What do we really mean by rural food security?

Smallscale farmers play a crucial role in national development strategies, as they serve as the foundation for growth. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

by guest bloggers Matthew Fielding and Tom Gill

There are approximately 400 to 500 million small farms around the world. This implies that some two billion people – a third of the world‘s population – are dependent on smallholding for their livelihoods. Historically, such smallholders have adapted autonomously to environmental and climatic variations by, for example, changing planting cycles, diversifying crops, turning to mobile livelihood strategies such as pastoralism, or supplementing their income through non-farm activities. However, the speed and scope of climate change and the onset of its impacts seriously compound existing challenges to smallholders, especially with the lack of viable alternatives in sub-Saharan Africa.

Of course, smallholders do have a crucial role to play in the national development strategies of poorer countries. They serve as the foundation for growth in manufacturing and export, the spark for the “virtuous circle”, as described by Gordon Conway in the report "On Being a Smallholder" (PDF). However, smallholders cannot play this role without a range of supporting conditions, such as regular seasonality, predictable rainfall, moderate temperature ranges, sustainable use and storage of water, capital investments in technology – the list goes on. The reality is that there are parts of the world where smallholders cannot even be self-sufficient, let alone increase productivity within their landscape. They often live in areas increasingly affected by climatic variability, including unseasonal rainfall, extreme weather events and shifts in plant and animal disease patterns, salinization of soils, depleted aquifers and rising sea-levels.

What are the solutions to rural food security under a changing climate? If we are to deal with food security issues for a world population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, we need to change our view of "the smallholder farmer".

According to World Food Programme, 75 per cent of the world’s hungry are farmers and pastoralists who live on poor, marginal and highly degraded land. In sub-Saharan Africa yields are one fifth of those in the U.S., and smallholders in the region must often purchase up to 75 per cent of their food with the less than USD $1 a day they live on, which is why one third is malnourished.

Lack of investment and extension services in the region do – in part – lie at the root of many of these problems. Advances in plant breeding and biotechnology from more developed countries are often slow to progress down to farmer level, and such advances, combined with other techniques, can in some contexts allow small-scale farmers to double yields.

However, reliable agriculture is the key; that is, predictable yields on which development can be based. Yield increases are not stable and can quickly fluctuate, and cannot be relied upon under conditions of irregular rainfall, depleting water supplies, changing seasonality and declining soil fertility. More food is needed in poor rural areas, but we can’t only look to smallholders to produce it.

Large-scale farming is one part of the solution. Farms that achieve economies of scale and have access to good transport infrastructure, secure water resources, fertilizers and technology, are where the food of the future will be produced. In Argentina, 80 per cent of cropland is managed with no till technology, and accompanying this yields have increased by at least 50 per cent in 10 years. This has been achieved by combining, among other things, centre pivot irrigation (with a 90 per cent increase in efficiency), GMO seeds, and efficient use of fertilizers.

However, there would still be a food deficit for the rural poor (in terms of locally available food – not net global food produced) even if small and large scale productivity were increased.

Why? The answer lies in markets, trade and governance. Enough food is produced to feed the world, but it is food trade that can ensure that sufficient calories reach all populations. As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affiars (DEFRA) states, “International trade underpins food security at all levels, food crises have occurred, not simply because domestic production fails, but when financial resources are lacking, trade is blocked, distribution channels are inefficient or crippled and governance is poor.” Demand drives the price and availability of food, and speculation on this demand in the commodities markets can have a dramatic effect on prices, and therefore availability. And as prices go up, the purchasing power of the poor goes down. Climate change impacts also contribute to price rises. The recent drought in the U.S. drove soybean prices to their highest level ever and, under an altered rainfall and temperature scenario, the cost of maize could increase by up to 177 per cent and the cost of wheat by up to 120 per cent above average 2010 prices. According to Oxfam, between one half and one third of these rises could be attributed to climate change.

In the 2011 report "Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses" (PDF), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and others, described three fundamental reasons why agricultural commodity markets are so volatile:

  • Agricultural outputs vary from period to period due to things like weather and pests.
  • Production takes time – supply cannot respond to price in the short term.
  • Price elasticity for commodities is low, meaning if their price goes up, people don’t cut back their purchases, at least not in the short term. So, when availability recovers, prices do not necessarily drop as quickly as they rise.

Strategies are already in place across the globe to monitor food prices. These include the World Trade Organization’s Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), which is a G20 initiative to enhance food market transparency and to coordinate a response to market uncertainty, and the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS), a USAID initiative that includes support for response planning in the event of a food crisis. It is exactly the actions that governments take in response to such warnings that dictate whether famine and hunger will be averted.

All FAO member states agreed to help regulate national commodity prices and to remove restrictions on food exports and extraordinary taxes for food purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes. If the statement were honoured, it would allow food to be shipped rapidly to emergency zones.

World Food Programme, FAO, G8 and G20 must step in to ensure governments have the power and resources to fulfil their duty to their citizens by buffering global price rises. National governments need to secure and store enough food to feed their populations during a crisis at a pre-defined cost (as agreed by the World Trade Organization). This supply must not be sold or traded, but instead used to relieve famine as long as famine conditions prevail. National governments must be responsible for this investment and distribution, and they must be able to swiftly distribute food to all corners of their country.

Though smallholder cultivation can indeed be made more productive, we cannot expect smallholder farmers to take on responsibility for the suffering caused by food price rises, or expect them to produce enough food to feed 9 billion by 2050. We must invest in agriculture, use technology to improve yields, and make trade systems fairer and more suitable for dealing with food shortages in a crisis. It is this three-prong approach to food security that would really help smallholder farmers and the rural poor survive into the Anthropocene.

This guest blog post was written by Matthew Fielding, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI), and Tom Gill, SEI. For more updates, follow us on Facebook, and Twitter @Cgiarclimate.