October 23, 2017

Do we need small farms?

This is one of a series of six talks by Edward Goldsmith, broadcast on the World Business Report programme of the BBC World Service, 15-19 December 2003.

See Related Articles on the right for others in the series.


Tuscany is an area of great physical beauty. Until a few decades ago much of its population was made up of small farmers – the contadini – but, with economic development, they have been forced to leave the land. Politically, Tuscany is a Regione, which enjoys a measure of autonomy. The President, Claudio Martini, is a far-seeing man, who wants to reconstitute the peasantry, and produce the traditional local foods.

To guide him in his endeavour he has set up a Commission on the Future of Food, of which I am privileged to be a member, and has just produced a manifesto, which says all this to the governments of countries throughout the world, as well as their constituent states and provinces. Ten years ago such a manifesto would have been regarded as Utopian. “One cannot stop progress, however destructive”, we would have been told. But times are changing and the manifesto has been well received in many unexpected places. For instance, the present government of Ecuador has put it on its web-site.

The philosophy behind the manifesto is that modern high-input agriculture is not designed primarily to feed people but to maximize the return on investments – a very different thing. To do this farmers must produce cash crops on a big scale, mainly for export to the rich industrial countries, not the staple foods that local people require for their own consumption. This means that if the latter are to eat it will only be by feeding themselves at a local level, and this they have always done in the past. During the last war, for instance, no less than 40 percent of the UK’s fresh fruit and vegetables were derived from some 150,000 hectares of vegetable gardens and allotments.

In Syria, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the highest productivity is achieved in farms of about 0.5 hectares. In Mexico the ideal is 3 hectares, in Peru 6 hectares, in India less than 1 hectare, and in Nepal a little less than 2 hectares. In each case, output falls as soon as the size of the farm increases beyond these limits.

If this is not apparent, it is that we are made to think that what is most important is the yield of a single crop on a big farm that grows only one crop. However, an agricultural system should be judged on the basis of its total production per hectare which is much higher on a traditional small farm which grows a wide diversity of crops, as well as on the quality of the food produced.

The German and Italian peasantry that established itself in the south of Brazil cultivated sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, sugar cane, cereals, silage, vegetables, grapes, all kinds of fruit, and also raised chickens, pigs, and cows, producing in all at least 15 tonnes of food per hectare, much more than is produced on a conventional large-scale Brazilian soya plantation. Equally important is that this also reduces a farm’s vulnerability to discontinuities such as droughts, storms, floods, and plant epidemics, whose incidence and severity can only increase with the growing water shortage and global warming.

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