is that most staple foods – such as maize, wheat, rice, and beans – are low in key nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which are needed to maintain good health and proper human development. Thus, when people’s diets are dominated by staples, no matter how filling, they will remain vulnerable to many serious health problems. In the case of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, health problems include anemia, growth stunting, sight impairment, diarrhea, respiratory illnesses, and even premature death. An estimated 2.5 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger.

Delivering nutrition in common staples

Fortunately, there is a proven, practical way to enrich common staple crops with key vitamins and minerals at no extra cost to farmers or consumers. Through the process known as biofortification, staples are bred to be rich in iron, zinc, and vitamin A. The lack of these three micronutrients in people’s diets accounts for the majority of the health burden from micronutrient deficiency.

CGIAR and the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) have been at the forefront of the development of more than 400 varieties of biofortified wheat, rice, maize, beans, cassava, sweet potato, and pearl millet. These are now being grown by smallholder farming households in dozens of countries, benefiting an estimated 64 million household members.

This is especially important for women and young children, since they are most vulnerable to the effects of hidden hunger. Without proper nutrition, women cannot bear healthy children, and children cannot develop well mentally and physically.\

Farmer growing zinc enriched rice. Photo credit: HarvestPlus

Embedding biofortification into our food systems

What makes biofortified crops so compelling is that they are a self-sustaining response to malnutrition because they are embedded within food systems. For example, in Pakistan, zinc-biofortified wheat was first introduced in 2016 in part to address widespread childhood stunting resulting from zinc deficiency,

A food systems-based approach has meant engaging partners along the seed and food value chains in Pakistan to create a sustainable zinc wheat market that has generated strong adoption and growth. By 2021, an estimated 1.4 million farming households were growing zinc wheat and an estimated seven million Pakistanis were consuming it. Zinc wheat seed has already captured a 20 per cent share of the national wheat seed market, and this share continues to grow briskly. In a country where wheat flour-based foods average 72 per cent of Pakistanis’ daily caloric intake, this bodes well for better nutrition and health outcomes.

To be sure, biofortified crops are not a universal remedy for all these ills, but they are a ready-to-scale intervention that can contribute to lasting improvement in the availability and affordability of nutritious foods for all, in particular low-income households.  We also need to expand the use of industrial food fortification and supplementation.

We urge international financial institutions and global donors to support efforts to strengthen the capacities of national governments and businesses to develop, produce, and distribute nutrient-enriched biofortified crops. Support is also needed to ensure that they are available to those most in need — the poorest households, those in humanitarian circumstances — through public support programmes such as school meals and food assistance.

We have sustainable and cost-effective responses available to ensure that the most vulnerable households are better able to weather shocks in the future: available, affordable nutritious foods should be their first line of defense.

Header photo credit: HarvestPlus

Enabling Ecosystem Partnerships to Accelerate Sustainable Agriculture and Reach the SDGs

Natasha Santos, Vice President, Head of Global Stakeholders Affairs and Strategic Partnerships at Bayer Crop Science, outlines how smallholders can be better equipped to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

When they were released in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were rightly celebrated as an ambitious blueprint for sustainable development. But could the creators of the SDGs have anticipated the seismic shocks to our planet – and food systems – in the years that followed?

By itself, the coronavirus pandemic has set back efforts to achieve the SDGs’ goal of zero hunger by 2030, with the UN projecting that the global community would miss the mark by some 660 million people. Now we must also reckon with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a humanitarian disaster that will have consequences reaching far beyond Europe.

Nearly 30 per cent of global wheat exports and 75 per cent of sunflower oil exports come from Russia and Ukraine, according to industry estimates. India relies on Ukraine for more than three-quarters of its supply of sunflower oil, while a spike in the cost of wheat is being felt across Africa.

Shocks like the lingering coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the ever-present threat of extreme weather driven by climate change put an exclamation point on the need to establish more resilient food systems.

Nearly 30 per cent of global wheat exports and 75 per cent of sunflower oil exports come from Russia and Ukraine. Photo credit: Hollis Bennett

Future-proofing food systems through our farmers

Despite these challenges, the opportunity to end hunger and build a more sustainable future for agriculture is still within reach. But to achieve the innovation and future-proofing necessary to insulate the food system from shocks like climate change, COVID-19 and conflict will require instruments that work for both people and the planet.

Crucially, we will need to engage stakeholders throughout the agricultural value chain. Above all, these solutions need to reflect and respond to the lived experiences of the millions of farmers who grow – and earn a living from – our food. Too many well-meaning efforts to develop sustainable farming practices have left out one essential ingredient for success: the voices of farmers themselves.

