Gordon Conway presented at the international Conference on “New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture” on 24-25 January 2011 in Rome, Italy to discuss the future of some 500 million smallholders.

Here is an extract from the speech given by Gordon Conway at the conference:

On Being a Smallholder

Being a smallholder is a relevant term. Having less than two hectares (ha) is usually regarded as a smallholding in a developing country. 80 percent of all African farms (33 million farms) fall in this category. But in many parts of Latin America a small, predominantly subsistence farm is ten ha. Bangladeshis would regard this as a large commercial farm. Clearly ‘smallness’ is a generic term depending on the resources of the holding, not only the land but the labour, skills, finances and technology available.  Irrigated rice farmers can produce high yields with two to three crops a year, consuming and selling their harvest even though the farm may be much less than two ha in size. In all continents, farms of less than one ha and with few resources are usually unable to produce a surplus for sale and cannot provide enough work or substance for the family. Such ‘marginal’ farms in India comprise 62 percent of all holdings, and occupy 17 percent of the farmed land. As Prabhu Pingali reminds us, however, the Chinese agricultural revolution was brought about by very small smallholders, with only a mu of land, just 1/15th of a hectare.

Very approximately there are 400 to 500 million small farms, i.e. under two ha, in the world. This implies that some two billion people are dependent on smallholding for their livelihoods – a third of the world’s population. The great majority of smallholdings, nearly 90 percent are in Asia.

In effect there is a virtuous circle that hinges on agricultural development and, in much of the world, smallholders sit at the centre of this circle:

As agriculture develops – greater yields and production of subsistence and cash crops – smallholders become more prosperous and the landless also benefit through wage labour. Chronic hunger decreases. The rural economy also grows – through the creation of small rural businesses – providing more employment and improved rural facilities, especially schools and health clinics. Roads and markets develop so that the rural economy connects to the urban economy and to the growing industrial sector. Free trade provides opportunities for greater imports and exports. In particular high value agricultural exports can accelerate agricultural development, further intensifying the virtuous circle.

Continue reading the full speech

Further Information

Read about the conference on the IFAD website