How Small Farms Can (Sustainably) Feed The Future

And large farms can’t.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash.

Small farms are the best hope that we hold of feeding a future of 9 billion (and beyond). At the same time they hold the potential to redistribute wealth, conserve biodiversity, secure livelihoods for some of the world’s most marginalised and ensure a continuation of traditional cultural relationships with the land. They are truly our most sustainable option.

But before I delve into small farms and all their virtues, I first want to briefly talk about sustainability. It’s a term that gets thrashed around quite a bit, often out of context. I’d like to take steps to remedy that.

The principles that underpin sustainability as we know it today originated with the Swiss fishery and agro forestry industries creation of “Maximum Sustained Yield” management plans in the 1830s and 40s. Sustainability is not some new-fangled concept that simply became trendy with scientists in the early 2000’s; it has a long history, despite our long worldwide failure to adopt and apply it.

However, it wasn’t until 1987 that sustainability rose to prominence as a globally accepted concept, with the publication of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report Our Common Future. The report, commissioned by the World Commission on Environment and Development (a former branch of the UN), was a “global agenda for change”, arguing for a return to multilateralism through restructured cooperative global economics and international environmental conservation targets. These measures, the report argued, were necessary to set us on the path to sustainable development. It is one of the most significant and influential pieces of research published within living memory; even if you have never heard of it before, its effects undoubtedly resonate throughout your life every single day.

In her report, Brundtland defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (WCED, 1987). This has since become the globally accepted definition of sustainable development by academics; sustainability is the product of sustainable development.

Now, I want you to take note of something here.

There is no specific mention of the environment in Brundtland’s statement.

Why? Because sustainability is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social-cultural issue and an economic issue.

Sustainable development is a path towards a condition where all human needs are met; sustainability is what happens when we get there.

We cannot see the needs of current and future generations met without sustainable development across each of these four“pillars” of sustainability.

So, bearing these four pillars in mind, it’s time to ask a question that will shape the course of the rest of this article: what does sustainable agriculture look like? What are its attributes?

Sustainable development in agriculture would ensure that the economic, social, environmental and cultural needs of present and future generations are met. Sustainable agriculture rests on these four pillars.

Simply increasing production to feed people is not necessarily sustainable. It could be, but it depends on a host of other factors. Nor is farming that is environmentally responsible necessarily sustainable; again, there’s more to sustainability than that. Lab-grown meat, copious amounts of corn and wheat, factory farmed insects — none of these are sustainable unless a range of other conditions are met (no matter what mass media tells you).

Sustainability is a diverse, multi-faceted condition.

Achieving sustainable outcomes requires an interdisciplinary approach, collaboration and cooperation at multiple levels and cross-cultural knowledge exchange. In the fields of agricultural research, reform and development, agroecology is now recognised as the most promising strategy for achieving sustainability. It’s based on a systems approach to the combination of ecological and social-cultural knowledge to the production and management of food systems. As such, sustainable development across all four pillars is an inherent trait of agroecological systems. These are typically small farms. You can read more about agroecology here.


Ok, so now we’ve got all that straight, let’s return to small farms. As I said, they are the best hope that we have of sustainably feeding our growing population. That is to say, small farms are the best way of ensuring that sustainable development goals are met whilst we address the need to feed 9 billion people in 2050 and more in times to come.

How so?

Small, family-owned farms regularly achieve higher and more dependable production from their land than large farms operating in a similar environment.

The highest yields of a single crop are typically produced in monocultures such as we have seen since the Green Revolution of the 1960s. However, small farms are rarely monocultures. Instead, they tend to practice intercropping, where an array of crops are produced simultaneously or in rotation. There is also a tendency to run livestock as part of an integrated rotation. Livestock play a valuable role in replenishing soil nutrients and contribute to other aspects of soil structure, whilst ensuring that the land remains productive even as it rests between crop cycles and providing financial security for the farmer.

It is well established that there is an “inverse relationship between farm size and farm productivity”. Small farms may not “yield” more of a single crop than monocultures, but they produce more total output per unit of land than large monocultures. Thus, it also accepted that if land were redistributed to smallholders pursuing similar approaches to those already observed amongst small farmers, we would see an increase in global productivity.

Small and medium-sized farms are also more efficient than large farms, depending on the context. In developing countries, small farms are typically the most efficient. For example, in Honduras, diminishing returns to scale have been observed as farm size increased, despite the relative technical efficiency of larger farms. In the US, “diseconomies of scale” have been observed in larger farming operations; medium-sized farms have been found to be the most efficient. Meanwhile, agroecologist Miguel Altieri reports that small farms in the US are more profitable per unit of land than large farms. The smallest farms of 2ha generated US $15 104/ha while the largest farms with an average size of 15 581ha yielded US $249/ha. Profit per hectare was US $2 902 and US $52, respectively. This disparity is due, in large part, to the diversity of small farm production.

