A new study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder has recently examined the future of farming by tracking the number of farms annually – from the 1960s and projecting up to the end of the 21st century – and found that the number of farms globally will shrink in half by 2010, as the size of the existing farms will double.
This situation will likely occur even in rural, farm-dependent communities in Asia and Africa, and will significantly threaten global food systems.
“We see a turning point from widespread farm creation to widespread consolidation on a global level, and that’s the future trajectory that humanity is currently on,” said study author Zia Mehrabi, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder. “The size of the farm and the number of farms that exist are associated with key environmental and social outcomes.”
Mehrabi reconstructed the evolution of farm numbers from 1969 to 2013 and estimated how these numbers will change by 2010 by using data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on agricultural area, GDP per capita, and rural population size of over 180 countries.
The analysis revealed that the number of farms will likely decline from 616 million in 2020 to 272 million in 2100. One of the main reasons for this massive decline is that, as economies grow, more people will migrate to urban areas, leaving less workforce to tend the land in rural regions.
A major turning point from farm creation to consolidation will begin as early as 2050 in Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Oceania, and the Caribbean, with sub-Saharan Africa following the same course soon after.
Even if the total amount of farmland will not diminish, fewer people will owe and farm the available land, and biodiversity on existing farms will be significantly threatened.
“Larger farms typically have less biodiversity and more monocultures. Smaller farms typically have more biodiversity and crop diversity, which makes them more resilient to pest outbreaks and climate shocks,” Mehrabi explained.
In addition, food supply might also be at risk since, although the world’s smallest farms make up only 25 percent of the world’s agricultural land, they harvest one-third of the world’s food. Finally, with the diminishment in the number of farmers, Indigenous knowledge dating back centuries will increasingly be replaced by new technologies and mechanization.
According to Mehrabi, a loss of diversity in the world’s food source portfolio can prove risky to investors. “If you’re investing in today’s food systems with around 600 million farms in the world, your portfolio is pretty diverse. If there’s damage to one farm, it’s likely the impact to your portfolio will be averaged out with the success of another. But if you decrease the number of farms and increase their size, the effect of that shock on your portfolio is going to increase. You’re carrying more risk,” he explained.
Nevertheless, shifts in corporate farm ownership could also have certain benefits, including improved labor productivity and management systems, and economic growth with a larger workforce in non-farm employment.
Moreover, farm consolidation could lead to improved economic opportunities for people and their ability to choose their own career path within the agricultural sector. However, since suicide rates in the agriculture industry are currently among the highest per occupation in the U.S., increased support for future farmers is essential.
“Currently, we have around 600 million farms feeding the world, and they’re carrying eight billion people on their shoulders,” Mehrabi said. “By the end of the century, we’ll likely have half the number of farmers feeding even more people. We really need to think about how we can have the education and support systems in place to support those farmers.”
Raising awareness of current and future agricultural trends should lead to policies that ensure biodiversity conservation, increase climate resilience, preserve Indigenous knowledge, and improve rural economies.
The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.