The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security stating, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.” This definition is still commonly used. Accordingly, food security programming and policies consider needs within three underlying pillars and one cross-cutting pillar: food availability, food access, food utilization (nutrition), and the stability of these three over time.

The pillars of food security are intimately tied to the land, and problems related to food security and to sustainable agriculture are complex and interconnected with the land. People-land relationships (PLR) comprise the totality of the human-land interaction including current and historical use and occupancy, concepts about the meaning and value of land, and include a subset of relationships concerning the nature and quality of land rights, tenure forms, and related institutions which jointly generate and condition land tenure security. We refer to this subset of relationships as land tenure security (LTS). PLR affects the availability, access, and utilization of food (FAO). This is because these relationships, and LTS in particular, influence the way women, men, groups, and entities access, control, and use the land; how they allocate land to different uses and among different users; how they can access inputs, extension services, and entitlements, and the types of investments they make in land productivity and conservation. LTS also interacts with natural or man-made shocks and hazards, such as those induced by climate change, civil conflict, and demographic shifts, in ways that affect the stability of availability, access, and utilization of food.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that food security is so intimately tied to PLR and shaped by LTS. People have always depended on the land for basic needs (e.g., food, water, shelter, and defense) and for emerging wants (e.g., materials for producing things, places to enjoy, and food beyond subsistence). Since the dawn of human society, people have had rules about who can access land for what purposes, over what timeframe, and under what conditions (i.e., from the territorial understandings of hunter-gatherer groups to the most recent legal constructions of development and food security as human rights). These rules are dynamic, changing as the need for, and the nature of, rules evolve in accordance with changes in people’s relationship to nature and in nature itself. These rules also shape human behavior over how land is managed, accessed, and utilized, influencing whether and how land will be sustainably managed, and food sustainably produced. Yet, with over 50 years of attention in global development policy, theory, research, and programs addressing LTS and food security, too little attention is paid to the interconnected ways in which the different aspects of LTS combine to influence food security. Understanding these pathways has implications for a more holistic approach to LTS and improving food security across communities of practice in agriculture, environment, and governance.

Today, food security remains an aspiration, and tenure security is elusive for many people. Historical, political, and demographic factors have inhibited progress toward securing and ensuring food security (see, e.g., Maxwell & Wiebe, 1998, p. 31, for example). The global development discourse increasingly links PLR with the widespread adoption of sustainable agriculture and improvements in food security, and leaders are making more significant commitments to addressing LTS constraints. Yet, attention to unique LTS constraints and integrative programming addressing these constraints are still inadequate compared to the scope of challenges.

In this chapter, we describe the evolving landscape of the global development discourse around LTS and food security by synthesizing diverse strands of literature to build a heuristic case for integrative solutions for strengthening LTS to achieve sustainable food security. We then present evidence about the status of these linkages, comprising five dimensions of the LTS–food security relationship: (1) aggregate land scarcity, (2) land access and inequality, (3) incentives and risks, (4) gender, and (5) shocks and hazards. These dimensions are then mapped on to two key policy agendas for food security: Sustainable Development Goal 2 and the FAO definition of food security. To bring the need for integrated action alive, we briefly characterize how LTS elements are linked to food security patterns using a dataset from South Asia.

LTS and Sustainable Food Security in the Global Development Rhetoric

LTS features prominently in international development program discourse and is increasingly featured in international agreements. Improving LTS or the quality of property rights is generally recognized as an enabling condition for improving food security. Differences across programs and stakeholders are typically about the people or entities targeted for LTS improvement, the level of aggregation (individual, household, community, region, nation, etc.), the form of tenure or rights to prioritize, and the institutions, methods, or tools to strengthen LTS.

The scope of the LTS challenge itself is only beginning to be understood at a global level as comparable metrics become available. The Prindex survey of citizens’ perceptions of LTS in 33 countries in 2018, for example, showed that one out of four adults perceived there was a risk of losing their home or other property, including agricultural land used for growing and selling food, within five years.

Although the evidence on the relationship between LTS and food security is still emerging, the theory of change motivating why LTS will improve food security can be found within a broad range of bilateral and multilateral development assistance documents. Strengthening LTS is assumed to lead to food security through two main pathways: (1) through creating greater certainty for those living on the land to make investments that can increase food production and (2) through improving income generation, thus enabling people to buy more food or to have access to services and markets that would otherwise be difficult to reach, such as agricultural extension and credit in some contexts.

Over the last 10 years, documents framing food security programming increasingly include explicit links to LTS, which has led to increased investments in strengthening LTS. For example, commitments from the 2009 G8 Summit to achieve global food security led to the US-launched Feed the Future Initiative. Feed the Future’s programmatic strategy and results from framework incorporated LTS within an agricultural policy agenda (Lawson et al., 2013). At around the same time, the FAO’s Land Tenure Service engaged stakeholders to introduce global good practice guidelines on land governance. Ultimately adopted by the FAO Committee on World Food Security in 2012, The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of the Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests (VGGTs) (Box 6.1) gave even more visibility to the connections of LTS and food security and reflected a new consensus on how to achieve LTS.

