Helping small scale farms thrive is the key to feeding our booming world

People dry crops on a farm in Liaocheng, China.
People dry crops on a farm in Liaocheng, China.
Image: China Daily/via Reuters
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By 2050, we are all going to have a lot more neighbors. According to recent data, the global population is expected to exceed 9 billion people in the next 30 years, with the highest rate of growth occurring in developing countries. This, along with changing diets resulting from a collective rise in income, will require a significant increase in food production, exacerbated by the deleterious effects of climate change.

If we want our children to thrive in the 21st century, then we must immediately grapple with the challenge of feeding our growing population and doing so sustainably. We believe that the solution lies with a demographic that, despite its large constituency, has suffered in the shadows for far too long—the 500 million smallholder farms in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Over 2 billion people live and work on small-scale farms, and together they produce 80% of the food supply in these regions. The people who work and subsist on these farms have increasingly become critical partners in our supply chains at Heineken, Hershey, Sodexo, and Unilever as well as the supply chains of other multinational food and beverage companies. Together, these smallholder farmers have the power to not only feed our growing global population, but also reduce rural poverty and usher in an era of more sustainable agricultural practices.

Despite the importance of smallholders to food production and security, they often lack the technology, infrastructure, and market access needed to increase their productivity and incomes. The majority are living in poverty and on the margins of society, making them extremely vulnerable to the economic and climate variabilities that are only increasing in frequency. These challenges keep smallholder farmers from reaching their full potential—but they also represent a unique opportunity and business imperative for food and beverage companies to invest. By supporting smallholder farmers, we have the ability to improve livelihoods while increasing yields and guaranteeing a reliable source of sustainably grown crops.

How can those of us who recognize the importance of smallholder farmers—to our businesses and to society—help remove the constraints that prevent them from running viable and profitable enterprises? The answer must lie in cross-sector partnerships. Whether it’s with other industry players, nonprofits, or local governments, collaboration has been critical to our success in developing and implementing these programs. Much of what we know has come from our work with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), which pioneered such cross-sector partnerships and moved us beyond philanthropy to putting social and environmental benefit at the very heart of business.

Through CGI, we have made Commitments to Action, or concrete and measurable plans, to embark on efforts such as empowering Ghana’s smallholder farmers to supply commercial markets with peanuts, and connecting Haitian smallholder farmers to the rapidly growing international market for moringa leaf powder. Others of us have committed $1 billion to bring more small and medium enterprises, especially those owned and operated by women, into our company’s global supply chain. Our experiences informed a recent CGI report that highlights the critical importance of partnerships in enabling investments in smallholder farmers.

This week is last time that CGI will convene top business, government, philanthropy, and NGO leaders for its Annual Meeting, where participants will address the plight of smallholder farmers and other pressing issues. While the platform is closing, we will continue to honor the commitments that we have made. The inevitable population boom makes it crucial that we continue to work across sectors to enable long-term growth in smallholder businesses and connect large multi-national food companies with small-scale farms.

As global leaders descend on New York this week, including at the UN General Assembly,  to discuss our most pressing challenges, now is the time to reignite a conversation about global food production. Nothing less than a transformation of our food system is required. To ensure this happens, we must recommit to supporting the smallholder farmers whose destinies are inextricably linked to our own.