17/02/2015 08:03 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 06:59 BST

Secure Land Rights Are Crucial for Feeding Nine Billion People by 2050

Clear property rights for farmers are important to ensure they invest in improving the land and raise farm productivity. This was one of the key conclusions of the fourth Feeding the World summit in Amsterdam on February 12th, organised by The Economist Events.

Feeding a growing global population of nine billion people by 2050 is one of the world's biggest challenges--especially in the context of rapid urbanisation, rising amounts of food waste and climate change. During one day of discussions senior executives from agribusiness, policymaking and the NGO community examined approaches to food and nutrition security.

Secure land rights emerged as a key issue at the Feeding the World summit. It is linked to many of the other issues discussed, such as farm productivity and sustainable natural resource management: once farmers' property rights are secure, they can focus on investing in machinery and technology to raise productivity, enhance soil quality and conserve water, for example. Clear property rights can also limit conflicts over land and boost strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

It is encouraging that the international community--including developing countries, donor countries, international organisations, civil society and the private sector--are increasingly focusing on the importance of secure land rights across the developing world to boost food security and poverty-reduction strategies. This is highlighted by the endorsement by the UN's Committee on World Food Security of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.

The gender dimension of land rights

Nonetheless, it is obvious that more needs to be done to support secure land rights. In the context of gender issues in agriculture, for example, the Feeding the World summit heard that female farmers in many developing countries still do not have equal rights to own and use land. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, women comprise around 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. However, the share of female employment in agriculture is rising across most parts of the developing world given that access to non-farm jobs tends to be much more difficult for women than men.

Despite this trend, women continue to have limited access to inputs, seeds, credits and extension services--partly as a result of women's insecure rights to land and property. This decreases agricultural productivity. In many African countries, for example, customary practices often require women to access land through male relatives who control the land. Recent developments, such as Tanzania's proposed new constitution giving women the equal right to acquire, own, use and develop land under the same conditions as men, point to some progress in this area.

Additional key takeaways from the conference

The Feeding the World summit brought together over 100 attendees from 24 countries across all continents. Apart from land rights, key topics debated were the Millennium Development Goals and analysis of how the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals could be used as a tool for development; possible solutions to the perennial challenges of both under-nutrition and over-consumption; the role of women in tackling the global challenge of food and nutrition security; climate change; and sustainable agriculture. Key takeaways included the following:

  • Accelerating urbanisation creates need for robust rural-urban supply chains. The number of smallholders will fall significantly in the coming decades as more and more people in developing countries will move to cities. Therefore, food production will be increasingly driven by city demand, especially from the new middle class, rather than supply-driven. Processing and just-in-time distribution systems will have to be adapted and developed accordingly.
  • Technology transfer is better than food aid. In order for smallholders to move beyond subsistence farming they need access to technology that can raise farm productivity and food quality. However, many smallholders need training, education and sharing of knowledge for technology transfer to be effective. Even more importantly, "training the trainers" can boost the long-term positive effects of technology transfer on farm productivity in developing countries.
  • Access to credit remains a major issue for smallholders. Smallholders struggle to obtain funds as commercial banks often perceive these loans as high risk. Innovative financing solutions such as peer-to-peer funding can provide an alternative or complementary source of funding.
  • Getting organised can empower smallholders and communities. Joining forces with other smallholders can help small farmers to raise their bargaining power, share knowledge and pool resources. Especially for female farmers, group approaches to farming can be highly beneficial.
  • Nutritional quality needs to be included in the food security debate. Solutions for feeding the world often focus on quantity of food produced. However, poor diet quality is a major reason behind the dual problems of under-nutrition in some parts of the world and growing overweight in others.

A version of this article first appeared on The Economist Intelligence Unit's Insights blog.