Four years ago, Andrés MacGillivray took an unusual decision. He had a high-flying job as a project manager at a pharmaceuticals company in Canada and looked set for a cushy corporate career. Instead, he chose to pack it in and return to his native Argentina to work on his family’s farm.
Although he grew up surrounded by agriculture, MacGillivray, 37, never thought he would become a farmer himself. He studied environmental engineering and dreamed of working in water management or renewable energy. But today, he grows carrots in Santa Fe province, in northeastern Argentina, and green leafy vegetables at a vast hydroponic farm just outside Buenos Aires.
In turning to farming, MacGillivray is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the percentage of people who work in agriculture has dropped from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020, according to data from the International Labor Organization. That’s partly down to the growing use of agricultural technology, but it also points to a bigger problem: many people don’t want to work on farms anymore.
The average age of farmers across Africa is about 60, despite the average of the general population on the continent being below 24, according to a 2014 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In many developed countries, including the US, the average age is also 60. And globally, the average age of farmers is rising, as rural youth branch out from their country roots to seek a life in the city.
To guarantee our food security a generation from now, we need to make sure that people follow MacGillivray’s lead and keep farming. But that’s easier said than done. Farming has an image problem, with many young people regarding it as badly paid work for unskilled people. Furthermore, farming’s green credentials have been questioned, with agriculture contributing to significant greenhouse gas emissions and a large chunk of the food the world already produces going to waste. For younger workers engaged with environmental causes, farming still has to clean up its act.
For those who want to farm, spiralling prices often present insurmountable barriers to accessing land. And laws and customs often mean that the women and immigrants who do much of the world’s farming are denied agency over their work. MacGillivray’s experience shows that young farmers can thrive if they have the resources they need. But how can we ensure access to those resources?