Agriculture / Article / Food Security / Geodata / Policy / Vulnerability

First map of smallholder farms in the developing world: They produce more than half the planet’s food calories

16univofminnesota_mapofmeanagriculturalarea

Role of MAA classifications in regional production. (a) Percentage of food calories produced in each of three regions originating in units classified by MAA. Includes calories delivered from 41 major crops into the food system, as per Cassidy et al. (b) Mean cattle density by unit farm size classification in each of three regions, drawn from Robinson et al. Error bars represent standard error of the mean. (Map by the study’s co-authors.)

‘Researchers at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment (IonE), United States, have used household census data to map smallholder farms in developing countries.

‘Despite the fact that smallholder and family farms are crucial to feeding the planet, little is known regarding the location and size of smallholder farms. This study attempts to fill this knowledge gap.

‘The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Read the whole article at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment: Researchers produce first-ever map of farming households across world, 29 Nov 2016.


‘Smallholder and family farms are crucial to feeding the planet, and successful policies aimed at alleviating poverty, boosting food security and protecting biodiversity and natural resources depend on the inclusion and participation of small farmers. However, despite the recent spotlight on small farms and increasing consensus on their importance, detailed information on location and size of smallholder farms is virtually absent. Small farms exist in some of the planet’s most diverse landscapes and are home to many of the planet’s most vulnerable people, and yet we have very little information about them.

‘A new study led by researchers at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment attempts to fill this crucial knowledge gap using household census data made available by the Minnesota Population Center to identify and map smallholder farms in developing countries. The study was published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

‘“This map is a first step toward a better understanding of where and how smallholder farming can be sustainable for both landscapes and livelihoods,” said Leah Samberg, lead author of the new study and scientist with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

‘Information about the number, location and distribution of small farms can be used to guide investments and target policies for agricultural development, food security and sustainable land use, says Paul West, GLI co-director and study co-author. “Surprisingly, there was not a map like this before. Combining both agriculture and household survey data creates a map that is a critical piece of the puzzle for targeting the billions of dollars invested in programs to improve people’s lives,” he said.

‘Among the key features of the study:

  • This study is the first product to use household data to map farming populations and average farm sizes across much of the world. It uses census data from millions of households in dozens of countries to identify farming households.
  • It identifies more than 900 places in 83 countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where there are fewer than 5 hectares of agricultural land per farming household. These places are likely to be home to a high concentration of small farms and are farmed by more than 380 million households.
  • These 900 smallholder hot spots are key sources of many globally important agricultural commodities. For example, they produce more than three-quarters of the planet’s rice and oil palm.
  • These smallholder systems produce more than half of the planet’s food calories and convert more than 70 percent of the calories produced directly into the food that people eat.

‘“This study is only a first effort at utilizing these rich and complex data sets,” said Samberg. “We envision numerous future applications of this farm size product in combination with other variables related to food security, natural resource use and human well-being that will further increase our understanding of the dynamics of small farms and the livelihoods of those who depend on them.”. . .’

Read this review of the newly published study on the University of Minnesota’s website: IonE researchers produce first-ever map of farming households across world, 29 Nov 2016.

Read the scientific paper published in Environmental Research Letters: Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production, by Leah Samberg, University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment (IonE), James Gerber1 (IonE), Navin Ramankutty (University of British Columbia), Mario Herrero (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, formerly of the International Livestock Research Institute [ILRI]) and Paul West (IonE), 30 Nov 2016.


Abstract of the science paper

Smallholder farming is the most prevalent form of agriculture in the world, supports many of the planet’s most vulnerable populations, and coexists with some of its most diverse and threatened landscapes. However, there is little information about the location of small farms, making it difficult both to estimate their numbers and to implement effective agricultural, development, and land use policies. Here, we present a map of mean agricultural area, classified by the amount of land per farming household, at subnational resolutions across three key global regions using a novel integration of household microdata and agricultural landscape data.

‘This approach provides a subnational estimate of the number, average size, and contribution of farms across much of the developing world.

By our estimates, 918 subnational units in 83 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia average less than five hectares of agricultural land per farming household. These smallholder-dominated systems are home to more than 380 million farming households, make up roughly 30% of the agricultural land and produce more than 70% of the food calories produced in these regions, and are responsible for more than half of the food calories produced globally, as well as more than half of global production of several major food crops.

