Food insecurity in the face of climate change, along with a skyrocketing population that increasingly demands more food and has more resource-intensive food consumption habits, will be one of our toughest challenges in the next century. The technological leaps of the Green Revolution in the twentieth century are a major reason food production has been able to keep up – so far. But as the onset of the Revolution recedes into the past, the areas where it falls short are becoming increasingly clear. While the Green Revolution improved production on a global scale, and in turn helped make food more accessible to most, many of its technological advancements did not reach the poorest populations. Much of this was due to the fact that Green Revolution failed to provide adequate and accessible input, output, and credit markets. Meanwhile, mechanization subsidies and policies that focused on scaling up agriculture further neglected the needs of smallholders. And finally the Green Revolution failed to address the inability of the outside economy to absorb the workers it displaced (Pingali, 2012). While the Green Revolution largely solved the simple problem of producing food, our mission requires more. To ensure equity in combating food insecurity we propose an approach that empowers smallholder farmers through the use of farmers cooperatives.

Why are smallholders important?

Smallholders are broadly defined to be farms that are solely family run – without the help of hired labor. They generally have access to very few resources and, as a result, put in large amounts of labor to generate enough income to survive (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013c). While their individual contribution to food production pales in comparison to that of large industrialized farms, their importance comes from their sheer number. Today, there are around 500 million smallholdings representing 2 billion people worldwide (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013c). In a report compiled by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, data from 81 countries was used to show that 72.6% of all holdings were less than one hectare in size. In regions with the least developed countries and most food insecure populations, such as Africa, 80% of holdings fall under 2 hectares (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013c). Figure 1 below illustrates the distribution of small holdings, of which one notable aspect is large proportion of smaller farms in in less developed countries.


Figure 1: Farmholding Sizes by Region in 81-country subset of FAO-WCA (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2013c)

The aggregate impacts of these smallholder populations are staggering: smallholdings produce 70% of the food consumed globally (Locke). It may be surprising to discover the very group that is responsible for the production of most of the world’s food is also the group most in need of it –most smallholders are also food insecure (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013c). In the low to middle income developing countries where smallholders are most concentrated, agriculture continues to be the largest employer of the impoverished (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013b). Poverty is concentrated in the rural areas while the rural poor are more reliant on agriculture than their wealthier peers (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015). And poverty is closely linked with food security, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Report “The State of Food Insecurity” defines poverty as one of the factors affecting economic access to food, in addition to food prices (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013b).

 Figure 2: Drivers of Deforestation (Kissinger)

Smallholders are perfectly positioned at the crossroads of almost every major piece of food insecurity: they are the means of production, the populations suffering from food insecurity, and in the position to execute effective and sustainable solutions to these problems.

As detailed above in Figure 2, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for an incredible 80% of global deforestation, with commercial agriculture playing a major role by contributing to one-third of deforestation in Asia and Africa (on par with subsistence agriculture) and up to two-thirds in Latin America (Kissinger).


Figure 3: Value of Food Production per Hectare (in 2009 Int. $) (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d.b)

Meanwhile, smallholders are on average more efficient at food production per area farmed than larger farm holdings. Above, Figure 3 shows that across the given sample, small farmers produce more value from agriculture per hectare than larger farms and the national average. Another representative example is China, whose 200 million small holdings cover 10% of the world’s farmed area but represent 20% of global production.(Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013c).

In addition, a United Nations Environment Programme Report reported that the adoption of sustainable farming techniques has the greatest effects on smaller scales (represented by smaller initial yield) (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013b). Empowering smallholders is not only a problem of equity and food security, but also one central to the fight for a sustainable future in agriculture.


Figure 4: Changes in Crop Yields with Sustainable Intensification (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b)

The Problems Facing Smallholders

There are three problem areas that we believe should be addressed to improve the status of smallholders. Revamping the approach towards research and development in relation to smallholders, improving market access, and remedying the lack of resources and tools important to the agricultural process.


Figure 5: Public Expenditures on Agricultural R&D, by Income Group (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015)

Firstly, we can see above in Figure 5 that agricultural R&D in lower income countries lags far behind that of prosperous countries (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2015). This means that the countries with the greatest share of smallholders that need this kind of investment are not getting it.

