Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production

Leah H Story, James S Gerber, Navin Ramankutty, Mario Herrero, Paul C. West

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260 Scopus citations


Smallholder farming is the most prevalent form of agriculture in the world, supports many of the planet's most vulnerable populations, and coexists with some of its most diverse and threatened landscapes. However, there is little information about the location of small farms, making it difficult both to estimate their numbers and to implement effective agricultural, development, and land use policies. Here, we present a map of mean agricultural area, classified by the amount of land per farming household, at subnational resolutions across three key global regions using a novel integration of household microdata and agricultural landscape data. This approach provides a subnational estimate of the number, average size, and contribution of farms across much of the developing world. By our estimates, 918 subnational units in 83 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia average less than five hectares of agricultural land per farming household. These smallholder-dominated systems are home to more than 380 million farming households, make up roughly 30% of the agricultural land and produce more than 70% of the food calories produced in these regions, and are responsible for more than half of the food calories produced globally, as well as more than half of global production of several major food crops. Smallholder systems in these three regions direct a greater percentage of calories produced toward direct human consumption, with 70% of calories produced in these units consumed as food, compared to 55% globally. Our approach provides the ability to disaggregate farming populations from non-farming populations, providing a more accurate picture of farming households on the landscape than has previously been available. These data meet a critical need, as improved understanding of the prevalence and distribution of smallholder farming is essential for effective policy development for food security, poverty reduction, and conservation agendas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number124010
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
StatePublished - Nov 30 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • agriculture
  • food security
  • land use
  • smallholders


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