Mixed crop-and-livestock farmers can feed the growing world

Feed for cattle in vietnamGovernments and researchers are mistaken to continue looking to high-potential farmlands and single-commodity farming systems as the answer to alleviating world hunger. We need to bring our focus back to small-scale farming. We must change our agricultural investment priorities and paradigms to embrace not only the high-potential intensively farmed lands of the past, many of which have already reached their peak capacity, but also the relatively extensive mixed crop-and-livestock lands.

It is these mixed farms that, more than the traditional breadbaskets and rice bowls of the past, will feed the growing world over the next few decades. The group of farmers mixing crops with livestock on ‘in between’ lands—often located between high-potential farmlands and low potential rangelands—are the heavyweights in global food security. The thousand million farmers practicing modest mixed crop-and-livestock agriculture in poor countries resemble to a degree the small family farms in rich countries that have become so fashionable in recent years among those wanting to reform wasteful and dangerous industrial food systems. It is the developing world’s one billion 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 and rain-fed lands who feed most of the world’s poor people today.

This same vast and till-now neglected group of mixed food producers 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 3 billion people.

Mixed extensive farmers make up the biggest, poorest and most environmentally sustainable agricultural system in the world. It’s time we invested heavily in this particular kind of farming system. Here is where there remain the biggest yield gaps. Here is where research and development work can make the biggest difference.

What this ‘extensive agricultural frontier’ needs are 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 the growing future needs.

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