Sustainable food security

The role of FAO's Sustainable Development Department

Ensuring food security - the basic right of people to the food they need - is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the world community. The challenge is most critical in low-income, food-deficit countries. Achieving sustainable increases in food production in these, and other, developing nations requires strategies that address four key dimensions of sustainable agriculture and rural development:


This presentation outlines food security strategies in each of these four dimensions, with links below to in-depth articles and details of assistance provided to developing countries by the Sustainable Development Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Begin the presentation below or, if you have an advanced browser and a fast connection, switch now to our text-and-graphics presentation.



800,000,000 of the developing world's 1,100 million poor live in rural areas. The vast majority are directly dependent on agriculture for employment and income. Boosting the rural economy, particularly through increased food and agriculture production, is therefore one of the chief means of alleviating poverty.

Bringing these people into the economic mainstream is a complex task. Among the major causes of their low productivity is their very limited access to resources, such as land, education, credit, energy and farm services. In many countries, this reflects the low priority given by government to agriculture. Another factor is the poor's lack of organization: delivering services to isolated, individual producers is simply too costly.

The most disadvantaged of all are women, the "silent majority" of the world's poor. Rural women produce up to 80% of food in developing countries. Yet studies indicate they have title to only a fraction of farm land, and access to just 10% of credit and 5% of extension advice. Their food security is deteriorating as men emigrate in search of jobs and leave them with total responsibility for the farm.

The cycle of food insecurity and poverty will be broken only when all rural people have the means to generate income to buy food or the resources to produce for their needs. Macro-economic policies to stimulate the rural sector are essential. But equally important is strengthening the capacity of the poor to participate in socio-economic development. A key strategy is building grassroots organizations that represent the poor's interests and provide economies-of-scale in accessing resources, markets and technology.

FAO's Sustainable Development Department designs policies, strategies and methodologies to foster the active participation of rural people - men and women - in agriculture and rural development. Through its People's Participation Programme (PPP), SD is helping build small, self-reliant groups of the rural poor. Its programmes on rural women and population provide capacity building and training, increase policy maker's awareness of gender issues, address women's key roles in food production and food security, and analyse demographic links with environment and food production.



The past decade has witnessed the collapse worldwide of political systems that centralized decision making and weakened the fabric of rural society. The subsequent withdrawal of government from rural development has often created an institutional vacuum and led to agricultural stagnation, food insecurity and conflict over resources.

Reconstruction of rural institutions - society's framework of rules, laws, association and consensus - is vital to economic recovery and social stability. The challenge is to seize opportunities created by economic liberalization and democratization to forge a new compact between state, market and civil society.

Recognition of producers' organizations - such as cooperatives - as entities of public interest, with rights and responsibilities in rural policy, is a cornerstone of these new arrangements. Their political and social empowerment has an economic pay-off: a more efficient marketplace and a broader social consensus for structural economic reforms.

The new role of the state should be to facilitate, rather than direct, rural development. Decentralization of public resources and agricultural support services to geographical regions - and to municipalities and civil society organizations - is an essential part of this strategy.

Agrarian reform should seek to remove obstacles that discourage farmers from investing in their land. By recognizing existing land markets and the diversity of land transactions taking place in rural areas, the so-called "third generation" land reforms strengthen farmers' productive potential and allow them to respond effectively to changing economic opportunities and constraints.

FAO's Sustainable Development Department addresses poverty eradication, links between government and civil society, institutional reform and access to land, natural resources and productive assets. It identifies appropriate institutional structures for rural administration and services, studies the dynamics of rural land, labour and finance markets, and advises FAO member governments on improved mechanisms for incorporating civil society institutions into policy-making. It analyses the benefits and constraints of different types of land tenure regimes.



Sharing knowledge is the basis of human progress. In the decades ahead, the challenge of ensuring food security for the world's rapidly expanding population calls for profound improvements in the agricultural knowledge system.

The starting point is a new agenda for research. Today's Green Revolution technologies will remain the driving force of food production gains in high potential areas. But improved farm management and information systems are needed to minimize the environmental impact of external inputs.

In marginal areas, high-input farming systems are impractical - their environmental costs are too high and low-income farmers do not have the resources and expertise to adopt them. These producers need crop varieties adapted to adverse conditions, biological pest and disease control methods, and farming systems that blend traditional knowledge with research innovations.

New strategies for technology transfer and dissemination are urgently required. In many countries, extension services' neglect of small-scale farmers - especially women - has deprived them of the knowledge needed to boost productivity and incomes. Solutions will include more participatory extension systems that involve farmer organizations in setting research priorities and in transferring and testing the results in the field, and communication strategies to overcome the barriers of illiteracy, language, cultural differences and isolation.

Reversing the decline in investment in agricultural research, formal education and extension is a major priority. Only renewed international commitment to the agricultural knowledge system can guarantee food security for all.

FAO's Sustainable Development Department helps strengthen national research and technology capabilities in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and natural resources management. It fosters effective information and technology transfer, and knowledge sharing and learning, by strengthening systems and programmes for agricultural education, extension, communication and training.



The environmental costs of agriculture have included massive soil erosion, deforestation, pollution and loss of plant and animal genetic diversity. With the developing world's population expected to grow to 7,200 million over the next 30 years, could expanding food production push an increasingly fragile natural resource base beyond its limits?

Supplies of land, water and firewood are shrinking in many regions. By 2020, Southast Asia will have less than a hectare of arable land per person. Within just five years, 300 million people, mainly in North Africa, will face critical water scarcities. More than 130 million Africans already live in areas where firewood consumption outpaces the regenerative capacity of their forests.

Increasing food production while protecting the environment - particularly in marginal areas - requires production systems that increase productivity while reducing pollution and resource degradation. Many ecologically sound technologies - such as biological control of pests, agroforestry, biogas digesters and improved irrigation management - are already in use or being developed.

But sustainable use of natural resources must also be socially and economically viable. Governments must foster active dialogue with farmers about the uses of their land, address constraints in land tenure and access to productive assets, increase budgets for agricultural research, extension and education, and provide for continuous environmental monitoring.

The availability of energy is a key factor in achieving food security with environmental protection - it increases labour efficiency and helps diversify the range of economic activities in rural areas.

FAO's Sustainable Development Department advises governments on integrated policy, planning, and management of natural resources. It coordinates FAO implementation of the 1992 Earth Summit's Agenda 21, global environmental conventions and action for small island states. SD promotes sustainable energy strategies and technologies, and helps developing countries use remote sensing, agrometeorology and geographic information systems to manage natural resources and monitor crop conditions.


FAO's Sustainable Development Department

The challenge facing agriculture is to satisfy people's rights to food security and, at the same time, ensure that the natural resource base remains productive for the future. As populations grow, and land and water resources dwindle, the world must make a rapid shift to sustainable agriculture and rural development. This approach seeks to ensure that present and future generations have equal access to the total capital of natural and human resources.

The Sustainable Development Department (SD) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was created in January 1995. It focuses on four crucial elements of sustainability: people's participation and mainstreaming of women in development, agrarian transformation and instititional reform, research, extension and education, and natural resource monitoring and management.

It promotes sustainability concepts, strategies and methods in each of these areas, and helps integrate them in the development programmes of both FAO member countries and FAO's own technical units.

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