In the wake of the UN global food summit in Rome last week, George Monbiot argues in The Guardian today that, ‘If governments are serious about feeding the world, they should be breaking up large landholdings, redistributing them to the poor and concentrating their research and their funding on supporting small farms.’
Monbiot observes that Robert Mugabe was the only leader to speak of ‘the importance of land in agricultural production and food security’, recognizing that the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly determined by the model of ownership of agricultural land.
The benefits of maintaining more traditional smallholdings was first brought to the attention of the rapidly industrializing agriculture world in 1962 by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, whose conclusion that there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the harvest they yield per hectare has since been confirmed by dozens of studies. The research says the smaller they are, the greater the yield.
The difference is very marked in some countries. In Turkey, a recent study found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen’s observation has also been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay and appears to hold true almost everywhere.
Why they are efficient is still a much-debated question. Small-scale producers are less likely to own machinery, to have capital or access to credit and more likely to use more traditional cultivation methods: all of which is commonly thought to mean they would be much less efficient than large-scale operations.
The most probable answer is to be found in the fact that small-scale farming tends to use more labor per hectare than big farms and its workforce is largely family-based. Normally, labor costs are lower than on large farms, the quality of the work is higher, land can be cultivated more intensively, several crops may be grown in the same field and new season crops are sown directly after harvest.
However, a great lack of enthusiasm for practical support of small farmers and peasant landowners still exists among many governments and agricultural institutions. The OECD states that, ‘Stopping land fragmentation … and consolidating the highly fragmented land is indispensable for raising agricultural productivity’. Meanwhile, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s review of Turkey, where small farms have been found to be 20 times more productive than large one, states that due to small landholdings, ‘farm output … remains low’.