A change in the definition of small farmers by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) means that their share of global food production now appears to be a lot smaller than before. Civil society organisations and representatives of small farmers see this as a major danger that could lead to a policy shift towards more support for large-scale industrial farms. The consequence would be the destruction of traditional regional and local smallholder structures, even though these contribute enormously to feeding the world.

Smallholders produce 70% of the worlds food

For many years, there has been relative agreement that small farmers and family farms produce about 70% of all food worldwide, while industrial agriculture only produces 30%, although the latter is responsible for the majority of environmental damage, above all the meat and dairy industry, because unlike small farmers, it does not operate ecologically and regionally, but economically and globally. The lion’s share of the world’s food is provided by smallholder family farms and also the FAO worked on the basis of this share, which it even put at 80% in its 2014 report (see press release of October 2014).

Small farmers, especially in the global South, on the African and Asian continents, but also in parts of Latin America, produce mainly for local and regional markets. They often have fewer technical means at their disposal, but create local jobs and thus contribute significantly to securing livelihoods in rural areas. In addition, they work with traditional and regenerative cultivation methods, use less pesticides and genetic engineering, and attach more importance to ecological balance by cultivating biodiversity and avoiding monoculture. In short, they work with and not against nature, produce more nutritious food than agribusiness and also conserve resources and the climate, already alone through shorter transport routes and less packaging.

Agreement on the importance of smallholders

For this reason, both the FAO and other United Nations organisations such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have been in agreement that small farmers are the backbone of the world’s food supply and should be supported accordingly. Thus, the United Nations also proclaimed the “Decade of Family Farming” for 2019 to 2028. Even Dr. Martin Frick, Head of the Berlin Office of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), recently confirmed in an interview with the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food security: “Local markets play a very essential role, because 80% of the world’s food is still produced by smallholder farmers. If we take climate justice seriously, we must first and foremost support smallholder farmers. The covid crisis and the shock waves of the Ukraine conflict show that we need resilient localised food systems.”

The FAO’s turnaround

But it seems that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO has recently changed course. According to its latest 2021 report, small farmers and family farms are suddenly expected to produce only 30% of the world’s food. This is a remarkable turnaround, which cannot be explained by changed conditions or structural changes in agriculture, but by a changed definition of the term “smallholder”.

The FAO has now determined that a farm is only considered a “small farm” if it operates on an area of less than 2 hectares. This is problematic because it does not take into account geographical conditions, the type of agricultural production or other factors. For example, “a 25-hectare sugar cane farmer in Rwanda may be considered a large farmer, while a farmer growing sugar cane on 200 hectares in Brazil is considered a small farmer by local standards”, as the article “What are actually small farmers?” by Thomas Beutler on the website “2000m2” of the Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft explains.

From nutritional value to market value – shifted priorities?

In addition to the change in the size of the area used to define smallholders, which means that many now fall through the grid and are simply no longer counted, there is another change of course upcoming: The new report measures smallholder productivity by commercial market value instead of real consumption. This ignores smallholder farmers’ ability to feed families and communities for no return or outside of measurable commercial markets. The surpluses often given to the needy during harvest weeks are also of great importance in the fight against hunger, especially in poor countries. This new way of measuring productivity makes small farmers appear more “inefficient” than they actually are. On the other hand, surplus production and food waste resulting from industrial agriculture are not subtracted from the productivity of agribusines. There is clearly a change of course, with more focus on commercial measurability and less on the actual fight against hunger.

Open letter

In response to the FAO’s turnaround, eight civil society organisations that have been working for years on agriculture, small farmers’ rights and food sovereignty, i.e. the right of people and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies, have now written an Open Letter to the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which is part of the United Nations and thus has an obligation to society to publish reliable data.

The Open Letter to the FAO, which we publish in below, asks for comments and clarification of the figures and data, as this could have considerable political implications. Apart from the attack on the rights of small farmers, who are already threatened by agro-industrial expansion, climate change and land grabbing, the undersigned organisations see this move as a free pass to provide less support and assistance to small farmers and family farms in the future and to channel it to the profit-oriented agro-industry instead, as even recommended in one of the two studies on which the new FAO report is based. This could have fatal consequences for the global fight against hunger, because merely changing definitions and counting methods does not change the fact that it is still mainly small farmers who feed the world and do so more productively and in a way that is more beneficial to the environment than agribusiness.

Dangerous trend

A dangerous trend seems to be emerging at the United Nations. Last autumn, the UN Food Summit 2021 took place and was boycotted by many smallholder and indigenous organisations represented by the “Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the United Nations Committee on World Food Security” with over 300 million members from 500 civil society groups. They lamented the “hijacking” of the summit by the partnership with the World Economic Forum and organised a counter-summit to express disappointment that the voices of the many small farmers around the world were not heard, while large transnational agri-food corporations were disproportionately represented. As reported by numerous social movements and civil society organisations for years have been advocating for an agroecological and human rights-based transformation of existing food systems, the UN Food Summit has degenerated into an event for industry.

Since the existence of around 500 million smallholder family farms worldwide would thus be threatened, this is already reason enough to view the FAO’s change of course highly critically. However, since we are talking here about nothing less than the world’s food supply, and the number of hungry people is rising – despite large-scale food programmes such as the Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), financed by so-called philanthropic foundations, which have led to more people going hungry in Africa today than before, and which have thus failed miserably – it is important to take a very close look.

Local structures for global solutions

It remains to be seen whether and in what way the FAO will react to the Open Letter. However, if the FAO is really serious about wanting to combat global hunger and also comply with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there is no way around supporting and strengthening small farmers, who by the way consist of a considerable proportion of women, with their social networks and local structures instead of omitting them from the discourse. The solution to world hunger lies in the equitable and just distribution of resources and small farmers do not strive for maximum profit but for the preservation of their local and regional communities, of which they are an important part and which include an intact nature of which they live. As already pointed out by Vandana Shiva in her book “Who really feeds the world? – The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology”, smallholder farmers, especially women smallholder farmers, are the true feeders, producers of healthy food, custodians of natural resources such as soil, water and free seeds, preservers of biodiversity and species richness and, last but not least, climate protectors.

Open letter to the FAO

Background Paper