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18.04.2017 |

Small farms are essential to the provision of food and nutrients, study

Farmer
Small farms feed the world (Photo: CC0)

Small and medium farms are essential to sustain the quality of global food supply, according to a new study published in the journal “The Lancet Planetary Health” that maps global nutrient production from farms across the world. The researchers found that farms smaller than 50 hectares produced more than half of the food globally and that small farms with less than 20 hectares provided more than 80% of essential nutrients in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and the rest of East Asia Pacific. “Small and medium farms (...) are particularly important in low income countries, where they produce the vast majority of food and nutrients,” said lead author Mario Herrero of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia. The scientists analysed global datasets to estimate the production of 41 major crops, seven livestock products and 14 fish groups. They estimated how much calcium, folate, iron, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc is produced in farms of different sizes and how much each farm type contributed to the production of different agricultural commodities and associated nutrients.

The researchers say that globally, an estimated 51-77% of major food groups, including cereals, livestock, fruits, pulses, roots and tubers and vegetable, comes from farms smaller than 50 hectares. Exceptions are sugar and oil crops, which tend to be produced mostly on large farms. The share of food produced on small farms can vary remarkably depending on the world region. Small farms with less than 20 hectares produce more than 75% of most food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, south Asia, and China, the study found. Very small farms with less than two hectares are especially important in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, where they contribute around 30% of most food commodities and where they are managed by millions of smallholder farmers. In China, such farms produce more than 50% of all food commodities (except for fibre crops), in particular fruits (64%), vegetables (60%), sugar crops (59%), roots and tubers (72%), and livestock (63%). In Europe, west Asia and north Africa, and central America, medium-size farms sized between 20 and 50 hectares also contribute substantially to the production of most food commodities. By contrast, large farms over 50 hectares dominate food production in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, producing 75-100% of all cereal, livestock and fruit in those regions.

The study found that areas with small and medium farms had greater agricultural diversity than areas with large farms. According to the scientists, the majority of global micronutrients (53–81 percent) and protein (57 percent) are produced in more diverse agricultural landscapes. Small farms with less than 20 hectares provide 71% of global vitamin A production, which is essential for the immune system and vision. “The historical intensification of agriculture has yielded more but less diverse food and a reduction in the sources of key essential nutrients,” the authors write. “Our data suggest that although most commodity groups are present across all farm sizes, there is a risk that numbers of species cultivated, particularly highly nutritious food groups, will decrease as farm sizes increase.” The authors say that reversing this trend is essential to safeguard the adaptive capacity of agriculture to maintain the supply of essential nutrients for human health. “A sustainable food system that meets the needs of a growing population means we must focus on quality as well as quantity, and it is vital that we protect and support small and medium farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production,” said Mario Herrero. (ab)

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