Smallholders are bigger than you imagine

by Jeremy Cherfas on November 30, 2016 There’s an awful lot of talk about smallholder farmers and how they hold the keys to food security. Talk, but not a lot of solid data. So I was intrigued to discover a new paper1 that maps smallholdings and estimates their “contributions to global food production”. Bottom line:

[S]mallholder-dominated systems are home to more than 380 million farming households, make up roughly 30% of the agricultural land and produce more than 70% of the food calories produced in these regions, and are responsible for more than half of the food calories produced globally, as well as more than half of global production of several major food crops.

The study, from the University of Minnesota, points out the various failings of much of the existing data on smallholder farming and then takes a new and interesting approach. Household census data generally distinguishes between farming and non-farming families. So the researchers took census data from all the countries they could and looked at the smallest administrative unit in each country’s data and counted the number of households headed by someone whose primary industry was listed as farming. They mashed that up with a recent map of land cover. That gives the number of farming households per hectare of agricultural land, which in turn gives the amount of agricultural land per farming household in each of the administrative units. Bingo.

We refer to this figure as the mean agricultural area (MAA) for each unit, defined as hectares of agricultural land divided by number of farming households. While differing from traditional metrics of farm size, it is designed as a proxy for the prevalence of smaller or larger farms on the landscape.

There’s a lot more manouevring and modelling but in the end they come out with a map that shows the calculated size of farms in each subnational administrative unit.

[U]nits with a MAA less than 5 hectares account for … 28% of agricultural land in the 83 countries, and are farmed by roughly 383 million households.


As for the contribution of these smaller farms to global production, that’s based on the EasthStat database, which estimates crop areas and yields by combining agricultural census data with remote sensing information. And that’s when, for me, things get a bit sticky.

Can it really be, for example, that 82% of the world’s rice, 75% of the groundnuts and 74% of the oilpalm are produced on farms smaller than 5 hectares? I suppose it must be, until a different analysis comes along.

There are lots more interesting observations in the paper, such as the observation that in Asia smallholders contribute 90% of regional food calories, while in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is closer to 50% and in Latin America less than 7%. Smallholder farms are less than 2% of the agricultural area in Latin America, so even that 7% means they’re punching well above their weight.

Given open access to the datasets, there are probably lots more nuggets waiting to be unearthed.

  1. Samberg, L., Gerber, J., Ramankutty, N., Herrero, M., & West, P. (2016). Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production Environmental Research Letters, 11 (12) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/12/124010 []


Why mixtures do well

by Luigi Guarino on November 30, 2016

I bring you a nice photo, and even nicer quote, from Salvatore Ceccarelli’s Facebook page today. Salvatore has blogged for us in the past about his work on variety mixtures.

In 2008, at ICARDA, we dusted off the old idea of evolutionary breeding to bring biodiversity back into farming systems. We made large, widely diverse populations of barley, bread wheat and durum wheat by mixing lots of F2 lines. And I mean lots: 1600 in the case of barley, 2000 in the case of bread wheat and 700 for durum wheat. The populations went to different countries, including Jordan, Algeria, Eritrea, Iran, and lately even Italy. In Ethiopia, a specific population was made based more specifically on Ethiopian germplasm.

A few days ago Salvatore was examining this particular mixture of 217 durum wheats on a farm at Geregera, in the region of Gonder, Ethiopia.


The farmer responsible for the mixture is the one at the extreme right of the photo (the guy talking, just to his left, is the student who sowed the experiment). This is how the farmer described what’s going on in his field.

In a mixture, plants are jealous of one another and try to be better than their neighbours, and the result is that the whole field is better.

And you can see what he means, although unfortunately it doesn’t seem to apply to humans.


Re-establishing ICARDA’s genebank

by Luigi Guarino on November 29, 2016

One of the reasons I’ve been a bit behind with my blogging in the past month or so is that I’ve been doing a lot of travelling. It shouldn’t matter, you can blog from any hotel room with a half decent wifi connection of course, but the reality is that it can be difficult to find the time, not to mention the energy.

