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Ep10: Vincent Ricciardi on Challenging Assumptions 

[intro]

Matthew

Welcome to Feed a food system podcast presented by TABLE, I’m Matthew Kessler

Samara

And I’m Samara Brock, and today we speak with data scientist Vincent Ricciardi.

Vinny

There's parts of sustainability that are purely a thing you like for your community. And there's part of it, that's things you like to look out at the landscape and see as well. Those are really valid aspects that we can't quantify as much, and I think are just super important.

Matthew

Vincent Ricciardi, or Vinny, has worked as a researcher and data scientist and has been employed by the World Bank, US AID, and currently works for Premise Data, a company that uses machine learning to gather and analyze crowdsourced regional data to inform decision-making at the global level.

Samara

We discuss of few of Vinny’s recent co-authored papers, including one that asks how much of the world’s food supply is produced by smallholder farmers…. a 50-year meta analysis that compares how small and large farms size up in terms of yields and impacts on biodiversity... and who actually has access to the broadband needed to advance data driven farming.

We first asked Vinny how he got into the world of both data science and food and farming. He started his research almost 15 years ago in Thailand at a seedbank on the Myanmar border.

Vinny 

I was lucky enough to get a job on a USAID subcontract. And they hired me because I had a psychology degree, which was not data related. And I led focus groups in college as a research assistant. And so they wanted me to do that through translators to get stories of crop, biodiversity, and crops that were last long when people were moving from China into Myanmar and then being pushed out of Myanmar into Thailand. And so I was trying to capture these stories, when at the same time, capture seeds that we could grow in the seed bank, and then document them and make sure they weren't being lost. And so that was kind of the origin story. It wasn't really me wanting to do anything related to food, it was just felt falling into this really cool research project. And from there, we started doing seed trials on these different varieties to see how vigorous they were. And then that's kind of where I started to jump into the data aspect of things.

Matthew

What were some of the early research questions you were asking when you started looking into data in agriculture?

Vinny

Yeah. So basically, like, from there, like I started doing that project, and then I was an independent consultant in that area in the same space, like food security stuff, with small holders, and I just kept on looking at grant applications and reports, the funders and these types of things that I would have to write, to try to, you know, get money for this research. And I kept on trying to, you know, have a hooky statistic at first. And so I would say, this one that was really going around at the time, and I think is still even going around, and it was, you know, 70 or 80% of the world's food comes from smallholder farmers. And they are custodians for most of the agro biodiversity in the world, the UN, FAO, they were citing in their reports, I saw it in some World Bank reports, I saw it and it was in like New York Times and The Guardian of these major news outlets, which was just wild because it just came from a back of the envelope calculation. And so we wanted to see if that was anywhere near correct.

Matthew

So this idea to understand the origin of this statistic was planted by his then PhD supervisor Navin Ramankutty at the University of British Columbia, who was shocked to hear about this since he work of mapping global land use, made him aware that nearly 50% of the world’s land is in wheat, maize, rice, and soy – which are all with the exception of rice, are all most grown on larger farms - so he had trouble imagining how this could be possible.

Vinny

So we started to dive into the background of it and tried to document well, who said this first. And I think it has a really fascinating little history, this stat. It's like a zombie stat that's floating around, which so many fields seemed to have, and there was a group in 2009. Yeah, and they put it forth as like a back of the envelope calculation. And I mean, they had their own nuances to it, and I don't want to throw them under the bus there. I mean, what they were trying to do is to gain awareness for smallholders saying they're a big deal their makeup a lot more food production than you might think, globally. And so this is our number we put out, they defined it in a certain way, because you can define smallholders in all these different ways. And they said 80% of the world's food or 70%, it was somewhere in that range. But it was very much like a cobbled together statistic, and they put it out there, I think, to be provocative, and then all of a sudden, that took off. And at the same time, there were two other groups that we we all worked on global agriculture statistics. And so two other groups like friendly groups that were also working on it, but none of us really knew each other. We're working on this. And we all kind of came up with papers within like one or two years of each other, that had the really similar stat. So that's a good thing for science, we all agreed and we can use different methods and different data, which was awesome.

