Big things come in little farms: The role of smallholder farmers for global food security

Is size everything? This week’s Development Agriculture Wednesday takes a look at the huge contributions that smallholder farmers make to global food production.

Here’s some food for thought: Smallholder farmers produce over half of global food calories!

Further, one-third of the world’s population are smallholder farmers. Agriculture is now one of the few global industries which is largely supported by family production across many parts of the world, and these small farms often support some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Given this, growing and supporting smallholder agriculture has huge impacts on both poverty alleviation, and food security globally.

It is now estimated that there are over 475 million farms which are less than two hectares in size (this defines being a smallholder). Yet these farms account for over 40% of global farmland, and produce over 50% of the world’s food.

Further research (Herrero) shows that 50% global cereal production occurs in developing countries, particularly with high rates of global rice production (86%) and millet (67%). Therefore, supporting agricultural development in the developing world is not only crucial for food security within developing countries, but at a global level as well.

One major challenge to supporting agricultural development is access to sufficient data to understand small-scale production across the globe.  To overcome this, researchers from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment have mapped smallholder farms in developing countries. Check out the finished production below!


Map of mean agricultural area by subnational administrative unit in three global regions (83 countries; source)

Findings from the 83 countries studied identify that smallholder farming produces 53% of food calories for human consumption. Farms of less than five hectares also account for over half of the production of eight staple crops: rice, cassava, millet, wheat, potato, maize, rye and barley.

According to the study:

“ 918 subnational units in 83 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia average less than five hectares of agricultural land per farming household. These smallholder-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”.

Lead author Leah Samberg says that “this map is a first step toward a better understanding of where and how smallholder farming can be sustainable for both landscapes and livelihoods”. By understanding the spatial distributions of smallholder farms, policy makers and development agriculture specialists can target policies and investments, with huge applications for food security, sustainable production and land use. This is particularly important given recent efforts that focus on intensification as a means to achieve increased production.

One important consideration when looking at smallholder farmers is that they are not a homogenous group. After all, you can only expect there to be incredible diversity when studying half of the world’s population. This means that further research is needed into the nature of smallholder farming right across the globe, if we want to target policies at particular smallholder farming regions.

So to wrap things up, global agricultural production can be understood as a complex and diverse jigsaw puzzle of billions of individuals pieces. In the wise words of Nollsy:

“Take a step back and see the little people… they’re the ones that make the big people big”.

Shannon Noll – 2004

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