The COVID-19 pandemic greatly exacerbated food insecurity in an already unsustainable global system, undermining years of modest development progress. Climate extremes, conflict, economic uncertainty, and rising inflation have left as many as 811 million people without sufficient access to safe and nutritious food. This situation will not change without bold action, accelerated by data and digital transformation.
Smallholder farmers—a term for producers with fewer than five acres of land—are the heart of local, national, and regional food systems. But they often lack access to reliable data, digital tools, and online connectivity, increasing their vulnerability to challenges such as low farm productivity, lack of access to inputs, financing, and markets. Additionally, increasing climate variability is wreaking havoc on food production. This has catastrophic impacts on global food security as smallholder farmers produce roughly a third of the world’s food on 12 percent of available agricultural land
The world is at a critical juncture when it comes to ending hunger, food insecurity, and all forms of malnutrition (Sustainable Development Goal Target 2), and there is an urgent need to align policy priorities and drive decision-making and investment to where they can have the greatest impact. These challenges were at the forefront of the 49th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) this month, following the release of the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition report and building upon the momentum of the United Nations Food Systems Summit in September. 

We co-hosted a virtual side event during CFS49 on how data and digital technology can support smallholder farmers and enable more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable food systems. The discussion addressed risks and opportunities, what is needed to ensure system-wide collaboration at the global, regional, and country levels, and how the data-focused CFS workstream can support system-wide collaboration, equity, and inclusivity across the food system.  

Here are our key takeaways from the event: 

1. Enabling and empowering smallholder farmers is critical to ensuring a sustainable food system. Investing in smallholder farmers is critical to reducing systemic inequalities in global food systems. The average farmer in emerging economies is between 50 and 60 years old, does not have reliable internet access, and has little to no experience with digital technologies. Donors and implementing partners have a responsibility to understand local communities in which they work and to support the use of digital tools that uplift local knowledge and capacity development and meet and align local needs, rather than building systems that duplicate efforts or are misaligned to local contexts. Supporting smallholder farmers through inclusive and representative digital tools and agricultural technologies has potential to increase equitable economic growth and earnings for smallholders and agricultural service providers. There is also an opportunity to equip the next generation of producers by training young people in agricultural technologies at the farm, professional, and university levels. 

2. Well-defined data governance is needed to avoid exacerbating inequalities in the global food system. Today, many of the most successful companies operate on business models that exchange data for services—often at no cost to their users. When it comes to farm-level data, this can exacerbate inequalities that smallholder farmers face in the global food system. Establishing clear principles and guidelines that prioritize smallholder producers’ privacy, safety, and agency in issues related to data governance and data ownership can help create a balance between government, corporate and farmer interests. 

3. External assistance should be aligned to country priorities and support flexible approaches to strengthen the digital capacities of smallholder producers. Strengthening countries’ technological capacities requires time, resources, and persistence to facilitate realistic solutions that impact the lives of smallholder producers. All stakeholders, from national governments, civil society, donor networks, and the international community, need to align their priorities and metrics of success to focus on localized, inclusive, and flexible approaches instead of rushing to implement digital technologies that are not aligned with the needs of people they are trying to support. Several speakers also highlighted the need to tailor data collection and analysis to the specific needs of smallholder producers and to ensure that farmers see direct benefits to data sharing instead of only as a means of gathering aggregated statistics at the national level.

4. High-quality data—as close to real-time as possible—is key to making informed decisions and assessing risks at the farm level. The lack of high-quality, real-time, and spatially accurate agricultural data leads to less informed decision-making by producers and governments. This results in productivity losses, inefficient use of resources, and less resilient food systems particularly in the face of climate change.  Without timely and reliable data, our models and  analyses suffer from what one speaker referred to as the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomenon, resulting in less effective planning and resource allocation at the regional, national, and farm levels. COP26 kicks off next week and is an important opportunity to reflect on the critical role of high-quality timely data to model global trajectories and take urgent steps to build resilient food global systems. 

5. Access and internet connectivity remain a central challenge for smallholder farmers. In many rural areas, access to technology and connections to mobile networks are expensive, unavailable, or inaccessible. Inclusive and farmer-centric digital agricultural technologies are only useful if people have access to digital infrastructure. More than one in three people in the least developed countries lack access to mobile networks entirely or only have access to 2G networks, limiting their ability to share data and benefit from digital technologies. Even in an agricultural powerhouse like Brazil, up to 70 percent of farmland does not have internet connectivity, leading to limitations in the use and scaling up of digital technologies and additional barriers to entry for smallholder producers. Closing this connectivity gap is necessary to accelerate progress on global food security and nutrition.
The future of smallholder agriculture is being shaped now, whether we are ready or not. Platforms like the CFS and the UN Food Systems Summit offer a unique opportunity to link existing research, policy recommendations, and action agendas to align priorities and achieve more significant collective impact. We hope that discussions like this can help shape the broader conversation surrounding the outcomes of these high-level events. Data and digital transformation can accelerate progress towards a more sustainable and equitable global food system if implemented with the needs of the communities they serve and the realities of smallholder producers in mind. 
This side event was co-organized by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Digital Agriculture Association. 

We are grateful to our distinguished panel of speakers: Undersecretary Roldan G. Gorgonio of the Philippine Department of Agriculture; Mr. Maximo Torero, Chief Economist of the FAO; Ms. Elisa Simones, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Mission of Cabo Verde to the Rome Based Agencies; Ms. Beatrice Gakuba, Executive Director of the African Women Agribusiness Network; Mr. Josh Woodward, Senior Digital Advisor of the USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security; Ms. Viviane Faria, Enterprise Customer and Product Success Manager of Trimble Ag Business Solutions; and Prof. Kevin McDonnell of the Crop Science and Biosystems Engineering department at University College Dublin. 

Jenna Slotin, Senior Policy Director at the Global Partnership, moderated this event. A full recording is available here

James Henderson is a Project Advisor at the Global Partnership.