Bayer’s Global Carbon Initiative is built around engaging farmers as key partners in the movement toward sustainable agriculture. The initiative aims to accelerate climate-smart agriculture by paying farmers for adopting sustainable practices on the farm, like tillage reduction, cover cropping, and crop rotation. In addition to the financial incentive, participating farmers may also realize improved soil health, leading to increased yields, profitability, and sustainability.

The initiative, which kicked off in the United States and Brazil in 2020 and expanded to Europe and Argentina last year, is integral to Bayer’s commitment to enable our farming customers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of crop produced by 30 per cent through 2030. This applies for the highest greenhouse gas emitting crop systems in the regions Bayer serves with its products.

The program aligns with Bayer’s participation in the EU Carbon+ Farming Coalition, a coalition of 14 multistakeholder organizations working across the food and agriculture value chain to accelerate uptake of sustainable practices in Europe, with an emphasis on farmer-centered solutions.

There is a need to engage stakeholders throughout the agricultural value chain, writes the author. Photo credit: Getty Images/Bayer

Advancing sustainable agriculture

Programs such as these can help boost engagement in sustainable agriculture by equipping farmers with the resources and incentives that work for them. But more effort is needed to reach growers who are farther down the value chain, economically and geographically, such as the world’s smallholder farmers. Prohibitive start-up costs, limited access to finance or credit, a lack of information about how to participate, and even foundational issues like land tenure insecurity can all blunt their participation.

Targeted investments can help. In sub-Saharan Africa, Mercy Corps’ Agrifin Digital Farmer (ADF) program is helping reduce the costs of technology for farmers to access critical information and resources, which facilitate uptake of sustainable farming practices. Supported by Bayer Foundation, ADF has expanded digital services ranging from text messaging alerts to smart phone applications to 5 million smallholder farmers across Africa.

The program was pressure-tested in 2020, when East African farmers faced the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and an invasion of desert locusts that threatened to destroy crops. In response, Mercy Corps delivered public health and pest control messaging to more than 16 million smallholder farmers. Local farming communities became first-responders combatting the locust invasion, reporting sightings of the migratory pests to help facilitate control efforts by government authorities in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Equipping African smallholders with the means and the incentive to participate in climate smart agriculture could not only lead to more sustainable management of existing farmland, but also spur recovery of degraded lands. Both would be a boon for food security on the continent, restoring and protecting the soils that are vital for growing nutritious food.

Food insecurity, soil health and climate change must be addressed together, writes the author. Photo credit: Zoran Zeremski

Investing in collaboration

Food insecurity, soil health and climate change are so intertwined that they must be addressed together. We already know that all can benefit from the innovation that will be needed to solve these most pressing challenges.

For farmers, the benefits are manifested in more efficient and productive farming practices, good for the environment and their bottom lines. For the private sector, investing in sustainable farming can strengthen core business strategies and foster research and development.

Farmers need access to better seeds, fertilisers, and other inputs to close the yield gap and adapt to changing climate, pests, and disease pressures. This is where government can play a crucial role by creating a policy environment supportive of agricultural innovation. Unfortunately, underdeveloped seed systems and a lack of political will to approve technology for wider use mean that efforts to deliver seeds to farmers still lag in many parts of the world.

Time is something we cannot afford to waste. The war in Ukraine illustrates that sudden shocks to the food system can have far-reaching consequences. To better withstand the pressures on global food security, we need to invest in collaborative approaches that work for farmers and the planet. As the world rushes to meet the SDGs’ core target of zero hunger by 2030, we have 660 million reasons to act swiftly and decisively.

Header photo / producer credit: Alamy / Christopher Scott

Harnessing Business to Boost Agricultural Productivity

Katharina Münster, Junior Specialist for Communications and Digital Innovation at the Inclusive Business Action Network, discusses the power of inclusive business to empower smallholder farmers across the globe.

“How do we bring workable technologies to the farmers who really need them?”

That is the question that guides David Chen’s mission. As the co-founder of Golden Sunland, he helps to run an enterprise that sources rice from smallholder farmers in Myanmar while providing them with hybrid seeds, trainings, and credit opportunities. “Our seeds increase yields by 30 per cent”, he says. As a result, farmer incomes have grown by the same factor. The company itself buys the products and markets them directly to consumers.

Golden Sunland is an example of an inclusive business – a concept that has gained traction among policymakers and impact investors worldwide.

