National Geographic News
An aerial photo of a tractor harvesting wheat.

This aerial view shows combines harvesting a wheat field in Kansas. Agribusinesses use fertilizers and pesticides to yield bumper crops of single grains like corn and wheat.


Andrea Stone

for National Geographic

Published May 2, 2014

This story is part of National Geographic's special eight-month Future of Food series. To learn more about it, join our Food: A Forum live-streaming event on May 2 at 2 p.m. EST.

The challenge is huge but the solution may be small—very small.

Faced with global warming and a population that will swell to nine billion by 2050, a growing number of experts say that the way to feed the masses as climate change makes growing our food more difficult is to focus on family farmers, who often can barely feed themselves.

When policymakers in the developed world talk about feeding billions of extra mouths in the decades to come, it's multinational agribusinesses—which operate industrial-size farms—that usually get most of the attention.

But in the long run, it's small-scale farmers in the developing world, using low-tech but sustainable agricultural techniques, who may be best poised to lead the way in adapting to a warmer world and ensuring the security of the global food supply.

There are more than 500 million family farmers who produce at least 56 percent of the world's food. Most are subsistence farmers, scratching out barely enough to feed their own families, with little or nothing left over to take to market.

A photo of a robbed grave.
A grandfather holds his granddaughter in a field on their family farm in San Prospero, Italy.

A report on family farms released in March by the sustainable agriculture group Food Tank credits these small-scale farmers with contributing to global food security—that is, having sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis—through the use of more sustainable agricultural practices.

For instance, while agribusinesses use fertilizers and pesticides to yield bumper crops of single grains like corn and wheat, smallholder farmers are growing indigenous plants that help protect increasingly stressed natural resources (like water) and that improve the density of nutrients in crops.

That helps explain why the Food Tank report, which crunched data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other sources, concluded that smallholder farms "are not only feeding the world, but also nourishing the planet."

The United Nations, for its part, has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming to raise the profile of these unsung agricultural workers and spotlight the roles they could play in the face of challenges like climate change, malnutrition, and poverty.

A photo of farmers harvesting potatoes in Peru.
A farmer and his sister harvest potatoes on their family farm in Pampallacta, Peru.

Small-Scale Vulnerability—and Resilience

A sobering report released last month by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of cataclysmic consequences of global warming that are already being felt, including drought, extreme heat, and flash floods.

Those changes have an outsize impact on farmers.

For years, civil wars, corrupt governments, poor infrastructure, and other political conditions were the major impediments to food production and distribution.

But Jerry Glover, a U.S. Agency for International Development agroecologist, says there's been a "significant shift ... In many regions, an emerging cause of food insecurity is the lack of ability of those farm fields to support yields that are necessary because of land degradation and the effects of climate change."

Glover and sustainable agriculture experts like Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, see smallholder farms in the developing world—and sometimes on city rooftops in the developed world—as leading the way in navigating an increasingly uncertain agricultural landscape.

In its recent report, Food Tank cited the many low-tech "agroecological approaches" used by smallholder farms "to combat climate change and create resilience to food price shocks, natural disasters, and conflict."

Among them: agroforestry, which integrates trees and shrubs into crop and livestock fields; solar-powered drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to plant roots; intercropping, which involves planting two or more crops near each other to maximize the use of light, water, and nutrients; and the use of green manures, which are quick-growing plants that help prevent erosion and replace nutrients in the soil.

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman recently returned from Guatemala, where farmers are adding vegetables—and biodiversity—to traditional corn and bean fields, rotating coffee with other crops to fight a deadly leaf fungus, and using drip irrigation techniques to grow mangos and plantains.

"What they need is fertilizers; they need better seeds," said Glickman, speaking at a Future of Food forum hosted at National Geographic's Washington headquarters on Friday. "They don't necessarily need GMO crops right now."

Genetically modified crops are the work of big agriculture, which has generally been more focused on increasing yields on some of the world's most productive lands.

Indeed, large-scale monoculture farming, with its heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds, has contributed to the disappearance of about 75 percent of plant genetic diversity over the last century, according to the FAO.

At a time when Food Tank says that 30 percent of the world's arable land has been depleted of nutrients and has become less productive because of unsustainable agricultural methods, family farmers who plant a variety of indigenous crops are obtaining 20 to 60 percent higher yields than farmers who cultivate only one crop.

And "forgotten crops" like millet, sorghum, and the now-trendy quinoa—often staples of smallholder farms—can go longer without water and can better resist disease than mass-produced and resource-thirsty corn, wheat, soybeans, or rice.

"These are the crops often referred to as 'poor people's food' or sometimes even 'weeds,'" Nierenberg says, "but these are foods that can be resilient to the impacts of climate change."

A photo of farmgirls on their ravaged farm land.
Girls stand in a drought-ravaged farm field in New South Wales, Australia.

