Small farms need protection to safeguard nutrients and diversity

By Kate LangfordMay 29th, 2017

Industrial-scale agriculture that focuses on increased yields might not be the answer to feeding the world's growing population. New research suggests the UN's Sustainable Development Goals require a discussion on quality over quantity, where smaller farms are recognised as the nutrient power house.
hillside farming in vietnam

Farming in Vietnam. Image: Neil Palmer/CIAT

New research shows that a diverse landscape made up of a patchwork of small to medium-sized farms produces the vast majority of the world’s nutrients.

As farm size increases this diversity decreases, authors of the study are keen to emphasise, in light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Lead author CSIRO’s Mario Herrero says the findings published in the first issue of The Lancet Planetary Health demonstrate that addressing global food needs is not just about quantity – it’s also about the quality of global food supplies.

“The findings open up a whole policy agenda for farming and what kind of world we want to see,” Dr Herrero says.

Transdisciplinary research

The study involved more than 400 scientists from 19 different institutions, including geographers, livestock, agricultural and marine scientists, economists, public health and nutrition specialists, epidemiologists, and environmental scientists.

Dr Herrero says the transdisciplinary team, for the first time, quantified the contribution of agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and its wide array of farms to global nutrient production, diversity and food security.

The researchers mapped how much calcium, folate, iron, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc is produced in farms of different sizes from 41 crops, 7 livestock products and 14 fish groups.

Diversity decreases as farm size increases

The Lancet study found that, globally, farms smaller than 50 hectares, particularly in Africa and Asia, produce 51-77 per cent of nearly all commodities and nutrients, including cereals, livestock, fruits, pulses, roots and tubers and vegetables.

Farms larger than 50 hectares and that dominate production in North America, South America, and Australia and New Zealand, contribute between 75 and 100 per cent of all cereal, livestock and fruit production.

The researchers found that it is the landscapes with more diversity that produce more nutrients and that the diversity of agricultural and nutrient production diminishes as farm size increases.

Quality versus quantity

Herrero says the study provides evidence to support broadening discussions on food security from simply focusing on increasing the quantity of food, for example through increasing yields, to feed a growing global population, to ensuring we have quality in our food production systems.

Around 2 billion people in the world suffer from micronutrient deficiency, meaning they don’t get adequate vitamins or minerals in their diets, often called “hidden hunger”. This can lead to stunting and difficulty in learning among children and poor health in adults.

A recent CSIRO study that found one in two (51 per cent) adults are not eating the recommended intake of fruit, while two out of three adults (66 per cent) are not eating enough vegetables.

The economic cost of malnutrition, including hunger, micronutrient deficiency and obesity, is estimated as equivalent to 10 percent of world GDP each year; more than the global value lost during the 2008 financial crisis.

Greater resilience in diversity

Dr Herrero says larger farms are also necessarily more vulnerable.

He uses the example of the recent Cyclone Debbie which swept across in southern Queensland and northern NSW in late March / early April 2017 and hit cane growers as well as tomato, capsicum and eggplant producers.

Consumers will feel the pinch when prices for these commodities increase in coming months due to a shortage of supply.

“We need to be careful about putting all our eggs in one basket,” Dr Herrero says.

“What if there were a major wheat disease that devastated farms across Australia? Having diverse farming systems builds resilience.”

Weighing up the big and small

On a global scale, he explains, the understanding gained from this study will be crucial for meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the second of which aims to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

Dr Herrera says the research findings prompt the question: “Do we want to continue the trend towards expanding the production of cereals such as wheat, rice and corn, or do we want more diverse farms, such as in Europe or South East Asia?”

“If we decide that we want large farms producing our food then this could come at a cost.

“We need both big and small farms to achieve food and nutrition security but we must ensure we protect and support small farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production.”

Read the full article in The Lancet Planetary Health. See a visual summary of the results by Environment Reports. See also this story map by Food Matters.


  1. In the West Bengal state of India 95% farmers have small holdings, producing various types of vegetables thus providing a healthy source of nutrients round the year. That would not be possible if they have big farms. We need to protect those small farmers by transferring new technologies.

  2. Again, new evidence that buying biological food is the best way to support small farms. It also gives the best quality because it has been slow growing. After harvest it can last longer than fast growing food. I am also an advisor in the agribisness and saw that biologic products in general grow more slowly which gives tham time to build up more minerals in their cells. This is very important to provide nutrition because vitamins without minerals will pass your gut without the benefits for your body.

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