Box 6.1 The VGGT

The purpose of these Voluntary Guidelines is to serve as a reference and to provide guidance for improving “the governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests with the overarching goal of achieving food security for all and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security” (FAO and the Post-2015 Development Agenda–Tenure Rights).

In addition, an uptick in support for integrating LTS measures or activities in food security programming has occurred since 2012 (e.g., see recent USAID training material). VGGT-specific activities and VGGT influence on the design of LTS measures, activities, and policies also occurred. Since 2012, the FAO has directly supported activities in 31 countries, as well as regional activities in the Sahel and Mekong region leading to legal and/or policy changes. Yet, progress still lags in comparison to the scope of the challenges, and the VGGT has not achieved widespread uptake as a voluntary “soft-law” instrument as envisaged, nor has it been championed by multilateral institutions beyond the FAO (Via Campesina 2015).

In tandem with these activities, LTS has gained a presence in agendas and commitments of regional and global convenings of intergovernmental bodies within the past 20 years. Some notable examples, in addition to the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), include the 2001 Summit of the Americas, the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2008 UN CSD-16, the 2009 13th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa, the 2013 G8 Summit Partnerships on Land Governance, the 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the 2018 Commission on the Status of Women. These recognize the need to strengthen LTS for general development outcomes, as well as for food security.

Perhaps most importantly for global development rhetoric, LTS is at the heart of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). LTS is explicitly referenced in Goal 1 (No Poverty), Target 1.4; Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), Target 2.3; and Goal 5 (Gender Equality), Targets 5.A.1 and 5.A.2. With these commitments, it was both strategic and welcome to the land community that the UN Commission on the Status of Women in both 2016 and 2018 included language on women’s land rights, aligning with a long-standing interest in the topic by participating civil society organizations.

Adoption of sustainable agricultural practices is important for many of the SDGs, but it is at the heart of Goal 2 which commits to ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agricultural practices often require considerable investments, and farmers, in general, might not realize gains for years. As we discuss below, LTS and tenure forms are a major component of land investment decisions. While LTS is only mentioned explicitly under Target 2.3, among the eight targets set for Goal 2 LTS is relevant for Target 2.1 on universal access to food; Target 2.2 on ending malnutrition; Target 2.3 on doubling productivity and income for small-scale food producers; and Target 2.4 on sustainable food production and resilient practices.

Storylines and Evidence Emerge from a Look at the Literature

The land is the natural resource base for food production. Food security and the long-term sustainability of the world food system are issues of major concern (FAO, 2019, IPCC 2019). The current food system supplies food successfully to much of the world’s population; however, an estimated 821 million people are currently undernourished, hundreds of millions more face occasional hunger, and hundreds of millions more live on the edge of hunger.

Despite the importance of land—and thus LTS—for food security, surprisingly few studies assess how changes in LTS directly impact food security or have effects on drivers of food security via changes in economic variables (e.g., household income). Few studies estimate the direct impact of improved LTS on direct measures of food security, such as the Food Insecurity Experience Scale. Within this limited literature, Maxwell and Wiebe (1999) and Holden and Ghebru (2016) offer comprehensive logic models that connect LTS elements with food security and provide evidence for their main tenets. Simply summarized, these include (1) that LTS drives positive changes in investment, access to credit, and land transfers, which in turn improve production efficiency that improves food security, and (2) that property rights directly affect food security through land access and indirectly affect it by influencing land transfers and thus production efficiency.

Nkomoki (2018), Baltissen and Betsema (2016), and Espinosa (2014) provide Africa-wide literature reviews examining the relationship between forms of tenure, sustainable agricultural practices, and food security. Nkomoki (2018), for example, presents evidence in Zambia that there is a lower probability of farmers adopting crop diversification, agroforestry, and planting basins when LTS is weaker, thus increasing risks to food security. More generally, as pointed out in Maxwell and Wiebe (1999) and Holden and Ghebru (2016), a primary barrier to achieving a greater understanding of the LTS–food security relationship is that research and discourse on these topics are generally siloed within narrow, often project-driven, thematic categories.

While these authors appropriately call for more research to garner direct evidence for how LTS affects food security, they also share our viewpoint that diverse but distinct strands of research support the hypothesis that improvements in LTS are linked to food security. Baltissen and Betsema (2016) observe that, “Much information exists on the links between land governance and food security in Africa, including academic research, policy reports and case studies. It is, however, not always clear where to find this information.”

Table 6.1 maps the dimensions of LTS to the pillars of food security. In particular, the table demonstrates how each pillar of food security is intimately tied to various dimensions of LTS that go beyond the effects of LTS on increasing parcel-level investments (an area of much intense focus on the literature) and articulates other links, such as the effects on the stability of food supply from wider scale impacts of land institutions.

