Standing With Family Farmers on World Food Day and Every Day

By Danielle Nierenberg and Thomas Szymanski, Food Tank


The United Nations has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming to recognize the impact that smallholder farmers from Iowa to India have had on enriching the global food system. This diverse coalition of farmers has been at the forefront of the movement to address the most pressing issues facing our food system today including biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation, improving nutrition, and the promotion of social stability. 

Studies conducted by the FAO have demonstrated that smallholder farmers utilizing farming practices that encourage biodiversity consistently have healthier soil and larger yields than those engaged in monoculture farming. Matt Liebman, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, has taken these findings a step further in his research on “low-input, high-diversity” (LIHD) farming. Professor Liebman has found that promoting biodiversity in crop rotation minimizes the need of synthetic inputs and fossil fuels, enriches the soil with nitrogen and organic carbon, and also mitigates erosion.

While the average size of an Iowa farm is 333 acres, over 80 percent of all agricultural holdings in the world measure less than five acres. The vast majority of these family farmers live in the developing world where the pangs of poor nutrition reverberate through all sectors of society. However, analysis from the FAO reveals that smallholder family farmers who have diversified their crops have been most successful in increasing their consumption of nutrient-dense foods. Farmers in Malaysia have interspersed their plots with the hardy Moringa oleifera tree whose leaves provide twice the protein and over three times the calcium of milk per gram. In Ethiopia family farmers have long cultivated the drought tolerant banana-like crop called ensete that can provide enough food for a family of five on an area of land roughly the size of a tennis court.

In addition to their environmental stewardship and supply of nutritious foods to those in the most dire of circumstances, small family farms are integrally linked to rural economies and as such contribute to job growth in complementary sectors including construction, manufacturing, and infrastructure. Furthermore, a study conducted by the World Bank has found that an increase of one percent in agriculture GDP reduces poverty by up to four times as much as the same increase in non-agricultural GDP.

And, if women farmers had the same access to resources, including credit, land, and inputs, as men, they could help lift 100-150 million people out of hunger worldwide. Women make up at least 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and ensuring their rights is an important way to achieve global food security.

Although World Food Day happens only once a year, family farmers, are all working to fight for food justice and food and nutrition security all year long. On World Food Day and every day, we need to stand with these farmers and support investments in agriculture that nourish both people and the planet.

Danielle Nierenberg is the co-Founder and President of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank ( Thomas Szymanski is a Food Tank contributor.

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