Who will be the farmers of the future?

November 11, 2009

While most of the discussions about the future of agriculture and food tend to focus about how to feed 9 billion people, and about whether it should be organic or industrial, one question seems to be left aside, though it is a very important one: who will be the farmers.

If the forecast of the UN is correct and by 2050 when we are 9 billion, 70% of the people will live in cities, while today this number  is only 47%, this means that in fact the rural population will decrease by about 25% from the current numbers (2.7 billion vs. 3.6 billion today). This means that there will be a lot less farmers in the future.

Farmer of the futureSo, who will they be and where will they be?

A lot of the good agricultural land is in the Northern hemisphere, and in areas where not only the population numbers  are stagnating, but these are regions where the average age of the population is increasing from an already rather high level of about 50% of the population older than 37. These regions, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are not likely the countries where we can expect a surge in urban population. This will happen mostly in Africa, Asia and Arab countries.

These Northern hemisphere countries already have large commercial farming structures and, unless they train many new farmers, the concentration trend is likely to continue, meaning even less farms, and larger farms than today.

In countries where the agriculture infrastructure is more fragmented and farms are smaller, which are the countries where the urban population is going to increase the most, there clearly is a need to rationalize production and increase yields to feed this new population that will have very little possibilities to grow food where they live. This means a “revolution” in the way agriculture will have to be organized and structured. Asia and South America have already engaged in this process for a few decades, yet depending on the countries they will face different challenges, mostly about access to water and ensuring the sustainability of their environment.

The continent where agriculture has stayed the most traditional is Africa, where a large share of the land is used for subsistence. Many African countries have struggled for years with poor policies and a lack of investment to help a proper development. This has resulted in lower yields over time. As such, this also means that Africa is the continent with the highest potential for improvement, although this would have to be managed very carefully, as climatic and socio-cultural conditions are very sensitive.

Therefore, we can conclude that in the future, not only will we have fewer farmers, meaning fewer farms, but also in the same time, we will need to increase production and train a new generation. All of this will require a fair amount of capital that many farmers alone cannot afford, especially considering how their income situation usually is.

This will be no surprise to see more capital coming from large corporations, investors and governments. This is already happening in Africa with the land purchases and leases, and we can expect his to happen. There is a huge (rather captive) market where demand probably is going to outpace supply, and there is a lot of capital waiting to enter markets where money can be made in trade activities.

Farmers wanted!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Consulting Group Ltd.


Bringing cities to the countryside: Infrastructure will help rural development

September 16, 2009

Although the title of this article many sound a contradiction in terms, agriculture (in which I include aquaculture as well) needs cities and vice-versa. Rural development is more than just agricultural activities; it is about creating and improving a cluster of many economic activities that are necessary for the proper functioning of a community.

As such, this should not be a surprise, because in the history of man, human settlements always have been linked to drinking water and sufficient food supplies. By developing agriculture, the very first “farmers” created the conditions for sedentarism, instead of continuous migrations. On these sedentary communities, other activities developed later to cover the needs of the locals. Maslow's pyramid of needs - Picture WikipediaThe hierarchy of the needs that we must fill can be easily identified according to the pyramid of Maslow: food and water, shelter and physical safety. Once this is achieved, adding other activities become more natural and simple.

This is why developing large urban centers is no guarantee of prosperity. Like all things in life, the key is about balance. Of course, over the last 150 years, the focus has been about growing the industrial capabilities and this has been the engine for a massive migration of population from the countryside to the cities. Although the conditions were far from stellar, many companies in the early industrial development were providing their employees with housing. Their ways may not always have been very social, but they were showing some level of social responsibility.

With the ups and downs of industries, cities have increasingly faced a problem of poverty, as the development did not include a sense of community anymore and company loyalty towards their employees disappeared as the workforce became expendable and factories could move to other countries.

This industrialization and urbanization have also affected the rural areas and the agricultural world. Many rural areas have faced and are still facing isolation and poverty. Although in many cases there have been many efforts made to improve this situation, the situation has not always improved.

Yet, we now see the challenges of feeding an ever-increasing population, we all recognize that we will need to cultivate more land and water, but this still does not seem to make things turn around.

In my view, the problem is that, too often, we restrict rural development to agricultural development, and by looking at this part in a separate way, instead of focusing on integrating agriculture in the development of the whole local economy, we just do not create strong enough chances of success. Having large urban centers with their problems on the one hand, and remote and depopulated rural areas with their problems on the other hand, should be the clear sign for all of us that our economic model is out of balance. There can be life outside a huge metropolis where everyone has become an anonymous person, resulting is a dislocated social fabric. What has made the success of our species has been our ability to act as groups. As isolated creatures, we probably would not have survived very long.

To rebuild the necessary social fabric in rural areas, we must create the conditions to have balanced and complementary activities. This is why, while some see the future of agriculture as urban farming, I believe that it has to be urbanizing the countryside, not with large impersonal cities, but with human size settlements where we can provide for all the needs.  Isolated farmers with no direct connection with their markets and not getting the value for their products to make a decent living will look for alternatives. If we want more people to produce food, we must understand that they must make enough money to want to keep producing food. By creating a proper infrastructure around agricultural areas, we can create a more local market that will drive production. A profitable market for the farmers’ products also means more money in their pockets, which in turn means more spending power to develop demand for other business, be it for products or services. This is how we will be able to grow local economies and communities. This is not about a romantic or idealistic back to nature movement, or creating local farmers markets purely for marketing purposes, but this is a thorough and integrated process embracing modernity. In the current rural areas and probably in other regions, the future will about bringing the economy to the people before bringing people to the economy.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.