Tag Archives: smallholders

Running on empty

Will there be enough oil to sustain future food production? Why is current agriculture so dependent on fossil energy? To explore these questions it is perhaps a good idea to examine our ecological footprint from the very beginning of our history on earth.  Our planet originated 4,500 million years ago. Photosynthesis exists for about 3,500 million years but vertebrate land animals and plants only appeared about 400 million years ago. Dinosaurs were there between 230 and 65 million years ago. We humans have been on earth for merely 2 million years, and for most of that time we’ve been marauding around, hunting, gathering fruits and roots, and looking quite different than we do today.


Settling down

Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago – on the last second of our existence you may say – we decided to set camp, became sedentary and started farming, in a period in which the climate became milder, warmer. Agriculture was a ‘successful’ strategy for our species, starting almost simultaneously in different parts of the world that were not connected by then, and leading to the first population boom. The expansion of our species, half-farming, half-hunting and gathering, led to profound modification of the previous ecosystems around the world. This period coincided approximately with the massive extinction of other species of megafauna (other than human) that took place during the Quaternary.

This moment of our history is seen by some scientists as a key period to study earth living system’s resilience, given that two important processes took place at the same time. Namely, human population growth and climate change – do these sound familiar? A couple of papers published by Barnosky a few years back tried to put some figures behind the dynamics of human and other megafauna populations over the last hundreds of thousands of years. Human expansion, according to Barnosky, is one of the major drivers of extinction of hundreds of megafauna species around the world.

Replacement and addition

If, as Barnosky explains, instead of the total number of individuals we consider the total biomass of humans and of all the extinct megafauna species, then we see a sort of ‘replacement’ of such species by humans. That is, the total biomass that went extinct coincides approximately with that of all humans. The sum of total megafauna biomass – human and non – represents the carrying capacity of Earth, as determined by the incoming solar radiation through plant photosynthesis. In other words, this is the capacity of the Earth to sustain the life of megafauna populations with plant biomass.

Total megafauna biomass declined rapidly during the massive extinctions of the Quaternary and it took about 10,000 years to reach again the level that corresponds to Earth’s carrying capacity. This level was achieved once again around the time of the industrial revolution, as can be seen in the figure below.

megafaunaWhat is most striking in this figure put up by Barnosky (2008) is that the beginning of the industrial revolution, when the world human population starts becoming increasingly urban, marks also the beginning of the expansion in numbers of another category of megafauna: domestic livestock. When we now add up humans, wild animals and livestock, the result is that we are currently keeping about ten times more megafauna biomass than the estimated carrying capacity of the Earth! How is this possible?

Eating fossil fuels

Earth’s carrying capacity, as mentioned above, is determined by the rate of plant photosynthesis. That is, by the ability of plants to turn solar energy into feed energy. Nowadays, to be able to sustain such numbers of animals and humans on Earth we are consuming not only the photosynthetic energy that is capture every year, but also all of that that was captured over hundreds of millions of years. All that energy is stored in fossil fuels: oil, charcoal, gas, tar, etc. These fossil fuels represent a net subsidy to our energy balance on Earth. For example, it is calculated that about 70% of the energy contained in a cereal grain produced using the methods of industrial agriculture comes from fossil fuels (check out this book that appeared already about a decade ago: Eating Fossil Fuels).

About 1500 oil equivalents per year are necessary to feed a person in the developed world. That represents about 6 barrels per person per year. At peak oil production, back in 1979, the maximum oil extraction rate was about 5.5 barrels per person per year, not even half of what is needed in the developed world. All predictions towards the future, both from the public and private sector, point to a reduction in the annual rates of extraction, even when new sources and methods of extraction are considered (e.g. shale gas/fracking). And we know that, as a resource becomes increasingly scarce, its price tends to go up (or so they said in the courses of Economics I ever took).

In conclusion, we are running on empty. And what’s worse, many of the recommendations made to ‘sustain’ agricultural production in the poorest areas of the world, may actually lead to an increased dependence of smallholder farmers on fossil fuels. An example of this is the recommendation to use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, which requires large amounts of fossil energy to be produced. Do we want to make smallholder farmers dependent on a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce? What would this mean for future (and current!) global food security? We ought to come up with alternatives.

Who’s producing our food?

There is quite some noise around the global figures on food production and consumption. The reality is that most of such figures are estimates, and estimates always rest on assumptions. For example, a question that always puzzles me is: what is the proportion of the food we consume that is produced by smallholder family farmers? A somewhat classical estimate points to 70%, as shown in the figure below, developed by the ECT group in 2009:

Peasants foodClick to enlarge

FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture 2014 Report (SOFA 2014) confirms, based on an analysis of 30 countries, that family farmers produce 80% of the world’s food. It is also often stated that this production takes place in only 20% of the agricultural land, and generally in less productive, marginal environments. Is this all true? Because if it is, then the implication is that smallholder family farming is highly efficient, producing most of the food humans eat in barely 20% of the surface, while other forms of farming use 80% of the land to produce the rest. Can we find enough evidence to back all this up?

