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[CAPE TOWN] The share of farmland cultivated by smallholder farms may be much larger than previously thought, suggesting that their contribution to global food production could be underestimated, a crowdsourcing study reveals.

Previously, smallholder farms — which manage fields less than two hectors in size — were thought to occupy between 12 and 24 per cent of global agricultural land.  But the findings of a study published in Global Change Biology show that smallholder farms cover up to 40 per cent of global farmland.

“We found that in Africa and Asia smallholder farms occupy up to 78 per cent and 72 per cent of total agricultural area respectively.”

Myroslava Lesiv, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

“We found that in Africa and Asia smallholder farms occupy up to 78 per cent and 72 per cent of total agricultural area respectively,” says Myroslava Lesiv, a co-author of the study and a mathematician in ecosystems services and management at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria. 

Lesiv tells SciDev.Net that in Latin America, the highest coverage of smallholder farms reaches up to 70 per cent in Ecuador and 80 per cent in Peru.

Researchers conducted a data collection campaign in June 2017 to gage the size of fields around the globe. The campaign lasted four weeks, with participants visually interpreting high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Maps and Bing using the Geo‐Wiki application.

Lesiv says the team introduced field measuring tools to improve the accuracy of the data collected, making it possible to estimate the percentage of different field sizes at a global and continental scale, as well as nationally.

The researchers collected around 130,000 unique samples from the entire world. According to Lesiv, scientists can use the data to make recommendations to policymakers on food security, food systems and nutrition diversity.

“We have filled the gaps in available information on global field size distribution by covering countries where no statistical surveys were carried out and no mapping has been done with the help of remote sensing,” she explains.

African countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Tanzania along with China, India and Indonesia, tend to have many small agricultural fields, the study found. “Such a large share of a smallholder farms in these countries indicates that there are many people living in poverty and have low nutritional diversity,” Lesiv says. But Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at US-based International Food Policy Research Institute, says it would also be interesting to see what percentage smallholder farmers contribute to global food production. “The structural issue does not surprise me given the large land mass in Asia and Africa where many of the small holders are located,” he says.

The study presents an interesting methodology for estimating and mapping agricultural field size globally, says Jean-Philippe Audinet, lead technical specialist at the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

“However, we are not convinced by the comparison with other estimates of prevalence of smallholder farms based on the FAO world census of agriculture,’’ Audinet explains. “The figure of 40 per cent of area of all fields being small fields may be true, but we would suggest caution in interpreting the results of this study as the discovery of a new continent of smallholder farms.”
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

References

Myroslava Lesiv and others Estimating the global distribution of field size using crowdsourcing (Global Change Biology, 22 November 2018)