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The Future of Food Security Lies in the Hands of Small Farmers and Indigenous Peoples

Date Published
June 20, 2022

Small family farms produce more than 80% of the world’s food, yet smallholders are among the rural poor. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank.

Helping smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples to become climate-resilient has become more vital to arrest rising levels of food insecurity.

Many countries face a looming food crisis triggered by overlapping shocks—conflict, climate change, a protracted pandemic, rising public debt, and now the war in Ukraine, says a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), which warns of acute food insecurity in hunger hotspots.

Food and fuel price spikes are pushing millions of people into poverty and hunger and are already affecting economic stability across all regions. The situation is expected to worsen in areas characterized by rural marginalization and fragile agrifood systems that are vulnerable to climate shocks, such as recurrent droughts or flooding.

Growing hunger

In Asia and the Pacific, the high cost of a healthy diet and persistently high levels of poverty and income inequality keep nutritious foods out of reach for 1.8 billion people.

According to the FAO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number of people who did not have access to adequate food increased by almost 150 million in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The negative effects of the containment measures, combined with people’s health concerns, led to a major contraction of economic activity in this region and worldwide. Disruption in food supply chains only added to the problems. The situation could have been worse without the response of governments and social protection measures.

As the pandemic enters its third year, countries have started to recover. Robust demand and high input cost drove up prices of food. Prices peaked in March based on FAO Food Price Index as the war in Ukraine affected the production and trade of commodities, particularly wheat, fuel, and fertilizer.

“We are deeply concerned about the combined impacts of overlapping crises jeopardizing people’s ability to produce and access foods, pushing millions more into extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “We are in a race against time to help farmers in the most affected countries, including by rapidly increasing potential food production and boosting their resilience in the face of challenges.”

Making food systems sustainable

Smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples are key to strengthening the resilience of food systems and to improving access to nutritious food for everyone. Food system refers to the interconnected activities that involve food production, processing, transport, consumption, and disposal. FAO defines a sustainable food system as one that delivers food security and nutrition for all in a way that does not compromise the needs of future generations.

Small family farms produce more than 80% of the world’s food, yet smallholders are among the rural poor. In Asia and the Pacific, smallholder farms with areas of less than 5 hectares comprise majority of farmland. Farmers sell 75% of what they produce, and their families consume the rest.

The disruptions of food chains during the pandemic have made the situation of poor farmers even more dire because of increased food loss and falling prices. An Asian Development Bank Institute survey of 8,000 Southeast Asian households in 2020 showed that farmers and fisherman suffered a deep cut of 60% in income.

Recurring droughts, flooding, hurricanes, and cyclones also repeatedly decimate farming and livestock rearing. Scaling up the climate resilience of agrifood systems means meeting the needs of small farmers, such as by offering them wide access to climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing.

Harnessing traditional knowledge

Climate change and health emergencies, such as COVID-19, also threaten the lives and livelihood of indigenous peoples, who are the traditional custodians of biodiversity. They traditionally own, manage, use or occupy at least a quarter of the world’s land area, and they protect the resource base that economies rely on. “Governments should also harness the benefits of knowledge from among indigenous peoples, who manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface, including rainforests, but preserve 80% of the remaining biodiversity. They are the best stewards of our environment; the rest of us pale in comparison,” says Agnes Kalibata, United Nations Systems Summit Special Envoy, in an opinion piece for The Independent.

At the first ever UN Food Systems Summit last September, world leaders committed to transform food systems not only to end hunger and malnutrition but also to step up climate action and protect biodiversity. They pledged support for farmers and indigenous groups and for nature-based solutions.