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

Organizations that celebrate community by standing for justice in agriculture and food access

The year 2014 was dedicated to celebrating ”International Year of Family Farming (IYFF)” commitment of “Feeding the world, caring for the earth.” As it came to an end, Food Tank selected a group of international, national, and regional organizations, representing a range of voices in the global food system, that stand for people worldwide ending hunger, enabling social justice, and empowering community action.

1. The Institute for Sustainable Development

Dr. Tewolde Gebre Berhan Egziabher and Sue Edwards established the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) in 1996. ISD’s work is concentrated in Ethiopia, where the best of traditional agricultural practices and modern techniques are combined to enable communities to craft sustainable development solutions. Starting in 2005, in a district of 160,000 in North West Ethiopia, ISD team member and Ethiopian Fassil Gebeyahu facilitated compost-making workshops benefitting almost 25,000 households; helped implement water capture which increased clean water coverage from 0 to over 40 percent; and aided in the revival of beekeeping “as a traditional livelihood option,” nearly tripling the number of hives in the region from 2344 to 6893 by 2007.

2. More and Better

More and Better is “an international network for support of food, agriculture and rural development to eradicate hunger and poverty.” Established in 2003, More and Better unites members of developing countries to play a leading role in defining what “more and better” support looks like within each national context. These members increase the level and quality of support for agriculture and rural development from the national governments. At the international level, More and Better exchanges information on these campaigns, and provides a platform for sharing progress.

3. La Via Campesina

La Via Campesina (LVC) is an international movement comprised of small farmers and indigenous people whose way of life has been disrupted by the impact of large-scale agriculture. LVC is made up of over 160 local and national organizations in 73 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, representing about 200 million farmers worldwide. The movement was founded by a group of farmers’ representatives in 1993 and is a recognized actor in agricultural debates, heard by institutions such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Human Rights Council. The coalition strives to enable food sovereignty, or “the right of the peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods; and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” As a member of the IYFF International Steering Committee, it defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity while feeding the world.

4. Fight Hunger Foundation, India

The Fight Hunger Foundation (FHF) conducts field action, educational programs, and research in three states across India—Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan—to prevent, detect, and treat malnutrition in a country where, according to UNICEF, approximately 47 percent of children are underweight. This year, FHF partnered with ACF India and the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultant Society to extend their Integrated Nutrition Treatment project to 50 new villages in Madhya Pradesh. The project goal is to address the immediate causes of underlying malnutrition, specifically among children under five years and pregnant or lactating mothers. FHF aims to reach 310,000 beneficiaries in 2014-2015.

5. World Rural Forum Association

A sponsor of the IYFF International Steering Committee, the World Rural Forum (WRF) arose out of the First International Congress on Trade and Rural Development in 1988, where one notable outcome was the unofficial Vitoria-Gasteiz Declaration to stand for “a globalization which is compatible with rural development.” The self-described WRF “network of networks” spans five continents, and partners with universities, centers for research, farmers’ associations, and NGOs to assess the challenges confronted by the farmers—and all citizens—of rural areas. WRF is invested in crafting solutions to the problems faced by rural regions. On an international level, it serves as a lobby and advocate to articulate the needs of rural areas to political authorities.

6. World Farmers’ Organization

The World Farmers’ Organization (WFO) is an international alliance “of Farmers for Farmers,” comprised of over 65 member organizations and 15 partnering groups—including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the FAO—united by their commitment to encourage economic, social, and environmental vitality amongst rural populations. A member of the International Steering Committee of IYFF, WFO represents rural farmers in global policy forums such that their rights, needs, and issues can be addressed. WFO conducts research, publishes case studies, and releases policy documents and recommendations on climate change, contract farming, food security, value chain, trade, and women in agriculture. At the October 28th Global Dialogue on Family Farming, a WFO delegation met with José Graziano de Silva, Director-General of the FAO, to recognize the accomplishments thus far of the IYFF and continue championing family farming in 2015.

7. International Fund for Agricultural Development

A specialized agency of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) was founded in 1977 as a result of the 1974 World Food Conference—an event organized in response to the food crises then plaguing the belt of Sahelian countries in Africa. Since then, IFAD has financed agricultural development projects worldwide, and recent projects include a program in Djibouti to reduce vulnerability to climate change and poverty in coastal rural communities; a food and nutrition security and market linkage program in Southern Laos; and the Inclusive Rural Economic and Climate Resilience Programme in the Republic of Moldova. IFAD believes that “smallholder and family farmers can and should be at the forefront of the transformation of world agriculture,” and this year has called upon national and global policymakers to render family farming a more economically secure livelihood and incentivize farmers’ sustainable use of natural resources.

8. World Food Programme

The world’s largest humanitarian agency devoted to fighting hunger, the World Food Programme (WFP) was founded in 1961 as a part of the United Nations system. It pursues “a vision of the world in which every man, woman and child has access at all times to the food needed for an active and healthy life,” and delivers food during and following emergency situations to over 80 million people in 75 countries—with the goal of ultimately increasing food security such that the need for food aid is eliminated. Along with FAO and IFAD, WFP is based in Rome, and for the past year has served on the IYFF International Steering Committee. Currently, WFP is coordinating responses to five large-scale emergencies in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and the regions of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone affected by Ebola. WFP is committed to providing food to those with the least access to food due to emergency situations, whether due to humanitarian crises, disease, or natural disasters.

9. International Co-operative Alliance

Established in 1895 in London, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) is one of the sole international organizations to survive both the First and Second World Wars, and today continues to play a leading role in raising awareness about cooperatives and their economic and social value. The Alliance shares practices, provides technical assistance, and promotes capacity building within the global cooperative movement, while also aiding its members to lobby for policies that allow the cooperative model to thrive. The ICA is a member of the International Steering Committee of the IYFF; it asserts that co-operative enterprises allow family farmers to “develop social infrastructures based on ethical principles such as democracy, gender equality, and concern for the community and the environment,” and has formed a partnership with FAO on these issues for the advancement of co-ops. In 2011, the ICA launched the Global Development Co-operative to support co-ops in developing countries by raising US$50 million to be made available as low-interest loans.

10. Bioversity International

Bioversity International is dedicated : to realize a vision where “agricultural biodiversity nourishes people and sustains the planet.” This past June, Bioversity International celebrated its 40th year and reflected on the evolution, from its beginnings as a coordinator of crop gene preservation in genebanks, to its current role as an international leader in delivering “scientific evidence, management practices, and policy options to use and safeguard agricultural biodiversity.” Also a member of the International Steering Committee of the IYFF, Bioversity is committed to the preservation of agricultural biodiversity as an avenue to achieving sustainable global food and nutrition security. Their research acknowledges the role of gender in agriculture, and specifically women’s contribution to household nutrition through participation in household decision-making. This year it published theBioversity International 10-year strategy 2014-2024.

Olivia is a Food Tank intern. An aspiring physician, she currently serves as an editorial assistant and assists clinical research on cooking and nutrition at the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. She is committed to honoring food systems and social justice as accesses to health.

Supporting Family Farmers in 2014 and Beyond

The year 2014 has been declared IYFF, the international year of family farming by the United Nations General Assembly. It is a worldwide celebration that aims to change the position of farming families, indigenous groups, cooperatives, and fishing families , putting them at the center of agricultural, environmental, and social policies.

The IYFF aims to focus international attention on the men, women, and youth who operate the more than 400 million family farms around the world.

Arnest, a youth farmer with a vision, located in Kayunga District in Uganda
Arnest, a youth farmer with a vision, located in Kayunga District in Uganda

IYFF strives to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing global attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing and preserving natural resources, protecting the environment, improving equality, and emphasizing the important role of women farmers and youth to build a more sustainable food system.

According to Jose Antonio Osaba, Coordinator of the IYFF-2014 Civil Society Programme and Advisor to the World Rural Forum, “the most effective way to combat hunger and malnutrition is to produce food near the consumers- precisely what family farming does.” Through local knowledge and sustainable, innovative farming methods, family farmers can improve yields and create a more nutrient-dense and diverse food system.

And family farming integrates two incredibly important, but often overlooked, groups of agricultural producers: women and youth. 

“In many developing countries, women are the backbone of the economy,” explains Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, FAO. “Yet, women farmers do not have equal access to resources and this significantly limits their potential in enhancing productivity.”

Overcoming deep-rooted inequalities that prevent female farmers from gaining rights to access land, inputs, and economic resources will allow them to farm more productively. According to FAO, providing female farmers access to the same resources as men could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million people.

And maintaining young people’s interest in farming as a profession is vital to future food security. Today, youth face global unemployment levels of up to 28 percent and many see agriculture as a burden, not an opportunity. But governments, schools and universities, businesses, and international organizations can cultivate the next generation of agricultural leaders by investing in policies and practices that make rural areas and agriculture intellectually stimulating and economically sustainable.


Food for thought:  Farmers aren’t just food producers–they are business women and men, teachers in their communities, innovators and inventors, and stewards of the land who deserve to be recognized for their hard work that supports both people and the planet.

Our contribution: We are 2 farmers in Uganda (Laureene and Arnest), who founded Wakulima Young Uganda, a coalition of youth farmers growing fruit. Together, we grow passionfruit, papaya, pineapples, mangoes; and instead of having to jump through the loops trying to find a European buyer, we are committed to find a local market for our fruit along the value chain. We would like to promote healthy meals in schools, and so our first point of entry is supplying packaged fruit to local schools in Uganda. We are also planning to produce fresh fruit juices and dried fruit, depending on the market

Wakulima Young Uganda works with youth farmers, for youth by youth, and supporting family farms mainly operated by youth and women

We are always looking for partners and welcome input and knowledge that can be applied to the project


art,feminism, black rights,South Africa ,womens rights, peace, environmental issues


a lifestyle and motherhood blog.


observations and thoughts may not define a man, but they do help us define life

They Said I Should Talk More

They said I should talk more, what a bore, with the courtesy of an itchy sore, festering, brooding, puss squeezing out the door of my mind. For one does not simply walk into Mordor! Please, please, please sir may we have some more?

Sustainable Anna

How I ditched everything Made in China and went green


Digitally empowering poor people and marginalised communities

The International Food loss and Food Waste Studies Group

My Development Diary

Insights into Field Realities

Legal and Policy Review

Just another site


Updates from the Global Forum on Agricultural Research


Changing the narrative. Telling my African story.

Tomi Astikainen

Rich Without Money... and other free stuff

The Happy Hermit

More than a travel blog. So much more.


Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates

Climate, People & Organizations

Studying the Human Implications of Climate Change

Media Diversified

Foregrounding voices of colour

ENHANCE doctoral program

European Marie Curie Innovative Training Network in Environmental Humanities

Zainab Usman

Working, thinking, writing and exchanging ideas on development