Samara 

So these two other studies were carried out by large research teams led by Mario Herrero and Leah Samberg, who also found that farms under 2 hectares produced respectively 18% and 37% of the world’s food. So what did Vinny and his colleagues find in their study?

Vinny

And it was more like 30% for farms under two hectares and then like 50% of the world's food for farms under five Hectares I think which is, I mean, those are big numbers. But when you have the benchmark of a made up stat of 70%, it looks like less. So I think people got a little bit annoyed that we said that, but three studies, different research groups, different data, different methods coming up with really similar numbers, and then a fourth just came out to.

Matthew 

We’ve also spoken to a member of the ETC Group who continues to use and promote this statistic. They would argue that these global studies don’t include fisheries, food from forests and urban production.  And this fourth study that Vinny is referring to came out in 2021 and was led by Agricultural Economist Sarah Lowder who found that 35% of the world’s food was produced by farms under two hectares. They also found that 80% of the world’s food was produced by “family farms” but that’s another tricky category. A family farm has no correlation with farm size and they define it as being run by family labor, which could imply either a couple running 100 or 1000 hectare farm with large machinery, or an intergenerational family working a small plot of land with hand tools.  I mention this just to clarify that these categories, including farm size, are ongoing points of analysis and debate.

Samara

Do you have examples of others on the statistics that you think are floating around the food community?

Vinny

I mean, if I did, I think it would be a paper. (laughs) One thing that I just really appreciated about the group at UBC where I did my PhD, my advisor Naveen there he just always had a way To say like, well, is that really true about these really like, you just take the first paragraph of any policy document on food and just look and see what sources they're doing for a stat, and it might be a secondary source, so then you have to keep digging, and then it's a tertiary, and so on and so on. And then eventually, you're just like, wait, that's really old. So it may be outdated, even if they did it right. Or it's just maybe an assertion that's just been asserted so many times from a lot of qualitative studies or anecdotes. And maybe it's true in a lot of areas. But it might not be true at the global level. And so it depends, I would just kind of urge everybody to question intro paragraphs to policy documents a lot. And if you need a paper, just do that and see if you can find something that doesn't have an actual method behind it.

Matthew

So at table we're looking at the evidence and the values. And it's hard to sometimes separate these two, because the evidence that we pull from also sometimes reflects our values, as wondering what assumptions you might have had in your work in the beginning, and how have those assumptions changed over time? Based on maybe your your own research or exposures to other researchers maybe elsewhere?

Vinny

That's such a good question. Yeah, I mean, I think like so many people in this space, we all have an idea of a sustainable farm, like our little bucolic sustainable farm. I mean, I'm from Central Massachusetts. And it's like a small town, it was like less than 3000 people, which isn't crazy small, but it's pretty small for the US. And there were a lot of small farms, but they were like boutique farms, right? And so people would go and they would pick flowers and pay a crazy amount of money for those flowers. And you know, that's how they were able to survive. And it was a beautiful landscape, right? I mean, New England, rural, New England's gorgeous, it's like these small dappled fields with like dough and fences and everything. And it's like what, at least I think is a sustainable farm is just as beautiful landscape. And so I think that it's important to try to parse apart what we mean by all these different things. And so I definitely came into a lot of my initial work like back when I was working at the seed bank, saying, Oh, well, of course, like, indigenous varieties are the best varieties, they're the most nutritious, and they're better for the environment and all this type of stuff. And who knows, you know, open questions, for me at least.

Samara

So Vinny’s views on this evolved as he conducted research for a co-authored paper that came out in 2021 in Nature Sustainability  called Higher yields and more biodiversity on smaller farms. The study was a meta-analysis of 50 years of evidence on different dimensions of farm size.

