Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Small farms don't produce most the of the worlds food - but they could produce all


Recently, I wrote an article about how difficult it is to survive as a commercial smallholder and floated some ideas of why that is and what can be done about it. I want to follow up with two articles. This one is about the production capacity of small farms and the next one will be on labor productivity and its implications for the space of consumption for small holder farmers and its capacity to generate surplus labor for other societal purposes.

I often see the claim that peasants/small farms/small holders/family farms produce seventy percent of all the food in the world. The 70 figure originates from a report by the ETC Groups in 2009, Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crises. The original has been revised and the current version from 2017 states that the ”ETC Group estimates about 70% of the population – 4.5–5.5 billion of the world’s 7.5 billion people – depend on the Peasant Food Web for most or all of their food”.

Geoffrey, a successfull small holder in Zambia, photo:Gunnar Rundgren
While I am a small farmer myself and very sympathetic to the future of small farms in a similar way as the ETC group, I think it is important to have the facts straight. To begin with, the poorest 70% consume a lot less than 70% of the food in the world, as people in the richer countries, who mainly depend on the industrial food chain consume a lot more food per capita.  Notably, the ETC report says that 70% of the population depend on the peasant food web for most or all of their food. This is not at all the same as  that peasants produce 70% of the food as ”to depend on” doesn’t mean that all their foods come from this food web. Many of the poorest people buy salt, sugar, vegetable oil and other commodities which are mainly from the industrial food web. In addition many small farms raise chicken, pigs or have a dairy goat or cow for which they buy some commercial feed, which means that the product from these animals are not only from the Peasant Food Web.

There can be put several question marks about some of the categories of people which are included in the figure of people who ”depend” on the Peasant Food Web. The figure includes 1 billion urban farmers. But there is no billion urban farmers who produce most of their own food. Most urban farmers produce vegetables or small animals, none of them are staple food. ETC claims that 34% of all meat is produced in cities, and even if we accept that figure (which I am quite convinced is grossly exaggerated) it is quite obvious that the feed of the animals are not produced in the cities and most likely that most of the feed has its origin in the industrial food chain. 2.5 billion people are said to get some or most of their food from street vendors and according to ETC those street vendors get most of their food from peasants. I have looked into food chains in many different countries and I believe that the assumption that most street vendors get their food from peasants has no factual basis.

It is very difficult to make the distinction between the Peasant Food Web and the Industrial Food Chain that the ETC make. In many countries there is a continuum of farming systems from small scale food production oriented to self-sufficiency to large scale farms for commodity trading. And there are many peasants engaged primarily in commercial production also of non-food items such as flowers or export crops such as coffee. Many of those buy their food. When I visited small scale palm oil producers on Sumatra 2017, all of them had quit growing their food and bought noodles and canned mackerel. 

And there are interdependencies in the webs and chains. Irina Petrovna in the village Peredavik in Kaluga in Russia, which I visited last year, has four cows and she sells the milk products (milk, smetana, butter, yoghurt) directly in the neighborhood. Her cows graze communal land but the hay for the winter comes from the big farm nearby. And it is similar for many of Russia’s 17 million small backyard farms in Russia. This even goes back to Soviet times when it was common that collective farmers also had a smaller private farm and used the resources of the collective for their backyard production.

In the article, How much of the world's food do smallholders produce? by Vincent Ricciardi and colleagues, published in Global Food Security, the researchers estimate that small farms produce “28–31% of total crop production and 30–34% of food supply on 24% of gross agricultural area.” They define small farms as those having less than 2 hectare.  In this research, livestock production and fisheries are not included. The selected farm size limit is very small, In Sweden units with less than 2 hectares are not even defined as a farm. Our own farm with around 1 hectare of vegetables and fruits, 8 hectares of arable grassland and 13 hectares of permanent grassland certainly would qualify as a very small farm in this country.

Considering the differing conditions in the world and the difficulties in classification, I don’t think it is possible to get a “correct” figure. Whatever method is used there will be flaws and things to criticize. There is also no need to inflate the figures to prove that small farms can produce sufficient food. The existing situation is an expression of economic conditions and says little about the potential for small farms to produce sufficient food (in a similar way as the extent of organic farms or regenerative farms says anything about the potential of those systems). As the research by Riccardi and colleagues show the production of food per unit of land is rather higher on small farms than on big farms. This is corroborated by research in the USA which shows that yield per hectare also for a staple crop like corn is more or less the same in small farms as in bigger ones.