Within agriculture, inclusive business is a powerful model to support smallholder farmers and can also improve food security. By including people with low incomes into their value chains, inclusive businesses can drive sustainable development and help lift people out of poverty. To make profits, inclusive businesses also need to be scalable, which makes them attractive levers for development. They provide jobs, goods, and services to people who would otherwise struggle to access them.

Inclusive business is a powerful model to support smallholder farmers and can also improve food security, writes the author. Photo credit: Unsplash

Inclusive business and rural development

Inclusive businesses operate in a wide range of sectors within our food systems and can play an imperative role in making them more sustainable. Among others, they can empower smallholder farmers, who are vital to ensuring food and nutrition for millions of people. But often, they themselves lack access to services and tools such as modern technology or markets.

To tackle this issue, Nature’s Nectar trains Zambian farmers in honey production and provides them with sustainable beehives. To reach high-end markets, it tracks every honey pot from farm to table. This enables it to offer premium prices to the farmers. “Our goal is to reach a market segment that is willing to pay an even higher premium for the impact on farmers,” says co-founder Katherine Milling.

Inclusive business companies help farmers produce more, invest in their farms, and market their products. So why aren’t there more inclusive businesses, and what can be done about it? To increase the number of inclusive companies, there are three key changes that are needed.

Three steps to support inclusive businesses

The first is about facilitating access to investment. In theory, the money is there. In 2021, the market for ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing alone was estimated at 120 billion dollars. However, many investors struggle to find companies that are both impactful and profitable. Investment readiness training or business coaching helps rectify this issue on the company side. In addition, policymakers can help de-risk investing in inclusive businesses.

This process cascades down – providing funding to inclusive enterprises enables them to help secure it for their client base in return. In Indonesia, the inclusive business HARA trains rural women as “Agripreneurs”, who provide training to female backyard farmers and collect data on their operations. “HARA then coordinates with banks and insurance companies, which use this data to offer financial services to the farmers”, explains founder Regi Wahyu.

Among other things, this enables farmers to buy inputs on credit – a huge step forward, since most banks consider smallholder farmers as un-bankable. At the end of last year, HARA worked with 5,000 women farmers and 1,800 Agripreneurs. Each year, the women have increased their incomes by 80 to 90 per cent. The company itself is profitable: it takes commissions and markets the crops.

The second key change is to create policy incentives. In many countries, political and regulatory hurdles exist that hinder the development of inclusive businesses. The owners may not find a fitting legal form to register their inclusive business, for example.

Meanwhile, institutional investors are often constrained to maximize only returns. This makes it harder for inclusive businesses to access finance. Some countries are already trying to change this. Cambodia, for instance, launched an inclusive business accreditation process in 2021.

Cambodia launched an inclusive business accreditation process in 2021. Photo credit: Unsplash

Finally, we need to spread awareness. Most people have never heard of the term ‘Inclusive Business’. To change this, we need to spread the word. At the Inclusive Business Action Network (iBAN), for example, we launched a free e-learning course on Inclusive Business. It helps students, entrepreneurs, and policymakers gain basic knowledge on the concept. A second, more detailed course is in the making.

Also, we invest in highlighting the existing inspiring entrepreneurial journeys of inclusive business entrepreneurs globally. The result is an innovative storytelling series called ‘Inclusive Business Impact Stories’. Have a look and enjoy learning more about Inclusive Business!

Inclusive business holds the promise to elevate smallholder farmers, furthering their capacity to bring food and nutrition to people all over the globe. To truly harness the potential of the concept to empower smallholders, we need to raise awareness of the benefits of inclusive business.

Editor’s note: iBAN is interested to hear from any readers about what experiences they have with Inclusive Business. Readers can share their thoughts and insights via [email protected] or post them on LinkedIn (#InclusiveBiz). The latest issue of iBAN’s online magazine CLUED-iN explores inclusive business and food security. 

Header photo: Golden Sunland (© GIZ / Susann Tischendorf)

Moving Small-scale Farmers Up the Ladder of Protection and Possibility

Professor Michael R. Carter, founding director of the Resilience+ Innovation Facility, outlines how the Resilience+ framework can help smallholder farmers flourish through better risk management.

Life is constantly changing, and this is especially true for small-scale farmers. Ideally, a farming family’s livelihood will improve over time: they might grow a little more food to be able to sell locally, and then set aside whatever they can to protect themselves in the inevitable next disaster.

