In just one generation, the food system in developing regions has transformed. Urbanization and increased incomes have led to diversifying diets, including more animal proteins as well as processed and packaged foods – all of which have stimulated exponential growth in the systems needed to meet that new demand, including wholesalers, processors, retailers, and suppliers.
But what has that change meant for farmers — especially smallholder farmers most at risk of chronic hunger? In a cruel irony, of the almost 795 million people worldwide who are exposed to severe levels of food insecurity, three-quarters live in rural areas and depend primarily on agriculture. Rural women are among the most vulnerable to hunger.
“If we’re seeing this food system transformation and we want to achieve zero hunger by 2030, with environmentally safe practices, we need to better understand the extent to which smallholder farmers are included in this transformation and how and if their lives are being improved by it, ” said Saweda Liverpool-Tasie, Associate Professor at Michigan State University.
“If the process is not inclusive, we’re going to have a large percentage of people who remain in hunger and poverty.”
Liverpool-Tasie leads the Vibrant Food Systems research team for Ceres2030, a collaboration between Cornell University, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Ceres2030 has brought together dozens of researchers from across the globe, who are working to understand how to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ending world hunger by 2030.
Vibrant food systems team
Like all of the Ceres2030 teams, the Vibrant Food Systems group is composed of diverse researchers from multiple continents, who have used big data and machine learning to systematically assess the scope of existing literature, in order to understand which interventions are effective in reducing hunger, and where more study is needed. The key goal of Ceres2030 is to explore the breadth of existing data, to inform donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the German government (which are funding the project) about which interventions they should support to maximize their effectiveness in fighting global hunger.
Two things quickly became clear to the Vibrant Food Systems research team: there is plentiful research on the impact of formal contracts between farmers and sellers; and smallholder farmers hardly ever have access to those formal contracts.
So what supports are accessible to small-scale farmers? The research team found that there has been an expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that serve as intermediaries, buying from multiple smallholder farmers, aggregating product, and doing the work of finding willing buyers. But SMEs aren’t just helping with buying and selling, they’re also providing access to inputs, like seeds, fertilizer, and training.
“In developing countries, extension systems are underfunded. These SMEs are facilitating farmer training or doing it themselves, and oftentimes, because they are closer to the community with better contextual knowledge and social ties, they may be doing it more effectively than traditional government extension systems,” Liverpool-Tasie said.
Alessandra Galiè, a Senior Social Scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute and another member of the Vibrant Food Systems team, said the systematic review of the research made clear that there needs to be more study on the gender component in food systems, especially whether these mid-stream SMEs are affording both female and male farmers opportunities to upgrade their productions, and which food system arrangements can benefit both women and men.
“When production systems become more market-oriented, women may lose out in terms of control over agricultural produce or revenues as their menfolk start to capture the related benefits,” Galiè said.
“Integrating gender considerations in initiatives that enhance marketing opportunities for small-scale producers is essential to achieve progress on livelihood and nutrition outcomes, and also on gender equality.”
Other interventions that governments or donors could invest in to help small-holder farmers include: upgrading transportation networks to open up better markets with less post-harvest loss for smallholders; providing access to credit, via low-interest rate loans or other women-targeted financial solutions; and incentivizing SMEs to provide additional, extension-like training of smallholders in issues like pesticide use and sustainable practices.
“Incentives to these SMEs should be designed to be inclusive of women and other disadvantaged groups, and to encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly practices,” Liverpool-Tasie said. “And anything we can do to improve the hard and soft infrastructure on which the food system is based can increase efficiency, reduce food prices, and open up markets for smallholder farmers.”
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