Smallholders, urban farmers and neo-ruralism

  • Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

The idea of agroecology is mainly being taken up by small-scale farmers around the world, who actually produce the food – not commodities – for the majority of the people, mainly locally. It is no surprise that the terms ‘agroecology’ and ‘food sovereignty’ do not appear on the websites of big agro-industrial companies like Monsanto, Syngenta​*​ and Bayer Crop Science, whereas ‘sustainable’ and ‘food security’ are easily found as defined through the lens of the input industries.

Is there a basis upon which to build new models?

In the industrial agricultural paradigm, the existence of subsistence farming serving local communities is an indicator of a lack of industrialization and, as such, a lack of ‘development’ in a country. Agriculture for subsistence and local or household food production is commonly described as self-sufficiency farming (Waters 2007). The typical subsistence farm has a range of crops and animals which the family or community needs to eat during the year. It also produces building materials, medicinal plants, textiles and fuel. Planting decisions are made based on those needs rather than global market prices.

Mainstream market-oriented economists find this an undesirable form of existence, born of necessity, and they believe a country’s policies should aim to overcome this (‘backward’) development as quickly as possible. Subsistence farmers should either move on to more lucrative off-farm jobs or adopt market-oriented principles and turn the farm into a mechanized, if possible, industrial operation.

Subsistence farmers are effectively invisible because they mainly produce outside of the global market and continue to frustrate mainstream economists or, as Tony Waters (2007) puts it eloquently:

Economists, politicians, and strategists since at least the end of World War II dream of the world’s rural farmers becoming a wealthy, healthy, and modern middle class. Implicit to this dream is peasants moving off the farms (…) to staff factories in an ever-wealthier world. When this doesn’t happen, the Ph.D.’s do indeed sigh, sweat, and swear not at themselves, but at the peasants that frustrate the models on which their development plans are based. … In short, peasants resist the siren song of the economists’ models, … and are relatively immune to its enticements. …. If markets failed, life on the farm was more uncomfortable, but there was still food to eat, and a place to live. In the modern market though, market failure means that unpaid workers are evicted from their houses or unable to buy food.

Hilbeck and Hilbeck (2015) postulated that, contrary to common belief, subsistence farming still exists even in highly industrialised countries, such as Germany. Indeed it plays an important – though undervalued or ignored – role for societal groups that live under precarious conditions to this day, and has monetary, health-related and socio-ecological relevance. In turbulent times especially, subsistence agriculture serves as buffer, either by providing necessary calories or by complementing a uniform, non-diverse food supply.  Wherever people have the option of returning to the countryside, however small their piece of land it will always be a buffer in times of social insecurity and turmoil – even in developed countries. The latest examples of this phenomenon can be found in the countries like Greece and Portugal that have been hardest hit by the financial crisis, but it can also be seen in China.

As Greece’s blighted economy plunges further into the abyss, the couple are joining with an exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation’s rich rural past as a guide to the future. They acknowledge that it is a peculiar undertaking, with more manual labour than they, as college graduates, ever imagined doing. (New York Times 2012)

In a country where unemployment is at an all-time high of 14%, the minimum wage is €485 and the minimum retirement pension is €254, cultivating a vegetable patch has its attractions. Joao Fernandes, 72, said he easily saves up to €150 a month on his plot in Quinta da Granja, a green haven in Lisbon. “Instead of buying stuff, I have here what I need,” said Mr Fernandes, a former cook, as he passed on gardening advice to a neighbour grower. For an annual fee of €50-80, plus the cost of seeds, tools and fertilizers, one can rent 150 sq. meters of land, wood-fenced all around. Woodshed and water supply are included. “I plant beans, tomatoes, peas, potatoes and cabbage. It is all for personal consumption, for myself, my wife and my two sons,” he said.” (RTE News, 2012)

In Portugal, the government has set up programmes that encourage and assist jobless city-dwellers to resettle in rural areas and take up subsistence farming.

…The government is trying to get others to follow in his footsteps. In February it launched an initiative to map the country’s unused land and terrain that does not have a known owner, with the aim of making it available to be rented to those who want to work it. The government has also approved a land exchange scheme by which private owners of unused land will win tax benefits if they make their properties available to be rented by farmers. Around 1.5 million hectares are expected to be made available through the scheme. (RTE News, 2012)

In China the urban-to-rural return migration of millions of factory workers is acknowledged to have ‘buffered’ them from hardship. However, people voice concern about the declining productivity of industrial farming, as the land is now being used for subsistence, which is considered economically inferior to industrial farming – an approach that has become a ‘god-given’ default in both world economic systems, almost amounting to a natural law.

In statistical terms, no less than 15 million rural migrants (more than 10 per cent of total migrants) returned to rural villages in 2009. About 80 per cent of them went back to the rural farming sector, where they worked, on average, for 52 per cent of the year. … Based on our findings it is probable that the rural agricultural sector provided the employment buffer for return migration and rural off-farm employment during the global financial crisis. Because of this buffer effect, no open unemployment was observed. This is certainly a good thing for political stability, but also means a reduction in agricultural productivity. In the long run, small-scale farming will inevitably give way to large landholding and higher agricultural productivity. This will naturally lead to the consolidation of farmland, and many small landholders will need to sell their land. For these workers, then, future employment shocks will have to be cushioned by other means. (East Asia Forum, 2010)

Subsistence agriculture systems that still exist outside the markets in (semi-) industrialized countries offer opportunities, inspiration and unconventional knowledge. This could be harnessed to find new ways of producing diverse foods, and to sustain the genetic diversity, both of the crops and of the flora and fauna associated with these farming systems. These hidden riches remain largely unappreciated and under-explored in the context of today’s mainstream agricultural policies (Hilbeck and Hilbeck, 2015).

In almost all developed countries today, surveys of consumers show that a growing number of citizens are concerned about the industrially produced foods on offer in most supermarkets. This concern also manifests itself in the rapidly growing number of people who opt for foods produced in alternative systems, such as those described elsewhere in this brochure. At the same time, bringing farming to the cities is becoming a booming field of activity.​†​ While on the production side, much knowledge has developed and many alternative, sustainable methods of agricultural and horticultural production have proved their worth, in many parts of the world this is not matched by a commensurate development in other fields required for a broad-based adoption of these progressive new agro-food systems. For example, appropriate political support and regulatory frameworks (reward systems) for agroecological production systems are either entirely lacking or they are only in their infancy.


East Asia Forum, 1 September 2010 (

Hilbeck A. and Hilbeck H., 2015. Subsistence farming – the survival strategy. In Scott J. (ed), Transdiscourse 2: Turbulent Societies. Springer Verlag Vienna New York (inpress).

New York Times, 2012.

RTE News, 19 April 2012. (

Waters T., 2007. The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life beneath the Level of the Marketplace. Lanham MD. Lexington Books.

*further comparisons in other chapters

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