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. "Industrial Agriculture: Form of agriculture that is capital-intensive, substituting machinery and purchased inputs for human and animal labour." (Global, p. 563-564)

Farm size

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.„The Agricultural treadmill: (...) Farmers who adopt early use of a technology that is more productive or less costly than the prevailing state-of-the-art technology, i.e., when prices have not as yet decreased as a result of increased efficiency, capture a windfall profit. When others begin to use the new technology, total production increases and prices start to fall. Farmers who have not yet adopted the technology or practice experience a price squeeze: their incomes decrease even if they work as hard as before.(Global, p. 73)
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

The vast majority of the world’s farms are small or very small. Worldwide, farms of less than 1 hectare account for 72% of all farms but control only 8% of all agricultural land. Farms between 1 and 2 hectares account for 12% of all farms and control 4% of the land. In contrast, only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but they control 65% of the world’s agricultural land.

There are more than 570 million farms in the world. More than 90% of farms are run by an individual or a family and rely primarily on family labour. Family farms occupy a large share of the world’s agricultural land and produce about 80% of the world’s food.

Smallholders can be really productive. In Brazil, family farmers provide on average 40% of the production of a selection of major crops working on less than 25% of the land. In the United States, family farmers produce 84% of all produce – totalling US$ 230 billion in sales, working on 78% of all farmland. Family farmers in Fiji provide 84% of yam, rice, manioc, maize and bean production working on only 47.4% of the land.

"The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a 'green revolution' to an 'ecological intensification' approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers."

In 2013, an estimated one billion people were officially employed in the agricultural sector: Of these, 297.5 million were located in South Asia, 258.2 million in East Asia and 202.4 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 2013, the agricultural sector accounted for 61.3% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, 47.2% in South Asia and 40.3% in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

A study comparing yields of organic and conventional farming from over 366 studies and trials, found that organic farming yields equate to 75% 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.

In the financial year 2012, around 6,5% of the beneficiaries of EU direct payments granted directly to farmers received €20,000 or more, representing around 59% of the total amount of direct payments and around 0.4% of the beneficiaries received €100,000 or more representing 16 % of the total amount of direct payments.

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.


Civil Society


Videos: Small-scale farmers

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Click on the image to watch the video

FAO video for World Food Day 2014 about family farming

FoodMythBusters: Do we really need industrial agriculture?


  • UNEP Agriculture in Africa GDPUNEP Agriculture in Africa GDP
  • UNEP Organic agriculture in EuropeUNEP Organic agriculture in Europe

Map: How many small farms are there? How much land do they have?

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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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