The future of farming: Who will produce our food?

Ken E. Giller*, Thomas Delaune, João Vasco Silva, Katrien Descheemaeker, Gerrie van de Ven, Antonius G.T. Schut, Mark van Wijk, James Hammond, Zvi Hochman, Godfrey Taulya, Regis Chikowo, Sudha Narayanan, Avinash Kishore, Fabrizio Bresciani, Heitor Mancini Teixeira, Jens A. Andersson, Martin K. van Ittersum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

140 Citations (Scopus)


Achieving SDG2 (zero hunger) in a situation of rapid global population growth requires a continued focus on food production. Farming not merely needs to sustainably produce nutritious diets, but should also provide livelihoods for farmers, while retaining natural ecosystems and services. Rather than focusing on production principles, this article explores the interrelations between farms and farming systems in the global food system. Evaluating farming systems around the world, we reveal a bewildering diversity. While family farms predominate, these range in size from less than 0.1 ha to more than 10,000 ha, and from hand hoe use to machine-based cultivation, enabling one person to plant more than 500 ha in a day. Yet, farming in different parts of the world is highly interdependent, not least because prices paid for farm produce are largely determined by global markets. Furthermore, the economic viability of farming is a problem, globally. We highlight trends in major regions of the world and explore possible trajectories for the future and ask: Who are the farmers of the future? Changing patterns of land ownership, rental and exchange mean that the concept of ‘what is a farm’ becomes increasingly fluid. Next to declining employment and rural depopulation, we also foresee more environmentally-friendly, less external input dependent, regionalised production systems. This may require the reversal of a global trend towards increasing specialisation to a recoupling of arable and livestock farming, not least for the resilience it provides. It might also require a slow-down or reversal of the widespread trend of scale enlargement in agriculture. Next to this trend of scale enlargement, small farms persist in Asia: consolidation of farms proceeds at a snail’s pace in South-east Asia and 70% of farms in India are ‘ultra-small’ – less than 0.05 ha. Also in Africa, where we find smallholder farms are much smaller than often assumed (< 1 ha), farming households are often food insecure. A raft of pro-poor policies and investments are needed to stimulate small-scale agriculture as part of a broader focus on rural development to address persistent poverty and hunger. Smallholder farms will remain an important source of food and income, and a social safety net in absence of alternative livelihood security. But with limited possibilities for smallholders to ‘step-up’, the agricultural engine of growth appears to be broken. Smallholder agriculture cannot deliver the rate of economic growth currently assumed by many policy initiatives in Africa.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1073-1099
JournalFood Security
Issue number5
Early online date3 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Food security
  • Population growth
  • Smallholder farms
  • Sustainable intensification
  • Yield gaps


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