A historical perspective also helps: In Sweden in 1949 dairy farms produced 5 million tons of milk while the total production today is 2.8 million tons. In 1949 there were 300,000 farms producing milk, with an average of 5 cows per farm; almost all milk was produced on small farms. Today the average dairy farm has around 100 cows, and there are just above 3,000 farms left. Most farms are still called family farms but can’t really be called small farms as we talk about investments of 2-10 million dollars or euro just to keep a few people occupied. The farms of 1949 used considerably less fossil fuels, artificial fertilizers, tractors and imported soy to produce almost twice as much milk. In some regards they were much more efficient than the prevailing production.
The key message is that the potential of small farms for global food production is determined by economic conditions rather than biological, ecological or agronomic limitations.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Towards a landscape diet and communal landscape management


Lately I have read two articles which both claim that small scale farming is (self)exploitive and that even with direct marketing such as farmers markets, there is no profit, hardly even survival.  

What nobody told me about small farming: I can't make a living, by Jaclyn Moyer published in Salon (it is from 2015, but someone shared it on social media and it came my way) makes the case that it is not possible to make a living from production on a small farm under any norm al circumstances. Jaclyn writes that she at first wouldn’t admit having a struggling business as no one wants to climb aboard a sinking ship. She believed “if a business was failing it was because the entrepreneur was not skilled enough, not savvy enough, not hardworking enough. If my farm didn’t turn enough profit, it was my own fault.” But after years of hard work she finally started to admit to herself and to the public how things are:

“When a student asked if my farm was sustainable, I told her that I was certified organic, I managed my soil fertility through crop rotations and compost applications, I didn’t use synthetic pesticides, I conserved water. But no, I’d said, I didn’t think my farm was sustainable. Like all the other farms I knew, my farm relied on uncompensated labor and self-exploitation. My farm was not sustainable because I knew the years my partner and I could continue to work without a viable income were numbered.”
By and large Chris Newman agrees with Jaclyn Moyer in his articel Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer published in Medium.


I totally agree with Jaclyn and Chris and I believe you can find evidence all over the world that small farms are not viable as commercial production entities providing a normal income. I see wave after wave of young people who have read a book or heard a lecture about organic gardening, of double digging, of the market garden, of holistic management or permaculture trying to make a dream come true. Other kinds of small farmer hypes is the idea that you find a unique line of production, such as herbs, truffles or raising rabbits for meat. Regardless of method and product, most will fail. A few may still be commercially viable because they find a particular sweet spot, e.g. being the sole or preferred supplier to a fine dining restaurant, or having an extra-ordinary location for direct marketing to wealthy clients. Others may survive commercially through diversification in services, training, projects etc., where the production is more of an environmental factor than income. Some will combine farming with regular jobs, or contract work. Most will quit. As small farmers have done before them and continue to do, in developed and developing countries.

Economies of scale are just very strong in farming and in marketing. In the long run it applies also to the production of organic herbs or permaculture nut production. Organic being the longest running alternative gives ample evidence of this. Initially, it was a haven for small farmers, often in disadvantaged areas, but today with commodification of organic, there are no such small scale advantages. On the contrary, average size of certified organic farmers is in most countries bigger than national averages. According to the USDA dairy farmers with less than 50 cows have almost three times as high costs of production as farms with more than 500 cows. Research in Sweden shows that growing crops on field of 1 hectare size is 1.5 to 2 times more costly than growing them on fields of 5 hectares. Well, it is just to look at the statistics for almost every country in the world to see this development.

Some claim that new smart digital tools will make small farms more competitive than before. It is true that digitization may make some things easier, e.g, organizing a food assembly or a Community Supported Agriculture. Our farm is a member of a Reko-ring which is similar to a food assembly but with no central organization. Ever increasing globalization and consolidation in the food industry and trade competition is, however, also harder by the day. And we see in other businesses that in the digital world economy of scale is just a strong as in the physical world. The benefits of information technology for small farms are probably not big enough to balance all the increasing comparative disadvantages that are also caused by it.

Others believe that automation and artificial intelligence will take care of most of the toil of the small farmers. But again, I see no indication that economies of scale will be less with automation, rather the contrary. Remember that it is not the absolute efficiency gains that are important in a competitive market but the gains relative to the competition. Automation will most likely totally squeeze out the smaller farmers as they can’t afford the investment and even with almost no salary taken out from the farm, family labor may still be more costly than robots.

