Can giving full land ownership to small holder farmers double world food production?

Around the world, small holder farmers are being forced off their land to make way for corporate agriculture, and it’s justified by the need to ‘feed the world’. But it’s the small farmers that are the most productive, and the more their land is grabbed, the more global hunger increases.

2014 was declared as the International Year of Family Farming, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released its annual ‘State of Food and Agriculture‘ dedicated to family farming. In the report, FAO says family farmers manage 70-80% of the world’s farmland and produce 80% of the world’s food. On the ground in Kenya, Brazil, China or Spain – rural people are being marginalised, threatened, displaced, beaten and even killed by a variety of powerful actors who want their land.

A recent comprehensive survey by GRAIN, examining data from around the world, finds that while small farmers feed the world, they are doing so with just 24% of the world’s farmland – or 17% , and this meagre share is shrinking fast.

In its report, FAO claims family farms occupy 70 to 80% of the world’s farmland? In the same report, it claims that only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, and that these few farms control 65% of the world’s farmland, a figure much more in line with GRAIN’s findings.

What then is a ‘family farm’

Confusion seems to stem from the way FAO deal with the concept of family farming, roughly defined as any farm managed by an individual or a household. (They admit there is no precise definition. Various countries, like Mali, have their own.) Does a huge industrial soya bean farm in rural Argentina, whose family owners live in Buenos Aires, count as a ‘family farm’?. What about sprawling Hacienda Luisita, owned by the powerful Cojuanco family in the Philippines and epicentre of the country’s battle for agrarian reform since decades. Is that a family farm?

Taking ownership to determine what is and is not a family farm masks all the inequities, injustices and struggles that peasants and other small scale food producers across the world are mired in. This way, FAO conveniently ignores perhaps the most crucial factor affecting the capacity of small holder farmers to produce food; lack of access to land, and instead focuses its message on how family farmers should innovate and be more productive.

Small farmers are ever more squeezed in

Access to land is shrinking due a range of forces; population pressure, farms are getting divided up amongst family members, and vertiginous expansion of monoculture plantations. In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares – the size of almost all the farmland in India – has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. And this trend is accelerating. In the next few decades, experts predict that the global area planted to oil palm will double, while the soybean area will grow by a third. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.

Other pressures pushing small food producers off their land include the runaway plague of large-scale land grabs by corporate interests. In the last few years alone, according to the World Bank, some 60 million hectares of fertile farmland have been leased, on a long-term basis, to foreign investors and local elites, mostly in the global South. While some of this is for energy production, a big part of it is to produce food commodities for the global market, instead of family farming.

Small is beautiful – and productive

The paradox, however, and one of the reasons why despite having so little land, small producers are feeding the planet, is that small farms are often more productive than large ones. If the yields achieved by Kenya’s small farmers were matched by the country’s large-scale operations, the country’s agricultural output would double. In Central America, the region’s food production would triple. If Russia’s big farms were as productive as its small ones, output would increase by a factor of six.

Another reason why small farms are the feeding the planet is because they prioritise food production. They tend to focus on local and national markets and their own families. In fact, much of what they produce doesn’t enter into trade statistics – but it does reach those who need it most: the rural and urban poor.

Should current processes of land concentration continue, then no matter how hard-working, efficient and productive they are, small farmers will simply not be able to carry on. The data show that the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry every day.

According to one UN study, active policies supporting small producers and agro-ecological farming methods could double global food production in a decade and enable small farmers to continue to produce and utilise biodiversity, maintain ecosystems and local economies, while multiplying and strengthening meaningful work opportunities and social cohesion in rural areas.

To double global food production, we must support the small farmers

Experts and development agencies are constantly saying that we need to double food production in the coming decades. To achieve that, they usually recommend a combination of trade and investment liberalization plus new technologies. This ,however only empowers corporate interests and fuels inequality. The real solution is to turn control and resources over to small producers themselves and enact agricultural policies to support them. We need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for genuine and comprehensive agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems worldwide.

for over 30 years, my family has been farming on this piece of land, producing mainly for household consumption. As our family decreased in size, we now sell of the surplus from bananas, milk, and most recently manure from the cows This year, we will transition the cows to zero grazing to grow more food for sell
for over 30 years, my family has been farming on this piece of land, producing mainly for household consumption. As our family decreased in size, we now sell of the surplus from bananas, milk, and most recently manure from the cows
This year, we will transition the cows to zero grazing to grow more food for sell

Making hunger disappear is not about higher productivity’

re-blogged from

By André de Vos

Less intensive farming in the West and more intensive farming in developing countries can solve the world’s food problem. That is, if the farming is done on an ecological basis. ‘Farming methods in both developed and developing countries need to be updated,’ says Pablo Tittonell, professor in Farming Systems Ecology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, associate professor at the University of Montpelier and the National University of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires.

Modern technology can drastically improve farming methods in developing countries. However, the highly industrialised and large-scale farming of the West is not a model of sustainability, requiring large amounts of energy, water, pesticides and artificial fertilisers. When talking about intensifying farming, Pablo Tittonell means something completely different. Using better logistics, education, mobile phones, and new ecological insights. ‘It is about using nature in a smart way.’ 

‘’It means western farmers need to rethink their way of farming, together with scientists and the government ‘’

‘Making hunger disappear is not about higher productivity’, Tittonell claims. ‘A higher yield per acre is not the start but the result of a combination of several mechanisms. Better organisation of food production, better roads, better education of farmers, making sure that farmers have access to credit. Put the right infrastructure and institutions in place and the result will be that farmers produce more.’

Take the smart phone, for example. A wonderful way to bring people and food together. Tittonell: ‘I recently met Jamila Abass, a woman from Kenya who is bringing consumers and farmers together by using mobile technology. By now, ten thousand small farmers have joined the programme. If they can reach their customers in this way, they have a big incentive to improve their production.’

Sustainable farming
Pablo Tittonell is a strong advocate of agro-ecological farming. He sees it as the solution to the unbalanced food production worldwide, with the almost industrial large-scale approach in the West versus the traditional smallholders farming in developing countries. Both no longer suffice. Tittonell’s solution: ‘extensify’ Western agriculture, intensify agriculture in developing countries. ‘The Western approach to farming uses a lot of energy and water, causes pollution, and depletes the soil. The negative side effects do not show in the price of the products, being subsidised by the government. Which once made sense. Faced with a growing population in the cities, the system was aimed at feeding as many mouths as possible by as little farmers as possible, in the cheapest possible way. But it is not a sustainable model. It is delivering cheap produce because the external costs are not charged to the consumer.’

Small-scale farmers in developing countries originally produced mainly for self-consumption. And even though in most developing countries the majority of people still live in the countryside, this way of farming is no longer working. A surplus is needed to feed the growing population in the city.

Disruptive change
A great deal of food research goes into raising production of farming in developed countries even further. But trying to get greater yields of already intensively used acreage is expensive and will make Western farming even less sustainable. Instead, Europe and the US should change their farming systems into a less destructive, more organic way of farming that will produce less at the beginning. The initial lower food production itself will not be a problem. There is no food shortage in the West. Financially however there will be a big problem, Tittonell explains. ‘The whole farming system is based on large-scale production. Even if a farmer wants to start farming on an organic basis, he will not succeed easily. He is part of a system. He needs the bank for finance, and the bank will not be enthusiastic about changes that cost money and possibly bring less yield. We are talking about a completely different way of producing that will take time and investment. It means Western farmers need to rethink their way of farming, together with scientists and the government. It is a disruptive change that will cost money.’

Yield-raising strategies
In developing countries new nature-smart technologies, better organisation and the latest organic insights can easily improve agricultural production. Even now it is already feeding half the world population. ‘It is easier to bring the yield from 1 to 3 tonnes per hectare in developing countries than it is to go from 12 to 14 tonnes in developed countries. The main advantage of course is that the extra food will be available where it is most needed.’

