Three big trends that will frame the future of farming

Commentary

Disruption is coming to food and farming. 

Globally, many livestock farmers are leaving the land; policymakers are targeting the harmful environmental and social impacts of industrial meat production; and consumers are shifting away from meat to embrace healthier, more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

These three trends leave the sector at a crossroads.

Learning from transitions in other sectors, decision makers in both the public and private sector need to acknowledge that change is coming and inclusively plan with farmers, workers and consumers.  

Farmers are becoming older; farms are becoming larger

First, farmers are facing a deep demographic challenge. Many farmers are leaving the land for other industries or retirement. And farming is struggling to attract new entrants. This is a trend that can be observed globally, rather than solely in richer, industrialised countries.

For every farm manager under the age of 40, there are three over the age of 65 in Europe. From Sub-Saharan Africa to Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, there is an increase in the number of older people living in rural areas and a decline in the number of young.

At the same time, small farm operations are being squeezed. The challenging economics of farming, combined with the power of a small number of giant firms in the industry, are consolidating farm sizes with greater focus on efficiency and economies of scale. The EU lost more than a third of its farms from 2005 to 2020 and 40% of its livestock farms.

This raises questions for policymakers around whether and how to protect family farms, and how to avoid the risks of animal welfare violations, poor working conditions and diseases that are inherent in industrial livestock farming.

Regulation is on the way

Second, there is an increasing and compelling body of evidence that industrial meat production is environmentally destructive. Agriculture accounts for nearly a third of all global Greenhouse Gas Emissions [GHGs] – with livestock alone (particularly cattle) contributing nearly 15%.

Animal agriculture is the main driver of global deforestation and biodiversity loss (through the conversion of forests and other land for grazing and the crops produced to feed animals). Beef production alone takes up some 60% of land used for agriculture – while contributing less than 2% of total calories consumed

In Spain, localised pollution from factory farms has become so pervasive that the dumping of pig manure has contaminated nearly a quarter of all ground and surface water in the country. Unsurprisingly, regulators are looking for ways to target pollution from livestock, while producing more on less land.

Further evidence on the risks of spreading infectious diseases from animals to humans (zoonoses) through industrial livestock farming will only increase the impetus for regulation.

While livestock and agriculture has traditionally been excluded from most emission reduction schemes, policymakers from countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand are reacting, and we can expect that others will follow suit.

The question now is not whether there will be increased regulation on the livestock industry, but rather, in what shape and form. Both farmers and companies should be prepared and accept and adapt to such changes.

Consumers are shifting away from meat and dairy

Third, we are seeing small, but sustained trends of consumers reducing or moving away from meat and dairy consumption.

In the UK, average meat consumption has decreased by almost 17% in the past decade, and by 11% in Germany.

Despite a recent slowdown, the uptake of alternative proteins is growing – a product line which comes with a tiny fraction of the environmental and animal welfare impact of traditional meat products. Plant-based meat and milk sales are trending up across the board in the EU, but also in countries as diverse as Thailand and South Africa.

When these products reach taste and price parity for consumers of meat – we may see uptake of these products accelerate very quickly – as initial barriers to adoption are overcome.

Livestock farming is characterised by government subsidies in many countries, low margins, and high levels of debt. Therefore, a reduction in sales is likely to have significant welfare implications for farmers and other workers tightly entwined in industrial meat production systems.

Big questions for policymakers and corporate leaders

But what does this complicated picture mean for decision-makers?

Crucially, policymakers and corporate leaders need to get in front of this issue and work with farmers and workers to plan for the future.

Experience in other sectors such as decarbonisation in the energy sector shows that a planned and guided transition from a high-emission to a low-emission economy is always better than an ad hoc, unmanaged one.

Look no further than the Dutch or New Zealand farmer protests to see how significantly social disruption can hinder climate action when workers and communities feel that they are left out of the process.

Unfortunately, current understanding of what good policy and corporate action on integrated approaches to reducing emissions in the food system while protecting livelihoods is incredibly limited.

Rather than resist change, it is incumbent on policymakers and corporate leaders to start that thinking now.

Commentary first published in Project Syndicate.

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