Chris Newman makes the case against small farms producing and marketing alone and insisting on independence and competition, e.g. by selling at farmers markets.

“Because of our insistence on independence and our failure to cooperate more closely, we’re being outsold at the grocery store by a factor of 400+. Accounting for on-farm, food hub, restaurant, and other non-market sales does little to affect the scale of this imbalance. Farmers markets and other “local” outlets punch well above their weight in terms of social/cultural value, but this is fooling us into believing we’re making more of an impact than we actually are, and that a rapidly consolidating food system backed by venture capital, entrenched interests, and the world’s wealthiest corporations will somehow be displaced by the romance of neoliberal peasant farming”.

His recipe is that producers should own their own market outlets and that ”all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically.”

Consumers buying local organic produce at the authors farm 
photo: Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen
I have lived on small farms most of the time since 1977 and been engaged in small scale vegetable production, cheese making and food processing. The farm Torfolk was a collective farm for a handful of people and we started a marketing cooperative for organic vegetables 1983. We brought organic foods to the supermarkets, probably first in Europe to sell organics in normal grocery shops. Currently I am more engaged in various local marketing and direct marketing initiatives. But I have no illusions. In my book Global Eating Disorder I write:

“The economic conditions under which farmers, other actors in the food system and consumers interact is the factor that most strongly shapes the food system, and therefore it will be futile trying to change the contents of the system while leaving the economic conditions, struc­tures and relationships intact. What we have got to today is – somewhat simplistically put – what makes sense under the conditions under which farmers, agribusiness and consumers operate.“

The suggestion by Chris Newman is in that perspective a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t challenge the producer-consumer divide and the notion that food is mainly a commodity to be sold. It doesn’t address that farming is about environmental and social stewardship as much as production.

We need to break away from the idea, that there is something like a fair and free market. Some believe that markets where independent farmers can sell their stuff to consumers represent an ideal; that it is by the interference by governments or big corporations that free markets become corrupt. But free markets are never fair, powers are never equal, capital will be accumulated by some and not by others. The forces of competition are by themselves as much a problem as government rules and big corporations´ monopolist tendencies. This doesn’t change by the creation of cooperatives. Exchange of goods is of course unavoidable and not a bad thing per se, but a competitive market is not the only tool for this to take place. There were reasons for why, in earlier times, markets were almost always regulated in supply, quality and prices. For agriculture products this is particularly important.

But even more than having a focus on how goods are moved from A to B we need to recognize that farming is humans primary interface with nature and the primary tool we have for managing a planet that, whether we like it or not, is in our custody. No marketing model exist for optimization of this stewardship role, and none ever will. Therefore, we need to find models for how to organize this stewardship outside of markets. The obsession with private property, often very strong among farmers, needs to yield, at least the notion that privately owned land gives you almost unlimited rights to do what you like with your land. If we want people to take responsibility for their choice of food, they also need to get influence as responsibility and influence should go hand in hand.  

In my vision we see farming as landscape management and food is based on the landscape diet, i.e. that you eat food from the landscape you live in. Communities are jointly deciding on major principles of how the landscape is managed and take responsibility for that farmers can do their job in a good way – and eat the stuff from that land. Exact details surely will vary, and should vary as culture and ecological conditions differ, but I am sure there will be room for small-scale farming there. I am well aware of that this vision doesn’t fit well with cities of 20 million people sourcing their food from all continents. But I don’t think that the future will be in such cities.  

P.S: I post little these days, it is summer and lots to do on the farm, but even more I am busy writing a new book.....

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Beware of the N-bomb



There are good, and frightening, reasons to closely follow the changes in the nitrogen cycle. We should not be surprised if the effects and costs of disturbing it turn out to be as dramatic as those for the carbon cycle. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers are around 3% of global emissions, but they are not visible in greenhouse gas inventories. The abolition or drastic reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers is a pre-condition for a sustainable food system.