Tittonell is no opponent of yield-raising inputs such as fertiliser, as long as they are used judiciously, at strategic times, and in a way the soil can handle it. But the agro-ecological approach is showing the same results in a more sustainable way. ‘Ten years ago an article in Nature claimed that organically managed soil has more biodiversity, which you need for a higher production. It was received with scepticism. Now these results are accepted. The science of soil biology is going forward at a high pace. We find that clever combinations of crops in space and time can bring better yields than the mere use of fertilisers and pesticides.’

The problem is that in the West most investments and scientific research still go into the industrialised, large-scale farming, while in developing countries small-scale farmers have no access to modern technology and the latest scientific knowledge. Furthermore they lack the right infrastructure to optimise their food production. India wastes 21 million tonnes of wheat every year through poor storage and distribution: 18 times the total wheat production of the Netherlands.

Consumers’ impact
In developed countries an elite of consumers is getting more interested in organically produced food. ‘Mainly because the industrial farming methods are heavily subsidised, organic products are more expensive. Additionally, there is a yield gap between traditional and organic production. If more research money went into agro-ecological production, that gap would disappear altogether.’

Consumers play a major role in changing the agricultural production methods. But Tittonell does not think that the market by itself can cause a major shift towards ecological farming, as governments make the present production methods viable. In developing countries intensifying agriculture in a sustainable way is even more reliant on the government. And there is no simple approach. Brazil, the first country to put agro-ecological policy into practice (France will perhaps be the second), deployed about sixty different mechanisms to eliminate hunger, none of them directly aimed at increasing production. One of the instruments was to pay more for ecological products in school catering. ‘If you can stimulate industrial agricultural production by subsidising it, as has been the case in most Western countries, why not do the same with organic production? Can you even begin to imagine what the impact would be if the European Union gave ecological farming the same financial and academic support as traditional farming? In the long run it will be the only way to feed the growing world population.’


Prof. dr. Ir. Pablo Tittonell is head of the Farming Systems Ecology group of Wageningen University. He is also associate professor at the University of Montpelier and the National University of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires. Furthermore, he is board member of the Africa Conservation Tillage Network, a pan-African not-for-profit organisation who aims at bringing together different stakeholders and players to improve agricultural productivity through sustainable utilisation of natural resources of land and water in Africa. In his oration prof. Tittonell stated that the contemporary intense agriculture won’t be able to feed the world population in the future. Radical changes are necessary. The world food production has to be increased, and we have to make use of the possibilities of the natural functions of the ecosystem, in a clever way.

What is smallholder agriculture?

Of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people in the world (living on less than USD1.25/day), 70 percent are
estimated to live in rural areas and most of them depend partly (or completely) on agriculture. For this
reason, the urgent and undeniable need to reduce poverty puts smallholder agriculture at centre stage.

Investment for agriculture and especially for small holders is acknowledged to be an absolute necessity, especially as the majority of the hungry people in the world are, paradoxically, small farmers.

In order to address food waste/food loss, requires us to understand what we are talking about from the perspective of small holder farmers –  what is smallholder agriculture – and to reflect upon the very future of
small-scale agriculture in the scope of FLW (food loss and waste).
We are often confronted with very contrasting visions based on national situations and trajectories. The majority of investments in agriculture are realized by farmers themselves.Therefore,the main issue is to better understand what smallholders need to be able to invest.
What is smallholder agriculture?
There are a number of different definitions of “smallholder agriculture” and each definition
carries implications for the measurement of the number of smallholders. Definitions also guide our understanding of the investment needs of smallholders. A discussion on definitions is therefore neither trivial nor academic, but has real implications for policies and impacts on livelihoods.
Smallholder agriculture is practiced by families (including one or more households) using only or mostly family labor and deriving from that work a large but variable share of their income, in kind or in cash. Agriculture includes crop raising, animal husbandry, forestry and artisanal fisheries. The holdings are run by family groups, a large proportion of which are headed by women, and women play important roles in production, processing and marketing activities.
The definition of “smallholder agriculture” cannot be rigid or “one size fits all”: there are many variations in each specific context at the regional, national and local levels, and also over time as economies transform. Classifications of smallholder agriculture based only on farm size can be misleading. A smallholding is “small” because resources are scarce, especially land,and using it to generate a level of income that helps fulfil basic needs and achieve a sustainable livelihood consequently require a high level of total factor productivity, requiring in turn a significant level of investment.
Smallholder agriculture is also defined in relation to, and in contrast with, two opposites – larger commercial holdings with hired labour on the one hand, and landless workers on the other.
Off- farm activities play an important role in providing smallholders with additional income and as a way of diversifying risk, thus improving their resilience to the shocks that impact on agriculture. Off – farm activities are a common feature of rural economies, both in developed and developing countries , and offer opportunities for investments in support of smallholders.
The family is at the same time a social unit of production and consumption and the source of labour for agriculture. The productive and the domestic sides of smallholder farmers are closely linked. These linkages explain some of the constraints faced by smallholders regarding investments, as shocks and risks can spread between the production side and the family side; they also explain the resilience of rural societies because of reciprocal ties relying on kinship and social proximity.
Today, smallholder farmers detached from any type of market exchange are no longer significant in social or economic terms, but smallholders producing only or mainly for subsistence are not uncommon – in all regions. These farms rely on their own production for food consumption, as a complement to low monetary incomes. These smallholders are part of the market economy through their provision of labour, and their food security depends on their production, which does not necessarily enter the market.
At the collective level, smallholders’ families are part of social networks within which mutual assistance and reciprocity translate into collective investments (mainly through work exchanges) and into solidarity systems. They also participate – when political freedom allows it – in rural producers’ organizations and local development associations in order to improve service provisions, including market access and market power , access to productive assets and to have a voice in public policy debates.
To appraise the magnitude and diversity of smallholder agriculture and to inform sound policy – making, more accurate and extensive data are needed: not only on land size, but also on assets’ composition (resulting from past investments), production and sources of income. Such data are currently not available at the global level, and at the national level for some countries only. The FAO’s World Census of Agriculture (WCA) frames and organizes the way censuses have to be implemented in all countries. However, there are three difficulties that need to be overcome: (i) not all the countries have the means, the interest and the capacities to carry them out: the last completed WCA round covered 114 countries; (ii) data are not always homogeneous and comparable; they can vary according to the specific focus of each country; and (iii) they are not linked to production statistics, making it difficult to make the link to national and global production according to the type of holding.
Smallholder agriculture is the foundation of food security in many countries and an important part of the socio/economic/ecological landscape in all countries. With urbanization, integration and globalization of markets, the sector is undergoing great transformations that are of vital national interest, that are often against the interests of smallholders, and that are neither inevitable nor a matter of chance, but of social choice. Depending on regional, national and sub-national contexts, these transformations can lead to various patterns, which all entail a certain proportion of smallholders and larger farms, with impacts on the diversification of the rural economies.
Smallholders contribute to world food security and nutrition while performing other related roles in their territories. Historical evidence shows that smallholder agriculture, adequately supported by policy and public investments, has the capacity to contribute effectively to food security, food sovereignty, and substantially and significantly to economic growth, the generation of employment, poverty reduction, the emancipation of neglected and marginalized groups, and the reduction of spatial and socio – economic inequalities. Within an enabling political and institutional environment, it can contribute to sustainable management of biodiversity and other natural resources while preserving cultural heritage.
dufatanye Twese
myself with a women farmer group in Rwanda This January, i look forward to a possible visit to Rwanda, writing about food systems in a country that has been posed to be the possible breadbasket for the region

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: How sustainable is your food supply chain?

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Consumers around the world are expressing high expectations for the quality of products they consume. More than at any other point in history, we prefer goods produced in an ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion.

Young people are increasingly likely to consider the “social and environmental ethics of brands”.  While consumers demand these standards, actual implementation of environmentally and socially ethical practices in remains obscured to the lack of transparency and accountability in supply chains.

One great example of this is food. We all need it, we eat it, and some of us instagram it. Food comes from the earth, from plants and animals, then we harvest it.  Agriculture supply chains have a huge impact on landscapes, from the sourcing of plants and animals to the communities who directly rely on them.  How did your breakfast get to your plate?  And how do you know if your breakfast helped or hindered the people who harvested it? .

Our names are Benjamin, Hannah and Wen-Yu and at the Global Landscapes Forum youth session, we will run a workshop to discuss various aspects of green economy while sharing our different backgrounds and experiences. We want you to start the conversation with us by commenting at the end of the blogpost on a number of questions focusing on global supply chains, and the impacts of supply chains on landscapes around the world.

Supply chains have a great role to play in establishing a more sustainable global economy, and we hope our discussion will recognize the various opportunities to adapt supply chain management practices. We will consider and explore how supply chains can become more responsible, transparent and sustainable, as well as how supply chains shape global landscapes.

Despite the demand for ethically sourced food, foreign aid, or non-profit support, for agricultural producers is dwindling, leaving producers and exports searching for funding. In some nations, agriculture supply chains drive deforestation and create “environmental refugees”.  In 1995, for example, Bhola Island in Bangladesh was submerged in water, leaving 500,000 people homeless.

Agricultural technologies and innovation could be at the forefront to sustainable economic improvements; the World Bank confirms this vision through its estimate that economic growth in the agricultural sector is likely to be twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors of the economy. How the global community goes about strengthening agricultural value chains, is therefore a crucial question in the campaign against global poverty. We look to the private sector for support.

The global agri-food industry is truly connected. In a recent study published by the OECD, authors used the example of Nutella to highlight a truly sophisticated picture of global supply chains in the agri-food industry. Although headquartered in Italy, Ferrero International’s (Nutella’s) choice of key ingredients in the beloved hazelnut spread is sourced from all around the world: “while certain inputs are supplied locally—like, say, the plastic for the bottles or milk—many others are shipped from all over the world. The hazelnuts are from Turkey; the palm oil is from Malaysia; the cocoa is from Nigeria; the sugar is from either Brazil or Europe; and the vanilla flavoring is from France.”

Companies have a tremendously wide range of choices when it comes to suppliers. So why choose a social and environmentally responsible supplier? Ethical supply chains can be efficient and cost effective, and we believe businesses should not take advantage of these responsible practices for their marketing appeal.

PUMA, for example, has created its own accountability reporting system, called the Environmental Profit and Loss Account.  This push to sourcing transparency has allowed PUMA to examine their supply chain and eliminate waste while promoting biodiversity, saving roughly €145 million in 2010.  This suggests that corporate practices are trending toward ethical sourcing, but the key to creating sustainable supply chains remains with the consumer.

At the Global Landscapes Forum, Wen-Yu will pitch an idea to a panel of policy makers, scientists, and private sector representatives that will consist of realistic recommendations for different actors involved in global supply chain management – governments, corporations (whether it be local companies or multi-national corporations) and individual consumers. She will focus on how to nurture the positive attributes of supply chains, while mitigating impacts on the landscape level.

As a global citizen, we need to recognize the importance of our own choices.  We can change the way products are sourced by starting a conversation about supply chains, sourcing, and responsible business practices. We want to hear what you think about the future of our globalized economy. Answer one of these questions by commenting at the bottom of this article:

  1. How can an individual take steps to consume products that are socially and ethically responsible? What do you perceive are the benefits to choosing ethically sourced products?
  2. “Can you describe any resource sourcing or supply chain issues in your community?  How would you address those issues if you were responsible for landscape management?”
  3. What projects or campaigns have you heard of or participated in that have seen a positive outcome in the theme of a) green supply chains or b) sustainable agriculture? How did the campaigns achieve this outcome?