Are Small-Scale Farms the Key to Feeding the World?

In the United States, agricultural production has been shifting to larger farms for many years. The demand for cheaper food and lower production costs has turned fertile fields and small operations into industrial plots and factory farms.

Today, these large-scale operations account for most of U.S. food production. However, due to high soil erosion rates and a loss of biodiversity, industrialised farming doesn’t offer a long-term solution to the world’s food crisis. If anything, it reduces food security and dooms future generations to barren, un-farmable land.

It seems the U.S. has much to learn from countries like China and Africa, where small-scale farmers produce a vast majority of food. Here, family-run operations and rural farms thrive, and sustainable solutions are readily adopted, many of which would greatly benefit the Americas.



Organic Food

The most obvious alternative to industrial farming is organic farming. Organic farms tend to take up less land and produce almost the same amount of food as conventional small-scale farms. Certified organic cropland has increased nearly every year since 2002, and organic sales in every food category have also multiplied in recent years. In 2016, fruits, vegetables and milk accounted for 55% of total growth, despite many of them costing two to three times more than conventional products.

As more small-scale organic farms appear, the price of their livestock and agricultural products will likely decrease. Meanwhile, consumers will continue to become more aware of how their food choices impact the environment. When considering the negative impacts of industrial farming, they’ll come to discover that organic agriculture is cheaper for society and healthier for the planet. Their support will likely hasten the widespread adoption of this more sustainable farming method.



Crop Diversity and Asynchrony

Most large-scale farms are monocultural operations. They grow one crop year-round, and their fields are void of any diversity. This system produces a greater volume of fewer crops that are higher in calories but lacking in micronutrients. Therefore, crop diversity may offer a viable solution. By planting a wide variety of plants and maintaining genetic diversity among livestock, small-scale farmers can produce crops higher in micronutrients, which may allow the world to thrive on less food.

Asynchrony is another critical factor in stabilising food production. Greater asynchrony results from planting different crops using various sowing and harvesting times. Most small farms already use this technique by using mixed crops and following the vegetation-climate rhythm — or growing seasonal products. Doing so ensures there’s always food — and a greater diversity to choose from. Currently, India, Mexico and China are among the countries with the highest asynchrony and crop stability.




Permaculture Garden
Image by Lukas (Pexels)

Small-scale farms are also adopting permaculture food systems, which is becoming part of the solution to feeding an ever-growing world with diminishing resources. This form of agriculture relies on energetic farming systems to create self-sustaining operations. For instance, instead of rotating crops to prevent soil erosion, farmers grow a mix of two or three at the same time. This system enables a higher yield of all crops sharing the land and promotes healthier soil.

Permaculture has also encouraged many individuals to start their own gardens. Here, people can plant a wide variety of crops and feed themselves. These intricate polycultures, which would be impossible on a large-scale farm, are much more feasible and sustainable than industrialised farming. As food prices continue to rise, more people will likely begin to grow their own, therein destigmatising permaculture and small-scale agriculture.



A Piece of the Puzzle

As promising as small-scale farms sound, they aren’t the key to feeding the world. Instead, they are a single piece in the puzzle to solve hunger and the agricultural crisis. The other two parts are minimising waste and diverting food surpluses to impoverished communities.

However, these solutions won’t feed the world by themselves. To effectively solve world hunger and ensure a sustainable future, they must work together. For all three to coincide, world governments and consumers must stop siphoning money to large-scale farming operations and invest in small farms instead. Only then will these plots of land feed the world and its growing population.