While life may change, risk is a reliable constant. One of the primary ways farmers manage their risk of losing crops is to reduce how much they stand to lose in the worst of circumstances. Avoiding investments in inputs like improved seeds or fertilisers can help a farming family to survive a disaster, but it also stunts their ability to improve their circumstances over time. Although a disaster can drive a rural family into poverty, the risk of a disaster can keep them struggling. But does that have to be the end of the story?

At the University of California, Davis, we recently established the Resilience+ Innovation Facility to spark inclusive agricultural transformation among small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

More than a decade of research shows that it is possible to shift these dynamics with effective and accessible financial tools to manage risk. The most recent advances have made it possible to take the next step with bundled financial tools that respond to a farming family’s changing needs and circumstances over time, helping them to move up the ladder of both protection and possibility.

In Mozambique and Tanzania, the author tested a bundle of stress-tolerant maize seeds developed by CIMMYT in combination with a low-cost form of insurance. Photo credit: Jonathan Malacarne

Resilience+ – a framework to manage risk

Resilience+ is a term we use to describe two ways in which rural families benefit from more effective tools to manage risk. First, a financial instrument that provides support in the wake of a shock can help a family to recover quickly with a lower likelihood of long-term or lasting impacts. Second, when a family knows they will have this protection, they tend to increase their investments in producing more food and income.

In Burkina Faso and Mali, I led a study from UC Davis testing a low-cost form of insurance for small-scale cotton growers. In Mali, a coup d’état forced the project to halt in 2012, but the direct impact on cotton investments was already substantial. Farmer groups who purchased the insurance increased their planting by between 25-40 per cent, which would at harvest increase average income by about US $300.

In Mozambique and Tanzania, we tested a bundle of stress-tolerant maize seeds developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and a low-cost form of insurance that would trigger seed-replacements after severe drought.

We were surprised to find that farmers who received replacement seeds achieved higher yields than even before the shock. Surveys showed that in addition to planting those seed replacements, farmers also increased their total investments in improved seeds. After experimenting with the bundle, they were able to learn for themselves its benefits.

Tools to generate Resilience+

A number of financial instruments make it possible to build from these and other successes in generating Resilience+. The most well-researched is agricultural index insurance, a form of insurance that by design is low-cost and easily scalable in even the most remote rural communities. Instead of basing payouts on losses that are individually verified, index insurance triggers payouts based on an area’s average conditions that are correlated with losses. However, there is the chance that an index will fail to trigger payments if the estimates of average losses do not reflect a farmer’s actual losses.

Today, we have new indexed financial tools that don’t come with the same level of risk as index insurance. One of these is a kind of savings account that limits withdrawals to pre-defined need, such as after a drought or for investing in agricultural inputs. Another instrument is a contingent loan that functions like insurance but without premiums paid in advance. An evaluation of such a loan designed in partnership with the NGO BRAC in Bangladesh showed that it increased rice planting by about 25 per cent, and households who did not suffer any flood losses produced about 33 per cent more from their crops.

There are a number of financial mechanisms help generate Resilience+, but more research is needed writes the author. Photo credit: Unsplash

A new approach to an old problem

While each of these instruments moves money through time to a present moment of need, they have different prerequisites. Savings require cash, emergency credit requires creditworthiness, and insurance requires the money to pay premiums as well as trust in the contract and an understanding of how it works.

The benefits of each instrument also vary. With savings, farmers are guaranteed to receive the money that they paid in advance. By contrast, a loan and insurance provide access to money through leverage. Because of its low cost, insurance seems the most viable for households with the least means. However, it is the most potentially dangerous: if payouts do not trigger for actual losses, a farmer is not only without the expected support but is also out the money paid in advance for protection.

The various qualities and mechanisms of these three instruments make them potentially powerful complements as a farmer’s circumstances and opportunities change. But there is a need for research that provides evidence from the field about how this flexible approach can meet the changing needs of small-scale farmers – a cause that helped give rise to the Resilience+ Innovation Facility.

This Resilience+ approach to development is designed to leverage existing networks of local private sector companies to reach small-scale farmers and pastoralists with better tools to manage risk. This approach is critical to ensuring that our successes are self-sustaining and continue to expand opportunities for rural families to achieve stability, prosperity and resilience.

Michael R. Carter is a distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis and honorary professor of economics at the University of Cape Town. Carter directs the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk & Resilience and is the founding director of the Resilience+ Innovation Facility.

