In recognition of the International Year of Family Farming, the recently published 2014 edition of FAO’s annual flagship publication The State of Food and Agriculture focuses on how to promote innovation among family farms to achieve sustainable food security and poverty alleviation. Family farms are key to ensuring long-term global food security.
Defining & estimating smallholder & family farms on a global scale
Agricultural development debates have long emphasized smallholder farming or family farming, but these terms are not easily defined or measured. What constitutes a small farm depends on many factors such as agro-ecological conditions and farming systems. What is considered a family farm also varies depending on the criteria used in the definition—ownership or management of the farm, use of family labour, physical size, commercialization, inheritance, etc.
Based on data from 167 agricultural censuses and using the most commonly used criteria for which data could be found, we estimate that there are at least 570 million farms in the world, of which at least 90 percent (more than 500 million) are operated by a family and rely primarily on family labour. These farms vary widely in terms of size and other characteristics.
Agricultural censuses from 106 countries also report the number of farms by land-size class. Using the most commonly used threshold for defining smallholder farms, we estimate that 84 percent of all farms are smaller than two hectares (Figure 1). These small farms only cover 12 percent of farmland worldwide. In contrast, only 1 percent of farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but together they control two-thirds of the land. These large farms include both family-operated farms and corporate farms.
These global averages reflect the dominance of larger farms in high-income countries and upper-middle-income countries. The picture is quite different in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Farms below 2 hectares occupy more than 40 percent of the land in low-income countries and more than 30 percent in the lower-middle-income countries. If we include farms up to 5 hectares, the shares increase to almost 75 percent in the low-income countries and close to 60 percent in the lower-middle-income countries. Their shares in food production are likely to be at least as large.
Many of the smallest farms are too small to constitute the main means of support for a family, especially if located in marginal agricultural zones with limited access to markets. These farming families also need other sources of income through off-farm employment, public transfers or remittances if they are to live decent lives. On the other hand, many small or medium-sized family farms in the low- and middle-income countries could make a much greater contribution to global food security and rural poverty alleviation. The key to achieving this lies in innovation.
How can we encourage innovation as part of an agriculture-based poverty alleviation strategy?
Innovation is the process through which farmers improve their production and farm management practices using knowledge. Through innovation, family farms can increase their production, preserve natural resources and raise rural incomes. This may involve planting new crop varieties, applying new production and post-harvest methods, changing the organization and management of the farm, and/or engaging with markets in new ways.
But innovation requires the involvement of many actors besides farmers: the private sector, value chain participants, research and extension institutes, civil society, farmers’ organizations and others. This calls for an innovation system that recognizes the diversity of family farms and facilitates and coordinates the activities of all stakeholders involved in agricultural innovation.
Such an innovation system begins with an enabling environment for innovation, including good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights and market infrastructure, but it includes much more. Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services must be increased and focused on sustainability and on raising the productivity of small and medium-sized farmers. R&D and extension services must be inclusive and responsive to farmers’ needs. Investments are needed in education and training. Capacity to innovate also depends on effective farmers’ organizations as well as networks and linkages that allow different actors in the innovation system to share information and work towards common objectives.
The State of Food and Agriculture 2014 focuses on promoting agricultural innovation among family farms as a central part of an agriculture-based poverty alleviation strategy. At the same time, it recognizes the need for additional options for many families on small farms, who must be able to rely on other sources of income.Jakob Skoet, Terri Raney and Sarah Lowder are economists in the Agricultural and Development Economics Division (ESA) of FAO and are members of the team that produces FAO’s major annual flagship publication, The State of Food and Agriculture. The 2014 edition, Innovation in family farming, was published on 16 October 2014. It is available online at http://www.fao.org/publications/sofa/en. The views expressed in this information product are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).