Family farmers can feed the world why are we looking elsewhere?

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Farmers work on a terraced paddy field for the new rice season in Vietnam's northern Mu Cang Chai District, 360 km (225 miles) northwest of Hanoi. PHOTO: REUTERS

Right now, 870 million people in the world are hungry. In Vietnam alone, an estimated 11.5 million people"”14 percent of the population"”do not get enough to eat.

The United Nations reports that many countries are on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving their 1990 rates of hunger by 2015. But before the world gives itself a collective pat on the back, it's important to realize nearly one in eight people are still hungry.

National and international leaders, farmers groups, and research organizations need to find solutions that really nourish the world, while improving farmer incomes, empowering youth and women, and protecting the environment. And with 2014 having been declared the International Year of Family Farming by the United Nations, the time to act is now.

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And these solutions won't be found in silver bullet technologies or billion-dollar government food aid programs. Supporting the world's small family farmers with the resources they need to grow food for themselves, their communities, and the world is the way forward.

Approximately 9.7 million farms in Vietnam qualify as small family farms, with landholdings measuring less than two hectares (4.94 acres). And although these farms are small in size, the potential that they have to improve yields and environmental sustainability of agricultural production is big.

Industrial agriculture practices tend to be extremely resource-intensive and can damage the environment 70 percent of global water use goes to farming, and soil is being eroded between 10 and 40 times faster than it's being replenished.

According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), irrigated lands"”such as rice paddies in Vietnam"”divert 20-30 percent of the world's available water resources, but only about 40-50 percent of that gets used for crop cultivation due to inefficiencies in water distribution systems.

Smallholder farmers typically have intimate knowledge of their landscapes and local climates, and with adequate support and resources could help to transform the food system through using more sustainable methods that can also boost productivity.

They are also more likely to use traditional knowledge and techniques to rely less on scarce natural resources, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than industrial farms.

Methods like the System of Rice Intensification allow farmers to decrease their use of water while maximizing rice yields from smaller portions of land by adapting cultivation practices based on an area's soil, climate, nutrients, plants, and water. The system minimizes the need for resources like water and seeds by using methods that improve soil quality, pest resistance, and crop viability.

And a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiative has partnered with Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development in each of Vietnam's agricultural regions to promote production of indigenous rice varieties and establish sustainable rice cultivation systems.

The project's effort to connect policymakers with local farmers has established sustainable partnerships that promote diverse and nutrient-dense yields from small-scale farming communities.

While many policymakers are pushing for industrial agricultural practices, FAO realizes that focusing on small-holder farmers and agro-ecological practices can improve food security, income and environmental sustainability.

It has been seen, for instance, that modern irrigation practices introduced in service of intensified farming have robbed small-scale farmers in the Mekong Delta of flooding benefits (which bring in silt deposits and replenish the region's soil, making it fertile).

Rural areas, where the vast majority of family farmers live, suffer from higher rates of poverty than urban ones. In Vietnam, 27 percent of the rural population lives below the national rural poverty line, while 14 percent of the urban population lives below the national urban poverty line.

Supporting the success of family farms"”and increasing the incomes of family farmers"”can significantly raise the overall standard of living in Vietnam. Research from Oxfam shows that investing in small farmers also creates a "multiplier" effect that extends beyond the farming sector"”farmers spend a big share of their income in other sectors, including construction, infrastructure, and manufacturing.

Organizations such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) are implementing projects that work toward this end. For example, IFAD's Pro-Poor Partnerships for Agroforestry Development Project works to alleviate poverty predominantly affecting ethnic minorities in rural areas.

The project provides farmers with strategies to maximize land use through the establishment of village forestry management boards and by facilitating land ownership and diverse cultivation practices. The program is directly benefiting 11,300 households in Bac Kan, Vietnam's poorest province.

Small family farms carry the potential to nourish the hungry, stimulate economies, and protect the environment. With these sorts of impressive returns, donors, nonprofits, and governments must focus their attention more on family farmers and invest in programs and infrastructure that empower them.

When nourishing the world is what's at stake, there's no time to wait. Only decisive action can ensure that the International Year of Family Farming will actually make a difference for family farmers.

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By Danielle Nierenberg and Kathleen Corr

* Danielle Nierenberg is co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org) and Kathleen Corr is a research intern at Food Tank.

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