Table 6.1 Dimensions of LTS mapped to pillars of food security (FAO)

In the following sections, we try to open up the silos to present a narrative about the most direct and significant ways that LTS matters for food security. Our aim is to organize findings from across a large, disciplinarily dispersed and context-varied spectrum of the qualitative and quantitative literature. To do so, we categorize the LTS–food security relationship into five dimensions:

  1. 1.

    Aggregate land scarcity

  2. 2.

    Land access and inequality

  3. 3.

    Incentives and risks

  4. 4.


  5. 5.

    Shocks and hazards

Aggregate Land Scarcity Exacerbated by Population Growth, Unsustainable Land Use, and Climate Change

This narrative starts with the land resource base itself. The overall quantity of land available for food production has become a major issue of concern, as land suitable for allocation for food production is scarce, and much of what remains is degrading. The ecosystem services—including supply of water and soil formation—that are critical inputs for food production are also under threat. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (P. R, Shukla, 2019), human use currently affects more than 70% of the land on earth. Humans currently use one quarter to one-third of land’s potential net primary production for food, feed, fiber, timber, and energy. About a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is subject to human-induced degradation. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is much higher than the soil formation rate, especially under conventional tillage. Climate change exacerbates land degradation, particularly in low-lying coastal areas, river deltas, drylands, and permafrost areas. Drylands affected by drought are increasing. In 2015, about 500 million people lived within areas that experienced desertification between the 1980s and 2000s.

As human use of land reaches natural limits, the allocation, use, and management of the land under current use become critical topics for food security. As populations increase their income and change their food preferences, the food system and land face pressures to intensify as, for instance, demand for animal-sourced products increases. A 50-year time series from IPCC shows that population growth and changes in per capita consumption of food, feed, fiber, timber, and energy have led to high rates of expansion of land and freshwater use, with agriculture currently accounting for approximately 70% of freshwater use. Other population and demographic dynamics can also perpetuate land use choices that exacerbate scarcity of land for food production, such as urban expansion on to prime agricultural land, or migration on to already fragile lands due to poverty and conflict dynamics.

Expansion of agriculture and forestry, supported by increases in productivity-enhanced agriculture, has enabled consumption and food availability for a growing global population, but this expansion may soon run into natural limits. With large regional variation, these changes have contributed to increasing net greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of natural ecosystems (e.g., forests, savannahs, natural grasslands, and wetlands) and biodiversity. In this situation, policies affecting LTS have a major role in managing the trade-offs of land use for agricultural expansion and intensification, timber, energy, and conservation of ecosystem services to supply food systems with their required natural inputs.

Land Access and Inequality

Access to land (e.g., through land reallocation or allocation policies) supports food self-sufficiency (Holden & Ghebru, 2016). For many households living in areas with limited labor market opportunities, household food production on household-controlled land is necessary as a complement to food purchases. In many cases, household food production is the only source of food and nutrition. Insufficient access to land (including landlessness), inequality in land distribution, and the lack of means to access land can be significant threats. Muraoka and Jayne (2018) established a strong linkage between food security and land access in Kenya and found that renting-in land helps with household-level food security. They also showed that long-term productivity and investment are lower on rented plots, indicating that households on rented lands do not fully realize the potential of the land to contribute to food security even if it provides household food security in the near term. In another study, Keswell and Carter (2014) showed significant positive impacts on household well-being, including food consumption, from land access gained through South Africa’s land reform program.

Even with sufficient land access, food security is threatened when households do not have the income to purchase food. Many people living in poverty in rural or peri-urban areas still depend on land access for their livelihoods. The observed livelihood strategies of many households at risk of food insecurity are to diversify into multiple land-based and non-land-based activities (migration of some members, seasonal migration, on and off-farm work; Paudel et al., 2017), often with land-based activities forming the core of nutritional subsistence.

Concerns over access to land and inequality in its distribution are heightened in the context of expanding large-scale agriculture and other types of large-scale land-based investments (LSLBI). While it has been generally agreed that significant investment in agriculture is needed to feed the world’s growing population, the way in which these investments happen can present major challenges for vulnerable groups. One challenge occurs when large-scale agriculture expands through capital-intensive pathways and displaces previous agricultural laborers or smallholders, which may worsen food security for the displaced population if other labor opportunities do not materialize (Hufe & Heuermann, 2017).

Box 6.2 A Perspective on Asset Inequality and Food Insecurity

“The greater the in asset distribution such as land, water, …, the more difficult it is for the poor to participate in economic growth processes. This then slows the progress in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition. … Land-resource scarcity and inequities are growing, with poor and marginalized population groups worldwide often having the least access to land. They are confined to ‘poverty traps’ of marginal and degraded lands … vulnerable to climate variability and have no secure tenure.” (FAO et al., 2019).

A surge in LSLBI drew attention almost a decade ago to the reality that not all LSLBI are carried out responsibly. All too often, even when intentions are to benefit local populations, property rights of local people are not recognized or respected and LTS worsens. Deininger and Byerlee (2011) and many other authors have described such patterns and impacts over the last decade. In 2014, the FAO CFS endorsed Principles of Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (RAI) to promote improved investment practices and encourage business models that benefit local smallholder farmers or other vulnerable people. Adherence to RAI remains limited, however, like the VGGT.

