We’ll need more Farmers

Energy Descent and Agricultural Population

Jason Bradford on March 11, 2009

Some excerpts of this article below:

Among the cadre of folks who think about food systems and sustainability in the U.S., there’s a concern about the number of farmers and their age. Only about two percent (5,802,000 / 295,410,000 in 2004) of the U.S. population is part of a farm family, and the average age of principal operators of farms is nearing 60 years (See the recent release of the 2007 Ag Census for details). Since mechanization and the fuels that power machines are what enable such a small agricultural labor force, is it reasonable to assume that a decline in fossil fuels will require more farmers?

Others, such as peak oil educators Richard Heinberg and Sharon Astyk, have suggested this will indeed be the case, even going so far as to put a rough number on the future farmers of America. Their estimates are partly based on looking at the proportion of farmers in an early to pre-industrial economic system in the United States, when about a third of the population engaged in agriculture and at societal differences today. They then adjust for current population size to arrive at the admittedly tentative figure of 50 to 100 million farmers (or members of farming families) needed to feed a population of 300 million.

As these authors point out, not only is the absolute number very large compared to today, but given the age of the current crop of farmers it implies that a rapid education of youth will be required to keep bread on the table. Given the importance of this topic, I wanted to take a look myself. Just as we use multiple lines of evidence to understand the evolution of life, oil depletion, and climate change, we need to look for confirmation from as many angles as possible. Furthermore, better knowledge potentially gets us closer to grasping the scale and rate of change required to cope with the problem in the same way that depletion rates in existing fields and net exports analyses do in the oil situation, or the timing and consequences of melting ice sheets and release of methane from warming permafrost do in the climate system.

Perhaps we can validate or refute this scenario by further use of the comparative method–for example, we may compare a future scenario to a potentially analogous historic past. In the analysis presented here, I take as a given that the United States (and other high energy consuming industrial countries) will have less energy available in the future, at least of the type currently used in mechanized agriculture. The comparison I use is not historic, but contemporary. I know that today some nations have much less energy consumption than others and anecdotally I am aware that poorer countries tend to be more agrarian. If nations with less energy consumption have more farmers, it would support the notion that a reduction in energy consumption in the U.S. (and other industrialized countries) will lead to an increase in farmers.

Is there a discernable inverse relationship between energy consumption and agricultural populations among nations?

Let’s take a look. First, I had to find total population by nation and agricultural population (which I believe means farmers and their immediate dependents) by nation. These data can be downloaded from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (http://faostat.fao.org/site/550/default.aspx).

Simply dividing the agricultural population by the total population gives the percentage that live an agricultural life. The range of this figure is huge, from essentially zero for places like Singapore to over 90% for places like Bhutan. I really don’t know how accurate censuses data are from the 205 countries used (not all places are fully independent nations, e.g., Puerto Rico is separated from the U.S. in these data sets), but assume figures are in the ballpark. Certainly citizens of Bhutan and Singapore have vastly different livelihoods. According to 2004 FAO data, overall about 41% of the world’s people still live in families who work in agriculture (2.6 billion out of 6.4 billion).

Most nations (about 70%) have 40% or less of their population in agriculture. This means that the fewer countries with high percentages of agricultural workers have large populations, e.g., China and India are 64% and 52% respectively and equal about a third of the total world population. In all likelihood, large populations correlate with high population density. As a 1997 paper by Conforti and Giampietro showed, economic forces in poorer nations with dense populations tend to retain farmers.

Second, I had to find energy consumption data. It is difficult to locate data on use of wood, animal dung, etc., but for commercial energy such as oil, natural gas, coal, and electricity the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy has available spreadsheets for download (see table E.1 at http://www.eia.doe.gov/iea/wecbtu.html). While this doesn’t include all forms of energy, it does cover the forms most readily usable in an industrial agricultural system.

As expected, nations with relatively little commercial energy consumption tend to have lots of farmers

To harmonize the two data sets I used 2004 data and limited the analysis to 205 nations—which I figure is fairly complete. The figure below shows the results, plotting the percent agricultural population as a potential response to per capita energy consumption.Ag Popu and energy consumption 205 countries


















Though I may have just done so, I am mistrustful of studying this issue in isolation. Nagging at me is the question of whether the globalized industrial system is inherently unstable in the face of multiple challenges, including energy scarcity but also the converging crises spawned by the surging weight of humanity. Climate change, financial wobbles, violent conflicts and related spin-offs can unpredictably disrupt the vast system of trade that moves fertilizers, seeds and replacement parts that keep industrial agriculture humming. I think we are already seeing hints of this scenario in the U.S., as farmers run short of diesel fuel during harvest season and end up leaving crops in the ground.

Some of Jason’s replies in the COMMENTS section:

Having a farming system that includes long rotations in pasture or other deep rooted perennials is very important. Must go through cycles of fungal dominance to bring deep soil layers into the mix, add the minerals to the top soil, which basically get mined by the annuals. If I was head of the USDA I would have the U.S. make a strategic goal of LOWERING its grain production by 50% so that the feedlots go out of business, land is pastured, and meat is once again grass fed and local. Do this slowly and strategically and nobody needs to starve. In fact, it would likely prevent starvation by keeping the soils from being continually pushed beyond their limits.


I was looking at the work ahead of me at my little farm and thinking…it would be so much easier if I was primarily just trying to grow for my family. I could readily cover most of our vegetable food needs by hand without a whole lot of aggravation. For grains and legumes a drill seeder and small combine or at least a quality stationary thresher and seed cleaner would certainly be a great tool set. But instead I am trying to grow for other people, and they don’t pay very much. At least in my situation I don’t pay property taxes because it is public property, but what if I did? There’s no way this would be worth it.

This entry was posted in Farming and Ranching. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.