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Higher yields and more biodiversity on smaller farms

Abstract

Small farms constitute most of the world’s farms and are a central focus of sustainable agricultural development. However, the relationship between farm size and production, profitability, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions remains contested. Here, we synthesize current knowledge through an evidence review and meta-analysis and show that smaller farms, on average, have higher yields and harbour greater crop and non-crop biodiversity at the farm and landscape scales than do larger farms. We find little conclusive evidence for differences in resource-use efficiency, greenhouse gas emission intensity and profits. Our findings highlight the importance of farm size in mediating some environmental and social outcomes relevant to sustainable development. We identify a series of research priorities to inform land- and market-based policies that affect smallholders globally.

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Fig. 1: The probability of studies finding relationships between farm size and each outcome variable.
Fig. 2: The pooled effect sizes for each outcome variable that show the percent change per 1 ha increase in farm size.
Fig. 3: Forest plot for yields, where observations are in standardized form and 95% CI are given.
Fig. 4: Forest plot for resource efficiency, where observations are in standardized form and 95% CI are given.
Fig. 5: Forest plot for profitability, where observations are in standardized form and 95% CI are given.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The computer code that support the findings of this study is available in the Supplementary Information.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge funding from the University of British Columbia 4-Year Doctoral Fellowship & Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight grant no. 435-2016-0154.

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Authors

Contributions

V.R., N.R. and H.W. conceived the idea and designed the data collection process. V.R. collected and coded the data. V.R., Z.M. and N.R. designed the analysis. V.R. and Z.M. conducted the analysis. V.R., Z.M., N.R., H.W. and D.J. contributed interpretations of results. All authors wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vincent Ricciardi.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Michael Clark and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Discussion, Figs. 1–5 and Tables 1–4.

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R script and underlying data to reproduce analysis.

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Source Data Fig. 1

Processed data.

Source Data Fig. 2

Processed data.

Source Data Fig. 3

Processed data.

Source Data Fig. 4

Processed data.

Source Data Fig. 5

Processed data.

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Ricciardi, V., Mehrabi, Z., Wittman, H. et al. Higher yields and more biodiversity on smaller farms. Nat Sustain 4, 651–657 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00699-2

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