One of the largest problems facing smallholders is their lack of accessible and profitable markets. Currently, many smallholders receive lower prices than they should because they resort to selling their products at their farm or at local markets (South Africa Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2012). The nature of the globalized market leaves smallholders vulnerable to price fluctuations. And since smallholders are already impoverished and rely on agriculture as their main source of income, they cannot afford to wait – and so they have to sell to whatever markets are available (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b). In these situations they are often exploited by middlemen, who use information disparities to take advantage of smallholders, reducing their profits (IDRC Communications). In addition, the globalization of markets also puts smallholders in direct competition with heavily industrialized farms in developing countries in the U.S. that rely on advanced technology not available to smallholders to produce huge amounts of food at cheap prices. Farms in countries like the U.S also benefit from heavy subsidies, with 84 billion USD given in just corn subsidies over the last 17 years (Environmental Working Group).

Another problem is that of a lack of access to techniques and technology that can improve the productivity and profitability of smallholder agriculture. Since individual smallholders are already living at around survival levels of income, they do not have the financial resources to invest in these improvements (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b). Smallholders are also often illiterate and unfamiliar with technology, which precludes them learning about, obtaining, and using tools or skills that could improve their productivity and income (South Africa Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries).

Our Solution: Farmers’ Cooperatives

We believe that the path to leveraging the power of smallholder farmers by addressing these three key issues is the farmers cooperative. In general, a cooperative is a self-controlled group that voluntarily comes together to achieve common goals. Cooperatives seek to find the balance between profit and serving their community (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013a). Farmers cooperatives provide a way for farmers who have little power individually to combine their resources and gain collective control over the agricultural activities they rely on (South Africa Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). By combining the resources of its members it can supply them with valuable services and opportunities that they would not have access to if operating individually. In relation to the rest of the Mission 2019 plan, farmers cooperatives fill the critical role of facilitating the dissemination and implementation of initiatives targeted at smallholders, a critical part of the global food system.

Facilitating Participatory Research

To address the paucity of research that is applicable to smallholders, Mission 2019 suggests a participatory framework for agricultural research and development where farmers cooperatives would work closely with agriculture R&D interests to create solutions that are relevant and effective. The problem previously with the development of technology aimed at farmers was that farmers would not always receive technology that matched up with their unique situational needs (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2013). The previous model boiled down to a one way transfer of technology that didn’t leave room for feedback from the target user. However, we put forth the example of participatory plant breeding, also known as PPB, as a model for future participatory development.

PPB is an existing area of field research that incorporates active farmer participation in managing breeds of plants that researchers are optimizing for certain characteristics (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014). The PPB programs successfully allowed farmers to identify seeds that were best suited to their environments. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization document reported that professional scientists had initially doubted the ability of farmers to manage the scientific crop trials, but later realized that the farmers had a much deeper understanding of their system than the researchers had realized (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009).

This is a telling example of the underestimated opportunity that waits in further participatory research – and we propose that a framework for future research expand on the PPB model. Research organizations would work with targeted farmers cooperatives to ensure effective collaboration. The cooperatives would use their role in the community and knowledge of member farmers and the local environment to connect researchers with the proper test locations and farmers to work with. By working closely with smallholders through cooperatives, research takes advantages of the fact that smallholders include 350 million indigenous peoples (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b). Their unique cultural knowledge of local crop varieties and practices could be further developed in coordination with formal research teams to tap into a knowledge source previously ignored. And throughout the process, liaisons from the cooperative would serve as the voice of smallholders in the development and research process. One potential problem is the unwillingness of researchers and farmers to devote the time to establish working relationships. Past experiments such as the Syprobio project in West Africa required additional monetary and time investments to specfically overcome the barriers between farmers and researchers (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014) . Possible ways to overcome these obstacles in the future are increasing the number of “transfer specialists”, researchers who are assigned to work more closely with farmers and cooperatives. Institutional changes that reward practical work in the field rather than simply publishing papers could also increase the number of scientists willing to take on more participatory research projects in the first place. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014). The resulting technologies and information would be implemented and distributed through the channels first established through the field research. With the participatory approach, the needs of the smallholder are prioritized and the implementation of technology is more effective.