The Importance of the Seed Industry to Feed the World and Eradicate Hunger

Alice Ingabire, Access to Seeds Index Lead at the World Benchmarking Alliance, discusses the latest Access to Seeds Index and its evaluation of the seed industry in South and South-East Asia.  

The goal of achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ must remain a priority if we want to achieve sustainable development. As the world’s population grows – now projected to increase by two billion people by 2050 – smallholder farmers, the primary food producers in developing countries must increase food production to end hunger and meet future food demands. Therefore, engaging the private sector at the very start of the value chain, for example with seed companies, is essential to producing sufficient food and eradicate hunger in most of the developing countries.

In November 2021, the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) published the third Access to Seeds Index assessing 67 global and regional seed companies on their efforts to reach smallholder farmers with quality seeds of improved varieties. By identifying leadership and good practices, we aim to provide an evidence base for the discussion on where and how the seed industry can step up its efforts.

We evaluated 31 companies selling vegetable and field crops essential for nutrition in 14 countries in South and South-East Asia. Whilst the seeds industry shows recognition and a responsive approach towards access to seeds for smallholders, our research shows that company performance still can improve further.

A need to diversify offerings and secure labour rights

In terms of geography, we identified the countries that attracted the highest number of company investment around seed accessibility as India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Pakistan. Other countries such as Afghanistan, Laos, and Cambodia should not be overlooked, and more partnerships and regulations should be encouraged in the seed industry to achieve better practices.

Overall, the highly research-driven industry tends to release new varieties in diverse company portfolios. For example, vegetables are the primary business driver for many seed companies while rice and maize are the most popular field crops. As the index identified in 2019, companies rarely offer protein-rich pulses such as beans (dry), chickpea, pigeon pea, soya bean, and groundnuts in the region.

In addition, companies give smallholder farmers various choices of seed types. In particular, globally active companies tend to offer more hybrids while regional companies offer both hybrids and open pollinated varieties (OPVs). To ensure smallholder farmer autonomy, we expect companies to offer smallholder farmers a wider choice of both hybrids and OPVs that respond to needs and suitability.

The new Index also highlights that in seed production activities, companies often lack adequate systems to respect social and labour rights. With a high prevalence of these prominent issues in the seed industry, seed companies need to step up their efforts to guarantee the workers’ labour rights across all countries.

Smallholder farmers, the primary food producers in developing countries must increase food production to end hunger and meet future food demands, writes the author. Photo credit: Pexels

Best practices – aligning businesses to smallholder farmer success

Based on the index ranking, a number of examples of best practices were also found. For instance, in governance and strategy research, East-West Seed – which topped the index – has a supervisory board that oversees their access to seeds strategy implemented by the Chief Executive Officer and managing board. In addition, the company performs well in industry engagement practices such as seed health testing protocols, living wages, and health and safety discussions with stakeholders while integrating these outcomes into their seeds strategy for smallholder farmers.

East-West Seeds also leads in research and development with its own breeding programs and includes local and traditional crops important in the region. Furthermore, the company offers capacity building and education on the latest technologies and breeding practices for local staff.

Other companies with best practice examples include Advanta, which ranked second on the index. The company contributes its genetic resources to projects developing varieties that are tailored to local conditions and crop preferences of smallholder farmers in the region. And Bayer – which ranked third – is another leading name in the sector. It provides training on best management and agriculture practices, including safe use of pesticides, compliance with international trade rules and access to local partnerships and outreach efforts. Finally, India’s Mahyco Grow is an interesting case study of a company that jumped from the nineteenth position on the 2019 index to the fourth in 2021. This is due to its improved transparency in communicating their practices, especially showing great example in marketing and sales that safeguards the quality and safety of their seeds for smallholder farmers.

As the seeds industry is positioned at the beginning of the food value chain, it holds a unique position to help improve food security and nutrition. Photo credit: Pexels

Taking steps to strengthen the seed industry

Recognising such good practices is a key step in setting clear expectations and examples for companies to align their business models and operations to smallholder farmer success. In addition, companies with low performance on the index due to lack of disclosure, can set up their efforts in transparency to allow peer learning and accountability to realising the full potential of increasing smallholder farmer productivity.

As the seeds industry is positioned at the beginning of the food value chain, it can substantially improve food and nutrition security for our growing global population in the countries that need it most. A series of small changes starting at the industry level can, over time, contribute to the transformation of our global food and agriculture system to ensure a sustainable future for everyone.