Farming Out of Poverty

Even as they demonstrate ways to help feed a more crowded, warmer world, small-scale farmers are among the most threatened by climate change and the surging population.

Many family farmers till two hectares (about five acres) or less, often on marginal lands susceptible to changing climate and catastrophic weather events in developing areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Central America.

And despite their vocation, they're among the world's poorest and most malnourished. To make matters worse, they live disproportionately in regions that are expected to see the largest population bumps by midcentury, making limited resources even scarcer.

"Most of the poverty in the developing world is in rural and agricultural areas," says Glickman. "To the extent that we can give family farms [and] smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia additional tools to use better farming methods, better seeds, better fertilizer, more technical information to grow better crops, we help pull them out of poverty."

According to a UN Millennium Project Task Force report cited by Food Tank, about half of the world's hungry live on smallholder family farms.

Investing in these "stewards of the land," as Nierenberg calls them, so that they can grow more nutritious food will not only help raise them out of poverty but also help a warming planet.

Editor's note: Glickman, Glover, and Nierenberg were all panelists at Friday's Future of Food forum at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Troy Ott
Troy Ott


    The vast majority of the largest farms in the U.S. (>85%) are family farms. They have the highest productivity and lowest GHG emissions per unit of product produced in the world.  Most agree that improving production practices in the developing world is key to reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. Look at what Brazil has done over the last three decades to modernize their agriculture production practices, improve yields, reduce GHG emissions per unit of production and protect their forests. When you write about low-tech solutions, you are writing about applying technology to improve production practices. Fertilizers, precision irrigation, new crop varieties (including those produced by random mutagenesis or via genetic editing), rotational cropping, pesticides and herbicides, enhanced nutrition, vaccines, artificial insemination, and genetic selection. All these technologies are improving productivity and sustainability of agriculture around the globe. Low-tech or high-tech, the solution must fit the problem of feeding the world, keeping food affordable, safe and healthy and protecting the environment.These goals are advanced most rapidly when we discard the "good Ag - bad Ag" narrative that you stray into with this article. We need all perspectives at the table. We need decisions based on sound scientific evidence and we need honest discussions about the impacts these decisions will have on achieving the goals outlined above.


Celine Jennison
Celine Jennison

Dear NatGeo, 

What you are describing here is #permaculture.  ReAgrarianism to provide a resilient landscape mosaic. Let's talk about the silent Agricultural revolution together?

Jay Cwanek
Jay Cwanek


It's utterly silly to depend on "500 million family farmers in the developing world", of whom perhaps 5% will have grandchildren willing to STAY on the farm rather than emigrating to large exciting cities - or has the example of China not slapped us in the face sufficiently! 

For ALL its horrors, industrial farming is the only way to feed 10 billion people.  Get rid of the excess billions, and THEN we can return to the family farm.  First things first.


Paul M.
Paul M.

These lazy copy and paste news editors, lab coat consultants and politicians never mention that science has NEVER in 32 years been 100% certain that climate change "could be" a global climate crisis yet science can be 100% certain the earth is not flat and smoking WILL cause cancer.

But if you hate neocons that much and "believe" that 32 years of "could be" is good enough to condemn billions of children......................consider yourself a "believer" of fear mongering.
Get ahead of the curve;
*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

Amanda Hamaker
Amanda Hamaker

@Troy Ott - I'd like to echo your your comment. I felt this article was for the most part informative relative to the NG forum, but did "stray" just enough for a good eye-rolling. I think it's a difficult task for anyone seeking an audience on the topic of food security to avoid the good/bad dichotomy, and the tendency is to reduce complex issues and questions down to the most simplistic terms.  GMO = BAD, and Organic = GOOD... this doesn't get us anywhere, and is exactly what prevents us from having actual conversations about applying technology appropriately to feed the world sustainably. (As a side note - I also tend to roll my eyes where there is any inference to the elimination or curbing of GMOs as a strategy to reduce the dreaded "monocultures".  Again - wrong fight on both topics) - Amanda

S. Solorenko
S. Solorenko

@Jay Cwanek  Well, the worlds ecosystems are experiencing exponential degradation and that's hard to deny.  Industrial farming has been more then sucessful at causing that problem not to mention it has yet to been seen that industrial farming actually feeds our starving current population.  There is loss of biodiversity with monocultures with the loss of that soil erodes changing the fertility, water infiltration decreases and our potential drinking water is running off into the ocean, nutrient reservoirs in plants are then domino effected.  While monocultures are typically not native and therefore not adapted to local climates they dont provide winter forage to wildlife or livestock thus potentially affecting livestock health which is another issue.  So maybe its utterly silly to continue on with industrial farming and quite logical to explore some potentially sustainable, and more large scale in terms of water supplies, food supplies, biodiversity, fertility, ect. ideas.  Thinking outside the box is whats going to feed the world rather than clinging to disaster of current practices.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »