Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming

Still today, agriculture is an important source of income and the world's largest business. One third of the economically active population obtains its livelihood from agriculture. In Asia and Africa, millions of small-scale and subsistence farmers, pastoralists, fishermen and indigenous peoples produce most of the food consumed worldwide, in most cases on very small plots of land. Over the past decades, agricultural policy and international institutions, as well as private and public agricultural research have often considered small-scale and subsistence farmers as backward “phase-out models” of a pre-industrial form of production. For more than 50 years, “grow or die” has been both the capitalist and socialist principle for progress, with just a few exceptions. The widely held belief was that only large economic units were capable of achieving increases in productivity on a competitive basis through modern and rationalised cultivation methods, mainly with chemical inputs and the use of machinery. A global increase in productivity was considered necessary to feed a rapidly growing world population."Industrial Agriculture: Form of agriculture that is capital-intensive, substituting machinery and purchased inputs for human and animal labour." (Global, p. 563-564)

The agricultural treadmill

The IAASTD describes this development model of industrialised nations as the “agricultural treadmill”. "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)It is based on technological boosts achieved through mechanisation, plant breeding for high-yielding varieties, the use of agrochemicals and genetic engineering, etc. With increasing external inputs, the unit costs of production are declining and the productivity per worker is increasing. Production is growing and producer prices are falling. The only businesses that can survive on the market are those which remain one step ahead of their competitors by investing in rationalisation and expansion, or those with locational advantages. If others catch up with them, another round begins. An end to this treadmill is not envisaged: The more global the market, the higher the speed and the more incalculable the game becomes for each participant.

The IAASTD calls into question the idea that this universal principle of technological progress in a free-market economy is the ideal concept for sustainable food production and the organisation of agriculture. Firstly, fertile soils - the most important basis of agriculture and a resource that can rarely be multiplied - are seldom distributed fairly. Almost nowhere in the world does access to land follow classical market rules of supply and demand. The distribution of soils is shaped by the historical legacy of feudalism, colonialism and patriarchal inheritance rights and has always been the result of very particular machinations and struggles for power, which are rarely transparent, fair and non-violent. >>more

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 highly productive. In Brazil, family farmers on average provide 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.

Institutions

Civil Society

Literature

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?

Graphics

  • 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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