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Farming and the geography of nutrient production for human use: a transdisciplinary analysis

Photo: Connie, polyculture, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0 generic.
Photo: Connie, polyculture, Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0 generic.

This paper, taken from an inaugural edition on planetary health in the Lancet, analyses global food and nutrient production and diversity by farm size, providing evidence on how smallholder farmers contribute to the quantity and quality of our global food supply and discussing the structural impacts of agriculture on nutrient availability.

As efforts are made to increase food production, achieving a balance between intensification and diversity of production has become increasingly important from a nutritional perspective. This type of information about the global structures of agriculture and nutrient production is thus important for developing strategies for achieving the SDGs and for the future of agriculture and food systems.

Using global datasets the researchers estimated the production levels of 41 major crops, seven livestock, and 14 aquaculture and fish products and used this to estimate production of different nutrients.

The results from the paper show that: 1) Despite important regional differences, small and medium farms produce most of the food and nutrients globally (51-77%). 2) Food and nutrient diversity diminishes as farm sizes increase, and 3) Irrespective of farm size, more diverse agricultural landscapes produce more nutrients. Additionally the authors developed subnational maps of nutrient production and yield for protein, calories, Vit A, Vit B 12, Calcium, Folate, Iron and Zinc. 

Mixed production systems generate more diversity of key nutrients (zinc, iron, vitamins A and B12, and folate) essential for human health and most global micronutrients (53–81%) and protein (57%) are produced on more diverse agricultural landscapes. Both small and large farms play important roles globally in ensuring we have enough food that is diverse and nutrient-rich. Small farms are essential to the provision of food and nutrients in low-income and middle-income countries, whereas surpluses from larger farms ensure the necessary trade balances to deal with scarcity in some parts of the world. The authors conclude that maintaining production diversity as farm sizes increase is likely necessary to maintain the production of diverse nutrients and viable, multifunctional, sustainable landscapes.




Information about the global structure of agriculture and nutrient production and its diversity is essential to improve present understanding of national food production patterns, agricultural livelihoods, and food chains, and their linkages to land use and their associated ecosystems services. Here we provide a plausible breakdown of global agricultural and nutrient production by farm size, and also study the associations between farm size, agricultural diversity, and nutrient production. This analysis is crucial to design interventions that might be appropriately targeted to promote healthy diets and ecosystems in the face of population growth, urbanisation, and climate change.


We used existing spatially-explicit global datasets to estimate the production levels of 41 major crops, seven livestock, and 14 aquaculture and fish products. From overall production estimates, we estimated the production of vitamin A, vitamin B₁₂, folate, iron, zinc, calcium, calories, and protein. We also estimated the relative contribution of farms of different sizes to the production of different agricultural commodities and associated nutrients, as well as how the diversity of food production based on the number of different products grown per geographic pixel and distribution of products within this pixel (Shannon diversity index [H]) changes with different farm sizes.


Globally, small and medium farms (≤50 ha) produce 51–77% of nearly all commodities and nutrients examined here. However, important regional differences exist. Large farms (>50 ha) dominate production in North America, South America, and Australia and New Zealand. In these regions, large farms contribute between 75% and 100% of all cereal, livestock, and fruit production, and the pattern is similar for other commodity groups. By contrast, small farms (≤20 ha) produce more than 75% of most food commodities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and China. In Europe, West Asia and North Africa, and Central America, medium-size farms (20–50 ha) also contribute substantially to the production of most food commodities. Very small farms (≤2 ha) are important and have local significance in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, where they contribute to about 30% of most food commodities. The majority of vegetables (81%), roots and tubers (72%), pulses (67%), fruits (66%), fish and livestock products (60%), and cereals (56%) are produced in diverse landscapes (H>1·5). Similarly, the majority of global micronutrients (53–81%) and protein (57%) are also produced in more diverse agricultural landscapes (H>1·5). By contrast, the majority of sugar (73%) and oil crops (57%) are produced in less diverse ones (H≤1·5), which also account for the majority of global calorie production (56%). The diversity of agricultural and nutrient production diminishes as farm size increases. However, areas of the world with higher agricultural diversity produce more nutrients, irrespective of farm size.


Our results show that farm size and diversity of agricultural production vary substantially across regions and are key structural determinants of food and nutrient production that need to be considered in plans to meet social, economic, and environmental targets. At the global level, both small and large farms have key roles in food and nutrition security. Efforts to maintain production diversity as farm sizes increase seem to be necessary to maintain the production of diverse nutrients and viable, multifunctional, sustainable landscapes.


Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CGIAR Research Programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health funded by the CGIAR Fund Council, Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, European Union, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Australian Research Council, National Science Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change—Belmont Forum.


Herrero, M., Thornton,P.,  Power, B., Bogard, J., Remans, R., Fritz, S.,  Gerber, J., Nelson, G., See, L., Waha, K., Watson, R., West, P., Samberg, L., van de Steeg, J., Stephenson, E., van Wijk, M., Havlík, P. (2017). Farming and the geography of nutrient production for human use: a transdisciplinary analysis, The Lancet Planetary Health, DOI:

Read the full paper here (open access).

You can also see the editorial of this inaugural edition of The Lancet Planetary Health as well as the full content list of the issue. For a specific commentary on this paper from this edition, see ‘From big to small: the significance of smallholder farms in the global food system’ by Jessica Fanzo, Professor at John Hopkins University. 

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