There’s another boon to the biodiversity of small farm production. Diversity in agriculture results in the production of a wider array of key nutrients that are essential to human health. In West Africa, this has been linked to improved dietary diversity among rural mothers, which is associated with improved health outcomes. This was a small study conducted over a short period but it is indicative of a broader trend in areas with biodiverse food production — especially since women are usually the first to miss out on adequate nutrition when times are tough.

Small farms are also an important tool for the redistribution of wealth and improved economic, social and health outcomes among the world’s most marginalised. Over 1 billion people living in developing countries are poor; the majority of the poorest people in the world are to be found in rural areas. There is also evidence showing that hunger, malnutrition and “hidden hunger” (the driving force behind the global obesity epidemic) are linked to poverty. Since the income of so many of the world’s poorest depend directly on agriculture for income or employment, agricultural development is seen as a strategy by which poverty and its associated ailments can be alleviated. For those in the rural non-farm sector, agriculture drives economic outcomes as well, while there are strong links between the urban poor and rural financial outcomes due to the relationship between rural poverty and rural-urban population flow. Small farms create prosperous rural communities; large farms destroy them.

Common sense would suggest that when the economy grows, poverty has a tendency to decline. However, this is only true where equitable distribution of income occurs. For equitable distribution of income to occur, there must first be an equitable distribution of the resources that generate income.

The Green Revolution invoked short-term increases in productivity for those who could afford seed stock and agroechemicals. The rural poor who couldn’t became poorer, while many of the previously non-poor were pushed below the poverty line. Nor has the “Green Revolution 2.0” managed to fix these problems where it’s been introduced. And “greening” the green revolution may minimise, to some extent, the deleterious environmental effects of our obsession with cereal productivism but it will do nothing to catalyse social reform. Only widespread redistribution of resources will do the job — and small farms are the key to that.

1980s Latin America was characterised by extreme poverty due to changes in agricultural resource allocations that resulted in significant disparities. In Brazil, these effects were reversed through the Zero Hunger program, which specifically facilitated the redistribution of agricultural resources and support for small-scale farmers through policy. Examples of success have been demonstrated elsewhere, particularly where a genuine effort to prepare for reform, redistribute quality land and provide technical training and support has been undertaken.

Small farms are also better at conserving the natural resource base than larger farms. For example, in the U.S., small farms preserve 17% of the land as natural forest, compared to only 5% on large farms. What’s more, they devote more than twice as much of their land to soil-improving practices. And small farms feature more “site specificity” — an intuitive approach to natural resource management based on site ecology (and better environmental outcomes).

Additionally, small farms tend to use less external inputs, namely synthetic fertilisers and agrochemicals. Intercropping and crop rotations, livestock rotations and the mulches and manures produced on farm provide substitutes, at lower financial and environmental cost.

Soil degradation is more severe on larger farms. And because small farmers are more “management-intensive” (i.e. labour-intensive), there is a stronger and more direct relationship between humans and the land on small farms, which is thought to directly translate to more time and energy devoted to caring for the land.

Each and every farm is different. No two are the same. Climatic conditions, soil structure and history of use, availability of water, minor variations in topography, habitat matrixes — these all contribute to differences between one farm and the next. As such, farming is a knowledge-intensive occupation. The intergenerational transfer of knowledge from mother or father to son or daughter is incredibly important as this kind of specific knowledge is associated with better environmental outcomes. This is especially true in indigenous societies, where long-established environmental management practices are upheld through cultural practices and ceremonies. Farming is no place for the “one-size-fits-all” approach often adopted on large farms.


Let’s recap. As we’ve discussed above, small farms are more productive overall, more efficient in developing countries and more profitable per unit of land. Large farms display diseconomies of scale and increase income and social disparities. Small farms are more biodiverse, resulting in a corresponding diversity in local diets and greater financial security for farmers from diversified income streams. Small farms are the cornerstone of healthy rural communities, while large farms are the death of them. There is an important cultural continuation of knowledge associated with small farms and traditional management practices. Small farmers also invest more resources into practices that enhance natural capital, work more intuitively within ecological system boundaries and preserve more natural woodland or habitat.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for small farms, though, is this: they hold the promise of healing the disconnect between food producers and food consumers. By their very nature, they force us to come into closer contact with the person who grows our food — or for farmers, the people who consume it. Aside from the reduced transaction and transportation costs associated with small farm food networks, this connection is vitally important because food is a visceral experience. Preparing and eating food is an intellectual and emotional experience that binds us together, connecting us with one another and with ourselves. Society’s cultural foundations have been bound with food; our ever-increasing disconnection from our rural origins has seen those foundations become dangerously unstable.

If we truly want to create a sustainable future, then we must first reconnect the pieces of our support structure — small farm by small farm.