Small Farmers Are Important for Future Food Security and Sustainable Food Production

It is generally assumed that “big is best” because of the financial savings that can be made from economies of scale, and this has been one of the drivers of the trend to large-scale farming.

There is, however, a growing body of opinion that the reverse is true and that food security, diversity and sustainable agriculture may be better achieved by supporting the world’s small and family farmers.

According to the US campaigning organisation large-scale agriculture tends to focus on monocultures because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery.

The UK’s Foresight Project and both argue that small-scale farming is likely to be more diverse, more flexible and more environmentally friendly.

It is probably no coincidence that large-scale operations are referred to as agribusiness, with all this implies about the importance about making a profit for shareholders and also growing what is likely to produce the highest returns, such as the current shift in agriculture to producing biofuels.

The UK farming periodical Farmers Weekly recently published an article arguing that large-scale agriculture represented a threat to small farmers who are already struggling to make a living. Smallholder and family farming is the dominant form of food production throughout the major developing regions of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia. It is also widespread throughout the developed world.

According to the most recent World Bank report, more and more people are being pushed into extreme poverty by rising food prices. It said that food prices had risen by 36% since April 2010 and predicted that up to ten million more people could fall below the extreme poverty threshold of less than 76p per day in the next few months. That is in addition to the extra 44 million people who have been pushed into food poverty during the last year.

The pressure on farmers to produce more to meet the needs of a growing global population is therefore intensifying and it makes sense to make the best use of all the sources of food production on the planet, large and small.

While small farms are likely to plant mixtures of crops, to use techniques like intercropping and to rotate crops and livestock, with manure serving to replenish soil fertility, they will nevertheless need some support if they are to increase their production.

It is in the areas of access to new agricultural technology, such as low-chem biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers, and to training in their use, where small farmers could most benefit.

Such products are derived largely from naturally occurring sources and would fit well into the mix of existing sustainable small farming methods and techniques to enhance yield and reduce crop loss from disease and damage.

But they are expensive to research, trial and license and therefore need strong support from governments, including perhaps financial subsidies, if they are to be affordable for the smaller producers.

Each small increase in production can only help towards ensuring that there are adequate food supplies for the future, but also there is evidence that small farms producing for local markets increase local prosperity, food security and promote better social cohesion.

Copyright (c) 2011 Alison Withers