The relationship of overall inequality in landownership with depressed economic growth and lower levels of poverty reduction has become increasingly clear with recent analyses and meta-analyses (Cipollina et al., 2018; Deininger, 2003; Deininger et al., 2009; Deininger & Squire, 1998; FAO, et al., 2019; Fort, 2007). Unequal landholding and reduced growth result in greater levels of food insecurity than would otherwise be the case (Box 6.2). Although large-scale redistributive land reform has receded from the forefront of development policy in the twenty-first century, these relationships should make policymakers wary of policy directions that further concentrate landownership. Further, the evidence so far indicates caution about investments that can disenfranchise the poor of their existing property rights to land and should catalyze consideration of approaches that improve access to land (e.g., to improve the flexibility and inclusiveness of land markets or by allocation of public lands) to increase food security.

Incentives and Risks

Because land is a critical and productive asset, LTS can affect food security through incentives and risks perceived by households, particularly in the context of rural communities in low and middle-income countries. The quality of household-level LTS influences investment choices and asset values, and thus food security and adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. With strong LTS and enforceable and documented property rights, the household has greater certainty in obtaining the benefits from investment in, and the use or transfer of, a property in subsequent time periods (or low risk of not obtaining them). Depending on other contextual factors, the rightsholders can improve access to credit and other resources because land provides collateral (see discussion in India about public entitlements connected to property rights documentation).

Bowen and Ngeleza (2019) identify five pathways through which LTS-driven investments can increase household incomes and thus food security: land-attached investment (e.g., soil and water conservation, livestock, machinery, crops and trees, and housing) and cropping decisions; private infrastructure (e.g., wells and pumps); reduced environmental damages; land transfers; and access to, and the cost of, finance. There is ample evidence that strong LTS can increase a household’s propensity to invest in productivity enhancing, durable investments, including soil conservation and practices that enhance ecosystem services, and that land values can increase due to these investments. A range of other results also confirm the strength of the five pathways, although most do not directly document income or productivity increases (IFPRI, 2019; Lisher-Witriol, 2019).

Box 6.3 Social Risk Management and Locational Value

The concept of social risk management (SRM) extends the traditional framework of social protection to include prevention, mitigation, and coping strategies to protect basic livelihoods and promote appropriate risk-taking behaviors. Social risk focuses specifically on the poor, who are the most vulnerable to, and more likely to suffer in the face of, economic shocks. Through its strategies, SRM aims to reduce the vulnerability of the poor and encourage them to participate in riskier but higher-return activities in order to transition out of chronic poverty, thereby achieve lasting food security. In addition to land’s productive values, and land’s values as an asset, land also has importance for SRM through its locational value.

Locational value is the increment of land value derived from its specific location in space, for example, the value derived from being located near a source of water, or a road or market or city center due to differentials in costs of production and/or transportation, or through positive spillovers of market access.

Another way to understand the importance of improving household-level LTS is to consider the role of asset security in social risk management (Box 6.3). As noted by Michael Sherraden almost 30 years ago in his book Assets for the Poor, assets are key factors that influence if and how people might change the way they think and behave: “Income only maintains consumption, but assets change the way people think and interact with the world. With assets, people begin to think in the long-term and pursue long-term goals” (Sherraden, 1991). The LTS attributes of assets, including the location of the asset and the portfolio of assets, are critical not only for managing the short-term risk of being expelled from a place or from using a plot but also for building pathways out of poverty over time for long-term food security.

The key linkage of LTS for food security from this perspective is that even relatively small fixed assets such as a household plot can be leveraged for productive, asset and locational values, and can play crucial roles in both short-term responses to shocks and in long-term asset accumulation. All of these dynamic consequences of LTS contribute to the stability of food security. The location and location-specific context of land can impact individual and household opportunities and outcomes because these factors affect the available assets and livelihood options, and thus a household’s ability to respond to short-term shocks and build long-term investments (Jorgensen & Siegel, 2019).

The location-context of land can affect a household’s food security via incentives and risks through a number of relationships. These include the land’s proximity to markets and urban centers, positive spillovers of market access, productive potential, vulnerability to natural disasters, and the availability and quality of public infrastructure and public services.

With all of these relationships in play, one of the biggest determinants of incentives and risks at any point in time over the lifecycle of the household is location. The location of land assets in relation to the set of factors mentioned above is thus critical for food security. The lack of a favorable, stable location may create high food insecurity in times of instability in wages or in the case of disasters. Fadorable, stable locations may mitigate these adverse effects by allowing households to produce their own food, increase the capacity to store food or assets such as livestock, and allow greater access to labor markets and community support. Furthermore, a favorable, stable location may help individuals or households to access social programs, such as subsidies, education, credit, and infrastructure (e.g., irrigation and roads) supportive of long-term food security.

