Smallholder agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition

Smallholder agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition

Commissioned by the UK Hunger Alliance for the June 2013 'Hunger Summit' this report asks "How can smallholder agriculture contribute to improving food security and reducing under-nutrition?"

Potentially, smallholder agriculture can improve food security by making food available through production; reducing the real cost of food by increasing supply; generating incomes for farmers and those working the land as labourers, as well as to others in the rural economy from linkages in production and consumption that create additional activity and jobs.

Other considerations include the way that increased rural incomes are spent; impacts on women’s incomes, status within the household, and through the demands of farm work, the ability of mothers to allocate income to food and care of young children; the effect of farm work on energy of field workers; and, impacts on health of field workers and those living close to farms.

The record shows:

  • Worldwide, and especially in the developing world, the production of food has increased ahead of population growth for most of the last fifty years. Much of this increase in availability has come from small-scale family farms, particularly in Asia
  • Increased food production has led to falling real prices of food, especially for staples, with benefits to those vulnerable people who have to buy in most of their food
  • Smallholder agricultural development usually leads to higher farm incomes, even when output prices may be pushed down by rising production, owing to improved productivity. Increasingly, however, incomes from off the farm — in services, public employment, businesses — tend to rise more. Links from smallholder agricultural development to the rest of the rural economy, especially when farmers spend increased incomes on locally-supplied goods and services, can be strong
  • Smallholders who focus on production of crops for sale can also increase their food security and nutrition, since commercial production from smallholdings is also often associated with increased food production and higher incomes. Under some conditions, however, nutrition may be impaired by cash crops; as, for example, when the demands of these crops mean that women working in the fields have too little time to feed and care for infants
  • Given appropriate technical knowledge and skill, some of it learned from other farmers, secure tenure and the incentive of markets, smallholder agricultural development can support food security and nutrition outcomes while being environmentally sustainable.

Smallholder agricultural development can be steered to have a greater impact on food security and nutrition through three measures:

  • Empower women farmers, both to allow them more control over income and household spending — which usually leads to more being spent on the feeding and care of young children, as well as to correct for unequal access to labour and inputs that means that women’s plots often achieve lower yields than men’s
  • Promote home gardens and small-scale livestock rearing for increased diversity of production and consumption. Children’s nutrition often improves: effects that are stronger when these programmes are combined with education on diet, child care and hygiene; and,
    Smallholder agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition
  • Complement agricultural programmes with education and communication, health services, water and sanitation. Smallholder agriculture cannot achieve better nutrition alone.

Four points stand out for policy-makers:

  • Smallholder agricultural development can be an excellent way to reduce poverty and tackle hunger in low income countries. Encourage this by making sure that rural investment climate is conducive to investment and innovation. Provide rural public goods roads and other physical infrastructure, schools, health, clean water, agricultural research and extension. Improve access to inputs, insurance and finance for smallholders and improve their terms of engagement in such markets. Develop and promote innovations for marginal farms. Recognise and protect the rights of small farmers to their land. 
  • Patterns of agricultural development need steering towards more diversified food production. Production of staples has increased more than foods with more diverse nutrients. For every person who suffers from undernourishment in the world, more than twice as many suffer from deficiencies in minerals and vitamins. Hence promote home gardens, with small-scale livestock rearing — including fish. Complement this up with communications for nutrition, health and child care. Monitor the adoption of emerging bio-fortified staples of maize, rice and sweet potato by farmers. 
  • Back up smallholder agricultural programmes with primary health care, clean water and sanitation, other direct interventions for nutrition, and female empowerment. Empowered and educated mothers are time and again shown to spend incomes on their young children and to protect the nutrition and health of the household. Correct female disadvantages in farming: through recognising and strengthening women’s rights to fields and common property resources; directing attention to women’s needs in farming and finding ways to support them; and in general, developing innovations both on field and in domestic tasks, such as water supply and fuel collection, that save time and appropriate for women. Make sure that girls living in rural areas are schooled through until the end of secondary. 
  • Greater political support for improving food security and nutrition is needed. Political support for nutrition is often lukewarm: perhaps because of ignorance of the problems, or because the remedies can seem dauntingly difficult for problems with multiple causes. Monitor and survey more often the state of food security and nutrition, to highlight the problems and to see where and when progress is being made. Regular national surveys of nutrition and food security should be conducted, at least once every five years, preferably every three years. Sentinel sites could be established for more frequent monitoring of food and nutrition, using text messaging to collect information in real time. Pilot innovations, then evaluate these rigorously, compare them to counter-factuals, and publicise the results.

These policies either have low costs or are not additional to the funding what would be needed for any serious programme of development. FAO in 2011 estimated the extra annual spending required to eliminate hunger by 2025 as US$50.2 billion, including US$7.5 billion for food and cash-based safety nets in keeping with the twin-track approach of dealing with long-term chronic hunger while also addressing short-term needs. Most of the extra investment is for physical infrastructure, and mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
An extra US$50 billion a year may sound a lot, but consider the figure for sub-Saharan Africa of US$13.3 billion more. This is about US$15.50 for each of the 854M living in the region. The costs are small compared to the numbers who will potentially benefit from better food security and nutrition.

  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.