Family farming, an age-old way of working the land, also embodies a tangible future for sustainable farming in the Global South. It a crucial and promising sector, in light of the number of farmers involved, production volumes, surface areas cultivated, well-established growing practices and proximity to the communities to be fed. Scientific research conducted by IRD and its partners has shown that this way of managing natural resources, if sustained or revived according to the circumstances, can help preserve the environment, promote social integration in rural areas and ensure that communities have access to safe and healthy food. This is an important topic – as evidenced by the United Nations proclaiming the United Nations Decade of Family Farming from 2019-2028.
Over a third of global food production is provided by farms occupying an area of less than two hectares, cultivated by members of the same family. This is the direct legacy of a subsistence model based on working the land at the household scale, widely established since the advent of farming many millennia ago. Today, small farm units still represent 80% of agricultural holdings, and predominate in Southern countries.Family farming is a means of organizing agriculture, forestry, fisheries, pastoral production and aquaculture; it is managed and operated by a family and is predominantly reliant on the labor of both women and men. In this model, the family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions. These small units are targeted by FAO-led initiatives as part of the Decade of Family Farming. The aim is to promote national policies and investments to support family farming, improve livelihoods in rural areas, increase the productivity of small-scale farmers and improve the global food system.
From self-sufficiency to cash crops
"Long devoted to subsistence farming and even self-sufficiency, small family farms have often incorporated commercial farming practices in recent years and decades," explains Jean-Christophe Castella, a geo-agronomist at IRD in the Knowledge, Environment and Societies research unit (SENS). This agrarian transition towards cash-crop production has allowed farmers to generate the cash income they need to invest, send their children to school and access medical care, among other advances. But it has also brought socio-technical upheavals with far-reaching consequences: debt, increased economic vulnerability to climate hazards, lower yields, dependence on the cost of inputs and agricultural commodity prices, allegiances to intermediaries, gradual deterioration of living conditions and quality of life."This is not so much due to the nature of cash crops as it is to the intensive techniques used," explains the specialist. "The research conducted by scientists and initiatives led by FAO and farmers’ organizations seek to promote more sustainable agroecological practices, or to conserve and improve them when such practices have continued."
Preserving the environment
This is a question of both scale and techniques: family farms, especially the smallest ones, which are most numerous in the Global South, are a key means of conserving biodiversity and combating climate change. They sometimes continue to use cultivation techniques that are much more sustainable than conventional farming and require less investment to adopt new practices when needed. Many small farms have naturally integrated agro-industrial systems, but proactive community-led movements supported by the United Nations and NGOs and backed by scientific research, are seeking to revitalize, adapt and disseminate often age-old agroecological practices, which are compatible with environmental preservation in the long term.
The findings are clear
Small-scale farmers in Southeast Asia, who have massively shifted from subsistence farming to an agricultural marketing process, often become disillusioned: the agrarian transition, on which the industrial boom of the Tiger Cub economies is based, has not fulfilled its promises over time. "Agricultural intensification practices, adopted by farmers to integrate the market economy, have proven to be less sustainable than traditional practices. The first warning sign is the inexorable drop in crop yields," explains Jean-Christophe Castella, a geo-agronomist in the Knowledge, Environment and Societies research unit (SENS) at IRD, who studies the effects of changing socio-technical models on environmental dynamics and rural economies. "Through the participative processes in which we've involved them, farmers are more aware of deforestation, pollution and the deterioration of their land and their quality of life." The sustained use of chemical inputs to fertilize soil, eliminate self-propagating plants and protect crops from pests, in addition to the optimization of land use by eliminating hedges and fallow land, and mechanical tilling, all have a significant impact on the environment over time. This, in turn, impacts agricultural productivity itself, as ever more material investment is needed for uncertain results Moreover, the introduction of large-scale cash-crop monocultures, such as maize, reduces biodiversity and renders outputs highly vulnerable to parasites. "Below a certain level of landscape diversity, farming is simply not sustainable," says the specialist.
