Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming

Secondly, agriculture in many regions of the world depends on massive public interventions and subsidies which frequently pursue short-term macroeconomic goals, such as low food prices, as well as geostrategic interests. The capability of a country to supply its own population with food in the case of war and conflict, but also the threat to stop food exports, still belong to the classical arsenal of power politics of states.
Subsidies for certain agricultural commodities, producers, forms of production and exports are mainly paid in industrialised countries. It is predominantly large agricultural enterprises and big trade and processing companies that profit from these subsidies. Worldwide, direct and indirect subsidies have a profound influence on production costs and prices of agricultural commodities.

The end of industrial productivism

In general, the large-scale industrialisation of agriculture in North and South America, Australia and Europe and the “Green Revolution” in Asia have led to impressive successes in increasing productivity and rationalisation over the past fifty years. The increase in global agricultural production has outstripped population growth. According to different estimates, our current agricultural production could feed 10 to 14 billion people if it was used exclusively and as efficiently as possible as food.
However, the one-sided focus on productivity of industrial agriculture exploits the available natural resources of our planet to an untenable and unsustainable extent. The basic strategy to replace human labour with farm machinery, agrochemicals and fossil energy, is a dead end in times of climate change, dwindling oil reserves and overexploited natural resources. We have exaggerated the problem with the concept of producing huge amounts of meat and agricultural commodities in highly rationalised monocultures and from just a few standardised high-yielding crop varieties which then are processed into the apparent product variety we are used to seeing in our supermarkets. Industrial agriculture consumes large amounts of pesticides, mineral fertilisers, energy and freshwater resources, and produces large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions. Depleted and salt-affected soils, deforestation and the contamination of entire watercourses, as well as an unprecedented loss of biodiversity are the ecological costs of these advances."While industrial production systems yield large volumes of agricultural commodities with relatively small amounts of labor, they are often costly in terms of human health, have additional negative environmental impacts, and are frequently inefficient in terms of energy use. Runoff and seepage of synthetic fertilizers and concentrated sources of livestock waste damage aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even oceans - with costly effects on drinking water quality, fish habitat, safety of aquatic food, and recreational amenities." (Global, p. 10)

The IAASTD clearly debunks the myth that industrial agriculture is superior to small-scale farming in economic, 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 play in feeding the world population. Small-scale, labour-intensive structures that focus on diversity can guarantee a form of food supply that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and that is based on resilient cultivation and distribution systems.
However, the IAASTD is far from romanticising the current form of small-scale and traditional agriculture, or calling for a return to pre-industrial conditions. It offers a clear and detailed description of the problems small-scale farmers frequently face in terms of productivity and efficiency, as well as the practices they use which are hazardous to human health and the environment. Both loss of traditional knowledge and lack of up-to-date knowledge are contributing to the misery of many smallholder families and subsistence farmers. Many traditional methods of production no longer offer a sustainable perspective. The challenges of the future can only be met with enormous boosts in innovation and with qualified farmers.

Food efficiency instead of increased surplus value

For this reason, the IAASTD considers investment in smallholder production the most urgent, and a secure and promising means of combating hunger and malnutrition, while at the same time minimising the ecological impact of agriculture practices. Improved methods of cultivation, mostly simple technologies and basic knowledge, more adequate seeds and a large number of agroecological strategies all provide huge potential for boosting productivity in a sustainable way. They are more likely to make sure that the additional amounts of food produced are actually available where they are needed most.
If small-scale farmers have sufficient access to land, water, credit and equipment, the productivity per hectare and per unit of energy use is much higher than in large intensive farming systems. In general, smallholder production requires considerably fewer external inputs and causes minor damages to the environment. Small farms are more flexible and better at adapting to local surrounding and changing conditions. As small-scale farming is more labour-intensive, it also enables more people in the countryside to make a living."Small-scale diversified farming is responsible for the lion's share of agriculture globally. While productivity in­creases may be achieved faster in high input, large scale, specialized farming systems, greatest scope for improving livelihood and equity exist in small-scale, diversified pro­duction systems in developing countries. This small-scale farming sector is highly dynamic, and has been responding readily to changes in natural and socioeconomic circum­stances through shifts in their production portfolio, and spe­cifically to increased demand by increasing aggregate farm output." (Global, p. 379)

Preconditions for this are a minimum of legal certainty, sufficient income and an infrastructure that is tailored to their needs: wells, streets, public health care, access to education and agricultural extension, as well as means of communication. Also in areas where small-scale farmers could produce more, this often does not happen due to a lack of basic storage and transport facilities, as well as access to local and regional markets that would make such efforts rewarding. Fair credit conditions for basic investment and insurances when crops fail could contribute towards making their risks more manageable. However, public investment in rural development in many developing countries, especially Africa and the least industrialised regions of Asia, has been severely neglected over the past 30 years. Private investment has been made in just a few export-oriented areas, which are often also the focus of national and international support programmes. The IAASTD describes this as a fatal global trend towards a decapitalisation of small-scale farmers, which must be urgently reversed."Though the productivity per unit of land and per unit of energy use is much higher in these small and diversified farms than the large intensive farming systems in irrigated areas, they continue to be neglected by formal AKST." (Synthesis, p. 22)

“Grow or die” is no longer modern

The IAASTD made the case for supporting small-scale farmers, questioning for the first time the agricultural paradigm “grow or die” of past decades. In recent years, many national and international development organisations and agencies have taken up this plea to invest in smallholders, at least in their publications and declarations of intent. The United Nations even declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. In practice, however, small-scale farmers are “difficult customers” for global players: Efforts and expenses are higher for investing in smaller units of production. It does not always prove effective to delegate the administration of programmes and funds to national or regional authorities since the disregard for small-scale farmers is often deeply rooted, especially in the cities.
Ministries of agriculture in the European Union and other industrialised countries also seem to consider the IAASTD’s message as purely related to development policy. According to their reading, small-scale farming structures may be an effective means for fighting hunger in the poor countries of the Global South. The modern, “knowledge-based bio-economies” of industrial nations, on the other hand, requires the continued “structural adjustment”.


Civil Society


Videos: Small-scale Farmers

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FAO video for World Food Day 2014 about family farming

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  • 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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