Critical theme: Small-scale farming and the future of the European food system

Critical theme

Globally, small-scale farming is crucial for producing food and for sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people. In European food systems, the important but under-appreciated role of small-scale farmers is under threat from external drivers. On Wednesday, 22 January 2020, IIED hosted a critical theme event to discuss how small farms fit in the future context of the UK and European food system.

A woman farmer looks at her flock of sheep

Shirley Clarke and her husband farm sheep in Scotland. Seventy per cent of Scotland’s land is devoted to farming. The Clarkes have diversified by offering farm tours and have received awards for nature conservation (Sarah Wood via Flickr, Crown Copyright)

It’s not just Brexit. The future of European food systems is being shaped by many different – sometimes contradictory – drivers. The large-scale agro-food processing and retailing industries are increasingly churning out processed foods and degrading the environment. At the same time, more people are concerned about the climate impacts of agriculture and demanding better, rather than more, food.

Small farms are an under-appreciated part of the food system, but they play an important role both in Europe and across the developing world, and could have an even more relevant role in the future. Small farms produce considerable amounts of food and generate jobs for many people. They are dynamic, diverse and entrepreneurial. People are drawn to small-scale farming by necessity, but also for business, political and lifestyle choices.

This critical theme event explored the future of UK and European food systems through the lens of small-scale farming, drawing on the findings of the SALSA research project about the status and role of small-scale farming across Europe, including lessons from small-scale farming in Africa.

Are small farms inefficient and uneconomic? Or do they offer a glimpse of what a more sustainable food system might look like?

The speakers discussed the challenges and opportunities of small-scale farming, why it is important here and now, and how it can contribute to more sustainable food production in Europe and beyond.

About the panellists

Alejandro Guarin (chair) is a senior researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group. He leads IIED’s work on agro-food systems, from smallholder farming to small-scale entrepreneurship, informal markets and retail, and consumption and nutrition. 

Professor Teresa Pinto-Correia is the director of the Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (ICAAM) at the University of Évora in Portugal, and leader of the SALSA project.

Vicki Hird is a campaigner, author, researcher and activist who has been working on environment, food and farming issues for over 25 years. As the sustainable farm campaign coordinator at Sustain, she manages the farm policy and related campaigning and provides comment and guidance on sustainable farming issues.

Rosemary Champion (The Accidental Smallholder) is a smallholder in the east of Scotland.

Event coverage

A recording of the complete event, including the question-and-answer session, is available below and on IIED's YouTube channel.

The presentation given by professor Teresa Pinto-Correia is also available on IIED's SlideShare channel.

About the critical theme series

IIED’s critical theme events create a space for conversation and debate on key and current sustainable development issues. Through the convening of expert speakers and external stakeholders, IIED aims to share information, inform audiences and facilitate discussions on the imaginative solutions needed to solve global challenges.

The seminars cover a wide range of speakers and topics. Previous events have looked at 'The polluter elite, inequality and the ecological crisis', ‘Can China help build a global eco-civilisation?’ and, most recently, ‘How can inclusive finance accelerate universal energy access?