A hitherto disregarded vast group of farmers – those mixing crops with livestock on ‘in between’ lands (neither high-potential farmlands nor low-potential rangelands) – will feed most people in the future.
Scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and seven other leading international agricultural research organizations around the world recently determined that it is ‘mixed farms,’ not breadbaskets or rice bowls, that will feed most people over the next two decades.
Their report, Drivers of change in crop–livestock systems and their potential impacts on agroecosystems services and human well-being to 2030, produced by the CGIAR Systemwide Livestock Programme, shows that it is not big, efficient farms on high-potential lands that feed most of the world’s poor people today but rather one billion small, ‘mixed,’ family farmers tending rice paddies or cultivating maize and beans while raising a few chickens and pigs, a herd of goats or a cow or two on relatively extensive rainfed lands. This same group, the report indicates, is likely to play the biggest role in global food security over the next several decades, as world population grows and peaks (at 9 billion or so) with the addition of another 2 billion people.
Remarkably, this is the first study ever to investigate the state of the world’s most prevalent kind of farmers – those who keep animals as well as grow crops. A major implication of the new report is that governments and researchers are mistaken to continue looking to high-potential lands and single-commodity farming systems as the answer to world hunger. As the study shows, many highly intensive agricultural systems are reaching their peak capacity to produce food and should now focus on sustaining rather than increasing yields.
A hitherto disregarded vast group of farmers – those mixing crops with livestock on ‘in between’ lands (neither high-potential farmlands nor low-potential rangelands) – are heavyweights in global food security.
The authors of this multi-institutional and multidisciplinary study, most belonging to centers of the CGIAR, agree with many other experts that we need to bring our focus back to small-scale farms. But this report goes further, distinguishing one particular kind of small-scale farmer that should be our focus: the mixed farmer growing crops and raising animals in the world’s more extensive agricultural systems.
These mixed extensive farms make up the biggest, poorest and most environmentally sustainable agricultural system in the world. It is time we invested heavily in this particular kind of farming system. Here is where the biggest yield gaps remain. Here is where we can make the biggest difference.
The billions of dollars promised by the international donor community to fund small-scale farming in developing countries are likely to fail unless policies are reoriented towards this particular, most ubiquitous and, till now, most neglected, form of agriculture. What this ‘extensive frontier’ needs are the most basic forms of infrastructure and services. With these at hand, the world’s extensive mixed farmers will be in good position to scale up their food production to meet future needs.