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Picturing World Agriculture

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When most of us write about food and agriculture, we include references to the larger world food picture.  This is understandable, but it can lead to problems of context and comprehension.  We tend to tie our discussions about agriculture to the plight of the world’s teeming hungry poor – but these discussions are often loaded down with a set of underlying assumptions prevalent among citizens of the developed world.  We think that the solution to hunger is more food production; and indeed, sometimes it is.   But where and how our agricultural technologies are distributed has a greater effect than the technologies themselves, and until we understand what farms look like worldwide, it all too is easy for us to tout the latest breakthrough’s hypothetical ability to feed so many millions of hungry people.  Unfortunately, the path to reaching those people is more complicated than that.

In order to understand where the future may take us, we need an accurate picture of world agriculture to work with.   We must understand what limiting factors affect us now, and how they may change in the future.  When we discuss organic or conventional agriculture in the developed world, we may have in our minds the usual misleading conventional Western iconography: we speak of farmers “feeding the world”, and imagine a man on a tractor in a large field in the best agricultural regions of our own country, growing grain.  That’s a part of the picture, of course, but not the largest part.  So let’s take a look at the world’s average farm.

The first thing you’d notice about a typical world farm, say in Asia or Africa, is that it is small – about 2 hectares, or less than five acres.  85% of all the farms in the world are smaller than five hectares. Those small farms produce more than half the world’s total calories, and almost half the world’s grains.  Most of us imagine that grain must be grown on a huge scale, with combines and tractors, but in fact, nearly half of all grain is grown in small fields, using mostly hand labor.  The vast majority of the world’s rice, for example, is grown on small-scale farms in Asia.  Half or more than half of the corn, beans and potatoes that feed Latin America are produced on farms that are tiny by the standards of the Global North [1].

Most of the world’s farms don’t specialize in single-crop plantings, either; despite the pressure to do so, more than half of all farms are diversified, meaning that they don’t just grow rice or sweet potatoes or cattle or beans.[2]  A typical farmer, then, grows a large portion of her diet, with some additional food, if she has enough land to do so, for local markets or export.  It is true that most households in diverse regions do rely on a primary staple crop or two, such as rice, or corn or cassava, for the farmers’ own consumption or for market.  But many of their daily calories also come from other crops, wild foods and livestock.

This is important because after more than 60 years of industrialization in agriculture, after globalization and expansion of every kind, much of the world’s food is still grown on tiny family farms that would have looked very familiar to our ancestors a century or even a millennium ago.  When we debate the relative merits of “organic” versus “conventional” agriculture, we ignore the fact that half the world’s food is grown by farmers who use largely organic methods – mostly because that’s what they can afford.

We cannot ignore the fact that tiny, diversified farms usually don’t get the full benefits we might imagine from technological changes in agriculture – for the simple reason that they can’t afford to adopt them.  It is all very well to discuss what a new seed strain or GMO could accomplish in the world picture; but the very fact that many farmers can’t access technologies that have been available for decades – improved seed varieties and fertilizers, to name two – suggests that there are deeper issues of distribution and equity than simply developing new technologies.  If many farms are largely organic, they still often do use some conventional technologies (in the years when they can afford them). The small farmers who does adopt conventional technologies often finds herself in a quandary: when prices for fossil fuels or fertilizers or herbicides or seeds spike, as they have done several times in the last decade, she must struggle to replace these now-essential infrastructure items.

Historically speaking, most of the gains of agricultural technologies have gone into the bellies, into the livestock, and now with the biofuel boom, into the cars of people in the developed world who have never been hungry.  We know that livestock, for example, have eaten more Green Revolution grains than people have.

The second thing you’ll notice when you take a look at that average world farm, is that the farmer isn’t a man, and almost certainly doesn’t own a tractor. More than half of all farmers are women, although women own only 1% of the land on the planet [3].  Women produce about half of the world’s food, and they do the vast majority of the world’s food processing and preservation.  In some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 80% or more of all farmers.  The majority of farming African women use very simple agricultural tools – the same digging sticks and handmade implements that have been used for centuries [4].  And planet-wide, most farmers do their farm work around other domestic responsibilities including food preservation and preparation, childcare, and fetching water and firewood.

