Ending hunger: science must stop neglecting smallholder farmers

Policymakers urgently need ideas on ways to end hunger. But a global review of the literature finds that most researchers have had the wrong priorities.

How can research help to end hunger? One way to answer this question is to assess published research on hunger, and determine which interventions can make a difference to the lives of the 690 million people who go hungry every day.

That’s what an international research consortium called Ceres2030 has been doing1. And the results of its 3-year effort to review more than 100,000 articles are published this week across the Nature Research journals2. The consortium’s findings — coming just days after this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme — are both revealing and concerning.

The team was able to identify ten practical interventions that can help donors to tackle hunger, but these were drawn from only a tiny fraction of the literature. The Ceres2030 team members found that the overwhelming majority of the agricultural-research publications they assessed were unable to provide solutions, particularly to the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and their families.

The World Food Programme is the United Nations’ primary agency in the effort to eliminate hunger, which includes the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end hunger by 2030. These goals represented an enormous challenge even before the current pandemic. Now, as the UN and others have been warning, the coronavirus — and efforts to contain it — will force a further 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021. This makes the World Food Programme’s mission more urgent, and the Ceres2030 project more necessary.

The goal to end hunger has a number of targets, and the project team — 78 researchers from 23 countries and 53 organizations — focused on assessing research that could speak to two of these targets, which were set in 2015. One target seeks to double the incomes and productivity of small-scale food producers; the other aims to make food production more environmentally friendly and more resilient to climate shocks and other disasters.

The researchers found many studies that conclude that smallholders are more likely to adopt new approaches — specifically, planting climate-resilient crops — when they are supported by technical advice, input and ideas, collectively known as extension services.

Other studies found that these farmers’ incomes increase when they belong to cooperatives, self-help groups and other organizations that can connect them to markets, shared transport or shared spaces where produce can be stored3. Farmers also prosper when they can sell their produce informally to small- and medium-sized firms4. That seems to be because such companies share information with farmers and provide sources of credit.

Research gaps

“Of some 570 million farms in the world, more than 475 million are smaller than 2 hectares.”

There was one finding, however, that surprised and troubled the Ceres2030 team. Two-thirds of people who are hungry live in rural areas. Of some 570 million farms in the world, more than 475 million are smaller than 2 hectares. And, in low-income countries, more than two-thirds of workers are employed on the land. Rural poverty and food insecurity go hand in hand, and yet the Ceres2030 researchers found that the overwhelming majority of studies they assessed — more than 95% — were not relevant to the needs of smallholders and their families. Moreover, few studies included original data.

Read the full editorial on Nature.com.

Photo: Imelda Hicoombolwa, a smallholder farmer in Zambia, is receiving help from the World Food Programme to grow crops after a severe drought last year. Credit: Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty


Nature 586, 336 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02849-6


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