1.74 | Fall 2020 | Graduate

Land, Water, Food, and Climate

SECTION 4 | Reconciling Demand and Supply: Options

S13. Comparison of Three Global Crop Production Systems

The three crop production systems described in the Section 4 Overview each include farms found in many different geographic regions. This makes it difficult to compile statistics that characterize each system as a whole. However, it is possible to identify a representative region or country in each production system so that the three systems can be conveniently compared.  This is feasible because the differences across the systems are so significant.

Table S13.1 below lists a number of different demographic, agricultural, and socioeconomic indicators for the three production systems, based on the following representative countries or regions:

Commercial export-oriented farms: USA
Small high-input farms: China
Small low-input farms: sub-Saharan Africa

The statistics in the table apply ca. 2010 and are taken primarily from FAOSTAT, periodic USDA statistical reports (USDA ERS and NASS), IFAD (2010), Wu et al. (2018), and Lowder (2015).

Table S13.1

                                                        USA                China             Sub-Saharan Africa

Total population (million):                     300                  1350                777

UN projected 2050                               380                  1410                2100
   Population (million)
Agricultural population (million):           5.1 (1.7%)       842 (62%)       432 (56%)

Fertility (births per woman)                  1.9                   1.7                   5.2

FAO arable land (million ha)*               156                  106                  165

Fraction cropland on                            —                    80%                 66%
    farms < 5ha
Fraction cropland on                            91%                 –                      –
    farms > 100 ha                                                                                        

Cropland irrigated                                14%                 36%                 2%

N fertilizer use (106 tonnes                  12 (0.1)           31 (0.3)            0.5 (0.003)
   and tonnes arable ha-1)
N fertilizer production (106 tonnes)        9                    36                    1

Cereal production
Cereal production                                434                  554                  131
Cereal exports (106 tonnes)                64 (15%)         21 (4%)           2.7

Cereal imports  (106 tonnes)               10 (2%)           1   (0.2%)        30 (23%)

GDP per capita                                    $ 51,000          $ 1894             $ 632

Typical annual farm                              $ 60,000          —                    —

   household incomes                           $200,000

Rural residents                                    —                    35%                 87%
   living on less than $2 per day:
Infant mortality                                     6                      19                    89
   (per 1000 births)                                                                              
Life expectancy (years)                       79                    75                   51

Fraction undernourished                     3%                   9%                  30%

* Temporary food and fodder crops

A review of these statistics suggest:

  • The US and China have much lower birth rates than sub-Saharan Africa.
  • US farms are much larger than in the other two regions and are operated by a much smaller fraction of the total population.
  • The US and China have much more irrigated land and produce and consume much more fertilizer than sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The US exports a significantly larger fraction of its cereal production than the other two regions.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa is much more dependent on cereal imports than the other two regions.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa farmers are much poorer and more subject to health problems than the other two regions.
  • China has been able to achieve much better income and health results than sub-Saharan Africa, even though a larger fraction of its cropland is on small farms. Does this suggest that it could be possible for sub-Saharan agriculture to prosper with primarily small farms? Or should it emulate the US large farm model rather than China’s?


IFAD International Fund for Agricultural Development. 2010. “Rural Poverty Report 2011 - New Realities, New Challenges: New Opportunities for Tomorrow’s Generation.” Annexes 1 and 2. IFAD, Rome

Sarah K. Lowder, Jakob Skoet, Terri Raney. 2016. “The Number, Size, and Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide.” World Development, 87, 16–29.

USDA ERS and NASS. 2012. “Agricultural Resource Management Survey.” (Accessed 22 July, 2020).

Yiyun Wu, Xican Xi, et al. 2018. “Policy Distortions, Farm Size, and the Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, no. 27: 7010–7015.

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