Smallholders still produce a lot of food

Hannah Ritchie of the indispensable Our World in Data has just come out with a useful summary of the data on how much food small and family farms produce. And one of the main points she makes is that those are two very different things. The bottom line is that smallholders (those farming 2 ha or less) account for 29% of the world’s agricultural production, at least as far as kilocalories are concerned1, and family farms produce about 70-80%.

As rightly pointed out by Dr Ritchie, FAO has in the past said that small-scale farmers produce up to 70% of the world’s crops, a statistic that has been widely repeated. This is clearly wrong. However, to be fair to FAO, they have recently walked that back a bit, and their latest headline number is about a third. Which is still quite a lot really, and don’t forget that there are other things that small farms are good at.

  1. Somebody may have done micronutrients, I’ll have to check. []

2 Replies to “Smallholders still produce a lot of food”

  1. Caveats all round.

    I’ve been grappling with these stats for a while now. I think we are often comparing apples and oranges.

    (1) ‘Definitions vary widely for what constitutes a smallholder or small-scale farm, including factors such as size, food production technique or technology, involvement of family in labor and economic impact. Smallholdings are usually farms supporting a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming.’—Wikipedia

    (2) ‘In British English usage, a smallholding is a piece of land and its adjacent living quarters for the smallholder and stabling for farm animals. It is usually smaller than a farm but larger than an allotment, usually under 50 acres (20 ha).’—Wikipedia

    (3) ILRI’s director general has used this to say the following: ‘‘Farmers on less than 20 hectares of marginal and other land produce nearly 50% of the world’s livestock and cereal products globally. ‘

    (4) Others define smallholdings as under 2 hectares (almost 5 acres): e.g., from FAO: ‘About two-thirds of the developing world’s 3 billion rural people live in about 475 million small farm households, working on land plots smaller than 2 hectares.’

    (5) While these smallholders depend predominantly on family labour, there are many more ‘family farms’ and many of these are much larger. E.g., ‘The updated estimates are that there are more than 608 million family farms around the world, occupying between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s farmland and producing around 80 percent of the world’s food in value terms. . . . [N]ew research teases out estimates of farm size: around 70 percent of all farms, operating on just 7 percent of all agricultural land, are less than one hectare, while another 14 percent of farms, controlling 4 percent of the land, are between one and two hectares, and another 10 percent of all farms, with 6 percent of the land, are between two and five hectares.’—FAO

    (6) As Hannah Ritchie rightly explains: ‘A key problem is that some use the terms ‘family farms’ and ‘smallholder farms’ interchangeably. Family farms do produce around 80% of the world’s food. These farms can be of any size, and should not be confused with smallholders.’

    (7) OK, but FAO says that ‘While the new research – and rich publicly-accessible data sets – offers the most complete information available today, it is hampered by uneven and often antique data.’

    (8) Here is some info from the 2018 Ricciardi paper that Ritchie reports on:
    • New global sample of 55 countries, representing 51% of global crop production.
    • Direct measurements of crop production, nutrient and crop diversity by farm size.
    • Estimates food, feed, processing, seed, and post-harvest loss by farm size.
    • Farms under 2 ha produce 30–34% of food supply on 24% of gross agricultural area.
    • As farms get larger, crop diversity declines and post-harvest loss increases.

    (9) So the Ricciardi study that Ritchie reports on does not include livestock data (that’s a big missing!) or data for many African and Asian countries, which have many more very small farm holdings than North and South America, etc.

    (10) So, my take is that ‘it’s complicated’. But as you say, whatever the definitions of terms, people farming relatively small plots of land still produce a whole lot of food for a whole lot of people besides themselves—and they need our support more than ever to continue to do so under ever-more challenging conditions.

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