Subsistence farming

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The traditional subsistence economy of the Alaskan indigenous peoples - fishing, hunting, gathering - is protected by law and takes precedence over market economy efforts in these branches of the economy, an exception worldwide

Subsistence farming or demand economy are all - predominantly agricultural - economic forms whose production goal is largely self-sufficiency to ensure the livelihood of a family or a small community. Subsistence farming also includes the income from hunting and gathering. Exclusive subsistence production is rare because a number of necessary goods i. a. are only produced in a way that is based on the division of labor and are instead available on local markets . In the traditional subsistence strategy, there is no market orientation, no pronounced division of labor and no pursuit of profit .

In the so-called local communities - such as hunters , field farmers and shepherd nomads (not so pronounced here) - self-sufficient , traditionally subsistence-based production still predominates today.

In a broader sense, the term subsistence economy is also used for market shares of up to 25% of gross profit . According to this definition, it accounts for up to 50% of agricultural production in developing countries (see subsistence agriculture in developing countries ) (according to the Spectrum Lexicon of Geography (2001): Latin America 30-40%, Africa over 50%, Germany 11%, USA 3 %). In the industrialized and emerging countries, it has an important role as additional security.

Definition of terms

The word subsistence denotes something “that exists through itself”. Accordingly, every form of economic activity is also a form of subsistence. The extended term "subsistence economy" is distinguished by concrete ways, such as working is and mismanaged and what specific targets there. These characteristics are fundamentally different from those of gainful employment . The pure self-sufficiency with individual products is, however, quite compatible with the commercial economy or can partially compensate for its inadequacies.


Street in Göttingerode . The gardens of the houses are long and were used for self-sufficiency in the mid-20th century
The sale of expendable products by their producers in local markets is part of many subsistence economies

Food production in the subsistence economy primarily serves to supply individual households and is not aimed at generating profits . The subsistence economy is often associated with natural economy and differs from the transport or market economy , in which the individual goods and services are usually exchanged for money on the market in order to obtain other goods or services with the income generated from them. This does not rule out that surpluses resulting from subsistence farming are also sold on local markets in order to generate income for necessary investments, for example for tools or salt.

In 1922, the German sociologist Max Weber described the demand economy as the opposite of the commercial economy: All economic communities aimed at meeting demand only do business insofar as this is unavoidable. He cites families, charitable foundations and forest communities as examples.

In 1988, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann saw the subsistence economy as the opposite of the market economy: It "runs without any noteworthy monetary mediation", without the monetary mechanism.

Subsistence Economy in the Global Economy

In equitable societies, people are not based on competition but on cooperation

At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 40 percent of the world's population (especially in developing countries) still live from subsistence orientation. In the age of globalization, however, such strategies are judged very differently.

Traditional strategy for livelihood security and moral economy

From the perspective of the affluent society life seems indigenous peoples poor; the indigenous people themselves judge this very differently (here Shuar Indians in Ecuador, 2011)

“Subsistence - as culturally defined poverty - is not synonymous with poor (physical) quality of life, on the contrary, subsistence farming helps nature's household and makes a contribution to social economy. In this way it guarantees a high quality of life - see the right to food and water - it guarantees a sustainable existence, it guarantees a robust social and cultural identity and meaning in life. "

Basically, the subsistence economy still offers people in traditional societies a largely independent and self-determined livelihood. The first principle of subsistence economy is reciprocity , which is used today as a model for the term “ moral economy ”.

Cause of poverty and underdevelopment

Even in the eyes of left-wing critics of capitalism , wage labor in factories and offices alone is socially necessary work - subsistence work that secures livelihoods has no social status.

Although more than 40 percent of the world's population currently have a largely independent and self-determined livelihood due to their needs economy, up to 1.2 billion of these smallholders are acutely affected by hunger and poverty. In many cases - especially in overpopulated or heavily overused regions - subsistence farming is not a future-proof alternative today.


EU member states with predominantly semi-subsistent agriculture (green), status 2005–2007.
95 percent of all farms in Romania are now the half- or semi-subsistence farming assigned

For rural development in the European Union , with the beginning of eastward expansion from 2004, the important importance of supplementary subsistence activities for the particularly structurally weak regions of Eastern and Southeastern Europe was recognized. As a semi-subsistence ( rural ) economy companies ( latin semi "half") are referred to since small family farms, which combine the local market with the production for personal use and in which economic behavior more influenced by demand orientation than by competitive orientation.

Three criteria are used to distinguish semi-subsistence farms: physical measures, economic size and market participation. A frequently chosen physical measure is an agricultural area of ​​less than five hectares . According to Eurostat, the limit values ​​for economic size are an annual production value of less than 1200 euros (= 1 ESU) for pure subsistence farming and between 1200 and 9600 euros (= 8 ESU) for small agricultural semi-subsistence farms. As far as market participation is concerned, it is often assumed in scientific studies that less than 50 percent of its production is sold in a (semi-) subsistence farm.

The number of agricultural holdings that are classified as subsistence and semi-subsistence holdings therefore depends heavily on the definitions used by the individual EU member states , some of which use significantly different measures. What is certain, however, is that in the six member states of Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 at least 95 percent of all agricultural holdings were smaller than 8 ESU, and that in the years 2005-2007 in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Lithuania and Estonia at least half of all agricultural holdings over 1 ESU mainly produced for their own use. The same applies to Croatia, which only acceded to the EU in July 2013 and where at that time almost 70% of all agricultural holdings were cultivating less than 5 hectares, with more than half of all holdings producing only for their own use. Outside Eastern Europe, the number of semi-subsistence farms also predominates on the southern edge of the EU, in Greece, Portugal, Spain and especially in Italy.

Subsistence and semi-subsistence farms fulfill three main functions in agriculture and rural development: they act as a buffer against poverty, as a basis for greater agricultural diversity, and offer environmental and other non-commercial benefits. Their buffering function is most pronounced in the new Member States, especially among farm households living in relative poverty. The Romanian and Scottish case studies illustrate how semi-subsistence farms and small farms can deliver environmental, cultural and social benefits.

The gap between rejection and recognition of semi-subsistence still exists. However, such businesses are increasingly being perceived positively, as they have important effects for sustainable development, for cultural diversity (for example traditional cultivation methods and food specialties) or for rural tourism.


In the Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations is explicitly pointed to the dependence traditionally subsistenzwirtschaftender Communities of intact ecosystems, which they have taken since time immemorial, all vital. The convention recognizes that their way of life is particularly sustainable and does not reduce biological diversity. In contrast to industrialized societies, which are not directly dependent on a specific area, such communities have a direct interest in maintaining and protecting these ecosystems, the stability of which they have never endangered.