Scientists and rural development stakeholders are working with farming communities in the Mekong countries to examine ways to achieve the agroecological transformation of agricultural production systems in ways that minimize the negative environmental consequences of their activity (such as soil degradation and water pollution). "The aim is not to go back to the old method of slash-and-burn farmingAn agrarian system in which fields are cleared by fire, used for subsistence farming and then left fallow., which implies long fallow periods that have become impossible due to financial constraints, but rather to propose technical alternatives such as no-till corn, and fertilizing soil by interspersing legumes and cash crops," he explains.
Based on this same reasoning, scientists from the Laboratory of Tropical and Mediterranean Symbioses (LSTM) are striving to revive ancient varieties and techniques in order to replace nitrogen fertilizers. Combined with cereals produced by farmers in the Sahel region, these legumes, which form symbioses with mycorrhizal fungi that capture nitrogen in the air and then fix it in the soil to naturally fertilize the land. These specialists are also work toward inoculating the crops themselves with mycorrhiza conducive to such symbioses. "The environmental benefit of this approach is to replace polluting inputs,but also to revive species that have been abandoned through the improvement of varieties related to conventional farming, in favor of varieties that are more productive but less suited to combinations," explains IRD microbiologist Robin Duponnois, who leads this team dedicated to promoting biodiversity conservation.
Even before reviving abandoned species, research by agroecologists has revealed the wide array of traditional crop combinations and how they help preserve ecosystems. "In Senegal, we've highlighted the great diversity of combinations of varieties and species used in family farming," says Adeline Barnaud, a geneticist at IRD in the Plant Diversity, Adaptation and Development research unit (DIADE). "While a great deal of agronomic research has focused on cereal-legume combinations, farmers use many other crop combinations in their fields, such as peanut-cowpea-bissap, millet-sorghum or peanut-millet-bissap. And there may be several varieties of the same species within these combinations. These practices help maintain biodiversity and agroecosystem resilience to various natural and man-made forms of pressure, including climate change."
Research has also shown that these practices have other virtues: combining long-cycle and short-cycle millets, for example, significantly increases the productivity of traditional farms.
In addition to these yield and resistance aspects – which are a central focus for agronomists and crucial to the resilience and conservation of environmentally beneficial biodiversity – this diversity of combinations of species and varieties is also a rich source of cultural benefits for farming communities. These values related to heritage, culinary aspects and the multitude of uses are important since they contribute to the farmers' agronomic choices. The latest IPBESThe Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report recommends taking account of these values, which encourage the sustainable use of nature.
In regions where such traditions are still passed down from generation to generation, family farming practices still often resemble a genuine form of agroecological engineering. On the slopes of the Moroccan Atlas mountains, for example, the traditional management of forests and livestock herd plays an effective role in limiting erosion and conserving biodiversity. "In this dry, high-altitude region, communities organized into family production units practice rain-fed cereal farming and subsistence livestock farming," explains Didier Genin, an ethno-ecologist in the Population Environment Development Laboratory (LPED) at IRD. Farmers have learned to effectively exploit one of the only assets unique to this environment, the dimorphic ash treeSo-called because its foliage can be composed of small, dense leaves or long, aerial ones, depending on the stage of development and levels of subishe pressure.(Fraxinus dimorpha), in a conscious and sustainable way. The meticulous care given to the periodic pruning of trees, and cyclical, interconnected uses to provide diversified resources – autumn fodder essential to maintaining herds and various building materials – help protect these trees and perpetuate the semi-forested environment needed for the related biodiversity, even in adverse or degraded environmental conditions.
In another example, recent research has shown how traditional agroforestry traditions help conserve the biodiversity of the safou or African plum tree, a central African fruit tree, which grows in the moist forests stretching from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo and produces a plum whose taste and nutritional qualities are highly appreciated by consumers in the region. "In Cameroon, we've established that many African plum specimens growing in cities display rich genetic diversity, which is practically comparable to that found in the tropical forest, its natural environment," explains Jérôme Duminil, a geneticist at IRD in the DIADE research unit. "This biodiversity is related to the habits of people who conserve and plant the pits of fruits they liked. In this way, tasty, productive, resistant varieties are regularly disseminated from province to province, from country to city, from consumers' shopping bags to agroforests, home gardens and urban gardens." This circulation and reproduction of trees through seed sowingmaintains a high level of genetic mixing, giving this plum tree the valuable advantage of resisting pests and climate-related threats. It also means that selections can be envisaged based on favorable characteristics in order to boost the trees' productivity without the use of inputs. "The goal of this research is to understand and predict the impact of changing cultivation practices and environmental conditions on maintaining the genetic diversity of local fruit species that are a source of food and income," says Marie-Louise Avana-Tientcheu, an agroforester and specialist in the domestication of wild species with strong socio-economic potential, at the University of Dschang in Cameroon.
