Smallholder Solutions to Hunger, Poverty and Climate Change

Annie Shattuck and Eric Holt-Giménez | 12.01.2011

December 2011, Co-published by ActionAid

Executive Summary

With the worsening of the global food crisis, general international agreement has emerged regarding the importance of smallholder agriculture in the battle against hunger and poverty. However, public debate has been highly restricted and increasingly dominated by conventional, market-led, and corporate approaches to aid and agricultural development. These positions call for a return to the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round, a new “Green Revolution” and the spread of biotechnology to the countries of the Global South. In global and national policy circles, these “business as usual” approaches are eclipsing many proven, highly effective, farmer-driven agroecological and redistributive approaches to agricultural development.

Sustainable, smallholder agriculture represents the best option for resolving the fourfold food-finance-fuel and climate crises. Although conventional wisdom assumes small family farms are backward and unproductive, agroecological research has shown that given a chance, small farms are much more productive than large farms. Small, ecological farms help cool the planet and provide many important ecosystem services; they are a reservoir for biodiversity, and are less vulnerable to pests, disease and environmental shock.

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Just as small farms can be more productive and environmentally beneficial, there is also strong evidence that small farm communities can be far superior to large, mechanized operations for improving rural livelihoods. However, this potential is thwarted because smallholders are systematically disenfranchised of their basic human rights and dispossessed of their wealth and basic resources. If smallholders are to be the social and productive base for ending hunger in the Global South, then the rights of smallholders—especially women—must be ensured. Ensuring smallholder rights and the equitable distribution of resource entitlements in  the countryside not only implies increasing the levels of aid and investment flowing to smallholders, it implies the redistribution of public investment in agriculture, including land reform.

Approximately 2.5 billion people in poor countries live directly from agriculture – farming crops and livestock or relying on forestry or fisheries—and 1.5 billion people live in smallholder households.


The role of the state (and donors) in setting and supporting this agenda will be key. There is need for strong and effective public policies to tackle inequality, support smallholder farmers and protect the right to food. This will entail ensuring the redistribution of resources and land towards the poorest members of society and smallholders. Governments need to massively increase support to smallholders through sustainable practices. For instance, through helping them protect and preserve their farming practices and resources: increasing extension support and agroecological research and design.

The Right to Food—an international agreement that aims to hold states legally responsible for ensuring access to food and food producing resources; and the call for food sovereignty—a political concept designed to democratize food systems in favor of the poor; are essential components in creating the conditions for sustainable agricultural development. Encouragingly, the Right to Food is broadly recognized, and people’s movements for Food Sovereignty are widespread and growing rapidly. Food sovereignty proposes that people, rather than corporate monopolies, make the decisions regarding our food systems.

Africa is central to any lasting solution to hunger on the planet. Because the majority of sub-Saharan Africa’s hungry people come from poor farming families cultivating two hectares or less—and because over 80 percent of the continent is still rural—the challenge of ending hunger and poverty on the continent is necessarily an agrarian question.

Most of Africa’s farmers are women, with unequal access and weak claims to productive entitlements, making gender a profound issue running through all agrarian questions. The African food crisis has revived official calls for a new “Green Revolution”. But there is a need to learn lessons from the first green revolution, which swept across Asia and Latin America from the 1970’s onwards. This has largely been credited with causing severe environmental damage and deepening poverty and inequality among smallholders and the landless. This new push is spearheaded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has pledged $3.2 billion to African agriculture. With so much new money being channelled into African agriculture (this being the biggest such push for a long time) the imperative must be to ensure this is spent in a way that builds on previous evidence and responds to the current triple crises of climate, food and fuel. Some 53 percent of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development funding goes to technological research and development, like creating new commercial hybrids and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But there is an urgent need to support new and already existing agroecological solutions, and to look carefully at the many ways in which conventional Green Revolution technologies and GMOs could actually undermine their development. A major project of the Gates Foundation is AGRA —the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. But AGRA brings together the same social and technological assumptions from the original Green Revolution, with the worry that we might be repeating mistakes and recycling blunders.

Despite the crisis of agriculture on the continent, there is no lack of agroecological success stories in Africa. The continent abounds with documented experiences in which ecological agriculture enhances access to food. Contrary to commonly held assumptions, numerous studies have found that ecological practices do not result in any loss of productivity. The productivity of ecological agriculture frequently exceeds that of traditional farms, and even matches that of many conventional, high external input farms.

The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) advocates reducing the vulnerability of the global food system through locally based innovations. It calls for redistributing productive land to the rural poor and restructuring the food system in favour of smallholders. The IAASTD found that the causes of hunger and low productivity were overwhelmingly social, rather than technological in nature. Many proven agroecological practices for sustainable production increases were already widespread across the Global South, but unable to scale up because they lacked supportive trade, policy, and institutional environments. This is why IAASTD recommends improving the conditions for sustainable agriculture, rather than promoting technological fixes.

Improving the conditions of sustainable, smallholder agriculture requires development policies that prioritise rights, livelihoods and resiliency in the countryside. These policies demand and reinforce equitable and democratic management in all spheres of the food system—from local to national.

Development policies that prioritise rights, livelihoods and resiliency need to be grounded in the right to food, food sovereignty and agroecology. They generate solutions to the crises that work in the interests of the majority: the smallholders and women farmers in the Global South. These priority areas include:

  • Sustainable increases in food production by increasing agrobiodiversity, agroecological resiliency and by creating equitable and sustainable options for processing, trade, consumption and recycling; farmers will increase control over processes of innovation and diffusion.
  • Improving rural livelihoods by improving savings, local markets and economic institutions, and creating value added opportunities throughout the value chain in a redistributive manner that especially favors women.
  • Increasing and protecting smallholder’s access to food and food-producing resources (land, credit, water), as well as ensuring they receive and retain social and economic benefits from conservation.
  • Mitigate, remediate and help smallholders adapt to the four-fold food, fuel, financial and climate crises.