In the sustainability debate in the industrialized countries - especially in growth-critical discourses about a post-growth economy - a partial return to subsistence farming by means of community gardens or urban agriculture is viewed as a possible measure to solve social and ecological problems.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: Subsistence farming  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Thomas F. Thornton: Alaska Native Subsistence: A Matter of Cultural Survival. In: 1998, accessed September 13, 2014.
  2. Walter Hirschberg (Ed.): Dictionary of Ethnology. New edition, 2nd edition. Reimer, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-496-02650-2 , p. 361.
    * Article “Subsistenzwirtschaft” in the Lexikon der Geographie online, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg 2001, accessed on August 23, 2017.
    * Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen : Subsistenzwirtschaft , Global economy, regional economy. In: Maren A. Jochimsen, Ulrike Knobloch (Hrsg.): Lifeworld economy in times of economic globalization. Kleine, Bielefeld 2006, pp. 65–88, here p. 70.
    * Marshall Sahlins , quoted in Rhoda H. Halperin: Cultural Economies Past and Present. University of Texas Press, Austin 1994, p. 259.
  3. Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen: Subsistence economy, global economy, regional economy. In: Maren A. Jochimsen, Ulrike Knobloch (Hrsg.): Lifeworld economy in times of economic globalization. Kleine, Bielefeld 2006, pp. 65–88, here p. ??.
  4. Alexander Wassiljewitsch Tschajanow : The doctrine of the peasant economy. Attempt of a theory of family economy in agriculture. Campus, Frankfurt 1998, ISBN 978-3-593-33846-0 , p. ?? (First edition 1923).
  5. Josef Drexler: Eco-Cosmology - the polyphonic contradiction of Indian America. Resource crisis management using the example of Nasa (Páez) from Tierradentro, Colombia. Lit, Münster 2009, p. 38.
  6. Compare to Niklas Luhmann : The economy of society. 6th edition. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1994, p. 97 ISBN 3518287524 .
  7. Josef Drexler: Eco-Cosmology - the polyphonic contradiction of Indian America. Resource crisis management using the example of Nasa (Páez) from Tierradentro, Colombia. Lit, Münster 2009, p. 38: Reference in footnote 9 to Sevilla Casas 1986, p. 230.
  8. ^ Max Weber: Economy and Society. Outline of understanding sociology. Part 2, Volume 1, § 1, 1922.
  9. ^ Niklas Luhmann: The economy of society . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1988, p. 97, ISBN 9783518578834
  10. a b Urs Fankhauser: Mystery. Local, self-determined and sustainable. Worldwide importance of family farming. éducation21, Bern 2014, p. 8
  11. Vandana Shiva : How To End Poverty. Making Poverty History And The History Of Poverty. ZNet comment, May 11, 2005 (English).
  12. ^ EP Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin, Hammondsworth 1979.
  13. James C. Scott : The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven / London 1977.
  14. Maria Mies : Do we need a new “moral economy”? In: Christiane Busch-Lüty , Maren Jochimsen, Ulrike Knobloch, Irmi Seidl (eds.) Political Ecology , special issue “Vorsorgendes Wirtschaften”, oekom, Munich 1994: pp. 18–21.
  15. André Gorz: Critique of Economic Reason. Questions of meaning at the end of the working society. New edition. Rotbuch, Zurich 2009, ISBN 978-3-85869-429-4 , p. 37 ff. (Original: 1989).
  16. Urs Fankhauser: Mystery. Local, self-determined and sustainable. Worldwide importance of family farming. éducation21, Bern 2014, p. 8.
  17. ^ Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Food security for sustainable development and urbanization , 2014
  18. ^ Franziska Müller: Between the market, multifunctionality and marginalization. The future of semi-subsistence in Eastern Europe. In: Peter H. Feindt, M. Gottschick u. a .: Sustainable agricultural policy as a reflexive policy. Plea for a new discourse between politics and science. Sigma, Berlin 2008, pp. 213-229, here p. ??.
  19. a b European Network for Rural Development: Semi-Subsistence Agriculture in Europe: Concepts and Key Questions , Background Paper for the Seminar Semi-Subsistence Agriculture in the EU: Current Situation and Future Prospects in Sibiu, Romania, 13. – 15. October 2010 , last accessed April 11, 2016.
  20. Josef Koch: Croatia is the 28th EU country , dlz agrarmagazin from July 1, 2013 , last accessed April 11, 2016.
  21. Anja von Hahn: Traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities between intellectual property rights and the public domain. Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law , Springer, Heidelberg a. a. 2004, ISBN 3-540-22319-3 , pp. 47–56, here p. 48.
  22. Niko Paech: The legend of sustainable growth - a plea for renunciation. (No longer available online.) In: Le Monde diplomatique . September 10, 2010, archived from the original on November 12, 2014 ; accessed on September 13, 2014 .
  23. Irene Antoni-Komar: Post-growth economy and urban subsistence - alternatives for a sustainable society? In: Budget in Education and Research . No. 2 , 2014, p. 3-14 , doi : 10.3224 / hibifo.v3i2.16308 .
  24. Christa Müller: Urban Gardening. About the return of the gardens to the city . oekom, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-86581-244-5 .