Originally published in The Telegraph on 05 October 2016.
By GORDON CONWAY
When recently appointed Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom suggested that young Britons could take over post-Brexit fruit-picking and farm labour, her comments were met with derision.
Speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event in Birmingham, she said she hoped that more young people could be “encouraged to engage with countryside matters”, and that “the concept of a career in food production is going to be much more appealing going forward.”
Her remarks inspired ridicule over the prospect that millennials might go back to working the land in the wake of the UK withdrawing from the EU.
Yet in truth Mrs Leadsom’s has successfully highlighted precisely why we need to do more to change attitudes towards agricultural careers and inspire more young people to get involved.
According to a Defra survey in 2013, the number of farm holders under the age of 45 fell from almost a quarter in 2000 to just 14 per cent in 2010. With an average age of 59, the population of British farmers is growing old.
And it is not just in the UK. Statistics in Africa revealed a similarly aging population of agricultural workers with an average age of 60 despite almost two thirds of the continent’s population being under the age of 24. Students in the UK choosing to study agriculture at university – some 19,000 – are dwarfed by the 280,000 school leavers applying to do business-related degrees. The question we must therefore as is: who will continue to feed the world if the world’s farmers are on the brink of retirement?
At the same time, a growing global demand for food is putting more pressure than ever on the family farms and smallholders that provide 80 per cent of the world’s food supply. With the UN stating that food production must double by 2050 to feed a growing population, it is essential that we encourage and enable a new generation of agriculturists both at home and around the world, or we will be left with food that is both scarce and expensive.
On top of these challenges, climate change is expected to dramatically reduce yields across the world. In fact, the recent El Niño induced-drought, that left approximately 100 million people in need of food assistance, proves it already is. So increasing our global food supply with this added challenge, as well as scarcity of vital resources like water and land, mean that today’s farmers now also need to be scientists, engineers and web developers. That’s right! Technology-led, cutting edge career paths. This is where we can inspire the young to get involved with agriculture.
Fruit-picking in Europe and tilling the fields in Africa are both necessary and noble professions – but we need to dispel the myth that this is the only way to engage with farming. The global advocacy group Farming First has launched a campaign this week that seeks to show young people that the industry is not just about manual labour, but also about innovation, education and communication.
A career in agriculture could involve working with high-resolution satellite imagery to enable farmers across the world to better understand the health of their crops, allowing them to take steps to increase productivity or overall yield, like UK based company Digital Globe. It could involve developing state-of-the-art weather and climate-modelling technology to measure the risk exposure that retailers, buyers, banks and farmers will face in the future, like the Imperial College based initiative WINnERS. Or it could involve promoting sustainable and inclusive business models in the developing world, empowering poor farmers and catalysing economic growth, like the London-based NGO Twin.
Opportunities in agriculture have never been greater for our young people, both in the UK, and all around the world. Our future challenges need future solutions and only the next generation can deliver them. We must do all we can to help them do that.
Professor Sir Gordon Conway is Director of Agriculture for Impact and a Farming First spokesperson