There’s something disconcerting about the idea of small farmers, the people who grow much of the world’s food, going hungry.

But the newest figures on international food insecurity, released by three U.N. agencies on Wednesday, show that most of the 795 million people worldwide who don’t get enough to eat are, in fact, farmers.

“Three quarters of the world’s hungry are living in rural areas,” Josefina Stubbs, a senior official with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the U.N.’s agricultural bank, told reporters.

“Most of them depend on agriculture for their livelihood.”

Celebrated in TV commercials filled with blue skies and golden hay bales, respected for their hard work and producing the most crucial of goods, farmers – most of us would agree – are among the last people who deserve to go hungry.

An estimated 500 million small farms produce about 80 percent of the developing world’s food, and 2 billion people depend on these farms for their livelihood, according to IFAD.

But a lack of investment, poor infrastructure to bring food to market, and unfair trade policies mean many of these small growers continue to go hungry.

“International trade can be a double-edged sword,” said Jomo Sundaram, a senior Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official. “Some countries can afford to subsidise their farmers, and others can’t, so the results have been mixed.”

Wealthy countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development spent $258 billion subsidising agriculture in 2013, data from the Paris-based organisation shows.

Small farmers in poor countries who don’t have fertilizers, equipment, consistent land access or proper roads to store and distribute their crops can’t compete with heavily subsidised, well capitalised, industrial producers.

“Often, the poorest and most vulnerable don’t have access to services,” said World Food Programme (WFP) official Stanlake Samkange.

There is, of course, more to the story than trade policy, aid or investment.

Twenty percent of the world’s hungry live in areas facing crises beyond their control, said Samkange. There isn’t much poor farmers can do about wars, natural disasters or political tensions.

In much of the world the hunger situation is improving, but many farmers – especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia – have actually seen conditions worsen in recent years.

Their counterparts in East Asian countries like China, and in South America are doing far better.

Globally there are 216 million fewer hungry people today than there were in 1990, U.N. agencies said.

Social protection and public investments are key to reducing starvation among rural farmers, said FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva.

Working at Brazil’s agriculture ministry when the country was facing serious rural hunger, da Silva helped pioneer a programme where local farms would sell produce to government entities, which cooked the food and gave it to schoolchildren.

The plan stimulated local economies, giving income to small farmers while making sure the next generation of rural residents stayed in school.

“Local programmes promote local development,” he said. “Hunger is concentrated in rural areas; we need to promote rural development in an inclusive way.”

Until that happens, many farmers will continue to go hungry.

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation trust.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Chris Arsenault is a Rome-based reporter for the Thomson Reuters Foundation covering food security issues.

Image: A worker dries coffee beans at the Santa Adelaida coffee cooperative in La Libertad, on the outskirts of San Salvador December 10, 2012. REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez.