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Agriculture has always been a risky business. Today, the impact of climate change and the associated increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events has made agriculture riskier than ever. At the same time, demand for food is rising annually from a human population that is growing and expected to surpass 9bn by 2050. Clearly, it is necessary to have food systems that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable if we are to feed a growing world population at a time when the earth’s ecosystems are becoming more stressed.

Smallholder farmers can play a crucial role in establishing these sustainable food systems. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s agricultural holdings are 10 ha or less. Almost all of these small farms are in developing countries, where they support around 2bn people. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, an estimated 80% of farmland is cultivated by smallholders.

There is a common misconception that small farms are synonymous with poor farms. This is simply not true. Small farms predominate in rich countries such as Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland. Countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have witnessed great gains in development, spurred by smallholder agriculture. Moreover, farming production systems have few economies of scale. In fact, small farms are often more productive, per hectare, than large farms when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable, and small farms provide more employment per hectare than larger industrial farms.

Farming at any scale is a business. When small farms are successful, the extra cash generated can help transform moribund rural areas into vibrant, rural economies. When rural economies are strong, they result in higher demand for locally produced goods and services. This, in turn, leads to growth and higher employment in non-farm businesses such as services, agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing.Women selling eggs at the market

The benefits of successful small farms reach far beyond rural areas themselves. Cities need rural areas to grow their food and help maintain clean water and air. Conversely, strong rural economies can provide decent employment for a population that would otherwise need to migrate to urban areas in search of work. The net result is a dynamic flow of goods, services and money between rural and urban areas so that nations can have balanced and sustained growth.