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Subsistence Farming

by Lynette Abbott
Published: Last Updated on
Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming is a type of agricultural system in which farmers grow enough food to feed their own families and have little or no surplus to sell or trade. This type of farming is often found in developing countries and is characterized by small plots of land, low levels of technology, and manual labor. In this article, we will take a closer look at subsistence farming, including its history, global status, scientific evidence, and importance.

Subsistence farming is often compared to commercial farming, which is focused on producing large quantities of food for sale or trade. Commercial farming often utilizes large plots of land, advanced technology, and paid labor. In contrast, it is primarily focused on meeting the basic needs of the farmer and their family.

Subsistence farming has been practiced for thousands of years and is thought to be one of the earliest forms of agriculture. Historically, it was the norm in most parts of the world, as people needed to grow their own food in order to survive. However, as populations grew and economies developed, commercial farming gradually replaced subsistence farming in many parts of the world.

Today, it is still practiced in many developing countries, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), subsistence farming accounts for 80% of the world’s food production in developing countries. In these areas, subsistence farmers are often among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The FAO estimates that there are around 500 million subsistence farms worldwide, with an average farm size of around 2 hectares. Subsistence farmers typically grow a variety of crops, including staple grains such as rice, wheat, and maize, as well as vegetables, fruits, and livestock.


While subsistence farming has been practiced for thousands of years, there is limited scientific research on this type of agriculture. However, studies have shown that it can be sustainable if managed properly. One study found that subsistence farmers in Africa were able to maintain soil fertility and biodiversity by rotating crops and using traditional farming practices.

Subsistence farming plays a crucial role in meeting the basic needs of millions of people in developing countries. It also helps to preserve traditional farming practices and local food systems. In addition, subsistence agriculture can be an important source of income for rural communities, as farmers are able to sell any surplus produce.

Subsistence agriculture can have both positive and negative effects on the environment and on local communities. On the positive side, subsistence agriculture can help to preserve biodiversity and traditional farming practices. However, it can also lead to overuse of natural resources and degradation of the land.

Subsistence farming is often found in areas with poor infrastructure and limited access to markets, credit, and technology. In addition, political instability, war, and natural disasters can also lead to subsistence agriculture.


There are several scientific concerns related to subsistence farming, including soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and overuse of natural resources. In addition, subsistence farmers often lack access to modern technology and information, which can limit their ability to improve crop yields and protect the environment.


There are several types of subsistence farming, including:

  • Shifting cultivation: This type of subsistence agriculture involves clearing a plot of land, growing crops for a few years, and then moving on to a new plot. This type of farming is often found in tropical forests and is characterized by the use of simple tools and low levels of technology.
  • Intensive subsistence agriculture: This type is characterized by high population density, small plots of land, and the use of irrigation and terracing to increase crop yields. This type of farming is often found in Asia and Latin America.
  • Pastoral subsistence farming: This type of farming involves the raising of livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. This type of farming is often found in arid and semi-arid regions, where crop cultivation is difficult.

It is often managed by the farmers themselves, with little or no outside input. Factors that can affect subsistence agriculture include weather, pests, and access to markets, credit, and technology.

In conclusion, subsistence farming is a vital form of agriculture that provides food and income for millions of people in developing countries. However, it also has its challenges, such as overuse of natural resources, lack of access to modern technology, and degradation of the land. Further research is needed to find ways to improve these farming practices and support the livelihoods of subsistence farmers worldwide.

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