In farming, the availability of nutrients, particularly of nitrogen, potash and phos­phorus – mostly referred to by their chemical symbols N, P and K – is a major limiting factor. All traditional farming systems have had some strategy for replacing nutrients in the soil. One is to rest the soil and allow a natural re-charge and release of nutrients from the soil and through atmospheric decomposition. Crop rotations with leguminous crops can fix nitrogen from the air and the nutritional demands of the various crops can complement each other. Phosphorous, from deeper layers or bound in the soil, can be ‘mined’ by some crops making it available to others. Nutrients can also come from irrigation water (especially sediments in flood waters), animal manure, human waste, plants, grass and other residues, a plethora of natural organic fertil­izers. Farmers have used oil-cakes, feathers, leathers, bone, sea weed and fish as fertilizers. There are even reports that human remains from battlefields and ossuaries have been used as fertilizers. Yet all these methods have some limitations, and in most cases they require a lot of work or other efforts.
A farming system dependent on and caused by synthetic fertilizers, Mato Grosso, Brazil Photo: Gunnar Rundgren


It is therefore no wonder that the farmers of the world took to artifi­cial fertilizers with enthusiasm. They are easier to transport than bulky organic materials such as manure, easier to apply and give somewhat predictable results. Global annual use of nitrogen fertilizers increased from 11 million tons in 1960 to 115 million tons in 2017. Contrary to common belief most of the fertilizers are not used to replace what is removed by the crop from the field. The quantities applied mostly surpass this many times. Most nitrogen is simply wasted through denitrification, leaking, erosion and volatilization of ammonia.[i] According to David Montgomery, an American soil scientist, half of the fertilizer used in the United States is used to compensate the nutrient losses caused by erosion. Globally, the nitrogen efficiency in grain production has deteriorated drastically and rapidly (probably mostly a result of decreasing marginal return). Around 1960, each ton of chemical fertilizer resulted in an increase in grain yield of 75 tons, whereas at the end of 1990 this resulted in just 25 tons.[ii]

The greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made

Reflecting on his promotion of chemical fertilizers von Liebig ex­claimed: “I have sinned against the wisdom of the Creator and, justly, I have been punished. I wanted to improve his work because, in my blindness, I believed that a link in the astonishing chain of laws that govern and constantly renew life on the surface of the Earth had been forgotten. It seemed to me that weak and insignificant man had to redress this oversight.”[iii] Had von Liebig lived now, he would be even more worried and remorseful.

The quantity of biologically active nitrogen released annually into the biosphere has increased nine-fold in 100 years and nitrogenous fertilizers are the main source of this. In one of the most influential scientific articles of last decade, Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity, professor Johan Rockström and colleagues identify the nitrogen cycle as one of three areas – together with climate regulation and biological diversity – where modern civilization has surpassed a threshold for stable development.

Without knowing it, the average European bears costs of over €500 per year for farmers’ use of Nitrogen fertilizers. The European Nitrogen Assessment[iv] recognizes that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have huge advantages but also notes that their use comes with a huge price tag. The report states that the increased level of biologically active nitrogen in the biosphere might represent “the greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made”. For a farmer it is profitable to use nitrogen fertilizer; the return of one Euro invested in nitrogen fertil­izer is estimated at between two and five Euros. But someone else pays a bigger bill. “Environmental damage related to nitrogen effects from agriculture in the EU-27 was estimated at €20-€150 billion per year. This can be compared with a benefit of N-fertilizer for farmers of €10-€100 billion per year, with considerable uncertainty about long-term N-benefits for crop yield”.[v]

The damage caused by fertilizers includes a wide range of direct and indirect effects. Increased concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the biosphere are two of the most impor­tant drivers of changes in ecosystems. Nitrogen plays a role in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which damages crops and plants.[vi] Chemical fertilizers have enabled farmers to skip sound crop rotations and to monocrop, which leads to a reduction of carbon content in soils. Globally, the discharge of nitrogen to the sea increased by 80% between 1860 and 1990. This run-off changes species composition and stimulates algal blooms and the associated dead zones.[vii] In the United States, the Mississippi, the Columbia, and the Susquehanna rivers together discharge approxi­mately 1 million tons of nitrogen (in the form of nitrates) per year to coastal waters – about 10% of all nitrogen applied in the country.[viii] Globally, about four hundred coastal areas are now periodically or constantly oxygen-depleted as a result of fertilizer run-off, sewage discharge and the combustion of fossil fuels.[ix] The use of chemical fertilizers has also led to harmful levels of nitrates in some drinking water.[x]