Vinny

How does farm size and biodiversity relate? Do smaller farms have more biodiversity? Are they emitting less greenhouse gas emissions? Do they have more yields, like higher yields, so they need less space, so they're better for the environment, as well as for the farmers. So we looked at all these different things, and then economic ones, too. And in doing that process, I'm looking at all of the literature for the last like, 50 years, I went through it. And it was kind of wild to go through and you see, you see these different relationships, which I can get into, but I mean, my own mind with it was like, Oh, well, people think that these things are so clear cut, but they're really not. And so then I think I actually took like, an opposite turn for a while is like, oh, small farms are like, that's like farmers markets and everything are inefficient, because their supply chains are inefficient. And maybe they're using too much space and not enough. They're relying on free labor from like people doing wolfing, and all this type of stuff. But then at the end of it, I think it came back around to have a more balanced view, and said, Well, okay, there's parts of sustainability that are purely a thing you like for your community. And there's part of it, that's things you like to look out at the landscape and see as well. Those are really valid aspects that we can't quantify as much, and I think are just super important that are definitely left out of some of my own work. But yeah, I guess it's my roller coaster of a value journey into this. It was first pro small farms. And then it was like, wow, I don't really know this seems like overhyped almost. And then I was like, well, we need a balanced view. And so maybe there's like a best of both worlds approach or everybody can contribute approach as well.

Samara 

So in the study you were just talking about, you actually found that small farms have higher yields. And in terms of debates around sustainable intensification that seems somewhat counterintuitive. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to do this research, and if you were surprised by the outcomes?

Vinny 

There's a lot of caveats, right. So there's actually been since the 1930 an observation in Russia, that first happened that smaller farms had higher yields and That was just an observation. And then in the 60s, in India, it was observed and actually measured for the first time. And then since then the agricultural economists have, it's just been like a favorite topic to people go back to it seems like every five years like there's like a slew of research on it. And people try to pick out why. Because it's a it's a really consistent finding. It's not everywhere. But in low and middle income countries that have certain contexts. It's just like really pervasive for some reason. So people have tried to pick it apart and said, Well, why is it because there's more family labor. And so it's free labor, and people are around. And so they can help with weeding, and they can help with all the different things? And so it helps make higher yields, or is it because of some other factor. And so there's just been a lot of different work on that. And then other people have just said, Well, maybe it's just a measurement error, like, you talk to really small farms, and they don't have a great sense of even how big their farm is half the time. And so that's one part of the equation. And then they don't have a great sense of their output. So that's another half of the equation. And you put them together, and you get two errors. And so maybe that's it, too. So there's been like recent work in that. But we found it pretty consistent across, I don't remember how many countries we, I mean, we've looked at the past, like 50 years of, of evidence is anything we could find on it. And it was really consistent how people measured it. But it wasn't true in like the US. And it wasn't true when farms got to a certain size, it seemed like that started to fall apart. We couldn't really measure that because there weren't enough studies on it. And so that's a big caveat.

Samara

We went back and looked at this paper - which we’ve also linked to in the show notes. The article examined 181 studies across 51 countries. They uncovered that 80% of the studies found that smaller farms had higher yields; and that smaller farms hosted greater crop and non- crop biodiversity. They also found no conclusive evidence pointing to a difference between resource-use efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and profits between small and large farms.

Matthew

Can you give us some examples of some of the reports or articles that you were drawing from, to reflect the diversity of sources that we're looking at and pulling into this?

Vinny

Yeah, it was all peer reviewed academic literature. They run the gamut from like national sample surveys and tabulated statistics. So like agricultural censuses, all the way to like design studies that put out their own surveys and tried to parse apart some of their different hypotheses on why smaller farms had higher yields.

Matthew

So you were looking at 50 years of research. Were findings consistent from 50 years ago to now or did that change over time?

