Californians produce more food than any other state in the nation. We are on the leading edge of agricultural technology, with farmers and agencies from all over the world coming to visit California to learn from our agronomists and marvelous private/public collaborations. The environmental movement, too, has great strength in California, with the support of state government and a population that embraces the idea of keeping our planet sustainably green and healthy for future generations.
Surprisingly, California is also on the leading edge of losing her small and mid-sized farms. According to the latest USDA census, over the last 15 years California has been losing an average of 533 small farms annually. These farmlands are either abandoned, acquired by large corporate farming enterprises or absorbed into the urban sprawl. When a small farm (or working ranch) expires, local communities lose an irreplacable buffer against urban development, a motivated steward of the natural environment, and a passionate champion of natural, sustainable local foods.
Setting aside the value of small farmlands to the environment and a sustainable future, why are small farms disappearing? Are large farms with their pronounced technology, capital and business acumen advantages better? Are they producing more and better food? With the exception of price and distribution, the answer is emphatically NO.
In fact and ironically, even with their advantages, large farms don't even produce as much food as small local farms. According to this well-researched article, small farms produce most of the world's food on less than a quarter of the farmland.
It isn't just California. All the developed countries in the world are losing their small farms. We need this to stop. If we can reverse the trend in the sophisticated green//agricultural economy of California, we can do it globally. While we are not opposed to large farms- price and distribution is important- we are adamantly opposed to large farms at the expense of small farms serving local communities.
This research study was conducted by GRAIN. The complete paper in PDF format can be downloaded here. This is a detailed read for anyone who is interested in ecosystem conservation and locally grown food systems throughout the world.
It is commonly heard today that small farmers produce most of the world's food. But how many of us realise that they are doing this with less than a quarter of the world's farmland, and that even this meagre share is shrinking fast? If small farmers continue to lose the very basis of their existence, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself.
GRAIN took an in depth look at the data to see what is going on and the message is crystal clear. We need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems.
Governments and international agencies frequently boast that small farmers control the largest share of the world's agricultural land. Inaugurating 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), sang the praises of family farmers but didn't once mention the need for land reform. Instead he stated that family farms already manage most of the world's farmland – a whopping 70%, according to his team. Another report published by various UN agencies in 2008 concluded that small farms occupy 60% of all arable land worldwide. Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
But if most of the world's farmland is in small farmers' hands, then why are so many of their organisations clamouring for land redistribution and agrarian reform? Because rural peoples' access to land is under attack everywhere. From Honduras to Kenya and from Palestine to the Philippines, people are being dislodged from their farms and villages. Those who resist are being jailed or killed. Widespread agrarian strikes in Colombia, protests by community leaders in Madagascar, nationwide marches by landless folk in India, occupations in Andalusia – the list of actions and struggles goes on and on. The bottom line is that land is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the rich and powerful, not that small farmers are doing well.
Rural people don't simply make a living off the land, after all. Their land and territories are the backbone of their identities, their cultural landscape and their source of well-being. Yet land is being taken away from them and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands at an alarming pace.
Then there is the other part of the picture: that concerning food. While it is now increasingly common to hear that small farmers produce the majority of the world's food, even if that is outside of market systems, we are also constantly being fed the message that the "more efficient" industrial food system is needed to feed the world. At the same time, we are told that 80% of the world's hungry people live in rural areas, many of them farmers or landless farmworkers.
How do we make sense of all this? What is true and what is not? What action do we take to deal with these imbalances? To help answer some of these questions, GRAIN decided to take a closer look at the facts. We tried to find out how much land is really in the hands of small farmers, and how much food they produce on that land.
The figures and what they tell us:
When we looked at the data, we came across quite a number of difficulties. Countries define "small farmer" differently. There are no centralised statistics on who has what land. There are no databases recording how much food comes from where. And different sources give widely varying figures for the amount of agricultural land available in each country.
In compiling the figures, we used official statistics from national agricultural census bureaus in each country wherever possible, complemented by FAOSTAT (FAO's statistical database) and other FAO sources where necessary. For statistical guidance on what a "small farm" is, we generally used the definition provided by each national authority, since the conditions of small farms in different countries and regions can vary widely. Where national definitions were not available, we used the World Bank's criteria.
In light of this, there are important limitations to the data – and our compilation and assessment of them. (See Annex 1 [in the complete report] for a fuller discussion of the data.) The dataset that we produced is fully referenced and publicly available online and forms an integral part of this report.
Despite the inherent shortcomings of the data, we feel confident in drawing six major conclusions:
- The vast majority of farms in the world today are small and getting smaller
- Small farms are currently squeezed onto less than a quarter of the world's farmland
- We are fast losing farms and farmers in many places, while big farms are getting bigger
- Small farms continue to be the major food producers in the world
- Small farms are overall more productive than big farms
- Most small farmers are women
Many of these conclusions might seem obvious, but two things shocked us.
One was to see the extent of land concentration today, a problem that agrarian reform programmes of the 20th century were supposed to have solved. What we see happening in many countries right now is a kind of reverse agrarian reform, whether it's through corporate land grabbing in Africa, the recent agribusiness-driven coup d'état in Paraguay, the massive expansion of soybean plantations in Latin America, the opening up of Burma to foreign investors, or the extension of the European Union and its agricultural model eastward. In all of these processes, control over land is being usurped from small producers and their families, with elites and corporate powers pushing people onto smaller and smaller land holdings, or off the land entirely into camps or cities.
The other shock was to learn that, today, small farms have less than a quarter of the world's agricultural land – or less than a fifth if one excludes China and India from the calculation. Such farms are getting smaller all the time, and if this trend persists they might not be able to continue to feed the world.