On the fringes of the Sahara desert, in the arid and semi-arid Sudan-Sahelian regions, agroforestry is a centuries-old practice developed through family farming, which is the best defense against rampant desertification. It appeared as soon as the number of inhabitants was too high to continue shifting cultivation practices and involves the sparing of certain trees when clearing the natural environment. These trees provide wood for domestic uses (fire, handicrafts, building) fruits and leaves which are consumed by people or used as food and as fodder for livestock. Through this practice, farmers help preserve the environment and improve their activity, since these trees provide cooling shade, limit other plants' water needs, and some species even fertilize the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. These agroforestry "parks" have therefore enabled the development of food crops, grown in rotation with fallow land, for centuries, despite the particularly harsh natural conditions. "Agricultural mechanization, land fragmentation, the densification of rural populations over 50-100 inhabitants per km2 (depending on the region), and nationalized forest management now make it difficult to maintain this cultivation method," explains Josiane Seghieri, a plant ecology specialist in the Functional Ecology and Biogeochemistry of Soils and Agrosystems (Eco&Sols) research unit at IRD. "Family farms that are too small and are no longer self-sufficient in cereals, whose members must find jobs in cities, give up, or no longer provide the care needed to maintain the trees."
In order to support them, and disseminate this virtuous technique more widely, development stakeholders are helping small Sahelian farms. Based on traditional practices and insights gained from research on this topic, they provide awareness-raising and training activities for rural communities. "Planting ‘fertility trees’ helps develop and maintain agricultural production in a semi-arid environment without using industrial inputs," explains Firmin Hien, a representative of the Association for the Promotion of Agroforestry (APAF), an NGO network in Burkina Faso. "It also helps rehabilitate degraded soils and revegetate areas where the cover has disappeared." Agroforestry, by developing wooded land cover, is a way to temper extreme climate effects.
As such, this traditional practice is the central focus of an ambitious international initiative to revegetate the edges of the Sahara, in order to combat desertification caused by climate change. This project, called the “Great Green Wall”, brings together over a dozen countries in the region: in addition to targeted reforestation in order to develop crops from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, it promotes the development of a set of systems for sustainable land use and diversified, resilient agropastoral production across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
"Characterized by links between the family's domestic economy and that of the production unit, as well as the use of family labor, family farming is still deeply embedded in the social organization and family models that structure rural societies," explains Isabelle Droy, an IRD socio-economist in the Sustainability and Resilience research unit (SOURCE). "It also reflects the unequal rights of groups and individuals based on their gender or status within the family or society, as well as their cultural identity."
In West Africa, the majority of agricultural production is based on family farming. It is generally characterized by a complex production organization system. In addition to a "family field", intended for food crop and/or commercial production under the authority of the head of the household, many activities are carried out by women (other types of agricultural production, food processing, or kitchen gardens for family food), who make a key contribution to the family's food and nutritional security. Yet, women and younger family members have fewer rights than men and elders: insecure access to land related to their marital status, reduced rights to, or exclusion from inheritance. This complexity, although often described in research studies, is largely overlooked by agricultural policies and development agencies, who thereby contribute to exacerbating inequalities and excluding women from access to certain resources (irrigated land, credit, representation in producer organizations).
These family models are not static and vary due to socio-political and economic demographic transformations, migrations, urbanization and the spread of new cultural models. "While extended multi-generational families are a well-known archetype in rural West-African families, there are many other possible configurations with different family models which may share the same space," says Isabelle Droy. Significant changes have occurred in recent decades, with strong regional variations: most notably, the rise in single-parent households headed by women (which sometimes account for a third of the households in rural areas) and the disintegration of extended families during transfers of ownership. The resulting fragmentation of farms sometimes makes it difficult to perpetuate sustainable management practices.