Empowering Smallholders to Meet Our Global Goals

Oliver Camp, an innovation specialist focused on nutrition, health, wellness, and sustainability, examines how empowering smallholders can help tackle our most pressing global challenges.

The multiple pressures on farmers, especially smallholders, are almost unfathomable. They are to provide nutritious foods for billions of people while increasing yields and quality; act as stewards of the land and waters; adopt sustainable production practices and optimise the use of inputs; and tackle food loss and waste, even in the absence of proper agro-processing infrastructure, by improving post-harvest handling, storage and transportation.

This is an almighty burden of responsibility. And yet, smallholder farmers are the key to achieving some of the most essential ambitions of the international community and national governments. The reliable supply of nutritious foods is the only way to reverse the triple burden of malnutrition. Changes to production practices and a reduction in food loss and waste will be essential if we are to mitigate climate change. And, from an economic standpoint, many countries depend on the food production for export to strengthen their economies and create livelihoods.

Scaling existing solutions

Farmers are at the whim of climate change, with unpredictable weather threatening the success of every harvest. And yet, farmers are able to rise to this challenge. Their innovation and ingenuity are creating impact already – impact that must scale if we are to achieve collective goals.

Farmers can choose to produce food appropriate for the local environment, for example by turning to indigenous and traditional crops, especially those with good nutritional properties. In parts of Africa, such as Senegal and Niger, groups of farmers are rekindling millet production, unlocking its multiple benefits as a staple food. One project in Niger focused on small-scale production of this indigenous crop and reached over 20,000 people in 28 villages with this nutritious food. Scaled across countries, regions and continents, the positive impacts of such projects can multiply exponentially.

Across South America, Africa and Asia, farmers are turning to novel crop varieties that can offer improved nutritional properties (in the case of biofortified crops) or greater resilience to pests, drought, and extreme weather events. The partnership between the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and HarvestPlus on the commercialisation of biofortified crops is the perfect example of how the multiple benefits can compound. In one project, the two organisations and the Grameen Foundation of India have joined forces to raise awareness and train female agripreneurs in production and handling of biofortified crops, benefitting health and nutrition, jobs and livelihoods, poverty alleviation and female empowerment.

Indian farmer winnowing millet. Photo credit: Bioversity International \ S. Padulosi

Mobilising to support smallholders

If farmers are to undertake the huge task of producing nutritious, sustainable foods for billions of people, while also creating wealth and driving economic growth, then they deserve equally strong efforts from partners across industry, government and civil society. In particular, the international community and national governments must mobilise around three key areas:

First, smallholders need financial support. Farmers need access to credit to pay for inputs and other costs to help them ensure productivity. Along the same lines, they need fair prices to reward them for their work. In addition, insurance products that de-risk this hugely risky enterprise must be made available and accessible. In short, smallholder farmers need to be included in the economic prosperity generated by the agricultural commodity trade.

Secondly, there is a need to expand training and technical assistance. Farmers know best how to farm and how to tend to their land, but new research constantly highlights opportunities to further enhance efficiency, quality, yields, use of water, fertilisers and pesticides, and means to tackle food loss, diseases and pests. These methods and the associated technologies and equipment must reach the people on the front lines, such as through extension services or other dedicated mechanisms.

Finally, behaviour change is crucial to improving nutrition and health among smallholders. Despite producing nutritious foods, farmers often sell their produce and spend the income on filling – but less nutritious – staple foods. On recent travels to Uganda, one local NGO leader put it this way: “When you’re a producer of nutritious foods, the first customer must be your stomach.” With increased awareness, there is every reason to hope that these farmer-miracle-workers will stand first in line to enjoy the health benefits of their work.

In this essential year for the Decade of Action on Nutrition, we must accelerate efforts to work directly with farmers, through new and existing structures – associations, cooperatives, networks, extension agents and community groups – to include them in this process of creating change. Organisations like WeFarm and One Acre Fund continue to connect farmers even at the smallest scale, which is essential if we are to empower them with the inputs, tools and resources that will improve their practices and prosperity.

Razoa, a farmer working with One Acre Fund, compares her maize to the cob of a neighbour, whose maize kernels are smaller. Photo credit: One Acre Fund

Meanwhile, governments and businesses must embrace the current energy around food systems – generated at the UN Food Systems Summit, COP26 and Nutrition for Growth, among other engagements – to strengthen commitments to support this change.

This will require a modern-day miracle: the feeding of the 10 billion people. These miracle-workers in the fields can achieve that. But only with the support and shared commitment that they deserve.

Header image photo credit: ICRISAT.