Vinny

Yeah, we didn't find any change over time, which I really thought it was going to change over time. But it didn't. That was actually really surprising to me. So I was like, Oh, well, maybe with more mechanization, or just more inequalities and mechanization too, or something. But yeah, we didn't find that time trend.

Samara

And when you're doing research like this, are you thinking through sort of what the policy or other implications of it might be?

Vinny

Yeah, definitely.

Samara

And for this one, what do you think they are?

Vinny

I think with a few other examples from that same study. So we found that there was no real difference between small and large farms and their greenhouse gas emissions per unit output. So you’re accounting for yield and everything. So if you grew a tomato on a big farm and a tomato on a small farm, and you had the same yields, would it be different greenhouse gas emissions or not and we found no difference. And right there somebody might say, “Oh well that means that big farms and small farms are the same so you might as well support large farms for all these other reasons.” But we need to frame this research super carefully in how we present the results  and that’s something we hemmed and hawed and tried to do really precisely. What we really took away from it and tried to frame it as is, despite all of the R&D, the research and development, geared towards larger farms, it’s amazing to us that smaller farms are still on par. It’s the same result, but the interpretation is so critical for policy.

Matthew

And so you looked at yield, and you looked at greenhouse gas emissions, you also looked at biodiversity impacts. Can you speak a little bit about what your findings were there?

Vinny

Yeah, the biodiversity impacts were actually like, the most consistent finding for us, we found that smaller farms war, this is all correlations, right? They're not causal studies. They're all observations. And so we found that smaller farms typically had they harbored greater biodiversity than larger farms. not always true, because certain like bird species, like big fields, or something, but typically true. And one of the main reasons was because smaller farms, they have smaller fields, right. So a small farm can't have as big as a field as a big farm. big firms can have really small fields, but it can't work the other way around. And when you have really small farms and small fields, you have more edges in a certain area. So if you look at a landscape, you'll have a lot more edges, you know, like my bucolic New England small farm example, like you might see these fields and they have these rock borders to them, and then they might have like really tall grasses and then they might have Forest. And so you have a lot more of these edge spaces so that different types of animals or insects can hang out there and not be disturbed. And they might benefit like bees, they might benefit from coming into the field when things are flowering. And so I think that's why a lot of a lot of these places have more biodiversity around them. And then maybe because of inputs, but we didn't really see that as a consistent reason that people gave.

Matthew

And as you mentioned earlier, there's regional variants where in the United States or Australia, large firms had higher yield. Do you think that could be reflective of the history of policy supports in that area?

Vinny

Oh, yeah, without a doubt, I see my work relates to policy in terms of like, I like to interrogate first paragraphs a lot. But I don't, I'm not great at understanding Political Economy of places. But I do think like, I mean, just places have big and small farms because of policy, we had this little blog post series, and I made this little interactive map, like story map thing. And it just looks across borders. And so if you look at Eastern and Western Europe, like right on the border of some of these countries, you'll see really big farms, and really small farms. And because of different types of collectivist policies like promoting really big farms, they still have big farms today, even after some of these regimes have left. And so like, that's fascinating to me, And I don't know all the ins and outs of what the history is there to make that happen. But it tells you that borders and policies have a big impact on the size of a farm. And so of course, they would have a big impact on other parts of the farming system as well that probably impact smaller farms compared to big ones, too.

 Samara

Another one of your studies that we wanted to focus on, which helps us highlight how global solutions are sometimes misaligned with local realities. So this time, you were focusing on data driven farming, I think Matthew is going to sort of drill down into some of the specifics of that analysis. But can you first tell us what data driven farming is?

