Understanding Small-Scale Agriculture

Small-scale farmers are not a homogenous group. Their context, such as market access or environmental conditions and their characteristics, such as farm size, education or financial assets vary enormously. This combination of context and characteristics shapes the wellbeing of farm families, their economic viability of their role in food systems. However, there is a strong tendency in the literature and in policy discussions for small-scale farmers to be discussed as if they are a single group in a single set of circumstances.

The section below first looks at the differing definitions and characterisation of small-scale agriculture and then explores the two questions asked above about the importance of small-scale agriculture for food production and the importance of small-scale agriculture in tackling poverty and food insecurity.

Definitions, Characteristics and Contexts

Small-scale or smallholder agriculture is a loosely used term (HLPE 2013). In this report, we have chosen to use the term small-scale farmer rather than smallholder as our concern is with the economic scale of a farming operation and not just the area of land. Different crops on the same land area give very different returns.

Small-scale/smallholder agriculture is defined in different ways that also vary from country to country. The mostly widely used definition of smallholder refers to those farms of less than 2.0 hectares (HLPE 2013, IFAD 2013). However, in common parlance the term is often used to refer to any farmer who is not large scale and/or not very financially well off. As we will discuss, when it comes to understanding who is producing how much of global food supply distinguishing between different scales and segments of “small-scale” becomes exceptionally important (Christen and Anderson 2013).

A key distinction is between family farming and corporate farming. FAO defines family farming as: “a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family capital and labour, including both women’s and men’s. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions” (FAO 2014, p. 9).

As Zimmerer (2018) notes “smallholders are a large, persistent, and internally diverse group that defies overly narrow definition and that overlaps but is not equivalent to the category of family farmers”. A variety of frameworks have been used to try and better characterise the diversity of small-scale farming. Berdegué and Escobar (2002) created a two dimensional matrix distinguishing between farm production environments and farmer assets, giving rise to three group – subsistence farmers, small investor farmers and large-scale farmers. Elbehri et al. (2013) distinguish between four categories of smallholders: (i) Those engaged in subsistence farming and who therefore lack access to markets or choose not to participate in them; (ii) those with limited access to markets; (iii) those with frequent access to markets; and (iv) those entirely dedicated to commercial farming. Dorward et al. (2009) identified three strategies pursued by the rural poor, 1) stepping up, 2) hanging in and 3) stepping out.  This distinction was used by DFID in their 2015 Conceptual Approach to Agriculture. Mangnus and Metz (2019) provide a useful overview of definitions, criteria and targeting for food security and small-scale agriculture.

Disaggregating small-scale farmers according the sort of conceptual frameworks outlined in our report is clearly critical to understanding their role in food systems and to developing appropriately targeted interventions. However, currently there is no consistent use of such frameworks, nor data available to provide a more nuanced disaggregated understanding of small-scale agriculture. The only disaggregated way to look at small-scale agriculture is in relation to farm size.

Lowder et al (2016) conducted a comprehensive review of literature and data on farm numbers and farm size distribution. Their conclusions give the following assessments:

  • Globally there are at least 570 million farms
  • Of these at least 500 million, approximately 90% are family farms.
  • Approximately 475 million farms or 84% are less than 2 ha
  • While family farms operate about 75% of agricultural land the 475 million farms of 2 ha or less only operate about 12% of agricultural land.

Drawing on the analysis of farm size distribution by Lowder et al (2016) and work on food and nutrient supply by different scales of farms in different geographies (Herrero et al 2017; Ricciardi, 2018) we have constructed the summary table in Box X showing  categorization of farmers by land size and food production.

Small-scale Agriculture and Food Supply

The importance of small-scale agriculture is often justified by the claim that smallholders are responsible for producing 70% of food consumed by people living in LMICs. However, as illustrated by the analysis of Ricciardi et al (2018) and Herrero et al (2017) the story is more complex. The bottom-line message is that most of the food produced by small-scale agriculture is produced by a smaller number of “larger” small-scale farmers. The 72% of farmers (410 million) who have less than 1 ha are in all likelihood producing well less than 20% of global food supply. The food this larger group of very small-scale farmers produce is critical for their own food and nutrition security and for very localised markets, but not for meeting the growing demands of urban populations. Meanwhile, the 14% of farmers between 2 ha and 20 ha are producing 31% of food. Farms of between 20 and 50 ha produce around 10% of global food. So while medium and small-scale farm of <50 ha do produce 51-77% of food, depending on the country, the bulk of this is produced by the 26% of farms of 1 – 50 ha and not by the by the 72% of farms of <1 ha. Caution in this analysis is needed due to significant country and regional differences and the limitations of currently available data and analysis. However, in orders of magnitude the analysis seems plausible.

The implications are hugely important for questions on where to focus for meeting growing food demand, and how to tackle rural poverty and food insecurity associated with low farm productivity and income.

Poverty, Hunger and Livelihoods in Small-Scale Agriculture

Using the international poverty line there are 736 million people, 10% of the global population living in extreme poverty (FAO, 2018a). Eighty percent of the extremely poor (<USD 1.25/day) and 76% of moderately poor live in rural areas (Castañeda et al 2018). There is a high correlation between extreme poverty and the 821 million people who in 2018 are still suffering hunger.

Agriculture is the main employment sector for the poor. The sector employs 76.3% of the extreme and 60.7% of the moderate poor (Castañeda et al 2018). Most of this group tend to be subsistence or semi-subsistence oriented and face significant barriers to entering higher value agricultural activities.

Not all farm households of <1 ha are extremely poor, but a good many of them are. If one assumes a family size of 5 the 410 million farms equates to a total population of 2.05 billion people, the majority of who if not poor are certainly at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Taking all farms below 20 ha this population jumps to 2.79 billion. Adding in landless farm workers takes the number toward 3 billion or nearly 40% of the world’s population. In other words, the livelihoods of 40% of the world’s population are connected at least in part to small-scale agriculture.


The most recent data and analysis enable a deeper understanding of the role of small-scale farming in both feeding the world and in tackling poverty and hunger. Two points are critical. First, it is highly problematic to talk of small-scale farmers as an undifferentiated group. Second, the smallest and most marginal farmers, the 410 million under 1 ha while representing the largest number of farmers and a very significant proportion of the 800 million people still suffering poverty and hunger are not and nor are they likely to be the most important group of farmers in meeting overall food supply growing and more affluent urban populations.

This means that it is important not to conflate the challenges of tackling the poverty and malnutrition of small-scale farmer families with the challenge of meeting growing food supply demands, which is often done. While there is no doubt that these two challenges significantly overlap, there is a need for more differentiated policy mechanisms and a much sharper understanding of transition options to tackle both poverty and food supply and how these transitions may reinforce or undermine each other.

While the macro-perspective is relatively clear, there huge gaps in the data when it comes to the specifics of particular countries, localities and commodities.

From the above understanding of changing food systems and the current status of small-scale farming the remainder of the report explores the thinking and framing necessary to underpin a transformation of small-scale farming.

Some important messages and questions emerge from the available analysis. First, in making claims about the role of small-scale farming in feeding the world it is critical be explicit about exactly what size is being considered. There are very significant differences between 2 ha, 5ha and 50 ha thresholds. Secondly, care needs to be taken in conflating the poverty driven definitions of small-scale agriculture with food production. While talking about small-scale agriculture as < 2 ha may make sense in terms of identifying the poorest and most vulnerable group of farmers, it does not make sense in terms of identifying how future food demands might be met.

Third, there are very important questions regarding which categories of farmers will be able to respond to future food demands, which categories of farmers will be more vulnerable to climate change, and resources decline.