Cecile Dyngeland is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. Her thesis is titled ‘Delivering food security through small-scale farmers – lessons from Brazil’, and her research interests relate to improving rural peoples’ and small-scale farmers’ livelihoods and environmental conditions through sustainable natural resource management. Cecile was a prize winner at the recent 7th Annual SIID PGR Conference.


Hunger and food insecurity have received the attention of national governments and international organizations for decades. In 2000 the international community set a target to halve the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries by 2015 (known as Millennium Development Goal 1c). Many developing countries reached this target, including Brazil, but there are still an estimated 805 million people worldwide who are undernourished. This is despite the fact that there is enough food produced globally to feed the world’s population. So how is it possible that so many people still go without enough food? And if we are struggling to feed everyone under current conditions, what does that bode for a future experiencing further population growth, increasing competition for depleting resources and the possibly detrimental effects of climate change? Perhaps if we look towards countries where efforts to reduce hunger have proven successful, then we can identify important aspects and use them to.

This can be seen as the backdrop for my PhD titled ”Achieving food security through small-scale farmers, the case of Brazil”. When I saw the posting for this PhD project I was working in a remote mountainous area in Tanzania and was witnessing all too well the links between small-scale farmers and food insecurity. In these rural communities, families were putting in daily hard work to grow nutritious vegetables which were then transported away to regional and national cities. Due to the long line of middlemen, the prices the farmers got were minimal; at best they received enough to invest and produce a bit more the following season. But even if that happened, there was always the risk that no rainfall, or too much rainfall, would destroy the crops and leave the family solely reliant on less profitable and less nutritious crops grown for home consumption, such as maize or cassava. This is a common picture in the developing world. In 2009 there was an estimated 1.5 billion rural peasants in the world, many of which live in the global south. Though they on average produce food on plots of only 2 ha they feed approximately 70% of the world’s population. Ironically, the same farmers are often the most food insecure, and an estimated three-quarters of the world’s hungry live in rural areas (ETC Group, 2009).

When applying for the PhD I read up on Brazil and its history of food security and found that the country shared many common traits with Tanzania and other developing countries. For example, in Brazil there are also a large number of small-scale farmers, contributing disproportionately to domestic food supply; accounting for 70% of all domestic food yet using only 25% of the total agricultural land. In addition, food insecurity has been a wide-spread problem with an astonishing 44 million people estimated to be poor and hungry in 1999. But what separates Brazil from many other developing countries is the presence of a government which has actively attempted to reduce these high rates by putting in place a whole range of national policies, gathered under a flagship programme called the Zero Hunger Programme. Granted, many countries have policies in place to combat hunger, and in Tanzania for instance there is also a national policy which states all children should receive food in school. But where the Tanzanian government came up short, often deferring the cost for the food onto the parents, many of which cannot pay, the Brazilian government has come in with heavy investments. Since its inception in 2003, more than £839 million has been invested in its four main programmes; if distributed across the entire population this translates into roughly £770 per person. This money has been specifically aimed at poor families and small-scale farmers, is given out either as monthly cash, daily school meals, agricultural loans or as ways to ensure stable markets for their produce.

To say the least I was very excited to start my PhD with the aim of discovering the ways in which Brazil has successfully lifted millions of people out of food insecurity through the Zero Hunger programme. I was pleased to find numerous previous evaluations and impact studies with a range of positive results, with claims that the programme has lifted 28 million people out of poverty, increased farmers’ incomes and cultivation area, and reduced infant mortality and malnutrition. However upon closer inspection, many of these studies lacked the large-scale and long-term scope to truly say whether these programmes have had an overall positive effect. In addition, many failed to properly account for the whole range of other factors which might have participated in the reduction of food insecurity. Hardly any had looked at the environmental impact of the programmes, and by extension, their sustainability. For at the same time as poverty and hunger have been reduced, deforestation has continued at high rates in Brazil, and much of it is said to be caused by conversion to agricultural land. In addition, a national study found that as much as one third of domestic food is contaminated by pesticides, making me question not just the health of the food produced but also the sustainability of the agricultural system.

I therefore decided to focus the first part of my research to try and fill this knowledge gap and look at the large-scale and long term impacts of the Zero Hunger Programme on food security and land use change, focusing on rural areas since this is where most farmers live. To do so I am employing statistical inferential techniques which control for possibly influential factors and tries to isolate the impact of the Zero Hunger Programme on important aspects of food security and land use, such as agricultural production, poverty, infant mortality and child malnutrition, agricultural expansion and deforestation. Such an analysis has the power to shed light on overall trends, however given its nature bound in averages across people and areas, it also has its limitations. For whereas it can tell if, on average, Zero Hunger has impacted food security, it is unable to shed light on whether the people in most need have been the ones who have been benefitting, nor can it give us any details about how this impact has been achieved. These answers can only be found by talking to people on the ground, and therefore this is where I will focus the second part of my research. In the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil I will carry out a household survey and in-depth interviews with farmers to explore who has benefitted from the Zero Hunger Programme, whether they personally feel the programmes have benefitted them, and the reasons for this. Hopefully then I will be able to come up with some conclusions to inform not only the managers of the Zero Hunger Programme itself, but also other countries who are taking up the fight to eradicate hunger and food insecurity within their borders.

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