Vinny

Yeah, sure. There's a lot of apps lately that are trying to make farmers lives easier. And I think they're great. I mean, I'm not a farmer. So I don't know if they're great. But I think they're good ideas, where it helps people understand. I mean, on the extreme end, it would be like precision agriculture, like, Where should I put more fertilizer in my field? And can you tell me that, and then maybe on a more mid line, and it's like, what are the market prices for this crop right now? So I can price myself accordingly to that. And then maybe on a more simple end? It's like, well, what's, what's the weather supposed to be like? Should I plant? Should I sell my seeds now? Or should I wait? And so you can use apps and different data to help farmers do that. And they can be served in like a really nice little smartphone app, or even like an SMS texting app, where you can ask a set of questions from you know, a list like one to five, and then you can kind of go down and get your answer where you need it. In India, they have like, a nice system where people can, they can call in as well. And they can also text it and to try to get different types of agricultural extension agents opinions about different things. And so that's what data driven farming kind of is. So it can be precision, but it can also just be like connecting people to the right resources as well.

Matthew

A question that I'm really curious about is one of the claims of people that are proponents of data driven farming is that could democratize access to technology. What did you find in your research - was data driven farming a major disrupter to the agricultural sector? 

Vinny

First and foremost, I did not lead the study a colleague and really good friend, Zia Mehrabi at UBC led it, and it's like a brilliant study, because it just questions one this like basic assumption of, of data driven farming and how accessible it is. So we, we didn't look at like how effective it was, or anything like that. We were mainly just looking at the idea of there's all this funding going out to make smartphone apps for farmers and smallholder farmers, like specifically, you'll see these types of programs going out. But at the end of the day, like Do they even have smartphones, like are leaving living in areas with broadband access? And then also another question was, even if they are living in places have broadband access and have cell phones, is data really expensive there? Because some countries that is super pricey still. And so is this a viable option? Or is this like putting the cart way before the horse and so that's what that study was all about. It was at the global level.

Samara 

We then asked Vinny how they conducted this study and what they ended up finding?

Vinny

Zia like negotiated to get this global data set, it was amazing of broadband access at 2g, 3g, 4g, those are like the speeds of internet they use on your phone. So you need 3g and 4g to use like smartphone apps and stuff. 2g is just for SMS. And so we had this global data set like wall to wall coverage, pretty map of where all the broadband access was the highest broadband access. And so then what we did was we made this product of where all the small farms are in the world on a similar global scale map. And we overlaid the two and then we just said, well, do they live where broadband is. And that was just one of the questions and we had a couple others but so we found that around a third of farmers under a Hectare actually could get 3g or 4g. And most of them could get 2g. And so only a third of smallholder farmers could actually even access the data they needed for or lived in places that have broadband at speeds they needed to use the apps that were being designed for them. So it's only a third of like those. That's kind of crazy. To me, it was what we assumed, but just like have it in data, it just means that those areas aren't there yet. They need different infrastructure, they need different broadband infrastructure to get there.

Matthew

That is a really wild statistic. What do you recommend to address these access and availability gaps?

Vinny

So hard. Because then I feel like this goes outside of my understanding, and this is where we need more like on the ground social scientists to actually understand the impacts of these things. And probably ecologist too, because I mean, this could impact them as well like if you want more broadband coverage in these remote areas, assuming That these people can get smartphones and pay for the data, which we looked at as well. But assuming that they can do that, if you just plot the tower, like in a random rural place, like is that a good idea? You know, maybe that's not the best idea. And so maybe that has social implications to it, and ecological ones that are really needing to be addressed to so I don't know, the beauty about being a researcher is like, you don't have to have a policy solution. You just say like, this is crap.

Matthew

And the beauty of hosting a podcast is that we can send out a call to social scientists and ecologists to answer this research question.

Vinny 

Yeah, please do it. That'd be cool.

Matthew 

So you heard the call Feed listeners - please get in touch or post in the comments, if you’re a social scientist, ecologist or economist and have ideas around this research question!

Samara

We also wanted to touch on an article that you also co authored, and has recently been published in PNAS, and which looks at the impact of large-scale land acquisition or in other words, land grabs. And in that paper, you talk about the paradox where land deals can, at the same time contribute to closing the yield gap. But it can also decrease food security in the areas where large scale land grabs occur, because local peoples don't have access to agricultural products that they used to. Can you talk a little bit about that paradox? 

Vinny

Yeah, that was a phenomenal paper to be invited on to. And again, I wasn't the lead, this guy named Marc Muller from Notre Dame, he was elite. And he just like, is an amazing thinker, and just crazy remote sensing and statistics. And so it was, it was a really cool team to be part of this time, we kind of were challenging, or at least in my mind, we were and maybe other teammates might have had a different reason for it. But we were challenging the idea of like large scale land acquisitions, they're called land grabs, as well, too, if other people are more familiar with that term. A lot of people think that they have really negative impacts on local communities. And there's been a surprisingly low amount of studies at the global level about this. And that is kind of hard to get with it. And so we wanted to look at that assumption. So I mean, this time, we were looking at an assumption of people who are thinking that that these were bad, but we wanted to also have data to backup that.

Matthew

Their study looked at 160 land acquisitions in 39 countries and found that foreign investors have acquired approximately 90 million hectares of land for agriculture over the past two decades. And what questions were they asking and what did their analysis show?

Vinny

So like our large scale land acquisitions, trying to target the best lands. So are they unfairly stealing the best lands? And then we also wanted to see if when a large scale land acquisition came in, were they disrupting the local food supply? Or were they helping it and or maybe had no impact to, you know, I mean, we were open to either. What we found was that it was all over the map for a couple of things. But then for water availability, that was they were consistently targeting places with better water availability. But with food, that was the part that was kind of interesting, where if we looked at the years before the deal, versus the years after the deal, you could see that the individual diet diversity scores decreased. And that was consistent across regions. 

Matthew

Specifically, the study found that in Asia and Sub Saharan Africa that these deals led to transitions away from local staple crops towards energy-rich, but nutrient-poor, cash crops. They also found that in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, much of the land that was sold was already being used for export-oriented production, so there wasn’t much of a change to local diets.

Vinny

That was just like really interesting to see, it was kind of something that we all thought, and then to see it actually  in the data, I think it gives policymakers like a much better understanding of saying, Well, if these places come in, they can have really negative impacts on local diet diversity, which is are tied to, you know, health and nutrition and all these different outcomes. I love papers that challenge like big assumptions like that. I feel like we're finally ready to do them. Well, which is cool, because like, we have so much collective evidence and so much data at our disposal that, like we can still go collect data, but like, yeah, we can actually ask these questions, finally. 

Samara

So in terms of you saying, we can finally do this, does that have something to do with computational ability that we didn't have, like a decade ago? Like, why is it that we can finally do this? 

Vinny

It's a lot easier. I mean, I've done a lot of evidence synthesis work, right, like meta analyses and systematic reviews, as well as other types of global analyses that take global data sets and overlay them in different ways and tried to ask different questions. Have you guys ever done like a meta analysis. systematic review before. Yeah, they're like really tedious right. Oh, man, they're like pulling teeth. And if you want to do them, right, you have to have like two people review everything at least. And so we had researchers try to classify every single title and abstract. And we disagreed 20% of the time anyway, so like, how can a computer do better, and then we had a tiebreaker. And so what we did was we trained a machine learning model to actually classify those, and then we got accuracy metrics back, we were close to like 90% accuracy with the machine learning model to classify them. So it was classifying them better than we could not disagree, which was interesting. Yeah. And so it just enabled us to sift through 18,000 studies really fast. And so I think that because of the algorithms, because of just sharing data, open data, because of sharing models and open models, which I think people need to talk about more, is just really enabling us to mine the existing literature, and to look at big geospatial data sets in really interesting ways to, I think that's kind of like just enabling this really cool, new data revolution for scientists to look at kind of older questions in a new light. 

Matthew

That's super interesting. And yeah, I'm in the middle of a systematic review. So I would have appreciated this kind of tool a few months ago, a question I have is, machine learning is as good as the people that program it. And people that program it come with biases, and this is kind of a contentious area, and we'll stick to the world of food and farming data, how do you see people's biases or values influencing both their research questions and how they program these these machine learning tools? 