Huge greenhouse gas emissions

Counting the emissions in the whole lifecycle, nitrogen fertilizers is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Emissions are caused by the use of fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, in the production of the fertilizers. There are emissions of carbon dioxide, laughing gas (nitrous oxide) and methane emitted in the production of fertilizers. Recent research in the US[xi] shows that methane leaks from fertilizer factories to a much larger extent than earlier estimated. There are emissions from the transportation and application of fertilizers and there are huge emissions of laughing gas from fields where artificial fertilizers are used; through denitrification, much nitrogen is lost as nitro­gen gas which in essence is harmless, but some is emitted as laughing gas, a potent greenhouse gas.[xii]

Despite this, there are no figure of the emissions from nitrogen fertilizers in the IPCC reports or national greenhouse gas inventories. The emissions are allocated to other categories and therefore they are invisible.  The emissions from the production is allocated to industrial processes, the emissions from transports to transport, the emissions from application is under agriculture and the huge emissions of laughing gas from agriculture land caused by chemical fertilizers are booked under emissions from agricultural soils. But the total emissions of global use of nitrogen fertilizers corresponds to 3% of all emissions, roughly equal to global aviation emissions.

Global emissions from nitrogen fertilizers
Global consumption of N in fertilizers according to FAO: 115 million ton.
For the production we can use 6 kg CO2e per kg of N, which was the European average ten years ago, most likely a bit lower than the current global average: 115*6 = 690 million ton. Note that these figures don’t include methane emissions, which according to the new US research might be substantial.
For the use phase: 115 million ton N * 1 % IPCC:s emission factor * 44/28 (this converts N to laughing gas) * 298 (IPCC factor for conversion of laughing gas to carbon dioxide equivalents): 115*1%*44/28*298 = 538 million ton for the emissions from agriculture soils caused by N-fertilizers.
Adding rough estimates for transportation and application we reach somewhere above 1,400 million tons in total.
Source: own calculations

Can we do without them?

It is often claimed that nitrogen fertilizers feed half of the world’s population. There should be no doubt about the importance of chemical fertilizers, but this figure is based on erroneous assumptions. If you just cut away fertilizers from the existing systems yields would certainly plummet, perhaps even by half, but such a scenario is not realistic. In the same way as farmers have adjusted their production to the availability of cheap fertilizers, they would make adjustments to deal with a situation without (or with less) nitrogen fertilizers. That is exactly what organic farmers do and their yields are rarely that low. 


Chemical fertilizers are not (yet) essential for feeding the world or for human survival, but they are essential for the global model of commercial agricultural production. They allow farmers – even whole regions or countries – to specialize in certain crops. They also allow farmers to skip crop rotations and focus on the commercially most interesting crops. Other areas develop industrial livestock operations, based on feed bought in from the specialized crop farm areas. Chemical fertilizers also enable cities to grow without giving any thought to recycling their waste. Buying fertilizers is also consistent with the ever increasing commerciali­zation of farming. Because of the changes in production, monocropping and linear flows, pests and weeds become more prevalent, which makes farmers dependent on herbicides and biocides. In this way chemical fertilizers are one of the major building blocks of the modern food system. And the abolition or drastic reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers is a pre-condition for a sustainable food system.

It is doable on the farm lever as demonstrated by millions of farmers in all agro-ecological zones of the world. In all likelihood it is also doable in the global level. In the report, The future of food and agriculture – Alternative pathways to 2050, FAO outlines a scenario they call “towards sustainability” in which chemical fertilizers are no longer used while global food production is sufficient.





[i]            Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[ii]           IAASTD 2009 Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

[iii]           Liebieg, J. von. 1865 Agrikulturchemie.

[iv]           European Science Foundation 2013 ‘Nitrogen in Europe, Current problems and future solutions’ part of The European Nitrogen Assessment www.nine-esf.org.

[v]           Ibid.

[vi]           Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[vii]          Ibid.

[viii]         USDA 2013 Fertilizer Use and Price www.ers.usda.gov.

[ix]           UNEP 2010 UNEP Year Book 2010: New science and developments in our changing environments United Nations Environment Programme.

[x]           Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[xi]           Zhou, X., Passow, F.H., Rudek, J., von Fisher, J.C., Hamburg, S.P. and Albertson, J.D., 2019. Estimation of methane emissions from the U.S. ammonia fertilizer industry using a mobile sensing approach. Elem Sci Anth, 7(1), p.19. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.358


[xii]          Ayres, R. U. (editor) 1998 Eco-Restucturing: Implications for sustainable development United Nations University Press.