Santa Clara University

Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences

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Environmental Studies and Sciences News & Events

  •  Explaining the hungry farmer paradox in Nicaragua's coffee highlands

    Sunday, Mar. 30, 2014


    Most of the world's food insecure people live in marginal rural environments.  A recent study with coffee producers in northern Nicaragua’s highlands helps explain this "hungry farmer paradox." These small-scale farmers experienced an average of three months of seasonal hunger over the year studied. Although cash income helped alleviate food scarcity, households that produced more subsistence crops, especially corn and tree fruits, reported still shorter periods of food scarcity. Meanwhile, farmers that used several commonly promoted environmentally friendly farming practices reported no discernible impacts on seasonal hunger. 

    Researchers, including Chris Bacon (ESS), Bill Sundstrom (Economics), and two recently graduated ESS students Ian Daugherty (now with the United Farmworkers) and Rica Santos (now with the National Council for Science and the Environment), concur with previous studies finding that several factors influence farmer food insecurity, including: (1) annual cycles of precipitation and rising maize prices during the lean months; (2) inter annual droughts and periodic storms; and (3) the long-term inability of coffee harvests and prices to provide sufficient income.

    This work identifies the need for balancing coffee production with food production and improving exchange systems to protect farmers from adverse seasonal price fluctuations. It also considers a participatory initiative that uses fair trade cooperatives to increase rural food access through the re-localization of food distribution networks, sustainable agriculture training, and improved food storage. Although crop loss from coffee leaf rust contributes an additional challenge, these and other integrated strategies hold the potential to reduce threats to food security, livelihoods, and biodiversity.

    Bacon, C. M., Sundstrom, W. A., Flores Gómez, M. E., Ernesto Méndez, V., Santos, R., Goldoftas, B., & Dougherty, I. (2014). Explaining the ‘hungry farmer paradox’: Smallholders and fair trade cooperatives navigate seasonality and change in Nicaragua's corn and coffee markets. Global Environmental Change.