Small-scale family farming in changing food systems

By Sophia Amoah (Knowledge Management Intern, FARA, Ghana)

A picture depiction of a small farmer family. Photo Credit: Brand Spur

FAO defines family farming as: “a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral, and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family capital and labor, including both women’s and men. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve, and combine economic, environmental, social, and cultural functions” (FAO 2013, p.2). Small-scale family farming accounts for more than 80% of agricultural production and about 75% to 85% of agricultural lands in the Near East and North Africa, which face several obstacles in attaining increased food security, nutrition, and agricultural development.

More than 80% of all farms in the world are family farms with less than 2 hectares of land. Farms of less than 2 hectares are estimated to account for 75 percent of farms in Africa, with 24 percent of farmland under cultivation. When access to inputs and conditions are equal, they grow 50% of our food calories on 30% of agricultural land and are more productive per hectare than much larger farms. Family farmers have a vested interest in preserving their soil’s fertility and land’s long-term productivity. They are also more likely to grow a diverse range of crops than larger farms, contributing to agro-biodiversity. Small-scale agriculture’s prospects and risks must be considered in the context of the larger food system. Urbanization, changing diets, new patterns of agricultural and food sector investment, technology, climate change, and resource depletion, as well as changes in the broader contexts of political economy, global trade, and geopolitics, are driving changes in food systems. As small-scale family farmers are mostly from poor rural areas with limited access to modern agricultural inputs, infrastructure, and education, their ability to keep up with changing food systems is limited. Martin Kropff, director-general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and Trevor Nicholls, CEO of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), proposed key initiatives with the incorporation of innovative approaches, to help family farmers thrive over the next decade.

A smallholder farmer cultivating his farm.  Photo Credit: Stocksy

With smallholder farmer communities rapidly entering the digital age, tools for weather prediction, pest risk information, variety selection, and market information would create a technologically inclined rather than all muscle power way of farming, thereby creating a youth attractive environment for farming. A typical example is the MUIIS (Market-led, User-owned, ICT4Ag-enabled Information Service) project developed by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), which focused on leveraging digital technologies to create a bundle of services for smallholder farmers that allows them to both adapt to and thrive in unpredictable conditions. The service can continue to reach farmers both directly and remotely by utilizing digital tools such as satellite imagery, mobile telecommunications, and internet banking. As a result, it is a viable model even in the event of a pandemic and global lockdown.

Another important strategy would be to translate national and global goals into practical farming practices. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aided in the development of policies addressing food security and livelihoods, sustainable consumption, and production, can be achieved through the utilization of small-scale family farming. In several portions of Africa, significant population growth and inheritance-based land fragmentation have resulted in declining farm size and increasing population density over the past several decades. With the introduction of Sustainable intensification—growing more food on the same amount of land—the small holder family famer can provide more food with the same number of lands, thereby tackling increasing food demand, generating larger income and in the long run increasing food security.

Finally, increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events endangers the global food system. 23 Crop yields in Africa south of the Sahara could fall by 15–20 percent if business as usual continues and the world warms by 3–4°C by 2050. Small family farms are especially vulnerable to more frequent extreme weather events due to chronic food insecurity, a lack of access to formal safety nets, and a high reliance on climate-dependent agriculture, combined with limited resources and capacity for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. The availability of drought and heat tolerant climate resilient crops, create a promising turn in the vulnerabilities of the small-scale family farmer towards climate change.

It is without doubt that Africa has entered a technological, innovative, and mechanized agricultural era, which must be harnessed into facilitating the productivity of all cohorts of farmers, most especially the small-scale family farmer whose livelihood is mostly dependent on agriculture.


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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