Farm Size Diversity Helps Meet All Our Needs
With the world’s population expected to rise to nearly 10 billion by 2050, agriculture experts continue to highlight the importance of diversity in farming methods to achieve global food security. But what is the role of farm size in agricultural diversity?
“Small and large [farms] both have benefits,” explains Massachusetts grower Tamar Haspel. “It’s the optimal system, with each kind filling a different demand.”1
Indeed, a clear pattern can start to be discerned from studies of how the world’s diet is satisfied, and the data suggest that the world needs large and small farms alike.
Different Sizes, Different Roles
“Owners of different-sized farms know how to manage their environmental resources to achieve individual goals,” says Steve Elmore, chief economist and director of Marketing Intelligence at DuPont Pioneer. “Individual farms, no matter the size, drive for more production to meet their financial objectives and will collectively meet society’s growing demand needs.”
Large farms in the United States, for example, often grow primarily corn and soy. These farms focus on sustainable production — supplying large amounts of food affordably and efficiently, and that helps keep food more affordable through basic economies of scale. “Production at scale has the potential to lower the price for essential food; improve productivity and efficiency in the use of fertilizers and water; and enable investments in innovation that may be too costly for small farmers to adopt,” according to the World Bank.2
Small farms are the norm for many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people — where they serve as the primary source of nutrition. A recent study in Lancet found that small farms with fewer than 20 hectares (49 acres) provided more than 80 percent of essential nutrients in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and the rest of East Asia Pacific.3 Scientists and agriculture economists have examined how different sized farms fit into a societal role, and in some ways, large and small farms fit together like a jigsaw puzzle in promoting food security. One such study released by Mario Herrero and others examined the role of farm size in relation to the nutrients provided to the community. That study concluded that “farm size and diversity of agricultural production vary substantially across regions.” It also said, “At the global level, both small and large farms have key roles in food and nutrition security.”4
Of course, for something as complex as the world’s food supply, every type of farming needs to become better. For example, farmers will need to grow more on the land they now operate, a process called “sustainable intensification” that uses a range of tools like GPS fertilizer dispersion, advanced irrigation systems, and environmentally optimized crop rotations.5
If you want to understand how small and large farms can work together, consider Brazil. The Brazilian government supports two modes of agricultural production: agribusiness and large-scale mechanized production on one hand, and smallholder farming on the other, according to a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute.6
While other developing countries struggled with food security, Brazil’s agricultural output grew by 77 percent between 1985 and 2006, according to the Institute. Just as important, cumulative total factor productivity (TFP) — which measures how efficiently and intensely farmers use their inputs for production — rose by an impressive 176 percent. That was more than twice the rate of most developing countries.
A key reason for Brazil’s agricultural success was an appreciation for the patterns of how small and large farms work together. Brazil’s 4.4 million family farms, which are mostly small, produce 70 percent of national agricultural production. However, large agribusinesses account for 62 percent of the value of production and the bigger share of national agricultural exports.
Brazil struck a balance between different farm sizes by implementing programs that give each a synergistic place. For example, the government uses products purchased from small farms to provide free, nutritious meals for school children.
The different patterns of farming must be weighed in concert with shifting dietary patterns around the world. In developing countries, rising incomes stimulate dietary changes. This is called the “first diet transition,” according to a report by the French Office of Information and Economic Forecasts.
Demand for proteins in the developing world is expected to rise as incomes do. At first this will be satisfied by consuming more plant-based proteins, but over the next 15 years, countries that now largely have vegetable diets will consume more meat, fish and dairy.7
Meanwhile, the developed world will experience a “second dietary transition,” where the consumption of plant-based protein is expected to increase.
These shifts will inevitably impact agriculture production, and lean on the interconnected role of large and small farms to satisfy the needs of a hungry world.