Today, the UN, international organizations, governments and farmers around the world warn about the unfolding crisis of our food system.
Large-scale, industrialized farming has saved hundreds of millions from hunger — but at a cost of eroding many of the ecosystems that are vital for our long-term survival. (See references at the end of the article.)
It has demonstrably contributed to:
Industrial agriculture has also turned the food system into the world’s second largest source of greenhouse gases. All the while, in recent years its productivity has started to plateau. By 2050, worldwide demand for food is expected to increase by 70%, and the UN has made it clear that conventional, industrial-scale farming alone will not be able to feed the world.
At the same time, smallholders still feed 80% of the developing world — that is: the majority of the world’s population — and their farms serve as the foundations of the livelihoods of over 2 billion people.
Small-scale agriculture on average is vastly better positioned to be sustainable and regenerative than large-scale, industrialized farming. Since more people cultivate smaller plots of land, they can manage their farms with more attention to details such as differences in soil quality and water retention in different areas of the farm. They are also able to create more complex polycultures, ensuring that the various crops reinforce each other and take into account the characteristics of the surrounding flora and fauna.
Their incentives are also different. They usually live on or close to their land, and have a deep interest in a healthy environment and multi-generational productivity. When people own the land that they work on, it also tends to lead to longer-term thinking and more care for ecosystem services. The growers that we work with usually take great pride in their farms.
Much of that comes from the beauty that they see on and around their fields, and the feeling that they are living up to their responsibility for the health of the environment and for the people that they feed.
“Since I started growing organic, I see more birds. I wake up to their song again. There is more nature, generally. The bees come again to pollinate my trees. You know, it’s not just that I harvest more avocados. I know that I am taking care of the environment… this makes me feel good about myself.”
Faustina Felipa de Morveli
avocado grower, Peru
In general, when we compare smallholders with industrialized, large-scale agriculture, they tend to:
Contrary to popular belief, smallholders’ yields are often on par with industrialized agriculture — and their potential for increasing yields further is clearly better
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has brought the world’s attention to a review of close to 300 sustainable and regenerative projects from 57 developing countries, covering 37 million hectares of smallholder land.
The projects have shown an average yield increase of 79% compared to previous, less sustainable agricultural practices. In many regions, yields have more than doubled.
Over the past decade, multiple documents by UN agencies that reviewed a broad range of research concluded that it is well within reach for small-scale agriculture to feed the world’s growing demand for food, and that the best way to ensure food security is to focus on supporting as many smallholders as possible to adopt better, sustainable practices.
This is exactly what we set out to do 17 years ago, and it is still at the core of our mission.
Human Rights Council of the United Nations, 16th Session: Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. UN General Assembly (2010). p8.
United Nations Environment Programme, International Fund for Agricultural Development: Smallholders, food security and the environment. IFAD (2013).
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development: Wake up before it’s too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate. United Nations (2013). **
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges. FAO (2017).