It is often claimed that smallholder farmers produce 70% or even 80% of the world’s food. This claim has even been made by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO).
It has been a linchpin for agricultural and development policies. But it is wrong. Recent studies suggest that this figure is too high: smallholder farmers produce around one-third of the world’s food, less than half of what these headlines claim.
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.
Most (84%) of the world’s 570 million farms are smallholdings; that is, farms less than two hectares in size.1 Many smallholder farmers are some of the poorest people in the world. Tragically, and somewhat paradoxically, they are also those who often go hungry.
A shift towards small-scale farming can be an important stage of a country’s development, especially if it has a large working age population. But, it’s gruelling work with poor returns: small farms can achieve good yields but need lots of human labor and input.2 Labor productivity is low. This is why countries move beyond a workforce of farmers: younger people get an education, move towards cities, and try to secure a job with higher levels of productivity and income. A country cannot leave deep poverty behind when most of the population work as smallholder farmers.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has made incorrect claims about the world’s reliance on smallholder farmers in the past. One of its reports states that “small-scale farmers produce over 70% of the world’s food needs.”3 In other reports it has said that smallholder and family farms (which raises issues of how these terms are defined) produce 70-80% of the world’s food.4 This would mean that small farms produce nearly all of the world’s food. This has become a zombie statistic: one that has been repeated by many other organizations despite there being no evidence to support it.5
A key problem is that organizations – including the UN FAO – often use the terms ‘small farms’ and ‘family farms’ interchangeably. But they cannot, and should not be. As we will see later, these definitions give us very different estimates.
This confusion creates several problems. First, it creates a misunderstanding; one that might convince us that a world of smallholder farmers is what we need. If they produced nearly all of the world’s food, perhaps that is a future we would want to maintain. Second, it might make us concerned about the future of the global food system if countries move towards larger farms. As countries get richer, the average farm size tends to increase. If nearly all of the world’s food came from small farms, perhaps we should be worried about this development.
Is this concern justified? Researchers provide us with a better answer to this question of how much of the world’s food smallholders really produce.
Several studies have tried to answer this question. The most extensive and recent comes from the work of Vincent Ricciardi and colleagues.6 They produced the first open dataset on global food production, mapped by farm size.7 It covers 154 crop types across 55 countries. It not only covers the amount produced across different farm sizes, but also the types of crops and what they are used for – whether they are eaten as food, used as animal feed, or for other uses such as biofuels.
The chart shows their findings. This shows the cumulative total of three metrics – agricultural land; crop production; and food supply – with increasing farm size. So the top row of bars show the global total across farms less than one hectare; the second bar shows farms up to two hectares etc.
Smallholder farms are those that are less than two hectares.8 That’s the top two bars, which are shaded in blue.
Smallholder farmers produce 29% of the world’s crops, measured in kilocalories.9 Less than half of previous claims.
They do so using around one-quarter (24%) of the world’s agricultural land. They account for a bit more crop production than land use because smaller farms tend to achieve higher yields.10 This is very labor-intensive work; smaller farms get higher land productivity, but lower labor productivity.
These farms account for an even greater share of the world’s food supply – one-third (32%) of it.11 This is because smaller farms tend to allocate a larger share of their crops towards food, rather than animal feed or biofuels.
To get to the 70-80% figure that was previously reported, we would need to include farms all the way up to 100, or even 200 hectares. These results shown here are in line with other studies which agree that the figure of 70-80% is much too high.12
So while one-third of the world’s food is still a large share, it’s less than half of the widely-cited claim.
The claim that family farms produce 70-80% of the world’s food is likely to be true. A recent study by Sarah Lowder, Marco Sanchez, and Raffaele Bertini agrees with the conclusion that small farms produce one-third of the world’s food.13 But they also estimate the share produced on family farms. The definition of a family farm is broad: it’s one that is operated by an individual or group of individuals, where most labor is supplied by the family. This means they can be of any size – many family farms are large. Orders of magnitude larger than our under-two-hectare smallholders.
They find that family farms produce around 80% of the world’s food. To be clear: small farms produce one-third of the world’s food. Family farms – of any size – produce 80%. These terms should not be used interchangeably because they are very different.
Increasing the productivity of smallholder farming is a crucial step in countries transitioning from poverty to middle-incomes. Raising the output and incomes of smallholder farmers should be an important focus, even if they produced very little of the world’s food. This is because most of the world’s farms are smallholders, and they are some of the poorest people in the world.
We should avoid the romanticization of a future where most still spend their time working the fields for small returns. That would be a future where hundreds of millions continue to live in poverty.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Navin Ramankutty and Max Roser for feedback and suggestions on this work.