The world's smallholder farmers produce around a third of the world's food, according to new research published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in April 2021.
Five out of six farms in the world consist of less than two hectares, operate only around 12 per cent of all agricultural land, and produce roughly 35 per cent of the world's food. Smallholders' contributions to food supply varies enormously between countries, with the share as high as 80 per cent in China and in low single-digits for Brazil and Nigeria.
It is imperative to avoid the use of the terms “family farm” and “small farm” interchangeably, the FAO point out. The majority of family farms are small, but some are larger and even very large.
According to updated estimates, there are more than 608 million family farms around the world, occupying between 70 and 80 per cent of the world's farmland and producing some 80 per cent of the world's food in value terms.
The new research teases out estimates of farm size: around 70 per cent of all farms, operating on just 7 per cent of all agricultural land, cover less than one hectare, while another 14 per cent of farms, controlling 4 per cent of the land, are between one and two hectares, and a further 10 per cent of all farms, with 6 per cent of the land, have between two and five hectares.
However, one per cent of farms in the world – each covering over 50 hectares - operate more than 70 per cent of the world's farmland, and nearly 40 per cent of agricultural land is taken up by farms exceeding 1000 hectares.
Large regional variations highlight the importance of the general levels of economic development. Farm size generally increases with average national income levels, with 99 per cent of farms in high-income countries larger than five hectares compared to only 28 per cent in low-income countries.
Regional and local factors are also illuminating. In regions such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, smallholdings occupy a much larger share of agricultural land than the global average.
Farm size does not always correlate with the production of specific commodities. For example, in Mongolia, farms not owned by households but organised as business units and organisations account for 90 per cent of wheat production. In Tanzania, there are only a handful of large farms occupying just 7 per cent of agricultural land, but they are responsible for 80 per cent of the country's wheat output and 63 percent of its tea.
Likewise, changes in farm size must be grasped in local context. An increase in medium-scale farms in Zambia, for example, appears to be attributed to salaried urbanites rather than smallholders increasing the land under their control. Interestingly, there has been an increase in the number of smallholdings in Brazil and the United States of America - both agricultural powerhouses - even though the share of cropland controlled by large farms has increased. Whether that reflects growing inequality or a boom in locally sourced and consumed foods warrants further study, the authors say.
Read more at FAO website