Vinny

I think it's a really important question. And I mean, I would also say that traditional statistics are also you need to make choices, and you need to make assumptions and everything as well. And so, I mean, looking at the Political Economy of researchers, and who's allowed to be a researcher is very worthwhile in doing and seeing if it would change completely. I mean, in that systematic review, that I was just explaining that we built a model, like we did have researchers from, I think, like four continents, at least. And I mean, it was kind of spread out. But we all were educated in Europe or the US or Canada, right. And so I mean, that's a bias. And then our gender female breakdowns. Were one bit that I mean, everybody has these different backgrounds to some more ecologist somewhere on economists. And so I mean, the only way to really train that because it was using our scoring to train itself and to and we said that that was a good model, because we agreed with it basically, is just to get more diverse research teams from diverse backgrounds. And we didn't have many researchers from the global south, you know, and that was a bias there in the study. And then the literature itself is bias that we're mining, right. And so, in the meta analysis I was talking about earlier, the biodiversity question and farm size. I mean, almost all of the studies came from Europe in the US. They didn't come from Africa, they didn't come from Latin America then come from Asia or Southeast Asia. So right there, the underlying data was biased. And I think that I mean, machine learning algorithms can be biased. I think the data underlying it can be really biased as well. And so it just takes a lot to try to untangle that. I think that we just have to be aware of it as much as possible.

Samara  

Because we're focusing on scale as sort of defining frame for the issues we're looking at through this this podcast and through Table writ large right now. We want to sort of delve a little bit more into scale question. So what conclusions Have you come to, if any, about the ideal farm size, or the scale of the food system in terms of local global debates, etc, etc.?

Vinny 

Every farm should be this size. 5.5 hectares - every farm in the world.  No, I just don't think there is any. I think that that debate on farm size, even when we started it, we just said like, is this a fruitless debate? I don't know if you all have had similar conversations or not like, Is it the right question to even be asking, but there are a lot of assumptions we all have about farm size. And so I still think it's valid to interrogate. I mean, we found that small firms make a good portion of the world's food, like 30% of the world's food, They grow different things that are really important for nutrition than larger farms

Matthew 

Just to get even more granular – In Vinny and his co-authors 2018 report How much of the world's food do smallholders produce? They breakdown how different farm sizes have different contributions to global diets. For example smaller farms tend to produce more fruits, pulses, and roots and tubers. Medium-sized farms produce more tree nuts and vegetables, and larger farms produce more oil crops.     

Vinny

And so if you want to have all your fruits and veggies, and grains and everything, like you need both, you need to have diverse food, you need diverse farm sizes, we keep saying. So I think that's one big takeaway. I think another one is that there's no ideal farm size for the world. Beyond that, like every single country, and there are different types of land policies, if it's a land consolidation policy, or if it's a land segmentation policy, because countries have had both of those over the years, they have messed up their food system in different ways. And they've benefited their food system in different ways. And so I just think it's really context specific. So that's another big takeaway. I mean, we did find really clear relationships with crop diversity, and with non crop biodiversity and farm size, and it just it really seems that smaller farms promote or harbor more non crop biodiversity and more crop biodiversity too. So they're really important than these ways. And then I think like a background thing here to to understand is that, from an equity development standpoint, this has been like pretty consistent stat over the years, like it's around 80% of all the farms in the world, are under two hectares in size, so like two football fields in size. And so that's like that's 80% of all farms. It's not 80% of all farmers, because what is the farmer but like, that's a lot of people who were on these really small farms. There's not always great r&d for them. I was working in Vietnam for a while, and we were looking at this irrigation project. And so we were trying to get irrigation systems into smaller farms. And it just because of like the undulating hills and because of just irrigation companies not wanting to produce systems that were on smaller farms, because it's not as like cost benefiting for them. It was really difficult. And so there's these really awesome other solutions, but it just kind of told me like, wow, there's not actually that much market oriented to small firms when they actually could be for critical infrastructure like irrigation in a water stressed area. And so that's kind of like a more of a background, I guess piece to it. 

