The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade

Peter Rosset | 09.01.1999

September 1999, Policy Brief No. 4


In this Policy Brief I challenge the conventional wisdom that small farms are backward and unproductive. Using evidence from Southern and Northern countries I demonstrate that small farms are “multi-functional”—more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than large farms. Small farmers can also make better stewards of natural resources, conserving biodiversity and safe-guarding the future sustainability of agricultural production.

The on-going process of trade liberalization—now being taken a step further in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations for the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)—has already had dramatically negative effects on small farmers everywhere. The AoA has the potential to severely undercut the remaining viability of small farm production, with potentially devastating consequences for rural economies and environments worldwide. I conclude with a call to recognize the true multi-functional role and value of small farmers, and to unite in opposition to an AoA that might make their continued existence impossible.


For more than a century mainstream economists in both capitalist and socialist countries have confidently and enthusiastically predicted the demise of the small, family farm. Small farms have time and again been labeled as backward, unproductive and inefficient—an obstacle to be overcome in the process of economic development. The American model of large scale, mechanized, corporate agriculture is held out as the best, if not the only way to efficiently feed the world’s population. Small farmers—or “peasants”—have been expected to go the way of the dinosaurs, and rightly so, according to conventional wisdom.

The ongoing process of trade liberalization has already had dramatically negative effects on small farmers everywhere.

Today’s ongoing process of liberalization in international agricultural trade—now being taken a step further in the Millennium Round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations—is widely recognized to have dramatically negative effects on small farmers in both Northern and Southern countries. This puts the small farm issue—called The Agrarian Question by renowned social scientist Karl Kautsky at the beginning of this century—squarely on the agenda for debate at the end of the millennium.