A better understanding of how these family farms are evolving and their internal organization is required at a time when numerous "nutrition-sensitive agriculture"-based initiatives are striving to reduce the food and nutritional insecurity that has continued or deteriorated in rural areas.
Promoting social integration in rural areas
As a major source of jobs and income for rural communities in the Global South, family farming gives a large portion of humanity a means of escaping from poverty. Promoting family farming, integrating it into markets and sustaining its traditional mechanisms, which act as a buffer to the harsh terms of economic tradeThe ratio between the value of exported products and that of imported products, which is often unfavourable to countries exporting little-processed products., can help improve the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of individuals who depend on it. It is also a way to enhance the value of marginal areas – by and for the people who live there – which are subject to strong environmental constraints and where more capital-intensive organizations such as agribusiness dare not venture. Lastly, it contributes to social and political stability in rural territories in the Global South. However, within this model, which is a potential development driver, situations vary considerably.
Between individualization and the extended family
According to the FAO, almost a billion and a half people around the world make their living from farming, many of whom work on small-scale family farms. And their numbers continue to rise. "Behind the major demographic transformations in Southern societies, with a steady decline in the rural and agricultural population in relative terms, in most countries – and especially in sub-Saharan Africa – the agricultural population and number of family farms continues to rise," explains Éric Léonard, a socio-economist and geographer in the Knowledge, Environment and Societies research unit (SENS) at IRD. Such farms vary greatly in terms of organization: despite a trend towards individualization, with the reconfiguration of farms around a nuclear or two-generation household – parents and children living together – extended family structures with three or four generations, collaterals and siblings can still be found. Development models based on improving productivity and economic inclusion to generate revenue are not necessarily suited to this heterogeneity. We must therefore consider development schemes that reflect actual family models.
A hypothetical comparative advantage
The quest for the economic inclusion of small-scale farmers in the Global South often focuses on the total or partial conversion from food crops to cash crops that are supposed to be more profitable, such as cotton, coffee, cacao, soy and palm oil. Based on the comparative advantage hypothesisEconomic concept according to which it is in a country's interest to specialize in production for which it has the best competitive advantage, this agrarian transition has sometimes proved to be profitable. As such, genuine development and economic integration opportunities have emerged for small, high-value-added farms in niche markets, such as spices, fruits and raw materials for the cosmetics industry, as illustrated by the highly publicized success stories in this field.
Growing quinoa in the cold, arid Altiplano of Bolivia is one such example. "Thanks to its resilient, sustainable socio-environmental organization, this age-old food-producing and export activity has been able to adapt to booming Western demand and soaring prices since the 1970s," says Thierry Winkel, an IRD agro-ecologist at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE). Based on community land management within villages, with responsibilities shared by comuneros (community members) on a rotating basis, and the belief that no one can truly own land that existed before him and will continue to exist after him, this system has endured and is thriving, to the benefit of the inhabitants. "With support from an NGO and foreign certification bodies, communities have been able to adapt their land-use standards, expand cultivated areas from the slopes towards the plains, regulate mechanization, prevent land-grabbing by outside stakeholders, preserve or restore hedges and shrubs on plots, and maintain traditional lama breeding," explains the specialist. Today, this region is extremely dynamic, with seasonal migrations between cities and countryside based on the agricultural calendar, and is experiencing a great economic and social boom. However, the transition toward commercial production is not always so successful.
The last link of an unjust chain
"In the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, coffee was just one crop among others in a diversified polyculture system. In the 1980s-90s it became a monoculture or virtual monoculture practiced in an area of highly fragmented land ownership," explains Isabelle Hillenkamp, a socio-economist at the Centre for Social Sciences Studies on the African, American and Asian Worlds (CESSMA) at IRD. "The new focus on coffee as a commodity andardized commercial productmakes this family farming the last link of a highly unjust globalized production chain, which is far from fulfilling its promises in terms of income." Small-scale farmers have become dependent on intermediaries, the buyers of their production and the suppliers of the inputs required to intensify production. Moreover, this form of "micro-agribusiness" – the term used by its critics – exacerbates gender inequalities within farms and families. Women are excluded from this commercial activity and the related decisions. They are relegated to subsistence farming on small plots and are socially disempowered. It takes special circumstances to slow the pace of this detrimental race for economic returns: the political will of certain communities committed to an agro-ecological approach with a view to preserving food crop production and the environment which is harmed by intensive coffee farming, or the breakdown of the coffee chain during the COVID pandemic to the benefit of food crops...
