While much of the world’s food is produced on large farms, a recent review has found that smaller operations tend to have higher yields and biodiversity while being no less profitable or efficient—making them a fund-worthy lynchpin of sustainable development.
“Most of the world’s farms (84%) are operated by smallholders, and smallholders in lower-income countries are also among the poorest people on the planet,” writes lead author Vincent Ricciardi in a report published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability.
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But even so, in their analysis of 118 studies conducted across 51 countries since 1970, the University of British Columbia doctoral student and his team found that these smallhold farms “have higher yields than large ones do, perhaps owing to the increased availability of family labour.” Smaller farms also have greater crop diversity than larger operations.
Citing an earlier quantitative analysis that the team undertook to examine the relationship between crop diversity and farm size across 55 countries and 154 crops, the authors point to a “strong inverse relationship globally between farm size and the number of crop species found across the landscape.” Typically, smallhold farmers select for more crop diversity in an effort to increase nutritional yields, reach a wider market, and mitigate drought risk.
Smaller farms also show a greater degree of non-crop biodiversity. The authors attribute this ecosystem-friendly outcome to limited use of insecticides, greater reliance on organic management practices, a higher margin-to-field area ratio (which creates more wild habitat), and a higher likelihood of leaving “conservation corridors” that support a range of insects and small mammals. Also playing a role is landscape composition, “with small-farm-dominated landscapes harbouring diverse land cover types such as forests and wetlands, fields of different crops, or fields in different phenological stages of production”—that is, from just sprouting to ready for harvest.
What the authors did not find in their review was any conclusive evidence “for a relationship between farm size and resource use efficiency, GHG emissions, or profit.”
The author say their findings provide good reason for governments to support smallholder-friendly agricultural policies, adding that one possible “policy pathway” could be to simply reward small farms for being good land stewards. Such financial support, they add, could deliver a “triple reward” for sustainability: humanitarian benefits, higher yields, and increased biodiversity.