It’s a sad truth that many smallholder farmers in poor countries today struggle to feed themselves while also supplying local markets.
Food. Enough of it to live a healthy, productive life. It’s a basic need that many Canadians (although not all) can take for granted. On Oct. 16, World Food Day, we are reminded that it’s a different story in the developing world. Despite significant advances in agriculture and food security over the last 20 years, 805 million people are still chronically undernourished.
Smallholder farming families are central to reducing hunger. There are an estimated 500 million small family holdings in the world, most of them no bigger than three soccer fields. But they account for 50 per cent of global agricultural production and feed 70 per cent of the world’s population. That’s why they are at the heart of this year’s World Food Day theme: family farming—feeding the world, caring for the earth.
Smallholder farming families in developing countries are also central to Canada’s efforts to achieve global food security, efforts that are delivering promising results. But ensuring food security is complex and goes far beyond boosting agricultural production in developing countries. Bringing more actors together to work in concert would go a long way toward increasing impact.
It is a sad truth that many smallholder farmers in poor countries struggle to feed themselves while also supplying local markets. They live on unbalanced diets and go hungry at certain times of the year.
Why? The land that they farm is not fertile; the climate they face, too harsh; and they have little access to basic agricultural inputs and information. As a result, their crop and livestock yields are quite low. Inequality also contributes to farmers going without enough food. While women make up about half of the world’s farmers, discrimination significantly reduces their access to land, water, seeds, credit and know-how.
Developing-country farmers don’t usually benefit from research and national support programs. After the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, it was research, investment and innovation that helped Canadian Prairie farmers grow food on land that was considered unsuitable for agriculture. Canada developed wheat varieties, canola and pulse crops—such as peas, beans and lentils—that thrived on the Prairies. The men and women smallholder farmers in developing countries need the same kind of support, along with access to markets.
In 2008, in the wake of food price spikes, the Canadian government made “increasing food security” one of its top three development aid priorities. Many Canadian development agencies have also taken up the challenge, among them the International Development Research Centre and CARE Canada.
In 2009, Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and IDRC created the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund to support agricultural and food research. The fund combines the best of developing-country and Canadian expertise to identify and test technologies that work for farmers. After five years, 97,000 farmers in 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have benefited from increased production and income, improved diets and new economic opportunities for women. Research teams are now scaling up the most promising innovations—from new livestock vaccines to better seeds and farming practices to nutritional programs—to reach many more smallholder farmers.
In 2013, CARE Canada named food and nutrition security one of its two areas of focus, the other being humanitarian response. Today, more than 85 per cent of its programming includes strategies and measures to address the root causes of malnutrition and chronic food insecurity. By designing and implementing sustainable, productive, equitable and resilient agricultural programs and inclusive economic development initiatives, CARE Canada is seeing the impact of its work in 27 developing countries.
Feeding nine billion by 2050
Canadians can be proud of these results, but more can be done. We must redouble our efforts to work together and continue to provide solutions.
The needs are no less urgent for the future: the world may produce enough food to meet the caloric needs of seven billion people today, but demand for food will rise, particularly for nutritious, protein-dense foods. The world will be home to nine billion people by 2050 and anticipated higher incomes will increase per-capita consumption. Canada can be a leader in a co-ordinated, effective response to this slow-burning crisis.
This op-ed was first published by embassynews.ca on October 15, 2014.
Dominique Charron is the Director of the Agriculture and Environment program at IDRC. Jacquelyn Wright is Vice President of International Programs at CARE Canada.