Why are there fewer farmers?

Mar 15, 2021 | written by:

The number of people working in agriculture worldwide fell from 44% to 26% between 1991 and 2020. One reason for this is the further development of agricultural technology. Another, far more important one: many people no longer want to work in agriculture. 

Societies evolve, new challenges arise. This observation alone is not a problem. But if we add another fact, the issue takes on perspective: people currently working in agriculture are getting older. 

The average age of a farmer in Africa is 60. Amazing when you consider that Africa is the youngest of all continents. People here are just 24 years old on average. But it is a global phenomenon: young people are increasingly drawn to the cities - where they have better opportunities for education and work. 

As is often the case with problems that have no impact in the here and now: They have little place in our consciousness. It is human nature. But this is not about us: the food security of the next generation and the one after that must be secured. For that, we need more farmers again. Young farmers.  

That sounds simple in theory - but the problems are of a practical nature. First and foremost, agriculture has an image problem. It is seen, especially by young people, as poorly paid work, for less qualified people. In addition, agriculture makes a considerable negative contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that our consumption is also behind this should be left aside.

Agriculture is essential for the survival of all of us. Every day we buy our food in the supermarket. But how often do we think about its origin? Perhaps too rarely. Because behind every dish, every meal, is the work of one or more farmers. 

What is needed are positive initiatives and a rethink in politics. For those who want to cultivate, rising land prices are often an insurmountable obstacle. How can young farmers be given access to the resources they need? The European Union, for example, has committed itself to providing financial support to young farmers. 

However, this is not a realistic global solution. What is needed? Empowerment through education and training - helping people to help themselves. A United Nations FAO report lists recommendations (using Africa as an example) to make the agricultural sector attractive to young people again: 

  • Promoting an equal environment in terms of gender, age and ethnicity.
  • Improving wage and working conditions in the agricultural sector
  • Involving youth in local economic development and land policies
  • Financial support to acquire land (e.g. government loans) 
  • Institutionalising and investing in holistic approaches that both strengthen youth skills and increase their participation in agriculture
  • Revise national action plans for youth employment.

An example of this: land leasing. Experienced farmers give land to the next generation and receive a share of the profits in return. Both sides benefit - because it is a first entry point to independent farming for young farmers. 

This BBC Special has listed more positive examples. 

Can such initiatives guarantee food security in the future? Certainly not on their own. But there is reason for hope. There is something good about change and progress.

Societies are becoming more egalitarian and awareness of sustainability is growing. Agriculture is therefore becoming more interesting for new groups. Groups that previously had less contact with it, either demographically or through their family history. Groups that act more out of green conviction than out of a sense of tradition.

One thing is certain: The historical trend is levelling out. It is like in physics. Wherever a vacuum is created, there is also pressure to close it. The farmers of the future are perhaps a little younger than we imagine them to be. They spend more time behind the laptop than on the tractor. They may not have gone into the industry because it was what their parents did. But because it is what they have always wanted to do. The challenge is to make it as easy as possible for them. 

Nothing less than our future is at stake. 

1. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS 

2. https://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/integration/pdf/foodandagricultureorganization.pdf 

3. https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/the-ageing-crisis-threatening-farming/ 

4. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-54844546 

5. https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/key-policies/common-agricultural-policy/income-support/young-farmers_en 

6. http://www.fao.org/3/av095e/av095e.pdf 

7. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/aug/16/we-are-stewards-of-our-land-the-rise-of-female-farmers 

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