Market integration comes with a cost
From gender inequality, family debt and increased vulnerability to hazards, to market dependence and the distortion of competition with the subsidized agribusiness of the Global North – integrating small-scale farming in the Global South into the global economy comes at a social cost. The massive number of Indian farmers driven to suicide since the early 2000s due to their insurmountable over-indebtedness to input suppliers, is a gruesome illustration of this, even if it is limited to certain regions and countries, and only a few types of production. "The quest for profitability inherent to the commodification of family farming is accompanied by the sustained use of fertilizers, crop-protection products and selected or improved seeds," says Jean-Christophe Castella, a geo-agronomist at IRD in the SENS research unit. "These inputs are easily supplied on credit by the agro-industrial sector for the production. But, in this financially strained model, a poor harvest immediately results in over-indebtedness for small farmers." What was once just a bad year in the times of subsistence farming becomes bankruptcy impacting the entire family.
Downturns in cash-crop prices can act in the same way, by jeopardizing the balance between productive investment in inputs and actual harvest results. Especially since this is a delicate balance: "The productivity of a family farmer in the Global South is 1,000 times lower than a highly mechanized major producer in the Global North linked to an intensive technical system," explains Éric Léonard. "When the former manages to produce a ton of cereals per year and per worker, the latter produces 1,000 tons! What’s more, Northern producers benefit from an arsenal of public subsidies, which further reduce their costs and increase their productivity." Competition is even more severe since the mechanisms for protecting agricultural markets which used to exist in certain countries in the Global South have been dismantled in the name of trade liberalization.Certain types of agricultural production in the South have been developed to the detriment of local food crops. Competition from commodities imported from the North has therefore caused them to lose their competitive advantage. "Developing sectors have not been able to absorb population growth in rural areas in Africa, where young people are no longer able to find jobs in traditional farming, which has suffered from international competition," explains the specialist.
Getting out of the micro-agribusiness
It is therefore not surprising that family farming and its intensification, which comes with a cost, can lead to mistrust and alternate initiatives. "To a certain extent, young generations in Southern countries are losing interest in family farming, which is equated with remaining in poverty, and even impoverishment," says Éric Léonard. "And when they do work in family farming, they often see it as a temporary solution in the hope of obtaining the resources they need for more rewarding urban integration or migration plans."
In India, in response to the adversity experienced by small farms involved in micro-agribusiness, the authorities have developed a program to support small-scale farming. Guided by the principles of agroecologyAn approach to agriculture that aims to create sustainable, resilient production systems in harmony with the environment and local communities., the program supports farms using family labor, with food crop production, a certain level of diversity and crop rotation. It provides them with free electricity to power their irrigation pumps and facilitates market access for their products. "Yet, the proposed aid remains insufficient and unequally distributed," says Isabelle Guérin, an IRD socio-economist at CESSMA. "It is not sufficient to compensate for financial dependence on agribusiness and the growing need for liquidity, whether it is needed to pay for children's education or weddings, improve their dwelling or fulfill aspirations for integration, through consumption." The diversification of household activities, primarily through male urban migration, is still the best way to ensure the continuity of family farms, although often in poor conditions. Supporting this pluriactivity is a possible line of action, but unfortunately, it remains an under-developed solution.
Many current initiatives count on the harmonious development of family farming, to escape both poverty and the negative effects of sudden integration into the market economy. For example, in the Sahel region, agroforestry The technique of planting trees and crops in association to improve soil fertility and produce value-added crops. is promoted as an alternative to chemical inputs as well as a way to supplement income for rural communities. "The regeneration of shea treeAlso known as the "butter tree", it bears nuts whose kernels are used to produce shea butter, widely used in cosmetics. agroforestry and its development in communities that do not yet practice it, along with the dissemination of forestry techniques to improve productivity, enable family farms to generate precious income for the needs of rural households," says Hermann Ouoba, a botanist-ecologist at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This Sahelian tree, whose fruit is used in cosmetics and is the fourth most exported product in the country, grows better in fields with fallow land and food crops than it does anywhere else.
