Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming

Despite overproduction, the industrial model of globalised agriculture does not provide sufficient and nutritious food for billions of people. The IAASTD’s key message therefore is that “business as usual is not an option”.
Industrial agriculture exploits the earth’s available natural resources. With its mechanised systems and use of agro-chemicals, it replaces the input of human labour with fossil energy. Industrial agriculture requires huge amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. It is responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
The IAASTD clearly debunks the myth that industrial agriculture is superior to small-scale farming in economical, social and ecological terms. The report argues for a new paradigm for agriculture in the 21st century, which recognises the pivotal role that small-scale farmers - particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America - play in feeding a growing world population in a sustainable way.>>more

Farm Size

Regional distribution of small-scale farms
Regional distribution of small-scale farms

Approximately 2.6 billion people, 40% of the world’s population, depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Of the 525 million farms worldwide, 85% are smallholders who cultivate plots of land no bigger than 2 hectares. It is these small farms however that produce the largest amounts of food and cultivate around 60% of the arable land worldwide - often in soils that are less fertile and insufficiently irrigated. Although increasing in number, the percentage of small farmers relative to the world population is getting smaller. The total area cultivated by smallholders has also been shrinking for years, thus explaining the decrease in average farm size in Asia and Africa. In direct contrast, the size of agricultural enterprises in Europe, the US and Australia is increasing, whilst their number is drastically decreasing.
These average numbers disguise the extremely sharp contrast between large operations and small-scale farmers in Latin America. In North America and Europe, these calculations also disguise small farms whose owners can no longer make a living from agriculture.

Facts & Figures

In the United States, the mean farm size is 178.4 hectares. In Latin America it is 111.7 hectares. In sub-Saharan Africa however the average size amounts to just 2.4 hectares. In Asia this figure is lower still: 1.8 hectares in South-East Asia and 1.4 hectares in South Asia.

In 2009, there were an estimated 1.068 billion people employed in the agricultural sector: Of these, 346.6 million were located in South Asia, 299.7 million in East Asia and 175.9 million in sub-Saharan Africa. Although their share in total employment has declined over the past decade, the total number of workers in agriculture has grown. In 2009, the agricultural sector accounted for 59.0% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, 53.5% in South Asia and 44.3% in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

A study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota, comparing yields of organic and conventional farming from over 366 studies and trials, found that organic farming yields equate to75% of the average yield from conventional farming production. It was noted that yields depend on many conditions, with organic farming achieving 95% of conventional yields when applied with good management practices, focusing particular on crop types and soils. The study did not consider efficiency or the environmental costs associated with conventional production, which include CO2 emissions or soil erosion.

OECD countries provided less aid to agriculture in 2013, with support to producers across the OECD area amounting to USD 258 billion as measured by the Producer Support Estimate (PSE). The total support from taxpayers and consumers arising from policy measures that support agriculture stood at 344 billion in 2013.

Governments in Africa only spend around 6.6% of their national budgets on agriculture, a little more than US$15 per year for every rural inhabitant. In contrast, during the Green Revolution era, Asian governments allocated as much as 15% of their budgets to agriculture. Donor support for African farming has fallen from 15% of total aid budgets in the 1990s to only 4.2% in 2006.


Civil Society

  • AgriCultures Network shares knowledge and provides information on small-scale, sustainable agriculture
  • La Via Campesina international movement of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people,...
  • IFOAM International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic movement
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition alliance of grassroots organisations that advocates for policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture and food systems
  • Greenpeace Ecological Farming: Background
  • Union of Concerned Scientists Working to promote sustainable agriculture in the United States


Videos: Small-scale farmers

To watch video click on image
To watch video click on image
Can organic feed the world?
Can organic feed the world?
FoodMythBusters: Do we really need industrial agriculture?
FoodMythBusters: Do we really need industrial agriculture?


  • UNEP Agriculture in Africa GDPUNEP Agriculture in Africa GDP
  • UNEP Ecosytem ChangeUNEP Ecosytem Change
  • UNEP Organic Agriculture EuropeUNEP Organic Agriculture Europe
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Unterstützer von biovision Verlag der Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft e.V. Demeter Greenpeace Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung Eine Welt Stiftung Die Grünen, Europäische Freie Allianz Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst NABU - Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V. Misereor Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand
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