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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Family Farmers Nourish the World

Jan 27, 2014 04:41PM ● By Danielle Nierenberg

After decades of failed attempts to eradicate hunger, development agencies, international research institutions, nonprofit organizations and the funding and donor communities now see family farmers as key to alleviating global poverty and hunger. As the world celebrates 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, Food Tank: The Food Think Tank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are highlighting effective ways to provide family farmers with the tools they need to really nourish the world.

Family farmers play a crucial role in resolving world hunger, but they’re also those most likely to fall victim to hunger and poverty. An estimated 800 million people living below the global poverty line work in the agricultural sector. In China and India alone, there are respectively 189 million and 112 million smallholder farmers with plots measuring less than two hectares (about five acres).

Yet, smallholder agriculture has great potential to reduce overall national poverty levels. According to a landmark World Bank report, an increase of 1 percent in agricultural GDP reduces poverty by four times as much as the same percentage increase in non-agricultural GDP.

Food Tank is working with FAO to highlight the important role that family farmers play in the food system. Small-scale, family-run farms not only form the base of rural communities in both the developing and developed world, providing nutrition and jobs, but they are also at the center of sustainable production.

Small-scale farmers can contribute significantly to the transformation of agriculture by managing land and water responsibly, protect water supplies, preserve and enhance biodiversity, and contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

By working with family farmers to build on their knowledge in the development of sustainable agricultural practices, we can improve resilience in the food system—including resilience to climate change, food price shocks, conflict and natural disasters.

Here are five effective ways for NGOs, the funding and donor communities and policymakers to invest more effectively in family farming:

Promote sustainable agriculture methods

Agro-ecological practices can increase yields while reducing environmental impacts. In an analysis of 40 projects and programs, sustainable techniques like agroforestry and soil conservation were found to increase yields for African smallholder farmers. The Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture has partnered with Farmer and Nature Net to promote the System of Rice Intensification, which has been shown to increase yields and improve soil fertility while reducing the use of chemicals and maintaining local ownership of seeds.

Family FarmerAssist family farmers in adapting to climate change and short-term variability

Climate change will have large-scale effects on agriculture everywhere, particularly on poor farmers in developing countries. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, 75 million to 250 million more people will experience increased water stress by 2020 because of climate change in Africa alone. Year-to-year climate variability, in the form of drought or flooding, already has large-scale effects on food security. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Farmer Field Schools teaching smallholder farmers sustainable practices in land and water management have proven highly effective in managing input such as pesticides more effectively while increasing yields and incomes.

Increase access to local markets

The small-scale production volumes of family farmers require value chains of appropriate scale. Farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture can provide a great venue for family farmers to sell their products directly to consumers. For example, the organization GrowNYC manages 54 markets in New York, providing a sales channel to 230 farms and fishermen.

Focus on Nutrient Density

Small-scale family farmers tend to produce the foods—vegetables, fruits, nutrient-rich grains—that households actually eat. However, most research and funding has been for starchy staple crops—wheat, rice and maize—that fill people up, but don’t nourish them. AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center is working with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to grow more diverse crops, improving nutrition and incomes.

Close the gender gap

Women farmers do not have the same access to credit, land, inputs and extension services as their male counterparts. According to FAO, closing the gender gap in agricultural inputs alone could lift 100 million to 150 million people out of hunger. The Latin American and Caribbean Center for Rural Women serves as an organizing voice for marginalized, rural women, calling for equal access to land rights, boosting access to clean water and conserving native seeds.

If public and private sectors direct funding toward family farmers and research that would support them, smallholder agriculture can get the push it needs to nourish both people and the planet.

Danielle Nierenberg is president and co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank. For more information, visit


Family FarmingLearn New Skills at the Good Food Festival

The Good Food Festival, to be held March 13 through 15 at the UIC Forum, offers a full array of workshops for learning. Festival day kicks off with the Good Food Master Class in charcuterie, the culinary art of salting, smoking, brining or curing meats, from author Michael Ruhlman and Chef Brian Polcyn.

Other tempting workshops include the Locapour’s Cocktail Bar; Start Your Own Food Business; Ancient Grains In Your Kitchen; Good Food In Your School; and Home Brewing and Cider Making. It’s a terrific day of knowledge sharing and do-it-yourself learning. Residents interested in the innovative urban agriculture of Chicago may catch the popular Urban Ag Bus Tour.

For those just wanting to dip their hands into new ideas, the Good Food Commons offers quick, accessible mini-workshops on topics ranging from seed saving and fermenting foods to backyard chicken keeping.

Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg will moderate a panel discussion, Farmer Heroes in the International Year of the Family Farm, on Saturday. She’ll be speaking with MacArthur Genius Will Allen, Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann, Women, Food and Agriculture Network founder Denise O’Brien and Big Head Farm owner Karen Warner about becoming a farmer and the crucial role farmers play in our food system.

Explore, learn, and experience the movement that’s transforming the way we eat at Win free tickets at


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