In Brazil, alternatives have also come from the rural communities themselves. "An acculturation has been witnessed in rural areas with the incursion of agribusiness and its highly prescriptive practices," says Isabelle Hillenkamp. "But people within the communities are speaking out to develop another type of family farming, based on agroecology, fueling a self-consumption economy that meets household subsistence needs." Most often, this movement is led by women – who have preserved the memory of traditional practices abandoned by men in favor of micro-agribusiness. Revolving around non-profit organizations such as Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia, it focuses on political demands – denouncing gender and social inequalities – and on economic and environmental issues
Ultimately, this leads to a convergence of scientific knowledge, the experiences of development stakeholders and the aspirations of many of the farmers involved: to support the livelihoods of rural communities in the Global South, family farming must undergo an agrarian transition to preserve food production capacities and provide households with sustainable income. This calls for protection policies and support programs that reflect the social circumstances of these farms and their diversity, as well as a transformation in power relations between family farming and agribusiness – and between men and women within family farming. Current research is exploring the most suitable models.
The road to land ownership hell is sometimes paved with good intentions
Land titling guaranteed by a public authority is not always sufficient. "A dominant discourse often associates the right to private property with land security for small family farms in the Global South. It is thought to allow for investment and create virtuous processes for developing productivity, increasing wealth and generally improving both quality of life for rural farmers and food security for the entire population," explains Éric Léonard, a socio-economist and geographer in the SENS unit. "When they hold a legal title, farmers can access credit by pledging it, or obtain greater returns from their land by selling it to invest in other activities."
Public authorities, developers and donors have taken up this issue: large-scale programs have been launched, most notably in Africa, in order to record the customary rights that have governed land use since time immemorial and transpose them into property rights guaranteed by the State. But granting an individual, exclusive, private title, which only recognizes and legitimizes a single land user, jeopardizes other users and practices that are essential to maintaining the balance of the community and local economy. "These individual ownership processes deny the existence of overlapping usage rights between farmers, women who harvest shea nuts from trees on the plot, or collect dead wood for cooking, shepherds who bring their livestock to graze on leaves and stalks after the harvest, and charcoal burners who cut high branches from time to time for making charcoal, to give just a few examples," explains the specialist. "What's more, land registration is often accompanied by State expropriation of portions of customary territories – fallow land or non-allotted collectives – which can then be conceded to companies or individuals on the grounds of enhancing the national domain." The road to land ownership hell is therefore sometimes paved with good intentions.
Ensuring access to healthy diets
The share of family farming in food production varies greatly from country to country: from 5% in Nigeria and Brazil, to 90% in China.Many family farms use chemical inputs less extensively than farms that face commercial pressure, while maintaining great diversity in production and a certain degree of flexibility to adopt new cultural practices. All of this makes family farming the preferred organizational model for a transition toward sustainable food systems in which agroecology plays an important role. Family farming could therefore provide people with healthier food, which is especially important in addressing the major food hygiene issues facing the Global South. It should also help maintain local markets and reduce the food security threats related to the globalization of trade.
Responding to the junk food epidemic in the Global South
Long confined to rich countries, junk foodDiets that are detrimental to health, and the array of health problems that accompany it, have now spread to the Global South. People in these countries are attracted to the abundance of food offerings supplied by agro-industrial production, considering that it represents a new form of prosperity. And the incidence of chronic diseases related to nutritional imbalances and poor-quality, highly processed foods is now soaring in Central America, South America, the Maghreb, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Oceania. Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other related complications have become serious public health issues, especially in cities. And health systems do not always have the means to treat them effectively. "Urban areas in Africa are hotspots for the development of chronic diet-related diseases," says Éric Verger, a nutritional epidemiology specialist in the MOISA unit at IRD. "Along with cancer, they are set to become the new leading causes of mortality."
