QSA Notes: Food Security

by | Jun 2, 2024 | 2406 June 2024

Ai Leen Quah, QSA Project Officer

Recently, QSA was invited to talk about food security at an evening event for Women in Aid and Development in Sydney. The following is a summary of my presentation.

Having enough food to eat, and knowing where your next meal will come from, is more than a basic physiological requirement for survival. Satisfying this need is an integral part of one’s psychological safety and security, and the foundation for us to be able to spend more energy on emotional, creative and spiritual pursuits.

Food security is the focus of much of the work that QSA funds. It is defined as “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.” (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2017)

Many of the projects we fund have food security integrated into parts of their work in rural livelihoods, women’s empowerment or environmental sustainability, and it is no coincidence that much of our work engages subsistence and smallholder farmers, who own less than two hectares of land (think slightly larger than a soccer field). Small scale agriculture is a critical juncture at which issues of poverty, hunger, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and even climate change, are all enmeshed. Someone earning less than the equivalent of US$2.15 per day is more likely to be living in rural or remote places where there is less economic opportunity. They are more likely to be female, and they are more likely to be eating less, and poorer quality food than their body needs. The irony is that the populations we are talking about tend to be people whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture! For some, land is the only asset a family has to build their livelihood.

Training in banana culture in Uganda

In Australia, when we think of farmers, we tend to think of men. But in many places around the world, women are primarily responsible for growing, harvesting, and preparing food for their families, as part of their gendered roles as nurturers. As water and firewood are necessary for cooking, it is also common that women are responsible for the collection of these too.

You might ask, but why are people going hungry when, globally, there is enough food produced to feed the world at least one and a half times over? (Holt-Giménez 2012) This question itself provides part of its answer: hunger and food insecurity are not the result of a scarcity problem. They are caused by poverty and inequality. There is enough food, but not everyone can afford it.

The majority of smallholder farmers are located in low- and middle-income countries and make up 84% of agricultural farmers across the world. They comprise only 12% of agricultural land but produce 35% of the world’s food! At the other end, the largest 1% of farms are located mostly in high-income countries and operate 70% of available farmland.


So, why are there so many smallholder farmers who cannot feed themselves and experience poverty? The short answer is that our global food system is broken, as is our economic system. Recently in Australia, we have seen how farmers who grow quality produce can struggle to obtain adequate prices. Our economies and governance are integral to a functional food system. Australian farmers need subsidies to maintain viable businesses, laws to promote healthy markets and competition, regulation to encourage sustainable environmental practices, and trade agreements that disallow dumping.

Needless to say, low-income countries tend to have less funding available for their agricultural sector and are usually coming to international trade negotiations with the lower hand. Often, actual funding will fall short of commitments because of insufficient resources, capacity to deliver, or corruption. Also, the majority of government funding will often go to industrial and commercial agriculture, despite most of the produce from large-scale operations being exported. It is the smallholder farmers who comprise the majority and whose produce tends to feed the local population.

In Uganda, where QSA continues to support smallholder farmer training outreach and initiatives, 65% of the working population relies on subsistence farming. Poverty sits at 55% (UNHDR 2019) and disproportionately affects the rural and remote, and women. Despite government recognition of staggering gender inequality and mainstreaming gender into national policies, it is nothing new to hear that gender bias is still prevalent in the systems and staff employed, as technical assistance, agricultural extension and services rarely reach Ugandan women farmers. The difficulties and disadvantage feed into one another to affect women’s access to credit and asset ownership, to water and irrigation, to land, markets, quality inputs and technologies – to the effect that women earn 40% less than men.

Further to these challenges, agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate change, and presents profound direct and indirect implications for sustainable rural women and their livelihoods.

It is in this context that St Jude Family Projects uses its funding from QSA to provide outreach to subsistence farmers in Greater Masaka of Uganda’s Central Region, who know these challenges all too well. They support (mostly women) farmers who have potential to commercialise their agricultural activities, and/or vulnerable households that have limited livelihood opportunities, and who cannot otherwise afford training. On average, many of the farmers who join St Jude’s program are experiencing the hardships of poverty and surviving on one and a half meals a day. As farmers, the challenges they face include cultivating small plots of aging soil, encountering pests and diseases that have built up chemical resistance, working with low-yield plant varieties, and increasingly unpredictable patterns and intensities of drought and flooding.

Through agroecology, St Jude teaches sustainable agricultural methods that utilises low-cost and local solutions, such that farmers can build on their knowledge to maintain and grow their farms, their environment and their social connections past their engagement with the project period. They utilise a combination of organic, indigenous and carefully selected varieties and cultivars; nourished with a menu of options of locally sourced or home-made fertilisers (such as bokashi, traditional and vermi compost) and pesticides. Rainwater harvesting and simple techniques for irrigation and evaporation reduction are combined with crop rotation and diversification, inter-cropping and companion planting, agroforestry, and a range of other methods. Not only are these methods more accessible and provide more economic benefit to farming communities than conventional agriculture, but they are also more climate resilient.

After spending the first few months of a project addressing households’ immediate needs for short-term food security, St Jude can then begin to work with farmers on their longer-term and year-round, sustainable food, income and social security. In addition to post-harvest management, marketing and setting up savings and loans groups, an important aspect of St Jude’s approach is that this work is complemented by activities in mentoring, strengthening social structures and community, teaching about diet and nutrition, and supporting access to health and education services.

The good news is that, on average, by the end of a two-year engagement, the large majority (~80%) of the farmers (and their families) engaged with St Jude’s outreach have achieved in surplus of three nutritious daily meals. Most have doubled if not tripled their average income as a result of improved quality and quantities in crop yields, in addition to economic and enterprise activities, and generally they are feeling somewhat safer and more secure in the world.

While QSA in 2023 was able to reach and support a few hundred smallholder farmers, there remains work to be done to change the unsustainable ways of our global food and economic systems.

To find out more about QSA projects please visit our website


St Jude Family Projects is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) under the Australian NGO Cooperation program.

Data and figures from this article are primarily drawn from the most recent global study by independent and FAO agriculture economists, Lowder, Sanchez & Bertini 2021. Which farms feed the world and has farmland become more concentrated?

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