May 22, 2014

Commentary - Resilient Smallholder Farming Systems Are Vital for Global Food Security and Nutrition

By Shenggen Fan, Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute

This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 22.

The growing incidence and intensity of extreme weather events and rising price volatility are cases in point of shocks that increasingly threaten the global food system. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out, every additional decade of climate change is expected reduce average crop yields by about 1 percent.

More importantly, the effects of increasing climate shocks will not be uniform across regions and countries. Developing countries, especially in tropical regions, will disproportionately bear the burden of these impacts since they rely heavily on climate-dependent farming. Smallholder farmers—who account for most of the poor and hungry and have a large role to play in achieving global food security and nutrition—will be hit the hardest as their capacity to adapt is the weakest.

Smallholders require special attention to break this vicious circle of vulnerability, low productivity, and insecurity. However, no one-size-fits-all strategy can address the challenges that smallholders face as they are not a homogenous group. Strategies to help build their resilience should be attuned to their diverse needs as well as to the level of transformation of the economies in which they reside. Policies, investments, and institutions are required to strengthen smallholders’ resilience to shocks, including price and weather.

At the national level, investments that boost smallholder productivity and help to improve risk mitigation and adaptation strategies should be accelerated. For example, higher investments in agricultural research and development (R&D) to develop new varieties of crops and livestock that are tolerant to stresses such as drought, flood, and cold are critical. Innovative, simple, and flexible insurance tools, such as weather securities with fixed payments triggered when predetermined weather events occur, can provide incentives for smallholder farmers to adopt new technologies and switch to high-value crops.

Smallholder-friendly financial services need to be expanded to move smallholders from subsistence to more commercially-oriented activities. Financial products bundled with development services such as extension and advisory services can be very effective. Complementary investments in rural infrastructure, including roads and irrigation also need to be scaled up.

Linking smallholder farmers to agrifood value chains is also an important component of building their resilience. To help them acquire real-time information on prices and weather patterns, investments in new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are imperative. Innovative institutional arrangements, such as producer associations and rural marketing cooperatives, can reduce market transaction costs for smallholders and increase their bargaining power.

To help smallholders cope with various shocks, diversify outputs, and escape poverty, investments in productive and cross-sectoral social safety nets are important. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Programme (PSNP) has demonstrated that combining income transfers with provision of services for promoting agricultural productivity, such as extension is more beneficial to smallholders than stand-alone programs.

At the global level, mutually beneficial trade is required to stabilize food markets in the face of rising food prices and volatility. To provide short-term relief during food-related emergency situations, global and regional food grain reserves should be established and expanded.

The concept of resilience is about systems. As part of the global food system, smallholder farming systems certainly have a crucial role to play in feeding a growing population, enhancing nutrition and health, and promoting environmental sustainability. IFPRI’s just concluded international conference on “Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security” serves as a powerful catalyst for spurring concrete and collaborative action towards the achievement of these goals. Moving forward, all stakeholders should work together to close the research, action, and policy gaps required to ensure resilient food systems.



The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 

| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.