Vision / Sustainable futures / Empower the world's small-holders to sow the seeds of change

Sustainable futures

Empower the world's small-holders to sow the seeds of change

It is easy, when thinking about and researching climate change, to see only abstract, future scenarios. Regularly in the media we are shown headlines focusing on renewable energy, out-of-control wildfires, melting polar ice, or deforestation. Less often are the stories about people – those already affected by changing conditions, and unpredictable weather patterns, for whom access to support and resources are scarce. Agriculture, a key source of emissions, is framed as an industrial behemoth, impacting the climate and causing all manner of problems.

The people within agricultural systems are often obscured or left out of these narratives. Farmers and their families are removed, as if agriculture were a system that operates without human involvement. The National Food Strategy, published earlier this year in England, talked about the ‘invisibility of nature’ and how societies don’t value that which they don’t notice. Farmers and food producers seem to be one such group.

There are some 608 million farms across the globe, many of which are family-run. Research by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN) has estimated that five of every six farms worldwide are less than two hectares in size, but produce 35% of the world’s food. People farm the land. Many of the world’s farmers are smallholders who live in difficult and challenging conditions. They grow crops to sell at market, and also to consume themselves. They exist in very different circumstances to the large commercial farms which are often depicted as ‘farming’ – with swathes of cereal crops being harvested by large machinery – imagery often devoid of people.

And yet smallholder farmers are a core part of the climate solution, if we are going to adapt agriculture to protect communities and make them more resilient, while also protecting and restoring habitats and the biodiversity they support. Including farmers in discussions about how we can make farming more sustainable is crucial if we are going to address the climate concerns brought on by agriculture. These farmers are already battling droughts, failing crop yields, or flooding as the climate changes.

"By centring on farmers, we can change the future of agriculture and the food we produce and consume."
David Salt

The FAO envisions five key principles to support sustainable agriculture:

  • Increased productivity, employment, and value addition
  • Protecting and enhancing natural resources
  • Improving livelihoods
  • Enhancing resilience of people, communities and ecosystems
  • Adapting governance to new challenges

One way to implement these principles, and better support sustainable agricultural practices, is to give attention and voice to the farmers themselves. Within the Future Food Beacon, we have a number of projects that are focused on improving the livelihoods of farmers, helping them engage in sustainable practices. Some of these projects take the form of developing value-added products that African farmers can produce from their key crops to gain additional income, or developing new crop varieties that are drought tolerant, and easier to grow and cook, as is the case with Bambara groundnut. We are also exploring increasing the use of nutritious wild foods such as Baobab and other African wild edible fruit. Working with historians we are examining the possibility of restoring some traditional African farming practices by understanding archived colonial-era soil maps that documented such practices.

Others are focused on cocoa farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean, where challenges like cadmium accumulation in cocoa beans is now a problem when exporting to Europe (due to new European legislation, limiting the amount of cadmium in beans). Our researchers are working to understand how cadmium is accumulated, and experimenting with non-cadmium accumulating root stock to be used for grafting, to examine whether this alters the cadmium found in the beans. Another aspect of cocoa farming we are interested in is the fermentation process. This key aspect of processing the beans occurs on the farm and is largely uncontrolled, and yet affects the quality and therefore the price farmers can receive for their beans. We are also concerned with supply chains, and the way alternative stories of food production can support transitions to more equitable food systems – a necessity laid bare by the pandemic.

It is of course, impossible to consider agriculture and sustainability without a discussion on the future of meat. Our Future Proteins Platform is investigating alternative proteins, both as food and feed, including for pig and poultry farming, and aquaculture. We need to stop feeding animals foodstuffs that can be eaten by people, and instead use other sources of proteins for their feed.

Agriculture and sustainability are no longer two opposing concepts. Agriculture is changing, although the speed at which this is occurring is slow. Cheap unhealthy food is still appealing to, and consumed by, many. But by centring on farmers, and working to support them through innovation, scientific information, and technology, we can change the future of agriculture and the food we produce and consume.

If you would like to learn more about our work to support farmers and tackle climate change, please visit the Future Food blog which explores these projects in more depth.

David Salt 

David Salt is the Director of the Future Food Beacon, and a Professor of Genome Enabled Biology in the School of Biosciences.

Further reading

McCarthy, L., Touboulic, A., and Matthews, L. Global trading: the good, the bad, and the essential. Future Food blog 27 April 2020. Available:

Salt, D. Researching fermentation in cocoa. Future Food blog 11 March 2020. Available:

Bambara groundnut:


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