Smallholder farms are responsible for 70% of global food production. Really?


This week the Fairtrade Foundation launched their campaign for global investment in sustainable small-scale agriculture with this food for thought: “Smallholders grow 70% of world’s food, so why are half the world’s hungriest people smallholder farmers?

Could it be because living off the produce of a small plot of land with low inputs and family labour is pretty much the definition of poverty? 

There is lots of good stuff in the report. But it skips briskly over domestic matters beseting small farmers (not to menton any suggestion of routes out of poverty that involve getting out of farming). As with the Oxfam report on ‘Food Justice and the big 10 food and beverage companies’ it quickly cuts to the chase; the role of big food brands. After tipping their hats to the 2 billion people (ish) living and working on small farms in developing countries, both reports concentrate on the small (but unspecified: does anyone know?) proportion  who are part of global supply chains.

Charitably, I would say this is a case of ‘looking under the lampost’ (and there is important stuff going on with supply chains – including good the examples highlighted in the sister report to this one).  More cynically though I fear that the well-known-high-street-brand has taken the place of the pretty-blonde-aid-worker as the preferred means for turning a complex problem in a far away place into a digestible news story.  And this is a problem if it distorts the story, the analysis, and ultimately the action.

Do smallholders produce 70% of the world’s food?


According to the Fairtrade Foundation 500 million smallholder farmers produce 70% of the world’s food”.  That arresting statistic does seem to make a solid case  that the problem for smallholders that the ‘global food system is broken’ – if 7% of the world’s people are producing 70% of its food, and most of them are living in poverty then it does suggest that the problem is all about the global supply chain.

So where does the figure come from?

FTF say it comes from a report by ETC Group Who Will Feed Us?: Questions for the food and climate crises.  That report has a back of an envelope estimate that refers to farmers, urban gardeners, pastoralists, fishers and hunter gatherers. Within that it says that 1.5 million  smallholder farmers produce 50% of the world’s food.

Not 70% then. OK, so where does the 50% figure come from?

ETC  in turn references the 50% figure to  Who feeds the world? The future is in small scale agriculture  by the Church Development Service in Germany (not the most obvious place to look for impartial primary research on agricultural production data perhaps). That report indeed says two billion small farmers contribute ‘nearly half the food that feeds the world’. But it gives no reference at all for that figure.

I have no idea what the overall figure is, but I don’t think it is 70%. The Fairtrade Foundation report  itself says that most smallholders are net food buyers.

A report by the UK Government’s Foresight Project on  Global Food and Farming Futures says there are no reliable comparative global data on small farmers’ share of global food production, but that small farmers contribute a large share of domestic production in developing countries, and a much smaller share of exports.

What is clear though is that the vast majority of smallholder farmers are living in poverty.

It worries me that we  expect more robustly data in shampoo advertisements than in reports making the case of what to do about stuff that matters.

One Response to “Smallholder farms are responsible for 70% of global food production. Really?”

  1. Hi Hiya,
    It’s an interesting point you raise (accuracy of figures). But isn’t it a bit “sophistical”? The reality is :
    – They are 500 million small scale farms in the world, feeding 2 billions persons (source: IFAD / UN)
    – Unemployment rates in urban areas, for uneducated people, makes it perillous to advise those families abandon their farms and become… industrial or services workers ! (already the elder children are leaving… some of them arrive in Europe, other struggle in city slums, while brothers and parents stay in the farm)

    From what I learnt, I would say agroecology is key to the complex solution. That’s what special adviser on food rights to the UN, Olivier de Schutter, says (and other agronomists I could interview as a journalist).

    And for those small farmers already inside the global supply chain ? Of course organic and fair trade is the key to the answer.


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