In the April 2017 issue of The Lancet: Planetary Health, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia report that small (defined here as up to about 50 acres) and medium-sized (defined here as about 50 to 250 acres) diversified farms currently produce more than half of the world’s micronutrient-rich foods (farms over 250 acres produce a larger proportion of sugar crops, oil crops, and cereal grains).
The team evaluated data concerning the production of 41 major crops, the nutrient contributions of those crops, and the size and diversity of farms producing them from around the world (the study summarizes results into 9 geographic regions).
You may be surprised to learn that large farms are not the biggest crop producers in North America - they are only the largest producers in South America (50%-80% of all crops produced) and in Australia and New Zealand (80%-90% of all crops produced). In North America, about 80%-90% of the production of most types of crops (vegetables, sugar crops, roots and tubers, pulses, oil crops, fruit, and cereal grains) is split about equally between medium-sized and large farms. Small farms produce the rest, leaning a bit more toward fruits, vegetables, and roots and tubers in North America.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and China, the pattern is reversed, with small farms producing about 75% of all crops. In Europe, West Asia, North Africa, and Central America, all sizes of farms contribute more equally to the total.
Crop Diversity and Nutrition
The researchers found that in general, the smaller the farm, the greater the diversity of crops produced. Farms with higher diversity also tended to produce crops higher in micronutrients (large, non-diversified farms tended to produce more volume of fewer crops, and typically produce more crops that are higher in calories and lower in micronutrients than small farms do).
The Role of Organic Food
Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional ones in the U.S. (according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average size of a farm in the U.S. was 434 acres, and the average size of an organic farm was 285 acres in 2008). Organic farms also tend to grow a wider range of crops, often those that are high in micronutrients. Supporting organic farmers by buying organic food and beverages helps keep the existing farms sustainable.
Organic management techniques are often highly appropriate technology for small farms and farms with more labor equity than cash to spend on off-farm inputs, making organic farming knowledge a powerful tool to help small farmers around the world succeed and boost their yields.
Small Farms and the Future
The report goes on to stress that maintaining the existing small farms and adding new ones will be critical in meeting the world’s expanding food requirements going forward, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and China, where they account for such a sizable portion of current production.
Supporting the needs of small farmers with issues such as access to land and spreading appropriate knowledge and small-scale technology must be an important part of any effort designed to support food security and sustainability. According to the World Bank, land issues are critical as almost three-quarters of the world’s population lacks registered legal titles to the land they use - a huge problem for farmers in developing countries. In developed countries, the cost of buying, owning, or leasing land for farming is more of a problem.
Consumers can help keep small farms and organic producers financially sustainable by shopping locally as much as possible and by choosing organic as much as possible. It is also important to support the work of groups that are helping farmers get access to land and the education and tools they need to run financially sustainable operations. Make sure your elected officials understand that we need small and organic farmers!