The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates we need to increase global food production by 60% by 2050. Under current production patterns, much of the increase would need to come from smallholder family farmers in developing countries, including the poorest, who cultivate about 80% of arable land and produce most of the world’s food. Improving productivity and intensifying crop production among these farmers could therefore be key to global food security and ending hunger.
This is easier said than done. The world possesses the technologies to significantly step up farm productivity, including through “climate smart” methods and technologies designed to help adapt farming processes to environmental changes. But can we expect these to be adopted widely by farmers around the world?
Small-scale family farmers in developing countries tend to find it difficult to access these technologies, because of poor infrastructure, low education and lack of financial credit. Many of them live and work in vulnerable ecosystems that may become even more fragile because of climate change, as was highlighted in a recent report from the UN’s international panel on climate change.
Aside from these well-known hurdles, what is less often discussed is the demographic challenge that could limit global food production. Farmer populations are ageing rapidly. Worldwide, the average age of farmers is about 60, including in developing countries, and many amongst them are women and poorly educated. Older farmers are less likely to introduce new, transformative production techniques.
One could expect their children to do so, especially in developing countries where 60% of the population is under 25 years of age and most living in rural areas. The problem is, however, that few rural youth see a future for themselves in agriculture. At the same time, by 2030, 60% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. As urban populations consume higher-protein food, the demand for meat and processed food is rising, which is expanding land use for livestock production, further accelerating deforestation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions by agriculture.
Can these challenges all be addressed simultaneously? Yes, but only with concerted efforts on a number of fronts. Key for change will be a focus on supporting farmers to design their own programmes and engaging young farmers.
Farmer-led innovations tend to work well, as farmers know their terrain and can pre-empt how different processes will work. In Niger, for instance, farmers started experimenting with a low-cost way of reproducing and generating trees and shrubs that provide food, fuel and fodder in the 1980s. These days, in the areas where this started, 1.25m trees are added every year. Other “save and grow” practices, such as low-tillage farming, water-efficient cropping, ecology-friendly pest management have been successfully applied to a whole range of crops such as rice, cassava and other staples with smallholder farmers as primary drivers. More farmer-led success stories have been the re-greening of the Sahel in Burkina Faso, which used agroforestry to rehabilite arid landscapes into productive land, and zero-tillage on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which set a precedent for farms keeping soil covers for higher yields, less fuel use and tractor wear and tear.
Such successful farmer-managed regeneration processes could be rolled out on a larger scale if farmers were more able to interact with and learn from each other. So how can can this be done?
Development groups can encourage knowledge sharing by helping communities to bring farmers of all ages together through farmer organisations. Given a platform to mobilise and discuss issues that affect their work, farmers can share best practice and collectively manage market prices. In Kenya’s Rift Valley, for instance, the Kaptumo dairy farmers business association has been instrumental in greening livestock farming while substantially enhancing farm incomes.
In order to engage and encourage younger farmers in such initiatives, target institutions such as youth farm field and life schools and youth entrepreneurship facilities. In many parts of Africa and Asia these have improved life attitudes and skills of rural youth and help them start a business of their own, both on and off the farm. The development community can help forge effective partnerships for such initiatives.
In Tanzania and Zanzibar, for instance, the FAO in conjunction with local authorities, the ministry of agriculture and natural resources, introduced youth-targeted training in organic farming. The young trainees returned to their communities, where they retrained their peers, raising awareness of organic agriculture and finding buoyant local markets for their produce, including the booming hotel industry.
The development community should give priority to financing major investments in further developing “save and grow” and other climate-smart technologies for a wide range of crops, and facilitate their local adaptation through partnerships with local communities and producer organisations. Improving rural infrastructure will be crucial to improving smallholders’ access to markets. But none of these efforts will be enough to ensure global food security, without also supporting programmes promoting opportunities for young farmers.
Rob Vos coordinates the strategic programme on rural poverty reduction at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Follow @FAOnews on Twitter