‘Smallholder systems in these three regions direct a greater percentage of calories produced toward direct human consumption, with 70% of calories produced in these units consumed as food, compared to 55% globally. Our approach provides the ability to disaggregate farming populations from non-farming populations, providing a more accurate picture of farming households on the landscape than has previously been available. These data meet a critical need, as improved understanding of the prevalence and distribution of smallholder farming is essential for effective policy development for food security, poverty reduction, and conservation agendas.’

Excerpts from the science paper
‘In recent years, the attention of global agriculture and development communities has turned toward the world’s smallest farms. Evidence is mounting that smallholder and family farms are crucial to feeding the planet, and that successful policies aimed at poverty alleviation, food security, and protection of biodiversity and natural resources depend on the inclusion and participation of small farmers. This shift aligns with increased global focus on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as agricultural development has been identified as an essential component of the first goal of reducing poverty and hunger, and investments in small farms have been specifically identified by the United Nations as a way to address SDGs relating to poverty, nutrition, hunger, and environmental sustainability.

There is good reason for this focus; small farms, often cultivated by single families on very small plots of land, are the most prevalent form of agriculture in the world.

‘Agriculture remains one of the only global industries that relies largely on family scale labor and production, and small farms support many of the planet’s most vulnerable populations and coexist with some of its most diverse and threatened landscapes. Crop and landscape diversity on small farms can regulate ecosystem processes and increase system resilience, and small farms are seen in many systems to have greater crop productivity per unit area than large farms.

‘A number of assessments have found that growth in smallholder agriculture can have strong impacts on poverty reduction. The United Nations has stated that achieving poverty reduction goals requires policies that cater to the needs of smallholders, and last year the Gates Foundation pledged $2 billion for investment in agricultural technology innovations that will enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers, as part of a push to meet SDG targets.

‘Recent attempts to quantify the prevalence and contributions of small and family farms (these terms often used interchangeably) estimate that, at the global scale, there are more than 475 million farms that are less than two hectares in size, and that small farms control from 40% to more than 50% of global farmland and produce more than half of the world’s food.

‘However, few studies are able to compare the impact on poverty of agricultural growth from large farms versus that from small farms. A 2015 UN report explicitly stated that lack of attention to and investment in small farms has been ‘exacerbated by the poor quality of data on the number of smallholders, their contribution to total agricultural production and GDP, and their share in labor force participation’. . . .

Including 41 crops, accounting for more than 90% of global calorie production, we find that units of high-density smallholder farming across these 83 countries are responsible for 41% of total global calorie production, and 53% of the global production of food calories for human consumption.

Within these 83 countries, units with less than five hectares of agricultural land per farming household contribute 70% of food calories produced. . . .

Within the 83 countries studied, subnational units with MAA of five hectares or less account for more than half of the production by mass of eight staple crops: rice, groundnut, cassava, millet, wheat, potato, maize, barley, and rye; illustrating the specific importance of smallholder production for food security.

Other assessments, such as one by Herrero et al, have shown that 50% of global cereal production occurs in the developing world, including 86% of rice and 67% of millet. Our results indicate that areas of high-density smallholder agriculture account for much of this staple crop production.

‘. . . Our analysis supports assertions that, in much of the developing world, food production on smallholder farms is not only a key facet of food security for the rural poor but also makes up the majority of production and underpins agricultural sustainability at national and regional scales.

Our findings indicate that more than half of food calories produced globally come from subnational units in the developing world where the density of farming households is very high, averaging less than five hectares per farming household, offering support to frequently cited statistics about the contribution of small or family farms.

‘In addition to contributions to food security at regional and global scales, our results lend support to the importance of small farms for local food production, as smallholder units are especially key in the production of staple crops and direct a greater proportion of their production toward the food supply. Contributions to local food security are crucial, as smallholder agriculture supports the livelihoods of many of the planet’s marginalized populations.

Two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live on farms less than two hectares, and these farms are home to half of the planet’s undernourished population and the majority of people living in absolute poverty.

Women, who in many places are less food-secure than men, play a crucial role in smallholder systems.

2 thoughts on “First map of smallholder farms in the developing world: They produce more than half the planet’s food calories

  1. Nice one.This study may help policy makers to plan details into the the practices of small holder farming, biodiversity and financial security of small holders farms.Much more study and advocacy required to protect the interest of small holder farms and farmers.

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