Shifts in small scale family farming

By Lisa Desbordes(Agribusiness Intern, FARA)

In both developed and developing countries, family farming  is the most common form of agriculture. In the world, there are about 500 million family farms. Peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folk, mountain farmers, herdsmen, and many other groups represent every region and biome of the world, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folk, mountain farmers, herdsmen, and many other groups. They manage diverse agricultural systems and conserve traditional food products, contributing to a healthy diet as well as the preservation of agro-biodiversity around the world. Family farmers are engaged in territorial networks and local cultures, spending the majority of their earnings in local and regional marketplaces, resulting in a large number of agricultural and non-agricultural jobs.

With all of the aforementioned features, family farmers have a unique opportunity to transition toward more effective and sustainable food systems if policy contexts allow them to do so. Smallholder farmers, herdsmen, forest keepers, and fishermen control territories ranging from less than one hectare to ten hectares. Smallholders are defined by family-oriented motivations such as favoring farm household stability, relying mostly on family labor for production, and consuming a portion of the harvest.

Smallholder farmers control eighty percent of the cropland in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (working on up to 10 hectares). While only 12 plants and 5 animal species produce 75% of the world’s food, leaving the global food system very vulnerable to shocks, biodiversity is critical to smallholder systems that preserve many rustic and climate-resilient types and breeds alive. Smallholder households account for 1.5 billion of the 2.5 billion individuals in underdeveloped nations that rely on the food and agriculture sector for their livelihood. Many of those homes are impoverished: employment in agriculture is connected with the highest frequency of workers living in poverty with their families. Competitive pressure from globalization and integration into common economic areas threatens their economic viability and contributions to a diverse landscape and culture; their fate is either to vanish and become purely self-sufficient producers, or to grow into larger units that can compete with large, industrialized farms.

AKDN / Lucas Cuervo Moura

The existing structure of farming and the importance of small-scale agriculture in various locations, as well as how these connect with and fulfill evolving national and global food demands, especially agrifood markets, have an impact on livelihood and employment options in rural and urban areas. Understanding these dynamics, as well as the demographics of the population and the policy processes that may influence them, is critical to the discussion over the livelihood and job options accessible to rural youth now and in the future. The climate in which the agrifood business functions has changed dramatically during the last decade. Farmers, food businesses, consumers, and governments may expect continued economic, demographic, market, and environmental pressures in the future years, which will present both possibilities and problems. Food insecurity, climate change, technology and innovation, and the changing structure of global food chains have all been identified as significant problems (OECD–FAO, 2010).

Agricultural production has received renewed attention as a result of global food supply disruptions, and additional investment in the industry is being advocated. Changing consumer demand and consumption patterns that reflect income and lifestyle changes, rapid urbanization, a rise in private and public food standards, and increased local and foreign direct investment in the agrifood sectors are all factors driving change in local, regional, and international agrifood markets.

Vegetable production in the Congo / GlobalHort Image Library – Credit: Remi Nono-Womdim, FAO

 As incomes rise, people’s diets become more varied, with more meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables being consumed. The rate and magnitude of change varies by region, country, and commodity. Small-scale farmers confront unique hurdles in meeting these high standards, as well as the shifting organizational and logistical needs of vertically integrated supply chains. Further eliminating agricultural trade system inefficiencies is seen as a priority, since it will help local producers and impoverished farmers compete and sell their wares, facilitating the realization of the right to adequate food. Local and regional markets remain critical to the interests of domestic agriculture, especially small-scale agriculture, and market potential in many contexts, since demand for agricultural products grows faster in developing and emerging economies than in developed economies. This may run counter to the current emphasis on international trade for many of the food crops grown by small-scale farmers.


This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for May is ‘Small – scale family farming in an era of change’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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