The Invisible Third


A third of humanity has been largely invisible for the past half century because they have been deemed by many to be at best irrelevant or at worst a threat to global progress.

Meet the smallholder farmers of the world. They cultivate two hectares or less, which translates to roughly five acres. Most of the labor that operates these farms comes from a single immediate family: wife, husband, kids, and often grandparents. The United Nations estimates that 500 million smallholder farms currently exist throughout the developing world. And, while there are small farms in the U.S., Canada, and other industrialized nations, the term smallholder is generally reserved for farmers in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America.

When you add up the number of people who live and work on smallholder farms, the total comes to some 2.5 billion. Given a world population of 7.6 billion, smallholders represent one third of humanity… or more than seven times the population of the United States.

Given their numbers, why do we not know more about smallholders? Why are they not seen as an important voice in addressing global climate change? How is it that smallholders are little more than a footnote when talking about food security on the world stage? The answers to these questions start in policies that emerged more than sixty years ago.

During the late 1950s and early ‘60s, global political consensus posited that worldwide food production was not expanding fast enough to keep pace with population growth. Scientists and planners warned that we would face widespread famine by the 1990s unless countries took action. The international community responded with near unanimity by investing in a massive and coordinated effort to industrialize global agriculture.

These efforts applied massive resources to the research and development of new technologies focused on growing monoculture hybrid crops on large tracts of land. These industrialized farms required mechanization alongside chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to produce higher and higher yields. Most of this industrialization focused on developed countries in the global north; in the global south’s developing economies, the same process was called the “Green Revolution.”

The plan to boost food production worked. Global agricultural outputs skyrocketed by the late 1960s, and the famines that have followed more often result from political, rather than production, limitations.

Unfortunately, the environmental cost of industrial scale agriculture has been enormous. The industrialized agriculture approach remains a major factor in driving climate change, reduction of biodiversity, and economic inequalities.

In front of the same 1950s and 1960s backdrop, the post-Marshall Plan version of “development assistance” from the rich, developed world began playing out across the globe. Countries of the north, including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, began funding development projects in the global south, heaping substantial funds upon poorer countries in Africa, Asia, and South America to build bridges, roads, and schools.

This development spending was not pure, unadulterated philanthropy; it came with a significant catch. Military and commercial interests often backed development aid largess. Less well known were provisions that stood to upend the historical dynamics of global agriculture. Countries providing development funds often conditioned this support on recipient countries ceasing their support of domestic agriculture, except for industrialized farms geared towards exports.

The US, Canada, UK, and other developed countries encouraged aid recipients to become net importers of food. In particular, they encouraged these developing economies to import the cereal grains that were now being grown in vast, industrial-scale quantities on farms throughout the global north.

We can zoom in on a country like Haiti to understand the consequences of this policy. Up until the mid 1980s, Haitians were self-sufficient in growing their own food. Now, Haiti imports more than half of all its food. While each country has a slightly different scenario, the net result of a half century of enforcing policies to avoid supporting smallholder domestic agriculture has resulted in many developing nations now being dependent on food imports.

Alongside these local tragedies that contribute to hunger, food scarcity, and lack of national food security for developing countries, consumers in the developing world have also experienced negative consequences of industrialized agriculture and diminished smallholder stability. More than 75% of what the world now eats is based on just 12 plants and five animal species, and consumers in rich economies now experience diet-related diseases at incidence rates 20 times of the 1950s and 1960s.

Smallholders have long been seen as outright obstacles to progress. They have been denied agricultural training and cut off from research that could improve small-scale farming. They have been given very limited access to credit services or the kind of support that the state, financial institutions, and research centers provide to industrial agriculture. They are excluded from trade agreements and are never at the table for discussions on tariffs or embargoes. The list goes on.

This is how the world pulled the curtain of invisibility over one third of its population.

And yet, despite these hurdles, smallholders did not go away. There are 189 million smallholder farms currently in China, 98 million in India, 18 million in Russia, 33 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 3 million in Brazil. Haiti has one million smallholder farms, even in a small country with a total population of 11 million people. Smallholder farms across the world total at least 500 million. With so much pressure to just give up and go away, how is it that these smallholders are still among us?

A growing school of thought proposes that, among other factors, small-scale family farming is central to the human condition. Smallholders have a direct connection with the earth, and growing food is inseparable from who we are as a human species.

At the recent United Nations summit on climate change in Glasgow, known as COP26, we heard almost no mention of smallholder farmers. We have to change the discourse around smallholders now, if for no other reason that global solutions to climate change will never happen if one third of humanity is left on the sidelines.

Given their sheer numbers, their communities, their decades of persistence, and the fact that they are not going away, should we not reframe the question? Why do we not think of smallholders as the largest underperforming segment of the global economy and a massive potential force for positive change? What if they were supported to take a key role in achieving food security, combating climate change, and reaching gender equality?

This reference to gender may require explanation. Much of what happened to keep smallholders down for so many decades was external and beyond their control. But one thing that is part of the culture of nearly every country in the world, to varying degrees, is the failure to accept and implement gender equality.

It took no outside influence for smallholder farmers to reflect the larger cultures around them and systematically withhold from women farmers virtually every kind of support that male farmers take for granted as part of their divinely ordained status quo. If this is indeed the time to rebuild the worldwide smallholder farming community to be a global force for good, let’s incorporate another key concept: no initiative, no community, no civilization, and no global undertaking will ever reach its full potential unless and until women achieve full, unfettered, and unquestioned equality with men. Why would anyone even think up a plan to improve the human condition and handicap it from the start by not building in the emancipation of women at its core?

Around the world, projects are emerging that give smallholders the support they need to begin to live up to their full potential, economic and otherwise. For example, in Haiti, my work has focused around the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA), where I’m a co-founder and president. SFA is based on a new agroforestry model where smallholders receive credits for planting trees, and these credits can be exchanged for seeds, tools, training, and other agricultural services. SFA’s program has resulted in over eight million trees planted to date. We’ve also seen crop yields go up an average of 40% and household income rise by 50% to 100% depending on the area. Women and men may have separate roles when farming together, but they are equal members of SFA, which represents a gender equality milestone for Haiti. Alongside this, a robust microcredit service has been made available exclusively to women farmers. The SFA has 6,000 current members in seven locations around Haiti and is in the midst of a major expansion. We offer this as both a beacon of hope for what can be achieved in Haiti and an example of best practices that the rest of the world may want to consider.

Smallholder farmers aren’t going away. We should be deeply thankful that they persevere, because they stand positioned to help us fix problems of climate change, biodiversity, food security, community resilience, and diet-related health. With a third of the world’s population leading the way, the rest of the world will find it hard to lose.