The number of farms worldwide will halve by the end of this century as their size doubles by then, posing "significant risks" to global food systems. This is stated in a study conducted by Zia Mehrabi, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder (United States), published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
This work is the first to track the number and size of farms on a year-by-year basis, going back to the 1960s and projecting to 2100. It shows that even farm-dependent rural communities in Africa and Asia will experience a drop in the number of operating facilities.
“We see a tipping point from widespread farm creation to widespread global consolidation, and that is the future trajectory humanity is currently on,” Mehrabi says.
This researcher used data from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) on agricultural area, GDP per capita and the size of the rural population of more than 180 countries in order to first reconstruct the evolution of the number of farms between 1969 and 2013, and then project those numbers to 2,100.
Their analysis found that the number of farms worldwide would decline from 616 million in 2020 to 272 million in 2100. A key reason is that as a country's economy grows, more people migrate to urban areas, thereby that there will be fewer people in rural areas to care for the land.
For decades, the United States and Western Europe have been reducing the number and increasing the size of farms. Mehrabi's analysis indicates that a tipping point from farm creation to widespread consolidation will begin to occur from 2050 in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean.
It also shows that even if the total amount of farmland does not change around the world in the coming years, fewer people will own and farm the available land. The trend could threaten biodiversity at a time when its conservation matters.
“Larger farms tend to have less biodiversity and more monocultures,” Mehrabi stresses, before adding: “Smaller farms tend to have more biodiversity and crop diversity, making them more resilient to pest outbreaks and climate impacts.” .
In addition to biodiversity, the food supply is also at risk. Previous research by Mehrabi shows that the world's smallest farms account for just 25% of the world's farmland, but grow a third of the world's food.
Also, fewer farms means fewer farmers who can carry with them valuable indigenous knowledge dating back centuries. As farms become more established, that knowledge is replaced by new technology and mechanization.
Just as a diverse investment portfolio works better than one that is not diversified, having diversity in the world's food sources is beneficial in the long run, according to Mehrabi.
“If you are investing in today's food systems with around 600 million farms in the world, your portfolio is quite diverse,” Mehrabi stresses, before noting: “If there is damage to a farm, the impact on your portfolio is likely to offset by the success of another. But if the number of farms decreases and their size increases, the effect of that shock on your portfolio will increase. So there is more risk."
The change in corporate farm ownership also has advantages: The paper notes that consolidation in agriculture can lead to higher labor productivity and economic growth with a larger workforce in non-farm jobs and better management systems.
“Currently, we have around 600 million farms that feed the world and are carrying 8,000 million people on their shoulders,” Mehrabi emphasizes, adding: “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 have the education and support systems to support those farmers."