As World Food Day approaches on 16 October, about 870 million people suffer from hunger and more than 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies – essential vitamins and minerals needed for good health.

Over 50 countries have levels of hunger that are “extremely alarming”, “alarming” or “serious”, according to the IFPRI 2012 Global Hunger Index, many of which are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. What’s more, emerging challenges, including food price volatility, climate change, natural resource scarcity, population growth and rapid urbanization, put new pressures on the already fragile global food system.

Smallholder farmers are critical to advancing agricultural transformation, improving food security and achieving broader development goals, especially when the non-farm economy has yet to produce significant growth. However, smallholder agriculture is a risky operation due to weather, health, financing and price shocks. The recent increase in world agricultural prices after decades of decline might cause some of the tables to turn, but only if smallholders are given new opportunities so that they can benefit, especially by improving their resilience to shocks.

First, technology innovations must be smallholder-friendly, new crop varieties must be resistant to abiotic stresses, and livestock breeds must be strengthened. “Triple win” innovations are needed to improve adaptation and promote mitigation of climate change while boosting productivity. Measures include adjusting planting dates, adopting high-yielding drought-resistant crop varieties, and improving land management for increased carbon storage.

Second, more productive and better targeted social safety measures, such as public works programmes or cash or food transfers, are needed to cushion the poor against shocks in the short run and improve productivity in the long run through access to credit, extension and technology.

Third, innovative insurance and financing instruments are required to encourage farmers to take productivity-enhancing risks, such as adopting new technologies and high-value crops. Examples include weather insurance, futures contracts and guarantee funds.

Fourth, integrating smallholders into agri-food value chains is vital. Nutrition-focused value chain approaches, which focus on increasing the supply and demand of foods that are rich in essential micronutrients such as fruits and vegetables or bio-fortified foods, can simultaneously enhance smallholder income opportunities and improve nutrition for all.

Finally, public-private partnerships – a key component of the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture Initiative – offer great promise for strengthening the resilience of smallholders and improving their food security.

Author: Shenggen Fan is Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He serves as Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Security.

Image: A farmer winnows paddy during harvesting season on the outskirts of Srinagar. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli