The debate about returns for small-scale farmers is shifting from just lifting then above extreme poverty levels or increasing productivity and returns by moderate amounts to asking what would constitute a living income and what would be the conditions necessary for this to be realised. The elements underlying the achievement of a living income therefore include essential needs such as food, water, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, and emergency provisions. A living income also entails decent employment, i.e. dignified and productive work that enables people to provide for themselves and their families while ensuring safety, wellbeing and health at work. Therefore, a living income depends on the size of the household, and the earning needed to cover the cost of the standard of living in a particular place. For many small-scale farmers, the major gap between actual income and income levels necessary for a living income is a significant challenge.
Livelihood perspectives have been central to rural development thinking and practice in the past two decades, the flexibility of the term ‘livelihoods’ (Scoones 2009). Inspired by the living wage discussion, the concept of the living wage has been brought to the forefront to examine income earners such as smallholder farmers. However, a tendency to examine welfare from the perspective of poverty alleviation (e.g. achieving 1.90$/day in earnings) has meant that effort to improve smallholder livelihoods still do not provide a decent standard of living. This is of particular interest to those interested in certifications such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance to develop strategies for closing the living income gap (Komives et al. 2015; Fairtrade 2019).
Increasing complexity of global food systems, and the magnitude of the challenge in addressing farmer incomes requires a complex approach recognizing multiple factors influencing farmer earnings, savings, and investments (Gneiting and Sonenshine 2018). Recent research examining common interventions addressing farmer incomes find that tailored interventions, stakeholder partnerships with government, civil society and farmers, connecting with farmers, and building services, contribute to success in increasing farmer incomes (Farmer Income Lab 2018). Unfortunately, much work remains to be done in developing sustainable and equitable income improvement programs that can be sustained over time.