Improving Market Access

Solving the problem of market access will need to address two issues: the instability and risk inherent in the international market and the costs associated with working with middlemen in the supply chain. The first of our proposal centers around leveraging the qualities that make smallholder farming unique from large-scale industrial farming to increase the profitability of smallholder production. We envision a system in which farmers cooperatives sell a majority of their produce at a premium to specialized markets (likely in developed countries) that have a demand for the kind of labor-intensive, traditional agriculture practiced by most smallholders (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b). Example of these have sprung up in places like Bolivia, where promotion of quinoa exports by the government has allowed impoverished Andes farmers to receive premium prices for a handful of certified varieties (International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013b). In our plan however, these programs would have support from government, but ultimately would be spearheaded by associations of cooperatives. Cooperatives that share similar products would come together, and with guidance from government programs, would develop their own branding, standards, and quality assurance systems. Cooperatives would be responsible for their own self-enforcement of standards, and would be trained by government employees on management and and marketing techniques.

These cooperatives will take advantage of global trends in food demand to find markets for their boutique foods. As populations become wealthier, their demands for basic food consumption are met and demand shifts to ‘quality foods’. These consumption shifts have mostly been seen in the last 20 years in developed countries, as demand increases for organic foods, and food that addresses issues of animal welfare and environmental protection (Regmi, 2001). Under our plan, cooperatives will use their status as smallholders to tap into these trends, touting the advantages of smaller, traditional farms as a higher quality, sustainable, and humane choice.

In our plan, initial expenditures for this program would come from a tariff on imported luxury and processed food sales. This would leave imports of cheap staple crops like cereal and grains untouched, while only taxing expensive imported food goods that have little effect on the food security of smallholders and the most impoverished. The tax income would be used to fund cooperative accelerators that help them establish functioning programs to start selling their food in a premium market.

Our timeline envisions the initial government implementation of tax changes and administrative structure for the cooperative accelerator to take 5 years. After 5 years, cooperatives will begin receiving support to enter premium food markets and we hope to see self-sufficiency, meaning no need for further government support, within 1-2 years.

Better Resources

The last element of the solution utilizes farmers cooperatives as means to give individual smallholders collective access to resources they wouldn’t be able to afford or manage on their own. While functioning individually, smallholders are strictly limited by their small political and social power and limited resources, cooperatives allow them to pool resources and exert more power in the process. Under our plan, cooperatives would offer an array of services to their smallholder members.

One such service would be an input shop that would allow smallholders to purchase agricultural inputs (products utilized in production) in bulk and save on transaction costs. Alone, it is more difficult for smallholders to acquire useful inputs like motorized equipment – in general, smaller farms have less access to motorized equipment (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, n.d.a). Cooperatives input shops would allow farmers to buy inputs like seeds in bulk, saving money, and would allow them access to better quality and more expensive equipment. In this way, cooperatives would be critical to the distribution and implementation of improved food storage mechanisms as detailed in this part of our plan. We know that the affordability and access offered by input shops works, because of Niger, where the construction of 264 shops resulted in up to double the production of crops (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013d).

Cooperatives would also provide a channel through which to provide educational resources and skills training. Initially, they would simply host NGO initiatives like the Farmer Field Schools (FFS) jointly offered by the UN Food Agricultural Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development. Initiatives like these have proven the impact of education, such as in FFS, where agricultural income rose by an average of 61% after the project.(International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013a). For 3 years of hosting NGOs, farmers cooperatives would learn how to collect and disseminate information from within – and start running workshops autonomously.

Another important role of cooperatives is in their ability to serve as an advocate and multiplier of the economic and political power of smallholders. Alone, smallholders are at an information disadvantage, and as a result they are often exploited by intermediaries who buy their produce for less than market value. In our plan, cooperatives will allow farmers to sell their produce collectively, and along with our proposed use of mobile technology will help provide them with more accurate information on market prices and conditions. They will also exercise political will, as shown in the FAO report, which demonstrated how past farmers cooperatives in Africa have negotiated with official boards to set the official price of various agricultural products. Our plan continues to leverage cooperatives as an important advocate for smallholder interests and as a much needed balance in conversations of power. Evidence shows that successful cooperatives become businesses that allow their members to earn premiums for their produce, such as a survey of Cameroonian farmers that saw prices about 10% higher through their cooperative (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2013a).


In short, our plan is one of empowerment. It aims to give the most marginalized, ignored, and underserved group in agriculture the tools they need to prosper, without making assumptions about what path they should follow.

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Works Cited

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