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Editorial: Feeding a hungry world? Yes, but…

A senior executive of the largest social research company in the world is cutting a wide swath through the rhetoric pushing farmers to keep ramping up production to feed a hungry world.

“It’s all nonsense,” Darrell Bricker told the farmers attending CropConnect 2020 in Winnipeg.

The CEO of IPSOS public affairs has written two books spelling out why his analysis of current world demographics and cultural shifts tells a different story than the common narrative that production must increase 70 per cent to feed nine billion people by 2050 and that population will continue to grow to 11 billion or more.

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His analysis is that world population growth will peak at around eight billion by the middle of this century and then start to decline before settling at about the levels it is today of around 7.6 billion. What’s more, agriculture as it exists today is more than capable of feeding them.

Bricker points to declining birth rates as the key variable in global population trends. Women are marrying later, if they are marrying at all, and they are having fewer children.

Globally, the average birth rate per family was 5.2 kids in the 1960s. Today it has dropped to 2.4 and that will decline to 2.2 in 2050, he says. The rates in many industrialized nations are now below the population replacement rate.

Urbanization is one of the biggest factors causing birth rates to decline in the world’s most populous countries. Two things happen when farmers move to the city: they go from being food producers to consumers, and children go from being a free source of labour to becoming an expense.

Even in less developed economies the pace of urbanization is escalating, often beyond the capacity of governments’ ability to accommodate with infrastructure and economic development.

In the 1960s, 34 per cent of the world’s people lived in cities. Today more than half are city slickers and by 2050, that will rise to more than two-thirds.

That’s still a lot of people to feed and Bricker is on side with the other piece to the ‘growing demand for food’ equation — the fact that the middle class is growing in developing economies and its dietary demands are changing.

Bricker said one changing demographic isn’t getting enough attention from the pundits. Mull this one over. “2011 was the first year Japan sold more adult diapers than it sold kids’ diapers.”

Only in Japan, you say? The fastest-growing demographic in Canada is 85 years or older, Bricker says. Couple that with the fact that women live longer than men, and are more apt to live alone in their later years, and the dynamics of the Canadian food market are changing dramatically.

They are the ones with disposable income and their consumption preferences are very different than current patterns.

While much of the marketing attention is being focused on millennials, Bricker said they aren’t as influential on consumption trends as some would have us believe.

For one thing, they aren’t affluent. Because their parents’ generation is living and working longer, the millennials are possibly the “most frustrated generation in history,” he said.

They’ve incurred high debt loads getting an education, they can’t find jobs because people are retiring later and there is a shortage of affordable houses to purchase because more people are aging in place. Fifty per cent of the adults ages 18 to 35 in the Greater Toronto Area still live with their parents.

What does all this mean for farmers?

For the thousand or so farmers attending CropConnect 2020 maybe not much. Prairie farmers are more attached to global consumption trends than Canadian ones. Although the trends cited by Bricker are indeed global in nature, they are less pronounced in developing economies. The growth of the middle class is by far the biggest dynamic that will shape the volume and types of food those markets demand.

So far, one of their first choices has been to include more meat protein in their diets. Older consumers tend to favour more traditional eating patterns including meat. However, Bricker says plant-based protein is here to stay; it’s not a passing fad.

As well, growing multiculturalism will change the market dynamics in ways farmers can only begin to imagine. Current immigration rates are growing Canada’s population by one per cent per year.

The suggestion that farmers don’t need to pull out all stops to feed the world may seem heretical to those immersed in a production culture that spans generations.

Trends and predictions are all based on what we know today. There is no way to fully calculate the impact of the unknown dynamics — except to say they will have an impact.

However, his research suggests there is room for a rethink of some common assumptions driving management and business decisions.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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