New research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that the number of farms globally will halve as the average current farms double in size by the end of the 21st century, posing significant risks to the world’s food systems.
Published today in the magazine nature sustainabilityThe study is the first to track the number and size of farms on an annual basis, from the 1960s through 2100.
The study shows that even farm-dependent rural communities in Africa and Asia will see a decline in the number of working farms.
“We see a turning point from large-scale plantation to large-scale integration on a global scale, and this is currently the future path for humanity,” said Zia Mehrabi, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Farm size and the number of farms present are associated with key environmental and social outcomes.”
To assess the global state of agriculture, Mehrabi used data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on agricultural area, per capita GDP and rural population size for more than 180 countries to first reconstruct the evolution of farm numbers from 1969-2013 and then to plot. Those numbers through 2100.
His analysis found that the number of farms around the world will drop from 616 million in 2020 to 272 million in 2100. One of the main reasons: as a country’s economy grows, more people migrate to urban areas, leaving fewer people in rural areas tending to to land.
Reap what you sow
A decline in the number of farms and an increase in farm size has occurred in the United States and Western Europe for decades. The latest data from the USDA indicates that there were 200,000 fewer farms in 2022 than there were in 2007.
Mehrabi’s analysis finds that the tipping point from establishment of plantations to large-scale standardization will begin to occur as early as 2050 in societies across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Oceania, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The research found that sub-Saharan Africa will follow the same path later this century.
It also shows that even if the total area of farmland around the world does not change in the coming years, fewer people will own and farm the land available there. This trend could threaten biodiversity at a time when biodiversity conservation is paramount.
“Large farms usually have less biodiversity and more monocultures,” Mehrabi said. “Smaller farms typically have more biodiversity and crop diversity, which makes them more resilient to pest outbreaks and weather shocks.”
And not only is biodiversity at stake, but the food supply is also at risk. Mohrabi’s previous research shows that the smallest farms in the world make up only 25% of the world’s agricultural land, but they harvest a third of the world’s food.
Moreover, fewer plantations meant fewer farmers who might carry with them valuable Aboriginal knowledge dating back centuries. As farms consolidate, that knowledge is replaced by new technology and mechanization.
Building a diversified food portfolio
Mehrabi said that just as a diversified investment portfolio performs better than a non-diversified portfolio, diversification in a global food sources portfolio is beneficial in the long run.
“If you are investing in existing food systems with about 600 million farms in the world, your portfolio is very diversified,” said Mehrabi. “If there is damage to one farm, it is likely that the impact on your portfolio will average with the success of another. But if you reduce the number of farms and increase their size, the impact of that shock on your portfolio will increase. You take on more risk.”
There are also advantages to shifting farm ownership to firms: the paper suggests that integration into agriculture can lead to improved labor productivity and economic growth with a larger non-farm employment workforce and improved management systems.
Mehrabi said that one of the biggest benefits of farm consolidation is improving economic opportunities for people, being able to choose their career path within our agricultural sector outside of the agricultural sector.
But future farm workers may need more support because suicide rates in the agricultural industry are among the highest by occupation in the United States.
“We currently have about 600 million farms that feed the world, and they carry 8 billion people on their shoulders,” said Mehrabi. “By the end of the century, we will probably have half as many farmers feeding more people. We really need to think about how we can provide education and support systems to support these farmers.”
By raising awareness of global agricultural trends, Mehrabi hopes his analysis will lead to policies that ensure biodiversity is preserved, climate resilient, indigenous knowledge preserved, and provide incentives to improve the rural economy in countries around the world.