Matthew

So you're not working in the food space at the moment, but you've spent quite a bit of time in it. What do you think, was getting too much attention? And what is being forgotten about?

Vinny

I guess I mean, we all kind of see the grass is greener, right. And so my background has mainly been like, I've hung out with a lot of ecologists and environmental scientists. And I've argued with a lot of a lot of economists think that some of the environmental science part of me, like wishes that I looked at, more like the policy, labor regulations, it's hard to stomach like choosing a product based on environmental impacts or something when you just know that there's a lot of labor issues happening with that, or, like with Whole Foods, I remember when a Whole Foods came into Boston, it's like my hometown. And we had these awesome little, like, smaller stores that were just wonderful. And then Whole Foods came in, and they bought them out. And the prices were actually quite similar first, and then all of a sudden, like they bought out just like everybody, and the prices jumped. And then a lot of people from those areas like have to travel quite a bit to go to more affordable supermarkets. And so it was just in my mind, like, so discouraging that the sustainable food movement just became like this very elitist, food movement as well. And I know there's a lot of people combating that as well. So I don't mean to like throw it all under the bus. But I just wish that more equity out of like a human level was brought into the picture, especially for from the end user, the consumer, and but the laborers too, I mean, all throughout the system. So -

Samara

Sort of feeds into our next meta question that we like to ask all of our guests, which visions of the future of the food system inspire you and which alarm you?

Vinny

Influencers alarm me (laughs). Pretty much anybody like too much on either side alarm me. In my old lab at UBC, we had this one researcher named Verena Seufert , who studied organics. And so you know, that's like, you want to talk influencers, like loving organics, and mixing up different what what organic means that are the impacts of it. And, and the science is kind of it's, you know, a little nebulous too. And she found that organics having lower yields than conventional like up to 25%, and all these kind of like bigger questions, and she grew up on a little organic farm. So like, she was hoping to finally find something else. And I think that one of the conversations that came out of a lot of her work, and I really enjoyed was, Why does it have to be so binary? Why do we need organic and non organic? Or is there a hybrid system out there where large, large farms implement, you know, things that small farms are doing or non organic farms are implementing things that organic firms are doing? Why can't we just have like a best of both worlds approach and I do find a lot of the food system rhetoric to be extremes, and I'm sure you guys do and it would just be really nice to move past some of these extremes to find solutions. And the solutions are difficult and maybe that's why people don't like to like grab on to the complexities of finding a solution. I don't offer any solutions. I just offer also critiques. And in the end, I just wish that people were less binary about the food system dreams that they have.

Matthew

Thanks so much Vinny, Really enjoyed talking to you.

Samara 

That's great. Thank you.

Vinny 

Super fun to chat with you all. Cathartic after doing all this research. Very cool.

Matthew 

And that wrap our 10th episode of the Feed podcast. Thank you all for listening. We we’re thankful for those who have been with us from the beginning and those who have joined us recently. Please tell your friends and colleagues about the podcast and get in touch with us too. Let us know how we’re doing, what topics you’d like us to cover and who you’d like to see us speak to at podcast@tabledebates.org And of course, rate and review the show wherever you listen to podcasts.

You can find more info about this episode with lots of links connected to Vinny and his UBC colleagues’ work on our website https://tabledebates.org/ And while you’re there you can subscribe to our newsletter Fodder to stay up to date with our work at TABLE, and the latest research and opportunities on food systems sustainability topics.

Big thanks as always to Samara Brock and our extended TABLE community! We’ll be in your feed soon speaking to Klara Fischer, an associate professor in the department of Rural Development at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who explains her view that ‘technology is not scale neutral.’