A significant proportion of global food production comes from small family farms embedded in diversified and highly resilient rural economies. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, 80% of food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is grown on small farms. Though smallholders are vital as food producers and landscape managers in these regions, they are also custodians of culture. At the same time, they strengthen the rural economy by generating products for global food value chains, the processes that make food and commodities out of harvests. In short, smallholder farmers can be considered an essential component of sustainable development.

The UN Decade of Family Farming (2019-2028) is an “extraordinary opportunity to advance public policies that allow the development of family farming and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals”, according to FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva. While much effort goes into the design and planning of liveable and smart cities, development agencies invest less in small farmers, fisherfolk, livestock producers, and rural labourers. Rural areas, however, often display at least as much dynamic and rapid change as their urban counterparts. Seasonal adaptations, natural resource degradation, demographic transition, climate change, migration, mechanization and institutional decline are all processes that affect smallholders in Asia and elsewhere.

The worldwide population of smallholder farmers is estimated at 450 million, with approximately 350 million in Asia, including 100 million in Southeast Asia. Approximately half of these farmers produce, at least partially, for the market. They pursue dual livelihoods – growing their own food and selling surplus production to the market – that make them valuable actors in terms of ensuring their own food security and being the origin of many important global value chains.

Nevertheless, hard as well as soft factors threaten these rural livelihoods. Hard constraints include occupying marginal lands, with low-quality soil and limited access to irrigation, as well as the threats of climate change. Soft factors that restrain many smallholders from developing their farm operations result from limited access to machinery and other inputs, such as agricultural extension opportunities and supportive finance and insurance arrangements.

Another crucial factor that jeopardizes smallholder agriculture the is aging of farmers: the share of older farmers is growing while the share of young farmers is shrinking. In Asia’s countryside, the share of farmers aged 65 and over increased from 4.6% of the total farmer population in 2000 to 6.2% of the total population in 2015. In that same time period, the number of children under 10 in farm households, an indicator of future working-age populations, declined from 25.6% to 20.2%, while the number of people over 60 is expected to double over the next 30 years.

Attracted by higher wages in urban industry and the service sectors, younger potential farmers are not staying to pursue farming livelihoods. Despite the fact that young farmers are open to new technology and sustainable farming practices, and have the potential to be innovative, the current trend of rural outmigration continues to increase. In Northeast Thailand, for example, crop productivity is decreasing despite mechanization, government subsidies and farming support programmes.

As the population of small farmers in Asia decreases, demands from a growing middle class with evolving tastes and diets are increasing. Calls for more inclusive and equitable agricultural systems, healthier foods, and more sustainable and robust food systems are changing the agrifood value chain. The rise in conservation agriculture, organic agriculture and biological pest control, paired with technological advances in information and communication technology, is answering such calls. These technological advances are scalable, potentially available to hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers around the world who manage less than two hectares.

Enabling conditions for sustainable agricultural and rural development might include pro-poor and pro-producer policies, as well as better infrastructure. But the most important enabling factors will be knowledge, technology, finance and innovations that specifically target smallholder farmers who lack resources to invest in their farming operations. These enabling conditions can help farmers boost their productivity and gain better access to markets, often in partnership with businesses and development agencies. These conditions will not only allow smallholder farmers to produce food more efficiently, thereby addressing food security, but will also enable them to generate more income and help them stay in business.

Many small farmers possess a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge. Acquiring new and complementary knowledge, however, is often hampered by remote locations and lack of connections, as well as by underfunded and understaffed extension services. However, rapid technological development is delivering major changes to rural communities, and many of these changes are advantages that farmers can seize. Knowledge-intensive agriculture will nourish these changes, and smallholder farmers must be ready to adopt everything from best practices and pricing transparency to financing options and direct access to markets and customers. This technological shift has already begun: many smallholder farmers use computer or mobile phone applications that provide them with personalized crop and nutrient management guidelines for rice, maize, and wheat production.

Investing in small farmers means investing in the future of our food system, and in a lively and diverse rural economy that benefits all communities. The current trends of rural flight, land consolidation, land grabbing and rural destitution must be swept away for investments in sustainable infrastructure, climate-smart technology, fair and environmentally sound value chains and diverse and nutritious agricultural products. These investments will ensure survival of the millions of smallholders in Asia who provide the backbone to our food system and our whole society.

Andrew Powell, CEO of Asia Bio Business, contributed to this Perspective.