any farm owned or managed by a family, is the most predominant form of agriculture around the globe. There are 500 million family farms in the world and they are as diverse as they are numerous¹. Family famers range from smallholders and medium scale farmers, to peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, pastoralists and many other groups.
While family farming differs greatly in different regions – for instance in Europe 60% of the largest family farms are 100 plus hectares compared to very modest land holdings in developing regions – family farms may be part of the solution towards sustainable development². Not only is family farming providing jobs and food in the world’s most food insecure areas such as Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Near East, but they provide a useful model for how agriculture can help redress environmental degradation.
Today, approximately 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture whereas we are depleting our soil up to 40 times faster than its nutrients can be replenished. Agriculture is undeniably putting a strain on our environmental resources and contributes to climate change³. But at the same time millions of family farmers are using agro-ecological approaches to redress those impacts while supporting local communities. Different practices such as agroforestry, inter-cropping, cover crops and green manure, solar drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and utilizing orphan and indigenous crops can all help towards a more sustainable agricultural sector.
Cultivating a variety of species and more particularly indigenous crops not only provides a variety of options for the consumer, but most importantly for farmers, it supports soil health and thereby minimises the need for use of fertilisers, and increases yields⁴. Similarly, inter-cropping, in other words the technique of planting different crops in proximity, can help produce a greater yield by making use of resources that would otherwise not be utilized by a single crop. Given the variety of crops, biodiversity is also enhanced making it more difficult for pests to develop.
In addition, smallholder farmers are more inclined to use technologies that conserve resources. For instance, drip irrigation methods used in Benin can save 30-60% more water than conventional methods. Drip irrigation allows the water to drip slowly to the roots of different plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone, through a network of valves, pipes and tubing.
Organic practices implemented at a family farm scale can also help mitigate agriculture’s impacts. Not only has the use of organic fertilizers been proven to be effective in combatting soil degradation, but it is estimated that if 10,000 small- and medium-sized farms converted to organic, sustainable production, the environmental benefits in terms of carbon sequestration would be equal to taking over one million cars off the road⁵.
Family farming though is not only good for the environment. Family farmers are a core part of their local communities and local cultures. They are also much more likely to spend their income in local and regional markets, contributing to the local economy.
Successful family farms should therefore be a model that is emulated around the globe. Innovation and more particularly, developments in mobile phone technology can play a great role in breaking down barriers for smallholder family farmers in accessing markets. This is something family farms have traditionally struggled with but by making technologies available to them as well as with greater investment in helping family farmers access finance and training, more family farmers will be able to flourish. This will create a positive impact in social, economic and environmental terms in both developing and developed regions around the world.