Life in the Margins

Small farms create higher yields while fostering biodiversity – with a tough future ahead, they need policy support now

by Gavin MacRae

Farmers in rural west Africa

Small farms foster greater biodiversity, have more crop variety, and produce higher crop yields than large farming operations, a new analysis shows.1

Drawing on 118 studies from 51 countries and stretching back up to 50 years, researchers at the University of British Columbia have confirmed that sub-two-hectare farms outperform their industrial-sized counterparts in several environmental and socio-economic metrics.

The pint-sized operations make up 84% of the world’s 570 million farms, grow a third of all food produced globally, and take up 12% or 25% of agricultural lands, depending on which calculation is cited.


“We found that smaller farms harbour a lot more biodiversity than large farms,” says Vincent Ricciardi, lead author of the study and senior data scientist at Premise Data. “Smaller farms have smaller fields, just by definition, and those fields have more perimeters, and those perimeters have a lot more critters and insects, and biodiversity in weeds and everything, than a large farm would have. That’s a big and very consistent finding.”

The study also showed smallholders use less insecticide and are more likely to employ organic practices. Plus, small farms tend to be within diverse land types, such as forests and wetlands, which have more wildlife than large, homogeneous fields.

Small farms grow more varieties of crops, too – for the nutrition of the farmers themselves, to diversify their offerings in the marketplace, and to hedge against drought risk. Larger farms focus on grains and oil crops, often for animal feed or processed foods, while smallholdings grow more legumes, roots and tubers, and fruits.

Another significant finding was that small farms beat out larger farms on crop yields as well.

“It’s kind of surprising,” says Ricciardi, “but it’s been looked at since the 1920s when a Russian agricultural researcher noticed it, and then in the 1960s in India they started investigating more empirically and found that yes, smaller farms had higher yields.”

The advantage is family help. Smallholdings are often family owned and run, and this provides a cheap, ready labour pool. Big farms have the benefit of increased mechanization, but this is not cost-effective except on very large holdings.

The research team found farm size made no difference to greenhouse gas emissions or resource use efficiency.

Policy support

Smallholders in lower-income countries are some of the poorest populations on earth, and Ricciardi says the research underscores the need for global policies that support small farms and reward them for their stewardship.

“There’s a lot of subsidies out there and incentives for producing more food on a given land area, and often larger farms are able to capture those subsidies,” Ricciardi says. “To support smaller farms and support agricultural practices that are environmentally beneficial, we need to start promoting subsidies and [research and development] funding for farms that are conserving biodiversity.”

One caveat, Ricciardi adds, is that the relationship between farm size and environmental protection is not fixed: just because a farm is small does not make it ecologically sound, and large farms can adapt to help protect biodiversity.

“It’s not a binary thing, small or large,” Ricciardi says.

The future for small-scale farmers is set to get tougher. The analysis reports smallholders face “growing pressure on their livelihoods” from low market prices, and increasing crop losses from climate change-driven extreme weather events.

Other recently published research estimates climate change effects have stunted the growth of farm productivity globally by 21% over the last six decades. The effect is magnified to 26-34% in warmer regions such as Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and small farms are particularly affected.2

And the effect is cyclical. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land, expansion of agricultural lands is a key driver of biodiversity loss, cripples natural carbon sinks, and causes vast greenhouse gas emissions.3 4

At the same time, the UN sees crop production globally having to increase 70% by 2050 to keep pace with a global population expected to hit nine billion at that time.5

  1. Higher yields and more biodiversity on smaller farms | Nature Sustainability
  2. Anthropogenic climate change has slowed global agricultural productivity growth | Nature Climate Change
  3. Summary for Policymakers — Special Report on Climate Change and Land | ipcc
  4. Media Release: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ | IPBES
  5. How to Feed the World in 2050 | FAO

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