Land reform FTW: #BTEHbook Friday, more good sh#t from the cutting room floor


(c) Jonathan McIntosh (2004)

Because I care, here is a Friday #BTEHbook update on my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger, despite the fact that I’m technically still on holiday this week! (For new readers, #BTEHbook presents the story of Belo Horizonte, home to 2.5 million people and one of the world’s most successful city food security programs.)

Today’s topic is land reform and inverse productivity. It may sound dry, but stick with me–I’ve talked about the “Inverse Productivity Relationship between Farm Size and Productivity” here before, but it’s worth coming back to for multiple reasons. For one thing, the robust finding that small farms are on average more productive than larger ones bears repeating quite a bit, because while it is always easy to draw conclusions too hastily, the evidence for this relationship would seem to be at least as strong as the evidence for other interventions in agriculture. (In fact, the weakness of the overall body of evidence for the effects of technology on agricultural productivity is shocking, though Glover et al. have helpful suggestions for future research.) Also, the vastly uneven distribution of land throughout the world, particularly in countries like Brazil, where a couple percent of the total population owns around fifty percent of the land, calls out for attention and redress.

While a more even distribution of land has a solid basis in human rights and correcting legacies of horrific dispossession, it also has a very basic logic, and the benefit of being likely to contribute to poverty reduction and (if one is focused on this type of thing) agricultural productivity. The clip below is from a Box that did not make the final cut of Beginning to End Hunger, but is an important issue nonetheless that deserves far more attention and action than it gets.

Box: Land reform and the inverse productivity relationship

Most research investigating what has been called the “the inverse relationship between productivity and farm size,” (IR) has found evidence supporting the phenomenon, with one study by prominent economists noting that the observation of higher productivity on larger farms is “the exception rather than the norm,” (Barrett et al. 2010, p. 95). This provides further grist for the quip by ecologists Tom Dietsch and John Vandermeer, who wrote in 2003 that “if increasing production is your goal, breaking up large farms and giving the land to small producers,” that is, land reform, “would be the best short term solution.”

On the other hand, Barrett et al. also note their belief that it is naïve to take the overwhelming and consistent evidence for the higher productivity of smaller farms to be reason for supporting land reform policies. But even if we (inappropriately) dismiss Dietsch and Vandermeer’s opinion on the issue as one such naïve conclusion, we might be more loathe to do so about the opinion of the prominent development economist Michael Lipton, who includes IR as a potential rationale for land reform. Lipton in fact concludes, based on his decades of study, that land reform has significant potential for poverty reduction and agricultural output (Lipton 2009, p. 5-6, inter alia). Writing in 1998, Lipton and colleagues declared land reform to be “classical but recently undervalued,” by “otherwise well-informed people… There is almost no area of anti-poverty policy where popular, even professional opinion is so far removed from expert analysis and guidance on land reform,” (Lipton et al. 1998, p. 112, emphasis added).

It is worth noting that Lipton and colleagues’ conclusions elsewhere in their piece broadly align with those of agrarian studies researcher Saturnino “Jun” Borras, whose 2007 book Pro-poor land reform: a critique found that only land reform that effectively redistributed sociopolitical power, land, and resources for support achieved results that bettered the lives of the farmers concerned.


Barrett, C. B., Bellemare, M. F., & Hou, J. Y. (2010). Reconsidering Conventional Explanations of the Inverse Productivity–Size Relationship. World Development, 38(1), 88-97.

Borras, S. M. (2007). Pro-poor land reform: a critique. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Lipton, M. (2009). Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs. London and New York: Routledge

Lipton, M., Yaqub, S., & Darbellay, E. (1998). Successes in Anti-poverty. Geneva: International Labor Organization.

Vandermeer, J. H., & Dietsch, T. (2003). The fateful dialectic: agriculture and conservation. Endangered Species Update, 20(4-5), 199-207.


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This entry was posted in #BTEHbook, Agriculture, John Vandermeer, Publications, Self-congratulation, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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