Can small-scale farmers feed the world?
One of the things I wondered about a lot during my first months of work in the food system was productivity. Growing up in a Minority World country, practically all of my food came from large-scale, industrial farms. As a result, I—like many others—believed for a long time that industrial agriculture a necessary evil, an unfortunate requirement given how many people now live on the planet. Once I learned about the importance of small-scale farming for biodiversity and cultural preservation, I still wondered whether these smaller farms would be able to “feed the world.”
Today, I wanted to take a bit of time to explore this question. There is ongoing controversy about exactly what percentage of the world’s food is produced by small-scale and peasant farmers. It’s a difficult question to answer, but an incredibly important one. If it turns out that small-scale agriculture does, in fact, feed the majority of the world, then that would be a huge blow to the industrial agricultural system, given its widespread environmental and social harms. In recent years, researchers have attempted to answer this question. But a couple of key studies have emerged, pointing us in the wrong direction, and creating dire consequences for policy-making. Let’s dive in.
Back in 2009, ETC Group published a report titled Who Will Feed Us? in which they cite the statistic that small-scale farmers feed 70 percent of the world (that is, they produce 70 percent of the food that actually goes to feeding people, vs. crops that are diverted for biofuels, animal feed, or other non-food uses). This distinction is important—they aren’t claiming that smallholder farmers produce 70 percent of net calories, but 70 percent of the food that ends up being consumed by people.
They assert, based on available data, that 50 percent of global crop production for human consumption can be attributed to small-scale farms under 5 hectares (this is relatively uncontroversial in the research). Then, they added in food resulting from practices like hunting and gathering, fishing, pastoralism, as well as small-scale urban and peri-urban food production, which accounted for an additional 20 percent of food consumed. These forms of food production are mostly informal—and chronically undervalued—so it’s difficult to ascertain exact figures, but they are nonetheless important ways that people feed themselves around the world.
In the past few years, two papers have been published that attempt to “debunk” this 70 percent statistic. The two papers, published by Vincent Ricciardi et al. (2018) and Sarah Lowder et al. (2021), both claim that small-scale farmers account for just 30 percent of global food production—quite a jump down from 70 percent. This has led to a slew of headlines implying that these findings prove that small-scale agriculture is inefficient and incapable of feeding the world and that we should invest in industrialised methods instead. As a result of these papers, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has shifted its position from 70 to 30 percent, despite the fact that the papers are full of methodological errors and assumptions that warrant further scrutiny before being universally accepted.
Let’s take a look at this research, starting with Ricciardi’s paper. Although they aimed to debunk ETC Group’s statistic (calling it a “zombie statistic”), they were actually answering a completely different question than the one they claimed to be addressing. They measured crop production for small-scale vs. industrial farms, completely neglecting how much of that food is going to feed people. The reality is that industrial farms divert a significant percentage of crops to biofuels, animal feed, and other non-food uses. Even calories grown for animal feed, which could be argued to still be contributing to food security, are highly inefficient; nonprofits GRAIN and IATP estimate that for every 100 calories fed to animals, only 17 to 30 end up in the meat that humans consume. Measuring production alone doesn’t tell us much about food security, which is the implied question at hand.
On top of that, their dataset includes only 55 countries (or two-fifths of the global population). Over half of these countries are European, where small-scale farming is, indeed, more marginal. The researchers ignore large swaths of Africa, South East Asia, and other regions where small-scale farmers account for a significant percentage of food production. And yet they make sweeping claims about global peasant food production.
Ricciardi’s team referenced another study that uses a dataset that includes far more Majority World countries. They found that if they applied their methodology to this dataset, they would reach the conclusion that 76 percent of food calories are produced by farms under five hectares, which is significantly higher than even ETC Group’s original estimate. Either way, it’s nonsensical to rely on a dataset that erases the vast majority of countries where small-scale farmers exist, neglect to include the majority of food production methods they employ, and then make claims about their ability to feed the world.
Lowder et al.’s paper doesn’t fare much better. The authors made the assumption that land and production have a correlative relationship; if large farms make up 80 percent of the agricultural land, then large farms must make up 80 percent of food production.