The Farming Crisis: Who Will Feed us in the Future?

Around 12,000 years ago, the introduction of agriculture altered the course of human history and transformed the way we live today. With the advent of agriculture, cities and civilizations were able to thrive and prosper, and as a result, the global population soared due to the ability to cultivate crops and raise animals in a sustainable manner. This has had a profound impact on human society, providing the means to sustain denser populations compared to the nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Agriculture has become an essential element of modern society, serving as a critical source of food and resources for people across the globe. However, the agricultural sector is facing a significant challenge in many countries due to the aging of farmers– the US being one of them. As the average age of farmers continues to rise, there are a number of potential effects that could have significant implications for the future of agriculture and our everyday lives. Who will carry on putting food on the table for future generations as the numbers of experienced farmers dwindle? In this post, we will explore solutions to the decrease in farmers due to aging, how we can influence young people to be farmers, and ways to fix low wages and environmental impacts of the farming system. 

According to data from the International Labor Organization, the percentage of individuals employed in agriculture worldwide has declined from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020. While new agricultural technology is partly responsible for this trend, the primary issue is the decreasing interest in farm work among people. A 2014 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reveals that the average age of farmers in Africa is approximately 60, in contrast to the general population’s average age of less than 24 years old. This trend is also prevalent in developed countries like the US, where the average age of farmers is also around 60. The average age of farmers continues to rise globally as younger individuals leave rural areas for city life. However, there are measures we can take to guarantee food security for both present and future generations.

One of the main solutions to the decrease in farmers due to aging is to provide incentives for young people to take up farming. Farming tends to have a bad image as a career because many young people regard it as a low-paying job for unskilled people. On the contrary, farming in modern society is highly technical and requires a lot of expertise. Incentives for young farmers could include tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and grants. By providing these incentives, young people would be more likely to take up farming as a career, and the agricultural industry would have a more diverse pool of talent to draw from. Additionally, more resources could be invested in agricultural education programs to help young people learn the necessary skills and knowledge to become successful farmers.  For example, the Farmers Apprenticeship Initiative, launched by Farmers Weekly, endeavors to motivate individuals without prior experience in agriculture to pursue a career in farming. Another notable illustration is the Farming for the Future program, which encompasses a wide range of educational opportunities such as graduate placements, scholarships for innovative or sustainable projects, postgraduate programs, bursaries, and more.

In addition to encouraging young people to become farmers, it is crucial to address the issue of low wages in the farming industry. Many farmers who work very hard to provide food to the country often struggle to make ends meet and provide food for themselves and their families. The majority of the world’s “hungry” are smallholder farmers. Farm workers actually have the lowest annual family incomes of any U.S wage and salary workers and are subject to minimum wage and overtime pay. One way to fix this is to provide fair wages and benefits to farm workers. This would help to attract and retain workers in the industry, reducing turnover and ensuring a more stable labor force. 

Another solution is to promote the benefits of farming to young people. Many youth are unaware of the advantages of farming, such as the ability to work outdoors, the potential for independence and entrepreneurship, and the satisfaction of contributing to society by providing essential goods. By educating young people about these benefits, we can increase their interest in farming as a career. 

Finally, addressing the environmental impacts of the farming system is critical to the longterm sustainability of agriculture. Farming’s environmental credentials are highly questioned with agriculture being one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and a large chunk of food in the world going to waste. Globally, from 17% to 32% of greenhouse gasses come from food(transportation, land use change, deforestation to grow animal feed,etc). For younger generations concerned with environmental issues, farming needs to change. One solution is to promote sustainable farming practices, such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage. These practices can help conserve soil health, reduce erosion and nutrient loss, and improve the long-term productivity of the land. Due to erosion, much of the soil is being lost at an alarming rate, largely attributed to contemperary farming methods. It can take anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to generate an inch of topsoil, and here in the United States, we are currently losing an inch of soil every 34 years. Current fertilizer production depends on scarce and costly resources, so composting is also another solution which is more environmentally friendly. Composting recycles organic matter to convert waste into fertilizer and helps crops grow. Additionally, investing in renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, can help to reduce the carbon footprint of farming operations and promote sustainable energy use. 

Overall, the decrease in farmers due to aging is a significant challenge for the agricultural industry, but there are solutions available. Encouraging young people to become farmers by providing incentives and education, improving wages and working conditions, and promoting sustainable farming practices are all key steps towards a more sustainable and prosperous future. By taking action now, we can ensure that farming remains a vital and productive part of society for generations to come. 


Credit: Mee Ko Dong, Shutterstock for featured image

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