View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Challenging assumptions about smallholder farmers


Recently I was lucky enough to spend time on Jeju island, South Korea. Last time I visited, oranges were being harvested in the snow. This time it was a heatwave, and groups of women were crouched in the fields planting seedlings together.


Looking at the lush green of the fields divided by walls of volcanic rock, it was easy to have a romantic view of these small holdings. But I realised that I was making some assumptions. The groups of workers weren’t necessarily land-owners sharing the workload – many were labourers who had arrived in busloads from elsewhere. Closer inspection also revealed the dependence on chemicals.

This FAO report on the economic lives of smallholders also challenges some assumptions which many people might make. For a start, in countries such as Nepal and Kenya fertiliser input is higher on the smaller farms than other farms (which are still very small by Western standards).

Productivity was also higher on smaller farms than other farms in the same country (though still low compared to North America, for example). This is an interesting and much-debated finding, and is likely related to the high labour input seen on small family farms.

There are also situations, however, where small-scale farmers are losing their advantage. For example, they often struggle to access credit or new technology so are missing out on ways to improve their productivity.

Smallholders are of fundamental importance to food security, and in the developing world smallholders produce most of food that is consumed there. They also make up the vast majority of farmers. In China, for example, nearly 98% of farmers cultivate farms smaller than 2 hectares – accounting for almost half the world’s small farms.

We therefore need policies to support them, and the report will make valuable reading for anyone interested in what those policies might be. It recognises that transformation of food supply chains, especially the rise of supermarkets in the developing world, offers both opportunities and threats for smallholder farmers.

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

3 thoughts on “Challenging assumptions about smallholder farmers

  1. Do you suppose the type of landscape makes a difference? Hill farms seem more suited to small farmers as it is more difficult to use machinery – though that may change. Large flattish areas are prime territory for massive fields, intensive farming, but pushing out wildlife as all the space is used & everything has to accommodate massive modern machinery. This illustrates the future of intensive farming in places like western Europe & the US…

  2. That’s an interesting point, and I think there will be geographic and social reasons why different size farms are appropriate in different places.

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