The concept of land as a key asset for SRM points to the value of policies that make land in favorable, stable locations available over the lifecycle of households. These include micro-plots and house-plot allocation, longer-term leasing or use rights, access to commons or collective areas, and attention to asset portfolios, such as land plot and livestock or land plot and fruit trees (Landesa 2020, FAO 2018).


Gender disparities in LTS are directly linked to food security. The FAO (2019), Espinosa (2014), and others explain that, at the household-level, gender differences in access to, and control of, assets like land are determined by who has decision-making power within the household. Decision-making power may be legal or be based on social and cultural norms and customs. Here, the logic is that the greater access and control of assets and resources an individual has, the greater decision-making power they will yield in a household. For instance, research on intrahousehold decision-making between men and women has consistently found that resources, such as incomes, are rarely completely shared or pooled between men and women within households. The power and decision-making imbalance between men and women can exacerbate women’s poverty status and food insecurity during periods of economic slowdown or downturn. Further, these imbalances may make women and children especially vulnerable to changes in family status, such as the death of a spouse, as legal and social norms can mean assets, such as land, are not inherited by women.

In considering gendered aspects of how LTS and food security are interrelated, Espinosa (2014) points out that similar incentive effects discussed above have been demonstrated to result from strengthening women’s land rights both within and independently of households.

Box 6.4 How Women’s LTS Matters

Cited in USAID Fact Sheet (USAID, 2016):

  • Ethiopia: land allocated to women decreased household food insecurity by 36%.

  • Nicaragua and Honduras: increases in female landholdings—increases in food expenditure.

  • Nepal: women own land—children are 33% less likely to be severely underweight.

Cited in Espinosa (2014):

  • Ethiopia: land certification—increased caloric intake—more for female-headed households.

  • Tanzania: when women have PR to land, higher incomes, and savings.

  • Zambia: children whose families lost land received 11% fewer calories.

Cited by IFPRI (2019):

  • Kyrgyzstan: impacts on child height.

There is growing and compelling literature on the impact of improving women’s LTS across multiple areas linked to food security. This includes increases in investments in land and water conservation measures, increases in household spending on food and education, improvements in children’s nutrition, improvements in a household’s access to markets, elevated women’s status in their communities, and more sustainable pathways of migration and urbanization (Box 6.4). These types of results are found across a diverse set of contexts, indicating the robustness of this dimension.

In sum, the nature of landownership and access among household members can improve or reduce food security for individual women, particularly upon inflection points of family change (i.e., marriage, divorce, and death). Given the structure of households, positive and negative changes to families can reverberate to affect the vulnerability of children. If women’s land rights are not strongly defined, documented, and enforced, then food security and nutritional outcomes for children can be adversely affected.

Shocks and Hazards

Stability over time in the availability, access, and utilization of food is an important element of food security. LTS issues can interact with natural and man-made shocks and hazards (e.g., conflict, natural disasters, and environmental degradation) and decrease food security for already vulnerable people.

Freudenberger et al. (2019) provide a conceptual model to understand such dynamics and illustrate how they are playing out today in the rise of violent extremism in Africa’s Sahel region. In this model, both resource governance and environmental change drive food insecurity dynamics. Weak resource governance aggravates or trigger drivers of violent extremism. Drivers of violent extremism perpetuate the impacts of weak land and resource governance, triggering additional land and resource governance challenges in a kind of negative spiral. In this context, environmental triggers exacerbated by climate change and population growth (and consequent increases in resource scarcity and migration or displacement) serve as contributing factors intensifying land governance challenges, impacts of weak land governance, and drivers of violent extremism. Importantly, the authors suggest that it will be hard to mitigate and reverse these dynamics without holistic solutions that explicitly take into account challenges to strong LTS.

Natural shocks and hazards including both discrete shocks (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires) and longer-duration hazards (e.g., droughts, rainfall variability, desertification, soil degradation, wildlife loss) can increase near- and long-term food insecurity. Although each discrete shock or hazard is a stochastic event, contemporary research and discussions on shocks, hazards, and food security commonly recognize that the severity and frequency of environmental shocks are strongly linked to climate change and that LTS is critical for creating resilience to climate change-related disasters (the UN SDG Knowledge Platform; reporting on progress on Goal 2 in 2018).

For instance, fruit and vegetable production, a key component of healthy diets, is directly vulnerable to the effects of climate change by increasing uncertainty around crop production from shocks and hazards. Declines in yields and crop suitability are projected under higher emission scenarios, especially in tropical and semi-tropical regions. Heat stress reduces fruit set (i.e., the process through which flowers become fruit and the fruit size is determined) and speeds up the development of annual vegetables, resulting in yield losses, impaired produce quality, and increasing food loss and waste. While some projections indicate that longer growing seasons will enable a greater number of plantings to be cultivated and can contribute to greater annual yields, some fruits and vegetables need a period of cold accumulation to produce a viable harvest, and warmer winters may constitute a risk. Systems for LTS now must factor in these risks in land allocation, markets, and management.

Further, shocks and hazards can exacerbate food insecurity through increases in food prices. Global crop and economic models have projected a 1–29% cereal price increase by 2050 due to climate change, which would impact consumers globally through higher food prices and reduced purchasing power. Low-income consumers are particularly at risk from higher food prices (IPCC 2019).

The extent that reduced caloric intake from increased food availability leads to a heightened risk of hunger varies according to the projected pathway of socioeconomic change under climate change. However, all models projected by IPCC predict increases in the risk of hunger, with the median projected increase in the population at risk of insufficient caloric intake between 6% and 12% by 2050 compared to a no climate change reference scenario. These median percentages imply 8–80 million (full-range: 1–183 million) additional people at risk of hunger due to climate change by 2050 (IPCC 2019). The way land is allocated and used is a critical factor for determining which of these scenarios is actually realized by 2050.

While increased CO2 is projected to be beneficial for crop productivity at lower temperature increases, it is projected to lower nutritional quality. Distributions of pests and diseases will change, negatively affecting production in many regions. Given increasing extreme events and the interconnectedness of global food and economic systems, risks of food system disruptions are growing.

The lack of effective land governance and weak LTS negatively impacts people’s ability to effectively manage land for long-term sustainability, specifically for climate adaptation and mitigation. Lack of recognition and violations of property rights can increase vulnerability and decrease adaptive capacity. These issues are especially critical for customary and community forms of land tenure. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative (Rights and Resources Initiative, 2015), local communities and Indigenous Peoples hold significant areas of the earth’s land under customary land systems (as much as 65%), largely undocumented or unrecognized under statutory law (only 10%). Although these communities are increasingly recognized for their long-term stewardship of the earth’s natural resources (USAID, 2018), challenges for broader recognition remain.

Clarification of property rights to improve LTS can provide the security and adaptability needed for long-term resilience in food systems and supporting ecosystem services. Good land governance can strengthen the “menu” of land management options and align incentives for sustainable agriculture, including the improved management of cropland and grazing lands and sustainable forest management. In many cases, this is possible without requiring the reallocation of land rights. The efforts to create a type of “Great Green Wall” to slow or reverse land degradation in the Sahel, for example, depend importantly on the clarification of property rights for smallholders and pastoralists to land, trees, and water.

A wide range of adaptation and mitigation responses to climate change are heavily conditioned by LTS, and their success depends upon creating clear property rights to serve as the legal and economic basis for distributing subsidies, sanctioning non-compliance, and incentivizing “micro” level processes that support sustainable agriculture (dimensions 3 and 5). These include preserving and restoring natural ecosystems, such as peatland, coastal lands and forests, biodiversity conservation, reducing competition for land, fire management, soil management, and most risk management options (e.g., use of local seeds, disaster risk management, and risk-sharing instruments).

Shocks and hazards from institutional changes in landholding systems are also important. For instance, LSLBI may be a type of man-made shock with potentially significant implications for food security if the movement toward responsible investment in agriculture that respects the property rights of local smallholders and communities is not achieved. Soil degradation and investments in soil conservation are other areas in which the institutional arrangements for LTS may be crucial for avoiding adverse consequences for food security. In Malawi, for example, soil degradation associated with climate change is a significant problem, and soil conservation practices have been shown to be weakened by land tenure arrangements which tend to lead to short-term rental contracts and gender-biased inheritance practices (Lovo, 2016).

Illustrating the Case: Food Security Challenges and Patterns of Land Tenure in South Asia

According to the World Hunger Report 2017, South Asia ranks as the region facing the most severe food security challenges. For instance, India slipped to 100th place for food security after being ranked 55th in 2014. The interconnected challenges of increasing sustainable agriculture, mitigating and increasing resilience to climate change, and increasing food security are particularly pronounced in South Asia (Bandara & Cai, 2014). About 600 million South Asians live under the World Bank poverty line of less than US$1.25 a day, the majority of whom depend directly or indirectly on agriculture (Hertel et al., 2010).

Transitioning to agricultural development that addresses climate change mitigation and resilience and maintains food security is clearly a priority across South Asia. However, under the Paris Accord, the Nationally Determined Contributions of South Asian countries, vis-à-vis the agriculture sector, focus is more on technology and market-based solutions rather than addressing inherent structural weaknesses related to LTS (Amjath-Babu et al., 2019). In our view, understanding patterns within the PLR helps provide a logical answer to why hunger and malnutrition persist in South Asia, particularly in India. Addressing food security concerns and tackling the looming threat of climate change make land tenure reforms necessary (Padhee & Joshi, 2019).

More than half of the farmland in the so-called “poverty square” of South Asia consists of marginal and small farms of less than one hectare. Most of these farmers are sharecroppers and tenants whose rights are unrecorded—informal or concealed (when they are not legally allowed) because of ineffective and restrictive land leasing legislations (Appu, 1975). Small and marginal farmers increasingly lease-in land (i.e., acquire access to land by leasing it for use from another, usually larger landholder) in low-productivity regions, whereas in agriculturally advanced areas the trend is toward reverse tenancy (i.e., the poorer landowner rents out land to richer tenants) (Kumar et al., 2017; Patel & Mishra, 2019).Footnote 1 In this case, low-productivity regions refer to areas where the agriculture practiced is rain-fed, subsistence, and mostly food-crop oriented. Advanced areas refer to those with irrigation and a greater orientation to commercial crop production.

Leasing-in land can support a household’s immediate food availability, and leasing-out can generate income to support food access. In some places, short-term tenancy forms cover as much as 25% of the gross cultivated area, although the true number is unknown as these arrangements are often underreported (Planning Commission 2013). However, land access can be precarious, and short-term tenancies have been correlated with decreasing land productivity and degradation, adversely affecting food security over time. Research on these issues in India highlights that insecure rights and the risk of not capturing the full value of durable investments make farmers less likely to conserve land or make productivity-enhancing investments (FAO, 1994, Deininger et al. 2013, IFAD, 2011, Osbahr et al., 2010).

In the absence of legal recognition of tenancy, tenants lack access to a range of public service entitlements, such as formal credit, insurance, crop-loss compensation, minimum support price, fertilizer subsidy, loan waivers, and direct cash transfers (Raju, 2019). This can increase uncertainty and vulnerability to food insecurity and can affect a household’s food production and their ability to purchase food. The fear of agricultural lands falling into the hands of the sharecroppers after a specific period due to land reform legislation also contributes to many absentee landowners keeping lands fallow, affecting overall food production (Ranganathan & Pandey, 2018).

India’s national policy think tank, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), has recognized land leasing as an “economic necessity” in the Indian context, in contrast to earlier reformist legislation which banned it. In 2016, NITI Aayog prepared model legislation to formalize and improve tenancy arrangements to encourage policy reform in Indian states. Legalization of leasing will encourage more land to be leased and will allow leases to be formally documented, expanding access to a range of public service entitlements for informal tenants.

Despite efforts to increase LTS for informal tenants, new data illustrate how LTS constraints for food security continue to impact rural households (Strengthening Adaptive Farming in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal [SAFBIN]). The data come from a 2018–2019 survey of 1145 households of small-scale producers from 95 villages in 12 districts in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. This program to strengthen adaptive farming is operational in these 95 villages, covering approximately 5000 smallholder farming households.

In the sample, one-third of households do not own land. Rather, they rely on leasing or public land possession for farming. Leasing-in land is more prevalent among farmers with the smallest farm sizes (<0.4 ha), of which half rely on leased-in land. Half of the adult members of farm families lack landownership, regardless of records or informal means of access (by practice or custom). Two-thirds of this half are women. Women farmers are also highly marginalized across all forms of tenure.

While almost all those who own land have formal land records, informality is common for the majority of leased tenure and public land possessions. More than two-thirds of the farmers perceive they have secure land tenure with formal records, while only two-fifths of those without records report perceptions of secure tenure. Most surveyed farmers reported having secure tenure despite tenure diversity and complexities related to different forms of tenure and informal leasing arrangements. Those having leased-in land and the smallest parcels report lower LTS.

Most of the surveyed households access land under more than one form of tenure. More than four-fifths (86%) reported cultivation on their own land, and 21% of these farmers additionally lease-in land from others. Very few farmers (3%) leased-out land, and only about 7% cultivate on public land (de jure government land). With the legality of tenancy remaining confounded and public land cultivation considered encroachment, LTS for about one-third of smallholder farmers remains insecure. There are differences in the distribution of these forms of tenure, however, across countries in the region (see wide ranges in parentheses within Table 6.2). In Bangladesh, more than half of the smallholder farmers reported leasing or using public land (41% lease-in and 18% use public land, respectively), whereas in India the figures are 18% (14% lease-in and 4% public land, respectively). Gender-based differences are also prevalent: women reported control of only 11% of the land compared to men who reported controlling 89% of the land.

Table 6.2 Forms of tenure among farm households across land size class categories for Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan

In looking at the SAFBIN data related to the SDG land indicators for the four countries, which focus on the individual rather than the household, every second adult member of smallholder farming households does not legally or customarily own any land. Among the countries, ownership rights are lowest in Pakistan (31% own land) and highest in Nepal (78% own land). Here again, the data indicate gendered differences in landownership, with two-thirds of women lacking landownership compared to one-third among men. Gender differences are highest in Pakistan.

As shown in Table 6.3, one in four adult members of smallholder farming households has documentary evidence for their landownership, while another one in five own land through customary means. Documentary evidence is more frequent among farmers in India (23% have formal documentation compared to 7% with customary ownership) and Pakistan (24% and 9%), while in Nepal more farmers (34%) own land through customary means compared to 26% with documented ownership.

