09.02.2022 |

The 70% battle: Small farms still feed the world, open letter

Small farms feed the world (Photo: CC0)

The long-standing debate about which farms feed the world has gained new momentum as eight civil society organisations are criticizing the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for supporting a report that downplays the contribution of small-scale food producers to the global food supply. Over the past couple of years, the figure calculated by civil society organisations (CSO) and researchers that around 70% of the world is fed by small-scale farmers and other peasants, was frequently quoted and confirmed by new studies. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimated that small producers even provide 80% of food in large parts of the developing world. However, two recent papers claim that small farms only feed about one third of the world’s population and one of them is authored by the FAO. Eight organisations with long experience working on food and farming issues, including ETC Group and GRAIN, have now written to FAO Director General QU Dongyu, sharply criticizing the UN food agency for spreading confusing data. The open letter calls upon FAO to examine its methodology, clarify itself and to reaffirm that peasants (including small farmers, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, and urban producers) not only provide more food with fewer resources but are the primary source of nourishment for at least 70% of the world population.

The open letter, as well as a background paper published by ETC Group, refer to two problematic studies: First, a 2018 publication by data scientist Vincent Ricciardi and his colleagues from the University of British Columbia (Ricciardi et al.) that uses a data model built on formal crop production data and estimated the contribution of smallholders to be closer to only 30% of food supply. Second, a study published in 2021 as FAO research in the journal “World Development” authored by Sarah K Lowder et al. which concludes that small farms only produce 35% of the world’s food using 12% of agricultural land. “Whether small or large producers feed the world (…) really matters in setting policy to battle global hunger. For this reason, a closer look at these two papers is warranted,” says ETC Group and this is what they did in their backgrounder. They conclude that the two papers should not be relied upon to guide changes in policy due to a number of concerns.

One problem of the studies is that they significantly limit how a “small farmer” is defined by excluding other peasants and small producers from their calculations. The 2021 report proposes to clean up confusion created by a 2014 FAO paper which states that nine out of 10 of the world’s 570 million farms were ‘family farms’ and produced around 80% of the world’s food. However, the civil society organisations criticize that the definition used in the new studies is at odds with that of the UN Decade of the Family Farm (2019 – 2028) as proposed by FAO and IFAD. According to that FAO/IFAD terminology, ‘family farms’ encompass “models in agriculture, fishery forestry, pastoral and aquaculture, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folks, mountain farmers, forest users and pastoralists.” FAO’s 2021 publication, however, confines small farms to crop production and some on farm livestock keeping. Its updated estimates are that there are more than 608 million family farms around the world, occupying between 70 and 80% of the world’s farmland and producing around 80% of the world’s food in value terms. But the crucial point is the percentage attributed to small-scale farms:

Lowder et al. write: “These family farms must not be confused with small farms (those smaller than two hectares), which, according to our estimates, account for 84% of all farms worldwide, but operate only around 12% of all agricultural land and produce about 35% of the world’s food.” This 2 ha land area threshold for describing a ‘small farm’ is strongly criticized by the authors of the open letter. “The paper’s arbitrary 2 ha limitation contradicts the conclusions of the FAO Chief Statistician who, on the basis of a 2018 consultation in which more than 50 states participated, rejected a universal landholding threshold and instead set out a number of relative metrics to define small farms differently on a country by country basis.” The signatories affirm the right of peasants to self-identify and also note that nationally-defined descriptions of small farms appear to average 5 ha or in the range of 25% of all farmland. The backgrounder also highlights that average sizes of farms described as small are far higher in some regions such as Latin America, the Caribbean and North America. According to a dataset compiled by GRAIN, the average ‘smallholder farmer’ in North America holds 67.6 ha of land and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the average size of a small farm was found to be 9.7 ha.

The CSOs also accuse Lowder et al. of discounting or ignoring recent FAO and other reports which found that peasant farms produce more food and more nutritious food per hectare than large farms. “We are surprised that this latest publication from FAO undermines its long-held view that small farms are more productive than large farms. Despite having only 12% of the land, the 2021 paper acknowledges that small (under 2 ha) farms produce 35% of the food – suggesting that small farms should be almost three times more productive. Despite this, the authors declare themselves neutral on small farm productivity,” the open letter says. The CSO criticize that without evidence, the study maintains that policymakers are wrongly focused on peasant production and should give greater attention to larger production units. Lowder et al. seem to fear that the attention of international organizations may be diverted away from larger farms which hold the vast majority of agricultural land. “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to have an unbiased picture of the state of large scale and corporate agriculture if international organizations focus only on smallholders and small farms. This would hide important information on all types of farms, which will also be critical to achieve a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” they wrote. The CSOs say that no data is offered by Lowder et al. to substantiate policy biases toward peasants. “Nevertheless, the study has a point – just not the one it wishes to make. Policymakers need to understand why the industrial food chain produces so little food while consuming most of the world’s agricultural land and resources. Policy makers should ask themselves why they are investing huge commercial subsidies, land and other incentives on an industrial system that has so much power and profitability, and is so destructive to our environment and food security,” they conclude in their letter to the FAO.

Finally, the signing organisations strongly disagree with the study’s assumption that food production is a proxy for food consumption and that the commercial value of food in the marketplace can be equated to the nutritional value of the food consumed. “Both studies only measure agricultural production which is an inaccurate way to understand who feeds the world (a matter of consumption, not production). They claim to debunk the 70% estimate while mis-characterising what it describes,” the authors of the ETC backgrounder write. The 70% estimate which was also used by ETC Group in a report published in 2009 was more of a relative consumption claim. “It did not count total production but instead tried to understand the relative importance for food security of two parallel food systems: the peasant food web and the industrial food chain,” ETC Group said. Many people may draw their food provisions primarily from the food basket of the peasant food web, and not from the grocery stores and long links of the industrial food chain,” ETC Group explains. Those in the peasant food web may or may not grow all of their own food, trade with neighbours and sell the surplus in local markets. This web largely operates outside of global financial markets, may be unrecognised by formal trade surveys and often employs more agroecological production methods. In addition, the CSOs mention that industrial sectors food loss and waste – including deliberate over-production (and over-consumption) are not discussed in the paper despite its market emphasis. “We remain convinced that peasants not only grow a majority of the world’s food but are substantially more successful in meeting the nutritional requirements of food insecure populations,” the open letter says. (ab)

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