(May/June 2000) A major issue for the delegates at last year’s meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle was the impact of free trade and the globalization of agriculture. Up for discussion were tariffs, domestic supports, and export subsidies — erected primarily by more-developed countries to protect their farming constituencies, and damaging to less-developed countries’ prospects for gaining from global trade — and exemptions sought by less-developed countries for their agricultural exports.

The parties’ negotiating positions stem partly from the demographics of farmers and agricultural workers. Some policymakers in rich countries are concerned about the possible impact of freer international trade on the disappearance of the family farm and lifestyles of their older farmers. Policymakers in developing countries are also concerned about the long-run effects of free trade in agricultural products on the security and livelihoods of their farm populations, most of whom will continue to be small-scale producers with limited alternative opportunities.

Farmers are older than the population at large (see table). The proportion of farmers over age 65 in the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea is much higher than the proportion of the total population over 65 years of age. In addition, the average age of full-time farmers in those four countries is much higher than that of the labor force in general. In the United States in 1998, the average age of the civilian labor force was 38, while that of full-time farmers was 57. The United States, Canada, and Japan are high-income countries with “old” populations, while South Korea is a middle-income country in transition from having a “young” population to having an “old” population.

But structural changes taking place in agriculture in the richer countries may alter the demographic profile of farming. The average size of holdings is increasing as producers attempt to capture economies of scale so that they can compete in the market-driven global economy. Vertical integration — the extension of a company’s control to all the economic steps in the production of a product from raw material to retail purchase — also is increasing in poultry, hog, and dairy production, once the domain of family farms. It may well be that many more farms operated by families will give way to agroindustrial enterprises managed by professional managers. In this event, the number of full-time farmers will continue to diminish, and the average age of farmers may decline as well. In light of these trends, richer countries are apt to favor ever-more-open trade.

The developing countries of Asia and Africa may favor less open trade. The populations of these countries, now relatively young, will age in the years ahead. The proportion of people in rural areas will continue to decline, and farmers will age. These changes may well create a dilemma for governments that differs from those confronting the rich countries of today. These poorer countries will not be in a position to provide a financial safety net for the increasing numbers of older rural dwellers. Consequently, governments will be pressured to adopt inward-looking agricultural policies to promote subsistence agriculture with its traditional family support systems, including subsidizing inputs and offering protection from competition. Such policies, though, would be inconsistent with the outward-looking market-oriented policies promoted by the World Bank and others to promote national food security in a competitive global economy. Thus, the graying of the farm population will add another dimension to the debate on how best to provide food security for all — including older farmers and their families.

Montague Yudelman is chairman of PRB’s Board of Trustees and a senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund. He is a former director of agriculture and rural development at the World Bank. Laura J.M. Kealy is a former intern at the Population Reference Bureau.


The Graying of Farmers

Definitions of “full-time farmers” used in compiling the table that appeared on page 6 of the May/June issue of Population Today follow:

  • Full-time farmers are defined for the United States as primary farm operators spending 50 percent or more of work time on farming or ranching.
  • Full-time farmers are defined for Canada as operators with gross farm receipts of $1,000 or more, and fewer than 115 days of off-farm work (1971) or fewer than 20 hours per week in off-farm work (1996).
  • Full-time farmers are defined for Japan as the core working population gainfully working in agriculture.
  • Full-time farmers are defined for Korea as total farm population.