Small farms – smart energy

with contributions from Ian Hanington

We often assume the only way to feed the world’s rapidly growing human population is with large-scale industrial agriculture. But recent scientific research is challenging those assumptions. Our global approaches to agriculture are critical. Close to one billion people are malnourished and many more are finding it difficult to feed their families. But is large-scale industrial farming the answer?

Large industrial farms are energy intensive, using massive amounts of fossil fuels for machinery, processing and transportation. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change and the increasing price of oil is causing food prices to rise. And industrial farms require more chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

According to a review of scientific literature by Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana Lavalle, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, agricultural development is a major factor in the rapid decline in global biodiversity.

In their study, “Food Security and Biodiversity: Can We Have Both?” the authors note that agriculture, which takes up about 40 percent of the world’s land surface (excluding Antarctica), “represents perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity” because of the natural habitat that gets converted or destroyed.

Concerns about industrial agriculture as a solution to world hunger are not new. As author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman points out in an article for, in the 19th century when farming was shifting from small-scale to large, some agriculturists argued “the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems…”

Volumes of research clearly show that small-scale farming, especially using “organic” methods, is much better in terms of environmental and biodiversity impact. But is it a practical way to feed seven billion people?

Chappell and Lavalle point to research showing “small farms using alternative agricultural techniques may be two to four times more energy efficient than large conventional farms.” They also found studies demonstrating “small farms almost always produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms.” One of the studies they looked at concluded “alternative methods could produce enough food on a global basis to sustain the current human population and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.”

This is in part because the global food shortage is a myth. The fact that we live in a world where hunger and obesity are epidemic shows that the problem is more of equity and distribution than shortage. With globalized food markets and large-scale farming, those with the most money get the most food.

It’s a crucial issue that requires more study… but it’s hard to disagree with Chappell and Lavalle’s conclusion: “If it is … possible for alternative agriculture to provide sufficient yields, maintain a higher level of biodiversity, and avoid pressure to expand the agricultural land base, it would indicate that the best solution to both food security and biodiversity problems would be widespread conversion to alternative practices.”

We need to grow food in ways that make feeding people a bigger priority than generating profits for large agribusinesses.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at


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