Smallholders in developing countries produce nearly 80 percent of the world’s food production. They are doing this with limited resources, with a limited access to capital. But to keep up with the world’s population growth – largely in urban areas – they will need to increase the production by nearly 70 percent by 2050. This is a pretty impossible task given the food system’s current state, and even more impossible when considering that in the future resources may be further constrained.
Investing in smallholders, therefore, should be not just smart economic and development policy, but also smart environmental policy. The global food system is already deeply inefficient. Supply of food and demand are out of sync. Food waste and food loss are high at all levels of the value chain, not just at the consumer level. Crop losses due to diseases and pests occur at the pre-harvest level. At the post-harvest level, food losses occur due to spoilage, improper storage or during transport. According to the United Nations, nearly 30 percent of the food grown is never eaten.
This inefficiency has massive implications for smallholders, who lose income. Often without investment in proper storage techniques, smallholders are forced to sell low and buy high, creating an unbreakable cycle of poverty. Poor quality crops are sold at significantly lower prices. Crop losses due to diseases and pests become sunk costs in a livelihood where these types of costs cannot be returned. Lower seeds and subsistence farming go hand in hand, when smallholders are unable to grow more food using the same amount of land.
To make the food system more efficient requires investments in these farmers. Farmers need access to finance to buy inputs and better seeds in order to produce more food on less land. Research on hybrid seeds, which can better tolerate drought is also important for building resiliency to climate change and once again for producing more food. Proper storage facilities would help farmers to store crops during dry seasons and drought. The agriculture in Africa, in particular, is prone to this seasonal cycle.
If we want food production to increase by 70 percent, with fewer resources, we need to invest in people growing the food to ensure they have the technology to improve their yields. In most parts of the world people growing food are smallholders. Investing in smallholders and ensuring they have access to the most up to date agricultural technology will ensure that they can not only produce more, but do it efficiently and in an environmentally sound way.
Jessica Carroll is a Marketing and Communications Associate at TechnoServe, an international nonprofit that promotes business solutions to poverty in the developing world by linking people to information, capital and markets. She completed her Master’s at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research topics of interest are agricultural marketing and rural development.
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