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Small farms, small food businesses and sustainable food security

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Placing small farms under the microscope

The SALSA project has closed a long-standing gap in research by looking into the status of small farms in different regions of both Europe and Africa. Its findings should help these farms live up to their true potential.

Food and Natural Resources icon Food and Natural Resources

Thirty reference regions, 25 of them in Europe and five in Africa. That’s how thorough the SALSA (Small farms, small food businesses and sustainable food security) project’s 4-year investigation of small farms has been. Since 2016, the project consortium has been interviewing small farm owners, mapping entire areas and identifying the characteristics of food systems with a focus on specific products. All this with one question in mind: What is the contribution of small farms to sustainable food and nutrition security across a wide range of food systems? This question had been pending for a long time, as assumptions used to prevail over actual data. “The knowledge gap before SALSA was enormous. We didn’t know how many small farms there were, what and how much they produced, where the produce went, who benefited, or even which small farms needed to keep existing,” says Teresa Pinto Correia, SALSA coordinator and professor at the Mediterranean Institute for Agriculture, Environment and Development (MED), University of Évora in Portugal. To fill these knowledge gaps, the project team tested three hypotheses: the first, whether small farms are a relevant source of sustainable food production; second, whether small farms are providing food and income for themselves and not solely for commercial purposes; and finally, whether small farms are increasing the overall food system’s diversity and thereby contributing to the latter’s resilience.

A mapping of small farms

“We proceeded with our investigation by focusing on the regional level where many different types of farms coexist,” Pinto Correia explains. “We asked ourselves what was going on in this or that territory and combined social and hard science approaches to come up with precise estimations of the distribution and production of small farms. We also brought a detailed understanding of the food system as well as the role and conditions of small farms.” SALSA categorises small farms in five subtypes: ‘part-time provisioners’ which produce more for self-provisioning than for the market (11 % of the sample); ‘conventional strugglers’ which inherited farms, have low income and depend largely on the farm for household food consumption (32 % of the sample); ‘conventional entrepreneurs’ which organise themselves into mainstream cooperatives for market integration (26 % of the sample); ‘business specialised’ which have the highest income through specialised production with high added value (23 % of the sample); and ‘business diversified’ which are wealthy, new to farming, strongly entrepreneurial and have a diversified production and portfolio of buyers. The contribution of small farms to the food system was also investigated. “We analysed 109 regional food systems for single key products and found that small farms contribute to the regional food system partially with food that never reaches the formal market. Then, from the food market perspective, small farms contribute to the availability of food in each region in two ways: a contribution to regional availability – namely, for households and communities – and increased diversity of food types and sources resulting in higher resilience,” notes Pinto Correia. One doubt the project clears up relates to whether or not small farms really matter in the grander scheme of agriculture. And they do, as Pinto Correia points out. “We estimate that small farms could potentially cover 100 % of the regional demand and generate surplus in 44 % of the 109 regional product food systems analysed, especially in Africa (71 %), southern Europe (46 %) and eastern Europe (36 %). In northern Europe, small farms could cover up to 20 % of the regional demand in 80 % of the food systems analysed. This lower figure could be explained by the lower number of small farms studied in such regions.” Building on their findings, the project team has provided a set of policy recommendations whose dissemination will continue over the next few months. They identified relevant governance arrangements to get there, as well as future pathways for stakeholders. These should help small farms thrive, evolve and eventually live up to their enormous potential.


SALSA, small farms, Europe, Africa, potential, food systems, resilience

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