Fewer and fewer farms, what does that mean for our food?

By the end of this century, the number of farms in the world will have shrunk by half, according to research in Nature. The remaining farms are getting bigger, posing risks to biodiversity and our food systems.

The study in Nature looks at the number and size of farms from the 1960s to 2013 in more than 180 countries. Based on those trends, she predicts that the number of farms worldwide will plummet, from 616 million in 2020 to 272 million in 2100.

An important reason for this is rural exodus: as a country’s economy grows, more people migrate to urban areas and fewer people remain to farm in the countryside.

Worldwide

In the United States and Western Europe, the number of farms has been declining for decades and farms are growing at the same time. The most recent data from the US Department of Agriculture shows that the number of farms there fell by 200,000 between 2007 and 2022.

But the researchers believe that this trend will also manifest itself in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean from the middle of this century. Sub-Saharan Africa will follow later this century.

Implications

The research shows that even if the total amount of agricultural land does not change in the coming years, fewer people will own and work the available land. This can have consequences for biodiversity.

“Larger farms tend to have less biodiversity and more monocultures,” said Zia Mehrabi, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California Boulder and lead author of the study. “Smaller farms tend to have more biodiversity and grow a wider variety of crops, making them more resilient to pest outbreaks and climate shocks.”

The food supply is also at risk. Previous research found that the world’s smallest farms make up only a quarter of the world’s agricultural land, but harvest a third of the world’s food.

In addition, fewer farms may also mean a decrease in valuable indigenous knowledge that farmers pass on. As farms consolidate, that knowledge is replaced by new technology and mechanization.

Diverse food portfolio

Mehrabi compares it to investing: just as a diverse investment portfolio outperforms betting all on a few sectors, diversity in the global agricultural portfolio has long-term benefits.

“If you invest in today’s food systems with about 600 million farms, your portfolio is quite diverse,” he says. “If one farm suffers damage, the impact on the portfolio is likely to be offset by the success of another farm. But if you reduce the number of farms and increase their size, the effect of that shock on your portfolio will increase. You run more risk.”

Support

There are also positive sides: the study shows that consolidation in agriculture can lead to higher labor productivity and economic growth, with a larger workforce. And there are more economic opportunities and therefore more opportunities for people to develop a career within or outside the agricultural sector.

But future farmers will need more support, says Mehrabi, who points out that suicide rates in agriculture are among the highest by occupation in the US.

“Currently, we have about 600 million farms feeding the world, and they carry 8 billion people on their shoulders,” he says. “By the end of the century we will probably have half the number of farmers, and they will have to feed even more people. We really need to think about how we can set up the education and support systems to support those farmers.”

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