February 15, 2013

Commentary - Inspiring a new generation of farmers and ag-professionals critical to meet future food needs.

By Mr. Lloyd Le Page

Mr. Lloyd Le Page is President and CEO of Heartland Global, Inc.

The year I was born, the population on the planet was around 3 billion, Israel was in a fight for survival with its neighbors, and John McCain was shot down over Vietnam. Some things don’t seem to have changed much, but farmers now feed an additional 4 billion consumers annually.

In roughly the same amount of time, children born in 2013 will have grown up to become middle-aged farmers, agricultural researchers, policy makers, or be in the middle of their agriculturally based careers. By 2050, farmers will need to increase food production by over 70% to feed an additional 2 billion increasingly urban and affluent consumers, with larger quantities, better quality and more diverse food. This heightened demand will include greater amounts of easy-to-prepare and pre-packaged foods, meat, poultry and dairy products.

The good news is that if we apply our minds, food needs can be met. Increasing the rate of growth in crop productivity, improving resource efficiency, and reducing environmental impact are key elements of the solution. However, to do this we must educate and enthuse current and future generations to stay in agriculturally related jobs.  One might think that, presented with these challenges and the resulting opportunities, children and youth of farmers around the world would have the same passion and excitement that many of us feel working in agriculture today. However, the evidence seems to show a different story.

Regardless of whether one is involved in agriculture in Iowa, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast or Italy, it is clear that children of farmers are leaving rural farming-areas to seek employment in other sectors. As a result, the average age of farmers seems to be increasing. Data from Canada, Nigeria, Thailand and China seems to support this hypothesis.  There is local variation and the data correlates somewhat with the success of family planning programs, where smaller families leave fewer family successors to takeover farming activities when the oldest children move to the cities for education and jobs.

So how do we ensure that a new generation rises to meet the challenges facing our global food supply? I believe there are three priority areas that must be addressed if we are to ensure a successful new generation of farmers, agri-business professionals and agricultural policy makers.

First, we must change negative perceptions – among farm youth and the public alike – that see farming as an undervalued and somewhat demised occupation. The drudgery of hand labor and long hours, compounded by unpredictable incomes, drives many away. Public policy, education curriculum and public relations efforts must focus on changing these perceptions, to recognize and elevate the role of agriculture as an engine for economic growth. Government programs should provide opportunities for youth to work “smarter not harder.” Improved access to finance, locally adapted inputs, tools such as mobile phone apps, and appropriate farm mechanization should be emphasized, allowing farmers to become more productive, and to focus on the business of farming. Promising young farmers want to be recognized as entrepreneurs, and to participate in viable business ventures at the farm and community level. They don’t want to be referred to as subsistence farmers or peasant farmers, and given the chance, they want to and can be more productive. Unfortunately, most current government programs and well-meaning hand-outs, while appropriate in the most extreme relief and recovery situations, do little to help with changing these perceptions. Farmers who have viable incomes and secure ownership of their farms can and should be our leading stewards of both cropland and the surrounding environment.

Second, farmers and their children must be able to capture real business opportunities through increased productivity. For example, innovations such as producer companies, contract service provision, rural value-adding and processing enterprise are important aspects of improving rural livelihoods. Heartland Global, Inc.’s vision is to develop thousands of these rural and small-farm enterprises, providing incomes for hundreds of thousands of farm youth, particularly in Africa and Asia.  Providing meaningful opportunities and incentives for youth to improve inputs, tools and technology, as well as strengthen their agri-business skills, will increase pride in their careers and in the role they play in the national economy. Youth clubs, ‘future farmer’ programs, 4-H (now operating in over 80 countries) and others such as the YPARD, AIARD Future Leaders Forum, and the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute play a critical role by allowing young farmers and future agricultural research and business leaders to meet, interact with and learn from peers.

In addition, policy makers and agricultural leaders today must work more aggressively to ensure youth have the opportunity to actively and meaningfully participate in food value-chains.  Policy makers must strive to gain a better understanding of youth’s current and future needs, dreams and aspirations. Doing so not only raises young agriculturalists’ own pride in their important role, it will also provide better insight, innovation and long-term sustainability. In short, we must change perceptions among youth and consumers about the role and importance of farmers, not just for food security, but for income security and jobs. And the success of this perception-shift relies on the capacity of farming to be a true business opportunity.  We must help farmers to identify and access more reliable and higher value markets, and to improve cash flow and risk management in the pursuit of improved productivity.

Third, youth must be become critical players in long-term food security solutions, as they are more skilled than their elders at adapting to new innovation and technologies. The future of agriculture is filled with nanotech, biotech, informatics, engineering and whole-plant science. Young farmers will need skills, social insights and diversity of thought as they enter an arena of cultural shifts due to migration, increased information technology use, globalization and changing food consumption patterns. In addition, consumers are increasingly driving moves toward farm-to-fork traceability, expanded environmental awareness, and socio-cultural accountability for producers.

Methodology and processes that have worked in the past may no longer apply, as the world faces new and emerging challenges in dealing with scarce food, water and land resources. Farmers born today will need to face climate change’s projected temperature increases and unpredictable variations in weather patterns, and the resulting shifts in weed, pest and disease pressures.  Projected industrial uses of crops will bring additional market demands, and farmers will need to supply these demands with the same or less cropland, water and energy use. Both farmers and consumers will face the additional burden of efficiently managing postharvest loss and waste reduction. Tensions are already rising as new cropland development encroaches into more marginal or environmentally sensitive areas at the boundaries between farmland, forests and wildlife.

I’m convinced that given the chance, youth will rise to the occasion of solving future food needs. To move from subsistence to the business of farming, agricultural youth will need to be heard and engaged, not just on an artificial level, but in very real terms. In development activities and in business, it is critical to give meaningful – and, perhaps most importantly, measurable – attention to input from youth. Farming is a long-term investment and to be part of the solution, youth must become passionate about their role, and they must begin to take ownership today.

Lloyd Le Page is President and CEO of Heartland Global, Inc., whose mission is to deliver value-chain and technology innovations that provide lasting economic and livelihood growth, helping communities solve their own needs sustainably. Mr. Le Page’s career includes over 23 years management experience in farming, agribusiness, high value horticulture and rural development in Africa, Asia and the US.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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