The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just released a special feature on “Agricultural Development and Nutrition Security.” I had the honor of co-editing this issue
with my colleagues Laurette Dube from McGill University and Patrick Webb from Tufts University. In this issue we highlight the double nutritional burden that the developing world is facing, the growing problem of obesity and the rising incidence of non-communicable
diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, even as we continue to be dogged by stubbornly high levels of hunger and malnutrition, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It is striking, that in emerging economies such as India, the two problems seem to
co-exist, both requiring urgent public attention. The special issue highlights the crucial role small farmers could play in provisioning the cities with fresh local produce that is important to healthy diets.
There is no doubt that we have seen enormous progress in reducing the level of hunger and a dramatic improvement in energy and protein consumption of the poor, particularly in Asia and Latin America. The Green Revolution resulted in a sharp rise in productivity
for food crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, improving overall food supplies and reducing staple food prices. However, nutritional gains of the Green Revolution have been uneven; while overall calorie consumption increased, dietary diversity decreased for
many poor people and micro-nutrient malnutrition persists. Policies that promoted staple crop production, such as fertilizer and credit subsidies, price supports, and irrigation infrastructure tended to crowd out the production of traditional non-staple crops,
such as pulses (Dal) in India. Consumption of this and other micro-nutrient rich food declined as they became increasingly expensive for the diets of the poor.
At the same time, for middle class populations, urbanization and rising incomes are leading to major changes in diets, the pre-dominance of staples is giving way to greater diversity of foods consumed, including higher quantities of meat, dairy products,
vegetables, and fruit. Also rising is the consumption of processed and convenience food, which are often cheaper than fresh food and save food preparation time, particularly for women.
We are also beginning to see palpable changes in the way food is supplied to the cities across Latin America and Asia, and to a smaller extent in sub-Saharan Africa. Supermarkets are becoming ubiquitous and displacing traditional markets as primary providers
of food for urban populations. Integrating small farm households into the growing food retail value chains would be beneficial, both in terms of increasing the overall supply of fresh produce as well as a direct means of enhancing their own income and nutritional
Small farmers are the main source of supply now in traditional markets; the issue is how to help them increase the supply, enhance quality, and improve safety so that they can effectively compete in the modern retail system. Successfully accessing retail
markets requires trust, long term commitment, and transparent information about market opportunities and trends. These criteria favor larger farming operations. However, the disadvantage of small size can be overcome by farmers organizing themselves into cooperatives
or producer groups and thereby improving their bargaining power and managerial effectiveness.
The World Food Program’s “Purchase for Progress (P4P) Program”, which the Gates Foundation supports, is developing models for aggregating small farmers
and making them competitive suppliers to the World Food Program’s food procurement system. There could be several useful lessons from the P4P experience for integrating small farmers into the food retail value chain. Governments and private companies can jointly
help spread such models. Integrating small farmers into the food retail system is the only sustainable solution to improve their livelihoods, as well as providing locally grown food at a low cost to the burgeoning urban populations.