New study finds we need to support decentralized, small-scale farming to meet our growing demand for nutritious food
10/13/2018 // Rhonda Johansson // Views

Experts suggest that by 2050, there will be a need to increase food availability by 70 percent to meet the demands of the growing population. Nevertheless, volume is not the only thing that is needed for sustainability. Researchers say that food systems need to produce highly nutritious food in terms of crops, livestock, and fish to ensure global health security. New evidence says that 70 percent of the global food supply comes from small to medium-sized farms, yet current European Union (EU) data shows that 80 percent of subsidies and 90 percent of research funding are used to support conventional industrial agriculture.

Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) published a large-scale industrial survey on global nutrient production in the first issue of The Lancet Planetary Health. Lead author, Mario Herrero from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) said that as the world moves towards massive agriculture systems to meet the rising demands for food, more investments need to be placed in small and medium farms in low to middle-income countries to sustain the quantity and quality of global food supplies.

This study observed the contribution of small, medium, and large farms in terms of the global food supply. Researchers also took note of how much calcium, folate, protein, iron, vitamins B12 and A, and zinc were produced in farms of different sizes from 41 crops, seven livestock products, and 14 fish groups.

These are a summary of their findings:


  • Fifty one to seventy seven percent of major food groups (including cereals, fruits, roots, and livestock) are produced by small and medium farms.
  • Large farms (those with a land space of more than 50 ha) dominated food production in North and South America.
  • Seventy five to one hundred percent of all cereals, livestock, and fruit in Australia and New Zealand were produced by local farms.
  • Seventy five percent of food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China were produced by small farms (those under 20 ha).
  • Small and medium farms had greater agricultural diversity, producing more nutrients than their larger counterparts.

“Small and medium farms produce more than half of the food globally, and are particularly important in low income countries, where they produce the vast majority of food and nutrients. Large farms, in contrast, are less diverse but their sheer scale ensures tradable surpluses of nutrients available to parts of the world that need them most. A sustainable food system that meet the needs of a growing population means we must focus on quality as well as quantity, and it is vital that we protect and support small and medium farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production,” concluded Herrero. (Related: Corporate agriculture is destroying national sovereignty and increasing risk of global starvation.)

The need for "agroecology"

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Hilal Elver called for a new movement of "agroecology" -- a sustainable farming method that is less resource-oriented and more focused on uplifting small farmers while protecting the environment.

“There is a geographical and distributional imbalance in who is consuming and producing. Global agricultural policy needs to adjust,” Prof Elver said in an article on “Governments must support small farmers. As rural people are migrating increasingly to cities, this is generating huge problems. If these trends continue, by 2050, 75 percent of the entire human population will live in urban areas. We must reverse these trends by providing new possibilities and incentives to small farmers, especially for young people in rural areas.”

This would represent a major shift in current international food policies, which Elver says is necessary to address the growing demand for food -- particularly as corporate agriculture practices raise the potential for global starvation.

Others, though, are not so convinced. Marcel Buekeboom, a Dutch civil servant in food and nutrition at the Ministry of Trade & Development quipped, “While I agree that we must do more to empower small farmers, the fact is that the big monocultural farms are simply not going to disappear. We have to therefore find ways to make the practices of industrial agribusiness more effective, and this means working in partnership with the private sector, small and large.”

Read more about the collapse of the food supply at

Sources include: [PDF]

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