Owing to its predominance and advantages, family farming can have a significant role to play in feeding the world, eradicating poverty, ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystem services and preserving local cultural heritage. Family farming can be a viable form of agriculture, provided that certain conditions are present. The choices we make today could very well determine its future and the future of rural development.
Family farming in low-income economies is often an occupation of last resort, but under the right conditions, could become a country’s backbone of both rural development and national economic growth.
Family farming is one of the most predominant forms of agriculture worldwide, in both developing and developed countries. The sector comprises a wide spectrum of farm sizes and types, ranging from very large land holdings in highincome economies that are easily cultivated by one or two family members with the use of labour-saving machinery and hired labour, to the small holdings of a few hectares or less in low-income economies, often oriented towards subsistence with low marketable surplus.
These small family farms, run by small producers, are, by far, the most numerous: globally, there are approximately 500 million small family farms (280 million of which are in China and India alone) (IFPRI, 2007). Thus, although family farmers and small producers are not identical groups, they share a large common space and hence face a series of similar issues.
Despite its prevalence, however, the central role that family farming plays in food security is not often being discussed. Family farming is being defined here as a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on non-wage family labour, including both women’s and men’s. Indeed, family farmers produce most of the food consumed in developing countries, and use over 80% of the land in Asia and Africa.
While it is not the premise of this article to advocate for family farming as an alternative to commercial farming, or to shy away from acknowledging its links with poverty, it should be said that family farming can be a viable form of agriculture, provided that certain conditions are present. However, it does not take too much to realize that these conditions are in fact generally lacking, and this has triggered an important debate on the future of family farming, which will culminate in the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) 2014, an initiative coordinated by the World Rural Forum (WRF) with the support of more than 350 organizations from 60 countries across five continents, in collaboration with the government of the Philippines, facilitated by the FAO and endorsed by the UN General Assembly.
Even though family farming may not appear as neat and scientific as commercial farming, there are significant gains to be made by supporting family farming more effectively. One of the main reasons is that as the family and the farm are linked and co-evolve, they combine not only economic functions, but a range of other ‘hidden’ functions, including environmental, reproductive, social and cultural functions, often in lieu of state institutions or the private sector. In performing all these functions, family farming is also often a means of maintaining family patrimony, cultural heritage, territories, landscapes, and communities. As a result, the motivations of family farmers often go far beyond profit maximization, to encompass other social, cultural and ecological motives.
It is therefore no coincidence that family farming is such a predominant form of agriculture. The multiple motivations that confront family workers, in contrast to hired workers, and especially the strong incentive to work for the sake of their own families’ well-being, greatly reduce the supervision costs associated with agricultural labour.
Moreover, because family farmers often have intergenerational bonds with the holdings they work, their production also frequently provides continued ecosystem services and care for the natural resource base. Because of this, family farming is particularly well suited to holdings characterized by a highly diverse set of economic activities and mosaic type landscapes, in which the supervision and knowledge required for numerous small and on-the-spot production management decisions is most efficiently and cost effectively devolved to family workers.
In this respect, it would not be a stretch to posit that there is a correlation between the supervisory advantage of family farming, and the way the land looks: whereas family workers, in the absence of widespread mechanization, are suitable to mosaic type landscapes, the supervisory costs associated with hired labour would generally only be amortized with work on monoculture holdings. In essence, a family worker is better positioned to make semi-autonomous decisions on different micro niches of the farm in ways that reflect the best interests of the farm family and the environmental resources at hand.
The incentive of eventual indirect gain that each family member enjoys is thus quite different to that of hired labourers, who rather respond mostly to wages for specific predefined tasks – a situation which does not fit well with landscape complexity. Supporting family farming would therefore also be giving preference to a specific type of landscape and set of traditions that are more conducive to biodiversity preservation, ecosystem balance, and good environmental stewardship.
Once again, this is not an ‘either / or’ case between family farming and large-scale commercial farming. However, even though it is clear that family farming has considerable advantages over largescale commercial farming, it comprises a form of agriculture that is poorly documented and largely forgotten in relevant discussions, either in international fora or at the national level between agricultural, poverty reduction, and social affairs institutions. This is precisely what the International Year of Family Farming seeks to redress.
The major aim of the IYFF will be to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing the world’s attention on their key role in alleviating hunger and poverty, providing food and nutrition security, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and leading towards more sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.
This is undoubtedly a positive development. Yet the rosy picture painted so far of family farming must be tempered with some limitations. Firstly, even though the lower supervision costs make family farming relatively productive in developing countries, the number of economically active family members often limits the scale of production that is possible, unless families have access to mechanization or are organized into producer organizations and cooperatives.
Moreover, it is frequently the case that family farms operate in highly fragmented land, divided into several parcels, which further reduces the opportunities for economies of scale. Family farmers are also often poor because they have limited bargaining power and capacity to defend their interests in markets, and their response to market incentives is often constrained by the limited market and technical opportunities available to them. Because family farms combine production and consumption objectives, the relatively high proportion of basic consumption within the budget of poor families can also constrain their responsiveness to markets incentives.
Furthermore, family farming relies upon family members with different labour power, skills, capacities, opportunities and constraints, which vary in part depending upon gender and age. These characteristics influence intra-household relations, which in turn influence the distribution of resources, roles and responsibilities. Put simply, the intra-household distribution of resources and responsibilities in family farms is often not equitable, especially with regard to women and children.
In addition, about 60% of child labour globally occurs in the agricultural sector, most of it in family based and small scale production. These are unfortunate realities that the family farming model has to reckon with and tackle if it is to enhance its contribution to social and gender equality, intergenerational well-being, and human welfare.
Beyond these shortcomings, there are a range of thorny questions that need to be addressed. For instance, would greater support to family farming by agricultural institutions come back as a boomerang in the form of even more child labour, gender disparity, and environmental degradation? Rural survival is about much more than food security: it requires access to energy, infrastructure, public services, and there are key functions in the household that also need to continue to happen. But if the ‘farming’ in family farming is intensified, there is always a risk that the ‘family’ might be accordingly diminished.
So for example, how do we ensure that, if food becomes more expensive, children are not made to work more in order to make ends meet on the family farm? Also, if women increase their engagement in agriculture, perhaps as hired labourers, how do we ensure that young children are not taken with them to the field for lack of alternative options, or that rural girls are not taken out of school in order to assume the responsibilities left over in the household? Finally, if more land consolidation projects are implemented to amalgamate fragmented parcels, how do we ensure that the ecological benefits of mosaic landscapes are not sacrificed in the name of efficiency and competitiveness? These are among the issues that the Year of Family Farming seeks to find solutions to in order to enhance the contributions of family farming to sustainable development.
At the moment, the future of family farming over the long run is uncertain, however the choices we make today could very well determine its future and the future of rural development more generally. What is certain is that due to its predominance and advantages, family farming can have a significant role to play in feeding the world, eradicating poverty, ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystem services and preserving local cultural heritage.
Family farming in low-income economies is often an occupation of last resort, but under the right conditions, could become a country’s backbone of both rural development and national economic growth. Hopefully, the International Year will support family farmers by working with all stakeholders, women, men, young and old, to identify new and better ways to enable them to enhance their prosperity, sustainability and freedom to achieve their own aspirations for a better future.
Eve Crowley is Deputy Director for the Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is Focal Point for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and is an anthropologist specialised in rural farming systems and sustainable rural development.