Akila Wijerathna explains the role small farmers play to ensure food supply

Many of the world’s most significant agricultural commodities are produced by smallholder farmers. On 24 percent of the planet’s gross agricultural land, 600 million smallholder farmers produce 28-31 percent of every crop and 30-34 percent of all food.

Therefore, smallholders play a crucial role in maintaining crop diversity.

A lack of land tenure security; accountability for intermediaries; and limited access to market, transport and technologies are among the factors affecting smallholder farmers’ ability to ensure that their products are sustainable.

Smaller farms have a greater diversity of crops than their large equivalents even though larger properties have unique crop compositions. Promoting diversity of farm sizes may foster a wider variety of crops at the landscape level and potentially lower climatic risks to the food system.

The reliance on smallholder farmers to feed rising populations can’t be exaggerated; but the financial, technical and technological help they need is lacking. In almost every case, smallholder farmers are disproportionately affected by unusual weather occurrences, rising temperatures and depleting aquifers.

Digital innovations can increase small-scale farmers’ earnings, prompt the adoption of better practices and boost resilience to climate shocks, while reducing the gender gap and controlling food chain risks.

A greater emphasis must be placed on collaboration – between conventional and biological inputs, large and small farming communities, and public and private partners; and among nations that can produce large quantities of food, and those who depend on them.

Certification is a critical component of sustainable agriculture production traceability. As a result, producers and consumers could ensure that their agricultural products come from sustainable and deforestation free sources.

Furthermore, with consumers being more conscious about what they purchase, the demand for eco and sustainable labelling by certification providers will constantly increase. Therefore, smallholder inclusion in traceability will create incremental changes towards achieving sustainable agricultural practices.

Promoting sustainable change in smallholder agriculture can enhance food security without depleting natural resources. A key challenge for these farmers is their lack of information about what the market requires. Selling crops outside their local market can boost revenue, and the export of produce prevents smaller local markets from being flooded and a subsequent drop in prices.

The long-term goal is to improve farmer groups’ resilience to agricultural economic shocks. This will enable them to have reliable and diversified revenue streams that are based on quality production in large quantities enjoying solid relationships with various markets.

Encouraging them to diversify their revenue sources is another priority. This can take many forms.

For example, intercropping involves growing two crops that thrive together on the same site. Growing more crops such as vegetables can boost cash flows. Sometimes, farming family members can make handicrafts for sale; or they can engage in animal husbandry.

Women are key stakeholders in agri-food production but their contribution is often overlooked. They play significant roles in planting and harvesting in many farming communities – and this affects volumes, quality and sustainability. Yet, women don’t receive the same training or support as men because of their unrecognised inputs.

Firstly, farmers need agronomic education. Secondly, farming families must diversify by growing different crops, raising livestock or taking off-farm jobs. This reduces a family’s reliance on one source of income.

Small farmers are generally poorly informed about actual prices and their limited production means they sell to middlemen who offer low prices. Financial institutions view smallholders as poor credit risks, and loans aren’t frequently structured to meet their income and expense structures.

Finally, smallholders and their communities benefit from knowing and claiming their rights. This will reduce bureaucracy and corruption, and increase supply and margins. Large businesses, social enterprises and development organisations have roles to play in this process.

Therefore, those working with smallholder farmers must be aware of the potential challenges associated with cooperatives and other farmer groups. Cooperating with host governments’ extension agencies can scale down environmental and social difficulties in smallholder supply chains.

With adequate support – such as capacity development in financial and organisational management; marketing and design; conducive procurement policies; and access to certification schemes and new markets – smallholder farmers and producers can gain the skills, know­ledge and means needed to overcome market barriers – and foster profitable businesses and sustainable livelihoods.