Smallholder Agriculture’s Contribution to Better Nutrition

“Smallholder agricultural development can be an excellent way to reduce poverty and tackle hunger in low income countries. This is a key finding from a new report written by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) under the commission of the Hunger Alliance, which was released in November 2012. Some 852 million people in the world were estimated to be undernourished in 2010–12, with about two billion suffering from micro-nutrient deficiencies, especially of Vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc, due to poor diets.

The report analysed decades of findings from programmes designed to combat food and nutrition insecurity in Bangladesh, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and India and investigated the role of smallholder agriculture in improving food security and nutrition in the developing world. It found that “Worldwide, and especially in the developing world, the production of food has increased ahead of population growth for most of the last fifty years. Much of this increase in availability has come from small-scale family farms, particularly in Asia”.

The role of women comes through as pivotal to success in the report which finds that the single most important thing that governments can do to meet the UN Secretary’s Zero Hunger Challenge is to help the millions of poor women in developing countries grow more food in their tiny plots of land in and around their homes and to give them complementary support in nutrition, sanitation and health. “Improving women’s access to – and control of – land, water, firewood and other productive resources, and their access to credit, micro-insurance, secondary education and rural extension services; and allowing women to make decisions regarding the household budget, and protecting women from pressure to renounce optimal breastfeeding practices” are cited as “game-changers” in the fight against global hunger and malnutrition.

The report’s core recommendations for smallholder agriculture to have a stronger impact on nutrition are to empower women farmers; promote home gardens and small-scale livestock and fish rearing; and complement agricultural programmes with education and nutrition communication, health services, clean water and sanitation.

The report names two key policy drivers that are needed in order to make the recommendations work. One is a rural investment climate that encourages agricultural investment and innovation that will ensure maximum benefits for smallholders, in particular, women. The second is the supply of public goods such as physical infrastructure of roads, power lines, irrigation and drainage; investments in education, health care, clean water and sanitation; and knowledge generation through agricultural research which takes account of indigenous knowledge and extension. Complementary initiatives suggested include awareness-raising on how to improve nutrition habits. The report advises concentrating on promoting a diversified diet pending more information on the effectiveness and acceptability of biofortified foods.

The full report by the Overseas Development Institute and the condensed Hunger Alliance Policy Briefing Paper are available at: The overview, conclusions and recommendations of the Policy Briefing Paper are reproduced below for ease of reference.

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This policy briefing draws on a report[i] commissioned by the UK Hunger Alliance (HA) and written by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which investigates smallholder agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition.[ii] The extensive review included long-term quantitative analysis on how smallholder agricultural development and other variables contribute towards tackling hunger in Bangladesh, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, and in Kerala in India. It also analysed interventions in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines, Mali and Zimbabwe, and micro-nutrient and health-focused programmes in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania.

Findings suggest that smallholder agricultural development that is environmentally sustainable can dramatically reduce poverty and hunger. To have greatest impact, investments should:

  • Empower small-scale women farmers
  • Promote small-scale farming including home gardens, small-scale livestock and fish-rearing
  • Complement agricultural programmes with education and nutrition communication, health services, clean water and sanitation.

Evidence from the case studies show these approaches can have striking positive impacts on nutrition and food:

·         4.5 million villagers improved their food security and nutrition status in Bangladesh by adopting home gardens that required few inputs and smallscale livestock rearing combined with women’s leadership, education in nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and improved maternal and child health.

·         Child stunting was cut by 16% in three years under the rights-and-livelihoods based SHOUHARDO intervention in Bangladesh involving 400,000 households. This included the integration of home gardens, women’s empowerment, mother and child health, vitamin A supplements, awareness-raising on improved nutrition habits, immunisations, savings groups, and cash-for-work as a safety net.

·         Child malnutrition fell in Kita in Mali after 1,400 poor women diversified diets through adopting vegetable home gardens that required few inputs and complemented this with raising awareness on food and nutrition practices, breastfeeding, sanitation, hygiene, and cooking demonstrations.

·         Micronutrient deficiency and child malnutrition was reduced in most countries during a 10-year integrated micro-nutrient and health programme (MICAH) in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania, which reached 6 million villagers through diversifying diets. This included growing fruit and vegetables and raising small-scale livestock, supplementation, fortification, infant and child feeding practices, clean water and sanitation, and disease control.


Smallholder agriculture development is a proven pathway to reducing poverty and hunger in poor countries. The findings point to three ways in which smallholder agriculture can be steered to have a greater impact on nutrition:

·         empowering women farmers;

·         promoting home gardens and small-scale livestock and fish raising;

·         complementing agricultural programmes with education and awareness-raising on improving

nutrition habits, health services, clean water and sanitation.

Tackling female disadvantage in agriculture is the ‘game-changer’, and this can be achieved by ensuring access to land for women in national laws and through recognition of collective rights to grazing, firewood and water. Addressing inequalities in women’s access to education, credit, local markets and extension services are vital, too.

The UK and G8 leaders should take up the UN Secretary-General’s ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ and make the goals of eradicating hunger by 2025 and realizing the right to adequate food for all a top priority. We recommend that the leaders:

Scale up public support for small-scale environmentally sustainable agricultural systems

·         G8 leaders and other donors should commit to funding the gap in country agriculture plans, including The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Donors should also commit to support the development of new country plans for interested countries including financial resources. This should be committed through robust financing for multilateral mechanisms such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP) public sector window.

·         The UK Government should use this opportunity to announce an additional £425 million per year for investment in small-scale agriculture, in accordance with the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign asks on investing in small investing in small-scale farmers, nutrition and climate.[iii]

·         Public goods and financial support for agriculture should be directed towards supporting

smallholders. Donors should provide funding and commitment to enable country-led strategies to this effect.

·         G8 leaders should add new indicators to monitor the impact of their commitments on small-scale producers, women and gender inequality, building on the ‘Food and Nutrition Security Scorecard’ in the 2012 G8 Accountability Report to enable better tracking of donor investments.

Increase support for women small-scale producers

·         Funding for agriculture should address women’s needs and tackle gender inequality in agriculture by recognising, promoting and protecting the rights of women smallholders to land, grazing, firewood and water bodies, and by improving access to rural extension services and local markets, especially for inputs, insurance and finance.

Promote improved, more accountable and joined-up country-led nutrition and food security strategies and approaches

·         Donors should ensure a joined-up multi-sector approach to address hunger and malnutrition

through health care, clean water and sanitation, and education on child care, hygiene and nutrition ensuring that investments in agriculture deliver the greatest benefits for improving nutrition.

·         Donors should increase support to existing multi-stakeholder platforms at the country level – for example, such as CAADP in Africa or the Scale Up Nutrition (SUN) platforms – to ensure greater monitoring, accountability and alignment of national food security and nutrition strategies.

[i] ODI (2012) Smallholder agriculture’s contribution to better nutrition, ODI: London

[ii] We define smallholders and smallholder agriculture as small scale food producers including farmers, herders, fisherfolk.

[iii] See the Enough Food for Everyone IF Campaign (2013):