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The challenge

How will global food supply meet the nutritional needs of a growing population?

In terms of outputs, agricultural systems have traditionally focused on maximising production. This is described in terms of yield per unit area (e.g. tonnes per hectare).

woman carrying basket with vegetables
Both small and large farms have key roles in food and nutrition security. ©  Unsplash, Alice Young

But this gives no indication of nutritional quality of the food produced.

Innovative metrics to describe the nutritional quality of food production systems is a new and expanding field of research that aims to leverage the potential of agriculture to improve nutrition.

Research is needed to understand how global food supply can meet the nutritional needs of a growing population.

Our response

Farming and the geography of nutrient production for human use.

We are working to evaluate the usefulness of various nutritional diversity metrics for future integration with models of global food supply.

We have used existing global datasets to estimate the production levels of 41 major crops, seven livestock, and 14 aquaculture and fish products.

From overall production estimates, we calculated the production of nutrients such as 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.

Globally, small and medium farms produce 51 to 77 per cent of nearly all commodities and nutrients examined in our research. However, important regional differences exist:

  • Large farms dominate production in North America, South America and Australia. In these regions, large farms contribute between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of all cereal, livestock, and fruit production, and the pattern is similar for other commodity groups. 
  • Small farms produce more than 75 per cent of most food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, south Asia, and China. 
  • Very small farms are important and have local significance in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and south Asia, where they contribute to about 30 per cent of most food commodities.

From a landscape perspective, we found that:

  • Most vegetables, roots and tubers, pulses, fruits, fish and livestock products, and cereals are produced in diverse landscapes
  • Most global micronutrients and protein are produced in more diverse agricultural landscapes
  • Most sugar and oil crops are produced in less diverse agricultural landscapes, which also account for the majority of global calorie production.

Our research shows that 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.

The results

Farm size and diversity of agricultural production are key

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. This needs 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.


Our expert, Jessica Bogard, discusses farming and the geography of nutrient production for human use.

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