Anyway, just to prove that I was doing some work, here’s some evidence from my visit to the new ICARDA genebank in Morocco. You’ll remember that the collection that used to be just outside Aleppo in Syria is now being re-established in Terbol, Lebanon and Rabat, Morocco with material that was retrieved from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in late 2015. Earlier this year, we published a shot of the first set of seeds from Svalbard growing in the field at the ICARDA research station in Merchouch, Morocco.


Here’s the second lot ready for planting, guarded by Ahmed Armi, head of the ICARDA Genetic Resources Section.


Here is the field being prepared, and the packets of seeds ready for planting.


And here, finally, are Ahmed’s staff actually putting the seed into the ground for multiplication. They did about 4,000 cereal accessions in a couple of days the week before last.

In a few months, rain willing, the field will look like it did above, last February, and the whole thing can be repeated again. A genebank’s work never ends.


Coconuts in the news

by Luigi Guarino on November 28, 2016

Hot on the heels of my own short recent piece on the subject of the threats faced by coconuts, which took its inspiration from a Bloomberg article, comes a little note in The Atlantic, and a much fuller and better illustrated take on the story by someone who really knows the crop, Roland Bourdeix of CIRAD. And now even an interview on the BBC World Service. Something in the water, no doubt.


CBN Variety Showcase organizer gets podcast treatment

28 November 2016

You remember our recent short blog post on the Culinary Breeding Network’s Variety Showcase? Well, you can now hear all about it on Jeremy’s latest Eat this Podcast, in which he talks to Lane Selman, the organizer. Want a teaser? How’s this? Many vegetables don’t taste of anything much these days, but whose fault is […]

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Brainfood: Sustainable ag, American ag diversity, Valpolicella and CC, Heritage textiles

28 November 2016

Diversification, Yield and a New Agricultural Revolution: Problems and Prospects. It’s not about the yield. Spatiotemporal Patterns of Field Crop Diversity in the United States, 1870–2012. It peaked in 1960. Like Elvis. Resistance and resilience to changing climate of Tuscany and Valpolicella wine grape growing regions in Italy. Should they ever decide to move those […]

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Brainfood: Food diversity, Vigna salt tolerance, Medicinal rice, Sustainable intensification, US wild potatoes, Ethiopian potatoes, Temperate rice, Brazilian maize, Soybean cores, Pea cores, Danish cattle viability

21 November 2016

On-Farm Crop Species Richness Is Associated with Household Diet Diversity and Quality in Subsistence- and Market-Oriented Farming Households in Malawi. Correlation is not causation, but one gets one’s victories where one can. Agroecology and healthy food systems in semi-humid tropical Africa: Participatory research with vulnerable farming households in Malawi. See above. Diversity and Evolution of […]

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Brainfood: Mate diversity, Species recovery, CC & food, Microbial collections, Chickpea roots, African flora, Bitter gourd diversity, Wild yeast, Cryo double

14 November 2016

Genetic and phytochemical analysis to evaluate the diversity and relationships of mate (Ilex paraguariensis A. St.-Hil.) elite genetic resources in a germplasm collection. Some have low caffeine, which makes them especially useless. Genetic factors in threatened species recovery plans on three continents. Are ignored more often than you’d think. Climate Change and Food Systems Research: […]

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Genebank accessions to restore old Romanian shirts

10 November 2016

The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant has a heritage textile collection, and the odd shirt and carpet understandably occasionally needs restoration. So the museum has launched the interdisciplinary MYTHOS project (Development of Advanced Compatible Materials and Techniques and their Application for the Protection, Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage Assets)… …which…aims to obtain fibres, […]

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A miracle rice anniversary timeline

9 November 2016

IRRI is celebrating the 50th anniversary of IR8, one of the more important crop varieties ever produced by plant breeders, with a neat interactive timeline of the history of its development and impact. I was going to include a pedigree of the thing, but, alas, the International Rice Information System seems to be down at […]

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