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Why farm and field size matters: Exploring their role for food security and sustainable agriculture in South America

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FFSize (Why farm and field size matters: Exploring their role for food security and sustainable agriculture in South America)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The overall research goal of this action was to advance knowledge about size-related characteristics of agriculture in non-Andean South America to inform future land-use decisions and to foster the implementation of targeted policies to support smallholders’ livelihoods. As global agricultural systems fail to meet food security objectives, are a major cause of global environmental degradation, and are currently undergoing a rapid scale transition, a shift towards more sustainable agricultural systems is mandatory for safeguarding food security, particularly for small-scale farmers. Therefore, a sound understanding of the operational realities of farms and fields with respect to size, productivity, location factors, and socio-economic and environmental impacts is needed to develop targeted actions and policies, but is currently lacking especially for large spatial scales.

This action aims to address this knowledge gap by linking farm and field size patterns to each other, identifying their key location factors, and assessing their relationship to agricultural intensity indicators as well as socio-environmental outcomes. Ultimately, this action aims to address the food security-sustainability nexus by mapping global food system challenges. This action has four inter-related objectives. First, novel data sets on farm and field size are overlaid to quantify and map their relationship. Statistical models are used to identify the most important location factors (e.g. accessibility, slope, climatic and soil conditions) that explain their spatial patterns. Second, size-related differences in agricultural land-use intensity of farms and fields are assessed based on input (e.g. fertilizer), output (e.g. production), and system metrics (e.g. yield gaps). Third, size-related environmental and socio-economic impacts of farms and fields are evaluated by linking them to indicators such as landscape diversity, biodiversity intactness, or greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, global food system challenges are mapped to indicate disadvantaged regions where food systems entail negative social and environmental consequences.
This action has strong implications for societies and major policy relevance, as it contributes to current discussions on land reform, large-scale land acquisitions, and smallholder vulnerability to food security and climate change. It provides clear links to the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 strategy, CAP reform, and Farm to Fork Strategy.
"This action created a geodatabase of field size patterns and dynamics for the entire study region (target years: 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2014), combined it with parcel data for Brazil around 2015 by intersecting fields with parcel boundaries, and estimated the correlation and the functional form between both size estimates. Further, it mapped clusters of large/small parcel and field sizes, as well as spatial outliers (i.e. large parcels near small fields; and vice versa) using bivariate Local Indicators of Spatial Association. Parcel/field size data was merged with a set of location factors (soil quality, topography, climate, population, accessibility, landscape diversity) on municipality level. The most important location factors explaining parcel/field size patterns were identified using Boosted Regression Trees, which was population density for parcel size, and slope for field size. The action confirmed the hypothesis that the parcel-field size relationship is strongest for small parcels and weakens as parcel size increases. It further confirmed that smaller parcels and fields are mainly located in marginal areas with inferior agro-climatic conditions, accessibility, and economic activity.

This action generated a geodatabase of 10 environmental impact indicators (CO2, NH4, and N2O emissions from agriculture, vegetation loss, NPP loss due to land-use change, biodiversity loss, water use for irrigation, N&P excess, soil erosion, and agrochemical application), malnutrition (wasting and overweight), and income poverty. Using a threshold of two standard deviations for environmental indicators, prevalence values of 20% for malnutrition indicators, and the International Poverty Line threshold of 5.5 US$ (PPP 2011) per capita per day for income poverty, it mapped hotspots of food system challenges. It further assessed the spatial co-occurrence of such hotspots and farm size, as well as place-based impacts of hotspots on agricultural area [ha], number of people [#], and nutritional value of agricultural production [Pcal]. About 71% of global agricultural areas were affected by at least one hotspot, about 5% by hotspots of all three dimensions, which were located mainly in East Africa and South-East Asia. Regions where smallholders (< 2ha) dominate carried the burden of multiple food system challenges, dominantly by a co-occurrence of environmental impact and malnutrition hotspots. With increasing farm size, environmental impacts became more important and were the dominant food system challenges in regions characterised by large to very large farms. In these regions, environmental impacts hotspots were related to calories produced form livestock."
This highly interdisciplinary and collaborative action breaks new ground by linking place-based analyses of agricultural units with sustainability indicators and food security targets at large geographic extents to identify potential win-win outcomes. It pioneered in using large scale, empirical data to investigate size related characteristics of management intensity, socio-economic and environmental outcomes of agricultural systems in South America. It progresses beyond the state of the art by providing empirical evidence about farm/field size relationship, and which location factors explain their spatial patterns; knowledge, which is currently lacking or only available at case-study level. It also allows testing the often-cited inverse productivity relationship and the “small is beautiful” assumption related to small(er) farms. This action sheds light on archetypical patterns of management intensity, providing a key entry point for spatially and thematically targeted policies. Lastly, it pioneers in mapping food system challenge hotspots by combining an comprehensive global data set on environmental impact indicators with malnutrition and income poverty indicators at unprecedented spatial resolution.

Due to the premature project end, not all expected results will be achieved. However, the main outcomes of this action will have substantial implications for science, policy-making, and the general public. The quantification of the functional relationship between farm and field size provides a means to derive farm/parcel size estimates, which are usually difficult to acquire, from field size data, which becomes increasingly available due to progress in satellite imagery interpretation. By majorly confirming that smaller farms/parcel and fields are located in more marginal regions, this action provides quantitative evidence for targeted smallholder support to address their vulnerability to food insecurity, which is high on the policy agenda. More generally, this action offers transfer potential to other world regions, particularly the European Union, given sufficient data availability. Assessing the role of farm and field size for sustainable agriculture in the European Union nicely dovetails to the ongoing CAP reformation and the European Green Deal.
Small-scale agroforestry system in Aguas Mornas, Santa Catarina, Brazil (copyright by Evan Bowness)