Again, we run up against both a logic problem and an equity problem that affects our ability to effect meaningful change.  More than 60 years of agricultural expansion and technological progress hasn’t changed the fact that over half the farmers in the world are women who farm tiny acreage because that’s all their families can manage around their other responsibilities.  Hence, most farms aren’t going to industrialize, and need to be addressed as they are, not as we think they should be.  They are going to remain small.  If we’ve had all along the technology, wealth, and will to distribute 20-dollar shovels and hoes to women who are using digging sticks, but haven’t, what makes us think that 20-million dollar GMO seeds are going to reach those women, no matter how much we would like them to?

Moreover, while it is tempting to emphasize increased production as the best way to improve world food security, there are other approaches that could be implemented more cheaply and more quickly. One study found that educating women alone raised agricultural yields in the land those women farmed by 22%.  Moreover, half of all food in the world is wasted, and the majority of food waste in the Global South comes from an inability to process and preserve food rapidly enough.[5] We need to ask ourselves, what do people need most: higher yielding grains, or the ability to dry them so that they don’t molder in the field?

The planet currently produces enough calories to feed every single man, woman and child on it twice over every day, and yet nearly a billion people are still going hungry.  It is important to realize that in 2008, the year that the world food crisis was on everyone’s lips and we spiked to over a billion hungry people for the first time in human history, we had record harvests [6].  Yes, we will need to increase yields in the coming decades – but if we only talk about yields, we ignore the more fundamental problems of equity and distribution.

Now let’s look at the picture of the average world farmer again: she farms small plots of grain and vegetables and probably has a small flock of livestock.  She doesn’t produce quite enough on the farm to feed herself and her family – she needs to buy some food on the markets, usually grains.  She’s poor, so she rather than feeding the grains to her animals, she and her family grind and directly consume them.

The problem is that since 2005, our average world farmer has lived in a world with rapidly rising and wildly volatile food prices – food prices that pretty much mirror the track of oil prices.  There are two reasons for this: first, food is both an attractive place for speculators to put their money in markets that are struggling in other respects.  Second, the correlations between food and energy have become tighter and tighter of late.  Biofuels, industrial scale livestock farming, and ever-increasing fossil fuel usage in agriculture in the developed world has meant that when oil prices rise, food prices rise as well.

The oil intensity of our food system has been rising [7], even while declining in other areas, with the result that food and fossil fuel energy are now inextricably tied together. This has serious effects on our average farmer – when she goes to the market, she can afford less food than she might have a decade ago.  If she might once have been able to send her daughters to school or eat meat once in a while, those luxuries are no longer within her grasp.  She may now be counted among the world’s hungry, even though she grows food for a living.

When we ask whether industrialized agriculture can “feed the world”, we will arrive at an incomplete and unsatisfactory answer, as long as we continue to frame the question purely around the issue of yields.  We need instead to ask ourselves a harder question: to what extent are we serving the world’s hungriest people by relying on industrial agricultural methods – whether organic or conventional – that tie the price of food ever more tightly to the price of oil?  Perhaps, for a change, our discussions need to take into account the real global food and agricultural picture.






4. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “What African women farmers look for in their agricultural implements.” IFAD.




Sharon Astyk About the Author: Sharon Astyk is the author of three books on energy, food, agriculture and environmental issues and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas). She blogs at Casaubon's Book, and farms in rural upstate New York.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. bucketofsquid 12:56 pm 08/12/2011

    Thank you for the well written blog post. This was an eye opener for me. I’m well aware that large corporate farming isn’t universal but it was a surprise to find that most farmers farm tiny plots and are usually women. This begs the question of where the men are and what they are doing. I wonder if spending more on building transport infrastructure and schools would be feasible on a large scale.

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  2. 2. slih 9:51 am 08/15/2011

    With my apologies, a comment that may seem to be off-topic:
    It is my view that almost all analyses and articles must re-state the overwhelming facts of the near-exponential rise of population with the arithmetic rise of resources. Even when there is a step-function increase in resources or production as was experienced in the green revolution, the population explosion will overwhelm the ability of the town/city/country to support that population. Without population planning and eduction plus disincentives to reproduce, starvation, pestilence and wars will overtake the “helpless many”.

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  4. 4. water ionizer 8:51 pm 01/21/2015

    The Slave of the Husband…

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