Buried deep inside a recent report from the International Labor Organization was a blockbuster that major news organizations didn’t notice at all. Their stories about the report focused on productivity rates around the world: Americans are tops, followed by the Irish, with China and the rest of Asia gaining ground.
I noticed a bit of Thanksgiving-time irony when reading how technology blogger Peter S. Magnusson, however, dug a little deeper and found a nugget. In Box 4b on page 6 of this labor report, he discovered: “In recent years agriculture has lost its place as the main sector of employment and has been replaced by the services sector, which in 2006 constituted 42.0 percent of world employment compared to 36.1 percent for agriculture.”
Magnusson correctly called this a “tremendous milestone” and wondered why nobody else had picked up on it. Maybe it tells us something about our short-term perspective. Whatever the reason, the most interesting question involves the trend itself–and what it may tell us about the future of farming and food production.
First of all, this is a success story. About 10,000 years ago, our ancestors began to settle down during what is called the Neolithic Revolution. They gave up nomadic hunting and gathering in favor of stable communities based on the cultivation of food. Farming became a dominant way of life.
Over the millennia, humans became very good at agriculture–so good, in fact, that today’s farmers can sustain a global population that’s approaching 7 billion. So good we are looking to biofuels from this productivity as well. Amazingly, we’re managing to feed a growing planet of people even as farmers make up a shrinking percentage of the world’s workers. There are many reasons for this, from the agricultural practices that spread during the Green Revolution to the ongoing success of the Gene Revolution.
Farmers are simply getting better at what they do–we’re coaxing more food from the land, and we’re doing it more efficiently and gently with the help of biotech. The result is that billions of people can devote themselves to something other than food production.
Traditionally, the flow of people away from agriculture and into other sectors is associated with economic development. In the United States and the West, the transition is so complete that less than 2 percent of workers are directly involved in farming. Those of us in agriculture might see this as old news but all Americans should recognize it as good news. In this holiday time of year we must give thanks and hope such blessings flow to all the world’s people.
But we also notice as people move away from agriculture, they become less familiar with the intricacies of food production. It’s potentially worse than just not knowing milk comes from a cow–ignorance can lead to bad policies and other unhealthy consequences. If people begin to think that pork chops come from the grocery store–as opposed to pig farms that rely upon corn growers that buy American made tractors built by non-farmer Americans, for instance–we may reach a point when farmers are taken for granted.
We already see some evidence of this in advanced economies. Biotechnology in agriculture is widely accepted in the United States and other countries, but it continues to meet fierce, emotion-based resistance in Europe. The people who oppose these new tools by and large aren’t farmers. Farmers recognize how technology and new knowledge have unshackled our productivity. But many of these anti-biotech activists probably have never sat in a tractor.
Yet they protest with passion–and in the comforting belief that they’ll be able to finish each day with a warm meal at home or in a restaurant, made available by food producers who can draw from the rich soil of long experience.
Reg Clause, a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org) raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa.