Introduction to building greater local control and resilience into agricultural and food systems

IIED is working to promote farming systems that are sustainable, productive and resilient – and to support smallholder farmers and farmer-led innovation. 

Article, 05 August 2013
Resilience and diversity in food systems
A programme of work on how IIED is building greater local control, resilience and diversity into agricultural and food systems
Afghan farmers and extension workers assess an okra field in Balkh Province, Northern Afghanistan (Photo: Barbara Adoph/IIED)

Afghan farmers and extension workers assess an okra field in Balkh Province, Northern Afghanistan (Photo: Barbara Adoph/IIED)

Food production will have to increase if population levels continue to rise and consumption patterns in low- and middle-income countries continue to follow those in the global North. At the same time, improving access to food is critical – the world already currently produces enough food to feed everyone, yet about 800 million people are chronically undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Another major challenge is improving the sustainability of agriculture and food systems and their resilience to the effects of climate change. Farmers and pastoralists in many parts of the world are losing control over land and natural resources, as well as components of food systems, in particular markets. This reduces their resilience and ability to cope with climatic stresses and shocks. 

Vulnerable food producers and consumers often do not benefit from technological advances in agricultural sciences or the expansion of agricultural commodity markets.

IIED is carrying out action research to address these challenges.

Our work aims to promote farming systems that are more sustainable, productive and resilient, and to support smallholder farmers in particular.

We conduct analysis of agri-food systems, including the policy and institutional environment that supports or hinders sustainability and equity. We focus in particular on understanding and supporting farmer-led innovation that is largely based on local knowledge and resources.

Farmers' knowledge and understanding of new challenges, such as changes in weather patterns over time, can be expanded when working with researchers and development practitioners in an equitable way, and vice versa.

We are working with indigenous communities to strengthen traditional knowledge-based innovation systems and agrobiodiversity for climate resilience; and with Irish Aid to help integrate climate risk assessments and better climate adaptation into their programme design, building on farmers’ own experiences.

Many local and traditional practices are based on principles of agroecology – the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems. Agroecological principles are increasingly recognised as contributing to sustainable and resilient farming systems.

IIED is working with partners to identify opportunities for scaling up the use of agroecological practices in a context-specific and sustainable way that enables smallholder farmers to achieve food security and move out of poverty, while retaining control over the means of production and make efficient use of available resources.

In contrast, mainstream agricultural development actors have preferred the concept of "sustainable intensification", which describes a situation whereby more food, fibre and fodder are produced from the same area of land in a sustainable manner.

We consider agroecological approaches to have the potential to contribute significantly to sustainable intensification, without compromising on the key social dimensions of equity and local control over resources. Identifying what intensification approaches work for whom, and how they work, is an emerging research interest for us and our partners.