Behind almost every plate of food is the work of perhaps a dozen or more farmers. Even in something as simple as a dish of pasta with tomato sauce, farmers grew the wheat for the pasta, and the tomatoes, basil, onion, garlic and olives needed to make the sauce. The farmers may be working in different farms, countries or even continents – the tomatoes, for instance, could be from Spain or from Kenya.
Much of the food we eat is the result of work by a huge number of farmers, growers and agricultural workers, but in many parts of the world, we simply pluck packets of food off supermarket shelves without giving this provenance a second thought.
But the future of farming, and of farmers, is not as secure as we might expect. The odds are that the farmers who grew the food for your next meal have the majority of their careers behind them. In the UK, the average age of a farmer is 59. In Kenya, it is 60. And in Japan, with the highest average age for a farmer, it is 67.
When this generation of experienced farmers retires, who will carry on putting food on the table after them? Young people are increasingly seeking work in the cities, sidelining agriculture. Without a new generation to take on the job, the global food supply begins to look very uncertain.
A number of solutions are emerging to tackle this ageing crisis in farming. Some of them involve creating new technologies to reduce farmers’ workload, so fewer people can get more done. Other solutions involve the arguably much harder challenge of tackling stigma around farming, and changing people’s minds to convince them that farming is a viable way of life.
One of the people trying to do that is Mary Nyale, programme coordinator for Farm Africa’s Growing Futures project in western Kenya.
“Agriculture was used a lot in primary and secondary schools as a punishment,” says Nyale. “Anything bad you do in school, you would be told to go to a farm and till a bit of land.”
When farming is seen as a punishment, agriculture becomes an unappealing career choice. It is often not seen as something worth doing for a living, especially among young people who do not have a family background in farming.