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Smallholder Farmers: The New Global Food Frontier

Andrew Burger headshotWords by Andrew Burger
Energy & Environment
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Back in January, 3p reported on an innovative community agroforestry development project that is having tremendous success revitalizing rural smallholder farms and communities in rural Haiti. With steadfast support from Timberland, as well as the rural communities in which it works, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) is helping smallholder farmers and communities in northern Haiti raise crop yields, reforest a nation that's suffered from the highest rate of deforestation in the Western Hemisphere, and improve their livelihoods and overall well-being.

SFA-Timberland's five-year agroforestry project highlights the vital role smallholder farms and communities play in sustaining the socioeconomic and ecological fabric of countries the world over. It also highlights the tremendous, triple-bottom-line benefits that can be realized with relatively little in the way of capital and other resources; in lieu of sufficient funds, success can come by employing an innovative model of sustainable development that affords local residents ownership of for-profit ventures based on “sweat equity.”

SFA is now taking its message worldwide. “One-third of the world's 7.3 billion people are smallholder family farmers who produce nearly 70 percent of all food consumed worldwide. So, why aren't we doing more to protect them?” reads the news “hook” for an article written by SFA co-founder and president, Hugh Locke, published in the Guardian on May 13.

Lifting smallholder farms and communities out of poverty

Even though they cultivate 60 percent of the world's arable land and produce 70 percent of the food we eat, smallholder farmers are among the most impoverished people on earth, Locke points out in his Guardian article, saying “smallholder farmers are the new global food frontier.”

Oddly enough, the plight and impoverishment of the world's 2-plus billion smallholder farmers has its roots in the “Green Revolution” that took root back in the 1960s. Experts predicted world population would exceed food supply by the 1990s, unleashing a massive wave of investment in industrialized agriculture that saw intensive fossil and synthetic fertilizer-fueled agricultural development that spread from developing to developed countries around the world.

“About the same time as the initial food scare, rich countries began giving foreign aid to developing countries to improve their economies and reduce poverty. Part of the deal was that recipient nations had to agree to reduce support for domestic smallholder agriculture and encourage their citizens to buy cheap imported grain from industrialized farms in the countries giving the foreign aid,” Locke recounts.

Supported by the theorized, statistically-complicated economic notion of competitive advantage, this quid pro quo has sent smallholder farms, families and communities across the developing world into poverty. Ironically, it was precisely such groups of people that played key roles in the forging of developed-country economies and societies.

As Locke writes: “The combination of a vast increase in industrial farming and greatly reduced support for agriculture in developing countries led to smallholder farmers becoming invisible.

“Today, there are 2.5 billion people who live and work on 500 million smallholder farms, each less than two hectares (five acres). They represent one-third of humanity, yet they have been systematically ignored and marginalized for 60 years, while industrial farming has received the benefits of agricultural research, subsidies, trade agreements, tax credits and regulatory systems.”

Supporting smallholder farms: The new global food frontier

The same food scare-tactics and logic are being used today to push for more industrialized, high-tech agriculture that benefits multinational corporations and investors at the expense of smallholder farms across the developing world. Large sections of so-called free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), are typically devoted to furthering its spread.

“Experts are now telling us there will be 2 billion more people by 2050, but not enough food to feed this increased population if we stay at current production levels. Almost all of these new people will be born in low-income countries where food is produced on small farms," Locke writes.

"In an ironic twist, this new global food scare is putting smallholder farmers on the radar for the first time. Having reached the limit of arable land worldwide, our only option is to figure out how to increase yields on land already being cultivated. Given that more than half of all farmland is cultivated by smallholder farmers, they have become the new global food frontier.


Unexpectedly, smallholder farmers have found a strong new ally in the growing number of major multinational food and beverage companies that come out in support of a new model of sustainable agricultural development, Locke continues. That's a development that 3p has reported on extensively in its coverage of sustainable agriculture.
“Major companies within the food and beverage industry, typically for business reasons, have begun procuring from millions of smallholder farmers throughout the developing world. In less than a decade, this market-based partnership between smallholder farmers and corporations has in some ways done more to benefit the farmers than 60 years of foreign aid,” Locke writes.

“The food and beverage industry is now in a leadership role it did not ask for. More significantly, they are in a unique position to be the catalyst for a global course correction that goes beyond just helping smallholder farmers.”

*Image credits: 1)Timberland-SFA; 2), 3) SFA

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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