MAY 19, 2023 12:09 PM PDT

The world's farms are getting bigger - and fewer

WRITTEN BY: Amelia Rhodeland

Agriculture is changing in today’s world, as farms experience a decline in number accompanying increasing farm size — a trend that started in the U.S. and Western Europe and is spreading to communities in other parts of the world.

Research published in Nature Sustainability examined the number and size of farms around the globe beginning in the 1960s and projecting through 2100. To do so, Zia Mehrabi, assistant professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder, looked at data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, GDP per capita, and the rural population size of 180+ countries.

He found that the trend toward farm consolidation will result in a major decline in the number of farms globally, going from 616 million in 2020 to a projected 272 million in 2100. This would cut the number of farms worldwide by more than half. The change is accompanied by an increase in average farm size, which is expected to double. 

"We see a turning point from widespread farm creation to widespread consolidation on a global level, and that's the future trajectory that humanity is currently on," said Mehrabi. He attributes much of the shift to changing economies: people in countries with growing economies are moving to urban areas, leaving fewer rural residents to farm.

The implications of this finding are vast for the planet’s biodiversity and for the stability of our global food system. Studies show that consolidation to a small number of food producers necessitates additional measures to ensure that sustainability and equitable food access are prioritized.

Smaller farms have historically produced more than their fair share: Mehrabi’s previous research has shown that the smallest farms harvest 30-34% of food supply despite occupying only 24% of the world’s agricultural land. Smaller farms also tend to have more crop diversity and more biodiversity, making them a more resilient source of food supply in the face of pests and climate disasters.

"If you're investing in today's food systems with around 600 million farms in the world, your portfolio is pretty diverse," Mehrabi said. "If there's damage to one farm, it's likely the impact to your portfolio will be averaged out with the success of another. But if you decrease the number of farms and increase their size, the effect of that shock on your portfolio is going to increase. You're carrying more risk."

One potential upside: consolidation in farm ownership could spell improved productivity and economic opportunity for people outside of the agricultural sector. That benefit has a hidden cost, though — as farmers are responsible for feeding more and more of the world’s inhabitants, the stress could negatively affect their mental health and well-being.

"Currently, we have around 600 million farms feeding the world, and they're carrying 8 billion people on their shoulders," Mehrabi said. "By the end of the century, we'll likely have half the number of farmers feeding even more people. We really need to think about how we can have the… systems in place to support those farmers." 


Sources: Nature Sustainability, ScienceDaily, Nature Food, Global Food Security

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Amelia (she/her) is a writer and editor specializing in earth and the environment at Labroots. She is passionate about helping people connect with nature. She has led outreach for federal land management agencies and previously conducted research at the University of Oregon's Institute for a Sustainable Environment.
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