More than half of world’s food calories produced by small farms


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Map of mean agricultural area by farm size in three global regions. (Environmental Research Letters)
Jake Slobe | March 8, 2017

A new study published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) estimates that more than half the food calories produced worldwide come from regions where the average farm size is less than five hectares.

Despite the importance of this farming activity in providing food security to millions – particularly in South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – information on the subnational distribution of smallholdings can be hard to find. To address this, researchers based in the US, Canada and Australia joined forces to generate a map of the mean amount of land per farming household.

The team showed that the combined output of developing world regions dependent on small-scale farming (with an average farm size of less than 5 hectares) contributes more than 80% of global rice production and 75% of the world’s output of groundnuts and palm oil. Small-scale farming regions also provide a large proportion of the world’s millet (60%), cassava (60%), cotton (40%) and sugarcane (40%) found to the study.

The study drew on household micro-data and satellite images of landcover to classify agricultural activity in a way that highlights smallholder contributions to the global food picture. The data cover 2412 subnational units in 83 countries across South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

To evaluate the prevalence of smaller or larger farms, the scientists use a metric dubbed “mean agricultural area” (MAA), which is defined as hectares of agricultural land divided by the number of farming households.

Units with an MAA of less than five hectares play a dominant role in Asia, the researchers found. In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion drops slightly with smallholder units producing half of the food calories in the region – supported by places with a medium-density of farm households, which account for another 26%. The situation changes again in Latin America, with 70% of food calories produced in regions with large and very large MAAs.

The team hopes that its results will help not just policy makers, but also technology developers in tackling issues such as food security, poverty reduction and conservation. One of the next steps in the project is to identify factors that lead smallholder regions to be successful.

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