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.

[Read more…]