Hungry for land: big farms getting bigger and small farms getting smaller

ID-100131830Smallholder farmers produce the bulk of the world’s food with only minimal resources such as land and water. In fact small-scale food producers farm less than one quarter of the world’s farmland, a proportion that is declining. A new GRAIN report, Hungry for Land, investigates whether the shrinking size of land under small-scale farming poses a potential threat to the global production of food. The conclusion was clear, “we need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems”.

As a multitude of media articles tells us land is a hot commodity, one that is fought over and one that increasingly small-scale farmers are being evicted from. Be it for large-scale oil palm plantations, the creation of protected areas or the discovery of oil, insecure systems of land tenure and opaque policy decisions are taking land away from the marginal to give to a variety of domestic or foreign stakeholders. Land, as the report states, is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

Previous estimates of the amount of land farmed by smallholders range between 60-70%, according to various UN agency reports. Using data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation and national authorities, GRAIN investigated how much land was really in the hands of smallholder farmers. And the answer…24.7%. This was at its lowest in Africa (14.7%), although this is expected to be an underestimate, and highest in China (70.9%). Average farm size was recorded at 2.2ha. The smallest average farm sizes occurring in India (0.6ha), the largest in North America (67.6ha). The full dataset is available here.

The report, while acknowledging the limitations of the data available, draws several conclusions:

  • The vast majority of farms in the world today are small and getting smaller. In India farm size roughly halved between 1971 and 2006.
  • Small farms currently cover less than a quarter of the world’s farmland. In countries such as DR Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Peru, Paraguay, Russia, Bulgaria, Malaysia and Iran, the picture is more extreme where 70% of farms are small yet occupy less than 10% of the land.
  • We’re fast losing farms and farmers in many places while, big farms are getting bigger. In the EU farms over 100ha in size make up just 3% of the total number of farms but occupy 50% of the farmed land. In Colombia small farmers have lost approximately half of their land since 1980.
  • Small farms continue to be the major food producers in the world. Smallholder farmers are estimated to produce around 80% of food consumed in non-industrial countries.
  • Small farms are overall more productive than big farms. If all farms in Kenya had the current productivity levels of the country’s small farms, overall crop production would double.
  • Most small farmers are women. Because FAOSTAT define farmers as those people who earn an income from farming, women, who may work on family farms but not directly receive money for their work, are not effectively captured and statistics can be misleading. Other studies report that in developing countries, 60-80% of food is produced by women.

Concerns over the impact this concentration of land and expansion of large farms may have on food security originates in part from the difference in agricultural products being produced, large farms being more often associated with export crops such as soybean, sugarcane, rapeseed and oil palm. The global area of export crop production in the last two decades has increased by 100 million hectares while area for the production of domestically consumed crops has stayed the same.

Obviously there is a distinction between farming the land and owning the land and between expansion and intensification, which is not well elucidated in the report. Similarly the loss of farms is discussed but what they’re being lost to, be it land grabs or degradation, is not fully explored. While the report certainly raises awareness of the issues of land and food security, a more in-depth analysis of the driving forces and wider consequences of such a transformation is needed.

The report strongly advocates for genuine land reform, developing a system of land tenure that is secure and appropriate to smallholder farming families, particularly women. As the report acknowledges this is not always a freehold system of land ownership seen in developed countries, where competition in the land market could marginalise the most vulnerable. By carrying on as usual, the report warns, we not only put the livelihoods of smallholder farming households at risk but we risk the food security of the millions of people who depend on them. Putting land back into the hands of small-scale farmers is the suggested response but there is little discussion of how to go about this in the report.


  1. Reblogged this on Old School Garden.

  2. drbausman says:

    Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog and commented:
    Small farms holder = family farms = family food security = effective food security & economic livelihood = increase in Nation GDP

  3. Having travelled extensively in Africa, and having witnessed the extreme poverty of small-holder farmers, I think the article is very misleading. Firstly I think the hunger for land is incorrect. There is a huge hunger for food and improved livelihoods, but most would choose avenues other than farming to achieve this if it was possible. This is expressed as a hunger for land since other alternatives are not available. Secondly by mixing micro-farms with farms of over 100 ha (or economic units for Europe) the analysis misses where food is actually coming from. It is seldom from the micro farms. Zimbabwe is a clear example of where moving from large to small farms has resulted in a national food shortage. Despite some literature on the land reform showing positive results, at a macro level the country has had a prolonged food shortfall.When Zimbabwe was dominated by large farms it had a consistent surplus. In Europe or America the small holder farm sector is not the micro farms found in Africa. Further the analysis tends to imply that land that is not smallholder farms is by default large farm which are being farmed for food production. Again using Africa as an example, this is clearly not the case. I.e. the results are totally misleading. Though I am no supporter of large corporate farms, to suggest that land must be distributed to micro farms of less than 2 ha and that will help global food security (not said, but implied) is clearly misguided. Economic land holdings for family farms of 10s to 100s of ha might be a more meaningful middle ground. Preventing of farm subdivisions into non-viable units is also important. Global equity in food markets is also an issue not considered.

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