Table 6.3 Basis of landownership of adult individuals in farming households in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan

Among the smallholder farm households surveyed by SAFBIN, more than half (58%) have government-authorized legal documents. About one-third also use land without formal contracts. However, almost all (96%) of the farmers who own land have proper records (Table 6.4). On the contrary, more than 80% each of leased-in and leased out holdings are through oral contracts. Informality (i.e., oral, white paper, or no contracts) is common practice for about two-fifths of the smallholder farmers owning less than one hectare.

Table 6.4 Rate of formality by type of land access in the SAFBIN survey

Despite the diverse, informal, and unrecorded tenure types, 81% of smallholder farmers feel their holdings are secure, while 12% feel a threat of loss in the next five years. However, disaggregation across tenure types reveals that the threat of losing land is higher for leased-in farmers (53%) and for those possessing public land (20%). Similarly, for farmers holding less than 0.4 ha, even more feel insecure (74%). Limited access to land and precarious tenure arrangements (undocumented leasing) are generally associated with a greater risk of food insecurity.

Connecting the Dots between the LTS and Food Security in South Asia

Using the information on dietary diversity, farm composition (i.e., field crops, trees, livestock, compost unit, and crops cultivated), the SAFBIN data indicate linkages between LTS, food security, and farm sustainability patterns. At the household level, survey data indicate that under all tenure forms households have similar food access. Households reported having access to cereals (almost 100%), pulses (~90%), and vegetables (~97%). However, land access is a constraint for pulses and vegetables when looking only at leasing-in farmers compared to farmers that own land. Further, there is variation in food access based on the household member. Individual household members with land documentation had a higher frequency of food access across all food groups compared to household members without formal documentation. Dietary diversity for farmers that only leased-in land or occupied government land is poorer than for farmers whose holdings are owned or leased-out. Leased tenures and lack of land documents make farmers and their family members more vulnerable to nutritious food access, suggesting that LTS is one of the structural keys for addressing hunger and malnutrition in South Asia.

Regarding sustainable land usage, crop diversity—here a proxy for sustainable agricultural production—is lowest for farming under the possession of public land, increasing gradually from farmers with leased-in land (only), owned land, leased-out land, and other combinations of landownership. Diversity of land uses (e.g., field crops, trees, livestock, and fisheries) is highest among farmers with the smallest landholdings, gradually decreasing as landholding size increases. Farm diversity is found to increase as tenure type moves from leased land, public land possession, landownership, to leased-out land.

Informal leasing also seems to contribute to increased fallowing of cultivable lands in many states in India, which affects food production. Fragmented and smaller landholding size is often cited as a reason for reductions in farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change (Aryal, 2019). Yet, smaller farms with ownership rights in South Asia seem to have a penchant for crop diversification as a strategy for resilience and are more likely to apply it when they have tenure security, consistent with the SAFBIN data. Apart from affecting food security, lack of attention to improving LTS therefore also hinders upscaling of locally known adaptation measures.

Box 6.5 Improving LTS—Including for Women—Offers Hope in West Bengal

A land-allocation and registration program that focused on women had positive impacts on outcomes expected to lead to future food security: beneficiary households reported stronger security and were more likely to take loans for agricultural purposes, to invest in agricultural improvements, and to involve women when making decisions related to food and . The same types of variation as seen in SAFBIN by farm size were observed and the effects were larger if women’s names were on a recorded on the land title (Santos et al., 2013).

The insecurity demonstrated by farmers with smaller parcels and leased tenure forms across the four countries seems to highlight why there is increasing demand to formalize leasing in India. The extent to which those with ownership rights lack up-to-date and accurate land records is also notable. Both situations limit the ability of farmers to access credit and entitlements for optimal food and crop production, even if farmers perceived their tenure to be secure. Prioritizing a land reform agenda, particularly land leasing legislation and updating land records, is likely an important path to increasing incomes and improving food security for smallholders, at least in India (Padhee & Joshi, 2019), if not across South Asia. As with the general case for connecting LTS and food security, gender matters (see Box 6.5).

From Global to Local: Evidence Supports Linking Efforts on LTS and Food Security

The discourse on food security within the international development community is abundantly clear on its assertion that LTS is integrally linked to achieving food security. We believe that there is support for this assertion from a dispersed but compelling body of global evidence. Stated commitments by international bodies to improve LTS and achieve food security for all are increasing. Attention to the interconnectedness of these two global challenges also appears to be increasing. While gaps in, and challenges for, research remain, we believe the case for action to strengthen LTS for food security is already sufficient. LTS, sustainable agriculture, and food security are all multidimensional and vary across contexts. The research into the inter-relationships among them is both siloed by theme and dispersed across disciplines with few truly multidisciplinary approaches. More study is certainly needed to strengthen the evidence for each of the assumptions in the causal chain within LTS and its connections to food security across diverse geographies and institutional contexts. But we believe the evidence assembled here in a holistic and accessible synthesis provides compelling support for a call to immediate, integrated, and widespread action to strengthen LTS in support of food security, even while more research is underway.