Understanding Subsistence Agriculture in search of social innovations for food security

Project: Research

Research areas and keywords


  • Food security, Social innovations, Sub-Sahara, Farming


The global demand for food is expected to rise steeply as a result of burgeoning population. Thus, we must increase the global food production by at least 70 percent to meet demands in 2050. At the same time, climate change, water scarcity and land use change are expected to jeopardise continued increases in agricultural production thus making food security a planetary emergency calling for a variety of policies and creative solutions at global, regional and local levels.

The most important prospects for increased food production in the near future are seen in areas where the current land productivity is significantly lower than the potential. The ‘yield gap’, the differences between actual and potential production, is believed to be especially wide in sub-Saharan agricultural systems such as subsistence farming. In response, development initiatives aimed at increasing investments in smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa are surging.

The task of filling the ‘yield gap’, in itself a challenge, is further complicated by the fact that the prime production potential is found in a context of severe food insecurity as evident by the increasing number of food insecure farmers and stagnating levels of food production in sub-Saharan Africa.

This means that farmers who themselves are food insecure are expected to be part of the solution by increasing food production beyond their own needs. If subsistence farmers are key to global food security while at the same time living on the verge of food insecurity themselves then we need to understand both the material and the immaterial conditions of subsistence farming.

Therefore we need an intense qualitative investigation of subsistence farming that captures the details and dynamics of spatial, temporal and social particularities of that system and its overall natural conditions, while tending to food security as the focal point.

This leads us to the overarching research question:

How can sub-Saharan subsistence farmers overcome local food insecurity for the sake of contributing to global food security?
This will be further explored in three specific research questions:

To what extent can the ‘yield gap’ be estimated given the bio-physical conditions?
To what extent is the gendered organization and management of labour and land in subsistence farming a constraining or enabling factor for achieving food security?
To what extent can social innovations help subsistence farmers grasp institutional and infrastructural opportunities provided by agricultural development policies?
Short titleUnderstanding Subsistence Agriculture
StatusNot started