And this recent proliferation of highly processed food, whose detrimental effects have been clearly established, is sometimes compounded by other local factors, with dire consequences: "In keeping with a cultural representation that still generally considers being overweight as a sign of good female health, and conversely, associates thinness with illness, it is primarily women who suffer from overweight and obesity in African cities. Their prevalence has become a veritable epidemic in just a few decades," says Mathilde Savy, a nutritional epidemiologist who is also in the MOISA unit at IRD. She has studied eating habits in Bamako and the surrounding region, via the AgriSaN study.
The challenges of nutritional quality
Against this backdrop, in which the local industry for highly processed foods represents both a development opportunity for Southern economies and a major health issue, sustainable family farming is a promising alternative that ensures the continued provision of nutritional foods. Consumers in the Global South are starting to become aware of these issues. "In India, since COVID, there has been strong demand among upper middle classes for 'organic' food," explains Isabelle Guérin, an IRD socio-economist at the Centre for Social Sciences Studies of the African, American and Asian Worlds (CESSMA). "This market is exploding, driven by high-profile cases of chemical food contamination. In the absence of the official quality labels used in Western countries, the term ‘natural farming’ is used there, and the government has now taken up this idea by stating that natural farming is inherent to Hinduism." This new market therefore benefits both from the support of the authorities and a portion of the agri-business which has understood the importance of these issues. For now, it is primarily medium-sized farms that have made the transition, given the resources required for fallowing, coping with lower yields and accessing these urban markets. However, certain highly interventionist policies, as in the state of Andhar Pradesh, for example, could foster a massive conversion from small-scale family farming to natural farming, in order to develop a higher-quality food supply for Indian city-dwellers. These food-quality and diversity issues are evidently less prominent for rural populations.
Varied landscapes and regimes
In isolated urban areas with low population density, as in the tropical rainforests of Central Africa, the Congo Basin and Madagascar for example, family farming provides a highly diversified, balanced diet. "Production based on the slash-and-burn farming which prevails here leaves large swathes of uncultivated land, whether completely preserved or fallow land, leaving opportunities for the development of useful wild species (for eating or healing – there is sometimes a fine line between the two) or escape crops," explains Stéphanie Carrière, an IRD ethno-ecologist in the Knowledge, Environment and Societies research unit (SENS). "In addition to the crops grown, which are the quantitative basis of the diet, they provide a surplus with great qualitative value." Scientists are working to understand the dynamics at play and how these virtuous systems could be adapted to the changes brought by demographic, economic and political pressures, without being completely distorted.
This is important since certain agricultural policies – whether or not they are combined with natural and artificial environmental upheavals (drought, creation of dams etc.) – can severely alter family farming. "In sixty years, communities in the Senegal river valley, for example, have undergone a worrying impoverishment of their food system," says Éric Verger. "These family farms, which once grew a highly diversified crop, based on dry-season sorghum and mainly intended for self-consumption, are now dedicated to intensive, irrigated rice production, alternated with onion and tomato production. This change in agricultural organization has come with a significant loss in nutritional intake." For rural households involved in agricultural production, the quest for food sovereignty for their country, which drove them into commercial rice production, has resulted in a much poorer diet.
In many countries in the Global South, where the rural population remains in the majority, small-scale family farming supplies a significant and varied proportion of urban food and related resources, such as wood for heating and cooking in Madagascar, for example. Food sovereignty objectives are therefore based on this mode of production. These objectives have been revived by various crises, such as Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine and the previous invasion in the 2000s.