(Just in case: I’m not questioning the importance of smallholder family farming in terms of global food security. I’m convinced that the only way to achieve food security is through increasing the productivity, sustainability and economic viability of smallholder farms. I’m aware that hunger is not a problem of production but of poverty and inequality, and that only 20% of the hungry live in cities.)

A smallholder farm is most likely a family farm (the opposite is not true)

According to IFAD, there are 500,000,000 farms in the world that are smaller than 2 ha. Unless this figure includes also intensive glasshouse production and/or irrigated orchards with high value crops, we could quite safely assume that most of these farms are smallholders, and that most of them are family farms. In China, for example, the average area of a family farm is 0.3 ha. In the East African highlands, where I worked for a number of years, an average rural household farms about one acre (or 0.42 ha) of land.

Colleagues at FAO are currently making a very serious attempt to quantify how many family farms are there, how much land they use, and how much they produce, based on the analysis of census data from 105 countries (Benjamin Graub and Barbara Herren, pers. Comm.). They estimated that family farms represent 98% of all farms in the world, and that they work on 53% of the agricultural land. They obviously produce most of the food in the world…

But this figure includes ‘family’ farms in places like the US or Europe, as defined by their respective survey authorities. The US census of 2007, for example, considers that 88% of their farms are family farms (i.e., those that are owned by the main operator). A value of 97% is estimated for Europe. The proportion of the total agricultural land held by family farms in these two regions is estimated at 68 and 69%, respectively. In South America, the proportion of family farms was estimated at 88%, but they hold only 18% of the agricultural land. The rest of the land is held by other actors of the agribusiness sector.

Confusion thus arises around the definitions of family and smallholder farms. These terms should not be used interchangeably. Each county has its own definition for these terms and this makes global calculations a hard task. The FAO, in the International Year of Family Farming (2014), defined family farming as:

“a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family labour, including both women’s and men’s. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions.”

Does size matter?

A cut-off value of <2 ha has been often used to define smallholder farms in global studies by e.g. the World Bank in its Rural Development Strategy (2003). According to IFAD, these farms support about 2 billion people. But individual countries have proposed variable cut-off values in their surveys. For example: Ecuador, <66ha; Nicaragua, < 50ha; Peru, < 50ha; Guatemala, < 45ha; Haiti, < 10ha; Vanuatu, < 5ha; Sub-Saharan Africa, < 10ha. The latter is also a commonly used threshold.

Graub and Herren (pers. Comm.) further calculated that if we take the example of Ireland, where 99% of the farms are considered to be family farms, and use a cut-off value of 10 ha, then only 18% of the farms would classify as such (farming on only 3.9% of the area). The family livestock farmers we work with in Uruguay, for instance, own an average of 80 ha of natural grassland per household, while those with whom we work in eastern Amazonia own up to 100 ha of land (including crops, pasture and forest).


Visiting  a ‘ smallholder’ family farmer in Uruguay

Perhaps the most telling part of FAO’s definition of farming families is then that they co-evolve with the land, combining economic, environmental, social and cultural functions. Size does matter, but not much. Alternatively, the MERCOSUR countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) use a multiple criteria definition of family farming (REAF Mercosur).

The High Level Panel of Experts on World Food Security (HLPE) defined family farming as:

“practised by families (including one or more households) using only or mostly family labour and deriving from that work a large but variable share of their income, in kind or in cash. Agriculture includes crop raising, animal husbandry, forestry and artisanal fisheries. The holdings are run by family groups, a large proportion of which are headed by women, and women play important roles in production, processing and marketing activities.” (HLPE, 2013, p. 10)

You are not the only one…

If you felt overwhelmed by the lack of certainty around global food production and consumption, and thought that you were just poorly informed, I hope these lines made you realize that you’re not alone! Such global estimates are uncertain even for specialists, due to the various reasons explained above. It was not my primary intention to come up with clear-cut figures. All I wanted to show here is that smallholder family farms are sort of ‘moving targets’, and that there is much that we still don’t know about them.

Moreover, in calculating global food balances a further distinction should be made between food production and food consumption. In areas dominated by smallholder family farms often most of the production is consumed at home and/or locally. I’ll come back to this in a next post. Yet, how many smallholder family farms are there, and how much food they contribute, remains elusive.

What we do know is that about 50% of the malnourished people on the planet belongs to smallholder farming households, another 20% to landless rural households, and 10% are pastoralists, fisher folks or forest users. About 580 million of them live in the Asia & Pacific region, 240 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million in Latin America and the Caribbean and about 40 million in the Near East and North Africa (Oxfam, Growing a better future, London, 2011). Any doubt on which our primary targets to achieve global food security should be?

OK, at least we know that.