Community-led Food System Models: Self-Sustaining and Shock-Resilient

Featured Photo Credit: IIRR

By Peter Williams, President, International Institute of Rural Reconstruction

A stark global demographic projection, paired with the limited capacity to produce food at a low environmental cost, is cause for one of the most food insecure periods in modern times. The food crisis affecting more than 25% of the world’s population is now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, an additional 150 million people are expected to fall into extreme poverty and malnutrition by the end of 2021. 

Under the current centralized food system, rural famine is even more severe compared to urban counterparts, given the commonly seen financial constraints in rural areas and underdeveloped connection to urban food centers. Remodeling the dynamics of food supply toward a bottom-up and grassroots-centered pattern is undoubtedly essential to address the hunger issue that perplexes rural well-being and its development potential.   

IIRR has been one of the significant influencers of effective rural development practice throughout the world for over six decades. The organization’s team of staff and volunteers working alongside its research communities and partners, have pioneered hundreds of innovations that have enabled disadvantaged and marginalized rural communities to remake their lives. One essential philosophy of our work is adopting community-managed approaches, so that our target communities are transformed into a self-sustained and shock-resilient production system. The faith in the ability of grassroots communities is intrinsic to our ideology, because for decades, we have witnessed the extraordinary creativity, diligence, persistence demonstrated by these excluded populations, and have been impressed by their deep longing to rise above the unfortunate circumstances and change their lives. Empowering these populations is not only an issue about food, but also a topic on fostering full-scale discretion and initiative among them. Revamping the community power dynamics unleashes rural potential through a complete mechanism that involves securing nutrition, improving and diversifying income, promoting social and gender equality, creating more educational opportunities for children, and many other aspects that significantly enhance our clients’ welfare. Therefore, IIRR has long been one of the staunchest advocates for shifting the power closer to the ground. 

IIRR’s commitment to building community-led food systems is reflected by its innovative work in African and Southeast Asian countries. Despite the robust economic growth of these countries, nearly one-third of their populations still suffer from undernourishment and are severely food insecure. Our experience in developing regenerative farming, bio-Intensive gardening (including in local schools), small livestock production and local market setup exhibits a remarkable paradigm of local agricultural development that reduces the dependence on national and global food systems. The climate-smart and nutrition-intensive characteristic of the models ensures their sustainability as well as effectiveness. The cultivation of continuous learning and participatory environment among target communities’ breeds clients’ proactivity that supports not only the smooth operation of the models, but also their gradual perfection along with time pivoting on local reality, and eventually realizes the transition of power as the foundation of the patriarchal, colonial model is shattered due to lack of one-way dependence. Meanwhile, our studies also show that the establishment of Climate-Smart Villages (CSVs) promotes micro-level social equity as a positive externality. This contrasts with the traditional domestic value chain and administrative framework, where the fairness of resource distribution is troubled by apparent income inequality, gender disparity, political volatility and general threat to freedom of expression. These weaknesses negatively influence policy formulation and program implementation, making them hard to sustain equitable and robust national food systems. Our recommended community-based ecosystem model provides an option that reduces multiple pressures for each entity, and most importantly, safeguards rural poor against chronic hunger. This, presumably, remains the most concerned issue of the population. 

Our models have benefited 15 million people around the world, and have increased individual farming incomes by almost 400% often through the adoption of climate-smart agricultural techniques. The success of #ShiftThePower is dependent on the close collaboration between client communities, non-for-profit practitioners as well as local actors. As a catalyst of such transition, IIRR will continue devoting itself to empowering rural poor through a varied set of data-driven and well-proven methods. 


  1. IIRR Annual Impact Report 2019
  2. Integrated Community Food Production — A Compendium of Climate-resilient Agriculture Option (Published in the Philippines in 2016 by the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) and the IIRR)
  3. Local food systems: Cambodia, Myanmar and Philippines — Perspectives from local communities (Draft)
  4. Project Brief: Vertical and horizontal scaling of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) through climate-smart village (CSV) approach (by CGIAR and CCAFS)
  5. Sharpening our understanding of Food Systems (Working paper by IIRR and CIAT)