Food sovereignty objectives
"The food crisis of 2007-2008, and the hunger and riots it led to in many Southern countries, made it clear that the liberalization of agricultural markets has been a failure," says Éric Léonard, an IRD socio-economist and geographer in the SENS research unit. The model based on comparative advantages and competitive integration has not led to the desired economic development. But most importantly, it has made Southern countries highly vulnerable to shocks affecting international trade systems. "Indeed, competitive integration, in which needs for food products can be met by relying on international markets, functions poorly in situations where global stocks are tight," he explains. "And it offers no guarantee that the supply will be sustained." This is a lesson many countries have learned at their own expense. As a result, there has been a growing interest in the notion of food sovereignty, which means ensuring a secure food supply base at the national level, instead of relying on international markets to ensure food security. Some countries who can afford to do so, such as those with low agricultural capacity in the Arabian Peninsula, have relied on the externalization of production and corporate farmingA form of agricultural entrepreneurship in which the distribution of capital and labor is the responsibility of separate players. to ensure this supply. "But this strategy based on acquiring land from governments abroad to the detriment of local farming communities – often described as land-grabbing – puts this powerful corporate farming in competition with family farming systems in less fortunate Southern countries," says Éric Léonard, who is a specialist in land issues. Consequently, securing the supply for certain communities in the Global South could put a strain on that of others, especially poorer countries where family farming helps contribute to food sovereignty.
But this "surge" in corporate (or entrepreneurial) farming also goes hand in hand with an internal movement in some Southern countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, toward investment in the agricultural sector by political and urban elites. "They take advantage of the structural crisis facing family farming and land policies that are not favorable to customary law systems to acquire land in rural areas," says the specialist. "Although these dynamics are less visible than major foreign investments, they may involve much larger cumulative surface areas of land than such investments."
Rural insecurity and agroecological intensification
Paradoxically, at the sub-national level, food insecurity hotspots in the Global South are concentrated in rural areas, precisely where agricultural activity predominates. The idea that in order to avoid recurring food shortages, farmers should abandon food crops, which are poverty traps, in favor of specialized crops, is very popular in some development circles. Yet, this model does not work well in many situations, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has adverse effects: dependency, debt, gender inequality, vulnerability to global change. According to FAO experts, family farming, combined with agroecology, is the key pathway toward sustainable food systems. "With its highly diversified production, it offers invaluable resilience to climate change," says Éric Verger. "As within the ongoing DINAAMICC and Innov’Earth projects in Madagascar, research is striving to boost its productivity and resilience, through better integration of livestock rearing into agriculture, participatory varietal selection, practices that support fertility and soil function restoration, and improved yields and nutritional values of food products."
Sahelian agroecology has fulfilled its promises
Hedge-planting, “zaiA technique that consists of digging small troughs about thirty centimetres deep, filled with organic matter, with an earthen rim to catch rainwater, where the cultivated plants are sown.” , hedging with species known to prevent grazing, the cessation of burning, climate-smart practices, and agroecological techniques tested in the field by scientists and development stakeholders have produced tangible results. "In Senegal's groundnut basin, where we've encouraged farmers to sow and implement technical programs based on weather and climate forecasts, to limit the use of chemical inputs by replacing them with manure, to stop burning the woody biomass obtained from cutting stump regrowth while clearing plots of land and instead bury it to provide organic matter, and to maintain a certain tree density while choosing varieties of seeds suited to the season, their yields have increased by 55 to 60%," explains Diaminatou Sanogo, an agroecology specialist at the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA). These sustainable, agroecology-based practices make it possible to produce more, and more consistently, while maintaining healthy soil, water and biodiversity and reducing the costs for farmers.
In Burkina Faso, developing the Sahelian Bocage is a gamble that is now paying off. Based on a network of inter-village associations and pilot farms, an NGO has been responding to farmers’ requests for help with securing their production in a semi-arid environment for nearly 35 years. "The development of hedging-enclosed bocage plots,* managed through the co-ownership of rural land, helps optimize water resources based on the zero-runoff principle," says Alain Gouba, a development sociologist and sustainable farming specialist for the non-profit organization Terre Verte. The zai technique, hedges and bunds to reduce run-off between each plot, protecting the planted area from roaming animals, and agroforestry alongside the fields have significantly reduced the impact of frequent climate hazards on production." There is no longer famine, even in the event of drought – farmers can always manage to harvest products, no matter how difficult the season has been," says the specialist. "Our method has even been nicknamed 'harvest insurance'". Today, nearly 2,000 hectares have been laid out in hedging-enclosed bocage plots, at the farmers' request.
*Over 100 hectares each, in which each family farms a 2.56 hectare plot divided into 4 plots, each measuring 0.64 hectares.