Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming

Even 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 rationalized 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 industrialized 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 advances achieved through mechanization, 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 that remain one step ahead of their competitors by investing in rationalization and expansion, or those with locational advantages. If others catch up with them, another round begins. An end to this treadmill is not in sight: 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

Approximately 3.4 billion people – or 45% of the world’s population – live in rural areas. Roughly 2 billion people (26.7% of the world population) derive their livelihoods from agriculture. In 2016, an estimated 57% of people in Africa were living in rural areas. 53% of the population was economically active in agriculture.

Agriculture employed some 873 million people in 2021, or 27% of the global workforce, compared with 1,027 million or 40% in 2000. In Asia, agricultural employment has declined from 787 million to 581 million people, meaning that more than one out of every four agricultural workers has left the sector for another job outside agriculture since 2000. In Europe, agricultural employment decreased by 49% from 34.4 million in 2000 to 17.5 million people in 2021. During the same period, agricultural employment in Africa increased from 164 million to 229 million people in 2021.

In 2017, an estimated 866 million people were officially employed in the agricultural sector: Of these, 292.2 million were located in Southern Asia, 148.4 million in Eastern Asia and 215.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa. The agricultural sector accounted for 57.4% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa and 42.2% in Southern Asia. Although the share of total employment in agriculture has declined over the past decade, the total number of workers in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa has grown.

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.

Of the 10.3 million farms in the EU, two thirds (65.4%) are less than 5 hectares in size. In 2016, they worked just 6.1% of the EU's utilized agricultural area. In contrast, large farms (100 hectares and above), representing just 3.3% of the total number of farms, controlled half (52.2%) of all farmed land. The 7% of farms that were of 50 hectares or more in size worked a little over two-thirds (68.1%) of the EU's utilized agricultural area.

In the financial year 2016, around 1.8% of the beneficiaries of EU direct payments granted to 6.7 million farms received €50,000 or more, representing around 31% of the total amount of direct payments (41 billion euros). Around 93% of the beneficiaries received €20,000 or less but this large group only received 42% of the total amount of direct payments.

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."

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.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the total support from taxpayers and consumers arising from policy measures that support agriculture in OECD countries stood at almost USD 315.5 billion in 2017. Support to farmers across the OECD area as measured by the Producer Support Estimate (PSE) amounted to USD 228 billion.

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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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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