Smallholders’ global food production underestimated

Farmer irrigating vegetables in Mali
Farmer irrigating vegetables in Mali Copyright: Tingju Zhu/IFPRI

Speed read

  • Study estimates smallholder farms to be up to 40 per cent of global agricultural area
  • Researchers used crowdsourcing to estimate proportion of smallholder farms
  • But expert calls for caution in interpreting the data to mean discovery of new farms

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

According to previous studies, smallholder farms — agricultural fields less than around two hectors in size — make up between 12 and 24 per cent of the global agricultural area.  But the findings of a study published in Global Change Biology last month (22 November) show that smallholder farms form up to 40 per cent of the global agricultural area.

“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 highest coverage of smallholder farms could be up to 47 per cent in Colombia, 70 per cent in Ecuador and 80 per cent in Peru.

“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

Researchers conducted a field size dataset collection campaign in June 2017, lasting four weeks, with participants visually interpreting very high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Maps and Bing using the Geo‐Wiki application.

Lesiv says they improved the quality control mechanism and introduced field measuring tools to improve the accuracy of the data collected, making it now also 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 rather than 13,000 collected during the 2011 campaign for 55 countries.

Small-scale farming in communities in Africa where most of the people earn living and livelihoods from the practice could benefit from the data.

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 explains.

David Neves, senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, says that African policymakers would need to respond challenges faced by increased number of smallholders to help increase food production.

Joseph W. Glauber, senior research fellow at US-based International Food Policy Research Institute, tells SciDev.Net: “The structural issue does not surprise me given the large land mass in Asia and Africa where many of the small holders are located,”  adding that it would be more interesting to see the percentage of global production accounted for by  smallholders.

The study presents an interesting new 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.


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