Why Can’t Farmers Always Feed Their Own Families?

It seems simple – people who make their living growing food should have enough of it to feed themselves. But around the world, smallholder farmers are often disproportionately affected by hunger. Read on to discover four reasons behind this apparent paradox – and how you can help fight food insecurity alongside these farmers and their families.

Coffee farmers who previously participated in TechnoServe's Better Coffee Harvest program. Taken October 2019.

In Jicarito, Honduras, María Castillo is a bean farmer. While southern Honduras has rich farmland, María still struggled over the years to feed her family. “We used to grow bad quality beans and have low productivity because we did not know the best practices,” she recalls.

Unfortunately, María’s  story isn’t uncommon.

Around the world, roughly 500 million smallholder farms produce close to 80% of the world’s food supply, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and close to 2 billion people depend on those farmers for food.

And yet, of the almost 700 million people who don’t get enough food, many of them are farmers. 

How is that possible? 

Four Critical Obstacles to Food Security

This seeming paradox can be explained by four main factors:

  1. Low farm productivity, which makes it hard to produce enough food beyond what is sold.
  2. Climate change and water scarcity, which make it harder to grow enough food.
  3. Structural inequities in areas like finance and infrastructure, which keep farmers from full access to food systems.
  4. Crises like war and natural disasters, which weaken food systems.

food security factors farmers face 1: low farm productivity

How Farm Productivity Is Key to Farmers’ Food Security

Improving farmers’ crop yields is one of the most effective ways to raise their economic and food security. This often involves training farmers in improved agronomic techniques, such as crop rotation and diversification or better pruning and harvesting.

But farm productivity is also reliant on inputs like superior seed varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation systems.

And all these solutions cost money.

For smallholder farmers, decisions about where to invest money are difficult, especially without adequate access to resources and information. They must constantly ask the question: Should I wait until all my family’s basic needs are met or take a chance on buying new supplies?

In difficult times, farmers may also have to decide whether or not to consume seeds as food today over planting seeds for next year, increasing the threat of shortages later and adding an additional dimension to the decision-making process, particularly when considering the importance of quality foods in addition to sufficient quantity. 

TechnoServe is currently working with small- and medium-scale coffee and bean producers in Honduras, like María Castillo, to train them in better agronomic techniques. Staff are also working to improve the operations of more than 600 farmer organizations, and to facilitate an improved environment for public policies related to climate change resilience.

As a result, nearly 30,000 producers in Honduras have access to $15.5 million in credit for inputs, farm maintenance, and infrastructure investments. After four crop cycles, bean farmers increased productivity by an average of 54%, which has substantially increased incomes.

María herself worked with TechnoServe to launch a rural savings and loan association, which sells agricultural inputs such as drought-resistant seeds. This helps prevent other community farmers from facing the same food insecurity that she once did. 

The MAS project worked with small- and medium-scale coffee and bean farmers in Honduras. Photo: Elmer Martinez farmers food insecurity
The MAS project worked with small- and medium-scale coffee and bean farmers in Honduras. Photo: Elmer Martinez

“We learned how to sow beans using good agronomic practices and how to use seeds to improve productivity and have better yields,” María says. “This opened the door for us to have extra income in our homes and thus give my family a better life.”

Read more about TechnoServe’s efforts to train smallholder farmers.

Climate change and the resulting crop loss due to drought and disease is making it harder than ever for farmers to achieve food security and feed their families

Climate Change Creates New Threats for Farmers’ Food Security

In addition to these challenges, climate change looms as one of the greatest threats to farmers’ livelihoods. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, climate-related issues can include: 

  • Increasing occurrence of climate extremes: Farmers can no longer accurately predict when seasonal rains will come, meaning crops either wither in the field or drown in a deluge.
  • Altered pest behavior: Unfamiliar pests and diseases spreading to new areas through shifting temperature and weather patterns have started eating away at once-reliable harvests.
  • Water scarcity: Decreasing availability of freshwater resources and varying levels of precipitation have led to increased competition for water resources.

These climate-related issues impact markets, food and energy prices, incomes, and the environment itself. 

While climate change is a daunting global challenge, TechnoServe is working with farmers to improve their climate resilience through methods like:

  • Improved water quality, which decreases health risks to households and their livestock while increasing ecosystem diversity.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices, which can increase smallholder farmers’ productivity and incomes while reducing land and resource needs.
  • Circular business models, which design out waste and keep products and materials in use through increased durability, reuse, recycling, and sharing.

Read more about TechnoServe’s work helping farmers increase resilience to climate change.

Smallholder farmers face structural inequities that make food security harder to achieve

Farmers Face Deep-Rooted Structural Inequities

According to the IFAD, about three quarters of the world’s hungry live in rural areas. 

Among other factors, many farmers in low-income countries face food insecurity due to structural inequities like lack of access to finance, poor infrastructure, and unfair trade policies. 

Financial constraints may come from high costs of farming inputs and/or supply disruptions, while infrastructure challenges often revolve around inadequate access to transportation, inspection services, technology, and food processing.

These issues make it difficult for small-scale farmers to compete with producers who have strong capital investments and subsidies.

TechnoServe helps farmers address these challenges through:

  • Market and finance linkages to purchase quality agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizer.
  • Business training for farmer producer organizations, to improve their financial management and  their ability to apply for loans. 
  • Working with financial institutions and other lenders to design products that better meet the needs of smallholder farmers.

Read more about TechnoServe’s approach to increasing market access

What crisis impact farmers and make food insecurity a greater threat? Read on to learn more:

War and Natural Disasters Create New Risk Factors for Food Insecurity

In addition to the high number of farmers facing structural challenges, about 20% of the world’s hungry live in areas undergoing crises beyond their control.

These crises often include war, natural disasters, and political strife. 

Natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes often lead to contamination of water bodies, loss of harvests, increased diseases, and destruction of agricultural infrastructure.

Crises also include those like the COVID-19 pandemic, which put pressure on global supply chains, resulted in immense food waste, and contributed to food insecurity around the world. 

The result of these disasters on agriculture means supply chain disruptions, price shocks, and labor displacement. 

In response to pandemic-related challenges, TechnoServe offers farmers and food processors market, supply, and finance solutions including:

  • Market solutions: Establishing new platforms connecting farmers and buyers and supporting farmers in finding new buyers after unforeseen market shifts.
  • Supply solutions: Providing input suppliers with an incentive to meet orders and helping with “last mile” delivery of supplies. 
  • Finance solutions: Helping create strategic partnerships with lenders and helping farmers navigate the process of applying for finance.

When pandemic-related disturbances in Nicaragua caused blockades on many roads, Idalia Medina’s cheese business struggled both to source milk from the countryside and reach buyers with its cheese.

Farmers like Idalia Medina at Las Delicias in Nicaragua often struggle with food security challenges
Idalia Medina at Las Delicias in Nicaragua

Through a TechnoServe program, Idalia solved these problems by deepening her relationship with the farmers in her supply chain by offering them supplies and products to ensure that they would continue to sell to Las Delicias; developing new sales channels; and cutting her own expenses on electricity. 

Since joining the program, Medina’s sales have increased 22%, and her Las Delicias business is more profitable.

“It made my plans more assured because I could see what should happen in a successful business.”

Learn more about TechnoServe’s efforts to help farmers facing COVID-19 challenges