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Wanted: Younger Generation of Farmers to Feed Asia

Jakarta Globe, 22 May 2014 - An aging population of farmers and a younger generation’s reluctance to enter the agricultural workforce threatens food security in Asia, experts said at a discussion about agriculture at a World Economic Forum meeting in Manila.
Wanted: Younger Generation of Farmers to Feed Asia

Indonesian farmers harvesting paddy in Jatiluwih, Bali. An aging farming community threatens food security in Asia. (JG Photo/Afriadi Hikmal)

At the Grow Asia Agriculture Forum, panelists including the head of a leading rice research institute and a Philippine government official warned that there may not be enough workers to produce the food needed to meet demands of growing populations.

By 2050, the global population will rise to 9 billion people from 7 billion now, and that means there would be a 70 percent increase in food production, according to the WEF.

In Indonesia, even as the workforce climbed to 118 million people in 2014 from 115 million in 2012, the number of jobs in agriculture in the same period dropped to 40.8 million from 42.4 million, according to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS). Agriculture makes up about large portion of Indonesia’s economy, but rising incomes in the manufacturing and services sectors will pull workers away from farming of such crops as rubber, cassava, rice and coffee.

Francis N. Pangilinan, president assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization of the Philippines, says that the average Filipino farmer is 57 years old, has attained a fourth-grade education, oversees a 1.5 hectare plot, and has a monthly income of less than $30.

“That is clearly an indication of neglect, of having been abandoned, or simply forgotten,” he said. “In the Philippine setting a new generation of Filipinos refuses to go into farming. That is truly a threat to food security. When a new generation refuses to farm, who will feed, where will we get our food? It may sound alarmist, but I think it will sound the alarm bells so that we all start refocusing and shifting paradigms. Then, that will be a good thing.”

Robert S. Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute, which is based in Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines, says that the typical age of farmers across Southeast Asia is in the 50s and 60s. In Japan, the average age is 67 years, he says.

The median age as of 2010 in the Philippines was about 22 years, about 27 in Indonesia and around 45 in Japan, according to data from the United Nations, and that would indicate the wide gap of a younger workforce and an aging farming community.

In the United States, a younger generation is taking up jobs in agriculture because they are better educated and have knowledge of business practices, but it may take a generation for such a development to take place in Asia, Zeigler says.

“I travel all around the world visiting rice-growing countries, and every time I visit a country I try to make it a point to go out and meet some farmers. I ask every farmer — I’ve been doing this since 1985 — I always ask the farmers what do they want their children to do. And I have yet to have a rice farmer tell me that they want their children to grow up to be rice farmers,” he said at the forum.

“Unless we have farmers for the future who are educated, who are able to take on new technologies, we are not going to be able to really meet our food requirements in the future,” Zeigler added.

He said that farmers tend to be risk averse, and in a nation like Thailand, the middlemen tend to make much more profit than farmers, who toil in the fields to grow their crops.

“The farmers absorb almost all of the downside risk, and others benefit from the upside, and I think we’ve got to change that equation if we’re going to have farmers to really take on new technologies and really lead innovation,” Zeigler said.

“If Asia is food insecure, then really the world is food insecure,” he said. “The requirement that we have, a means within countries, to have an ongoing dialogue where farmers and the rural sector is actively engaged as a real voice at the table rather than a symbolic presence is really important,” he said.

For Ireneo Cerilla, 49, who manages a one-hectare rice field and five hectares of coconut trees in Quezon province, the challenge is trying to get his children to tend to farming, and he is hopeful that his grandchildren will, too.

“I am one of the few” in farming, he said, adding that one of his daughters, who has a degree in agribusiness management, is managing the farm.

Cerilla — who is president of the National Movement of Paesan Federation (PAKISAMA), a group of farmers — says that with the average age of farmers in the Philippines at 57 years old and with life expectancy at 70, the situation could be dire within 15 years if nothing is done to encourage more people, especially a younger generation of workers, to become farmers.

“The issue of food is critical. It’s fundamental. It’s essential,” Pangilinan said. “Yet the way we look at our farmers, I don’t know, not so. It’s something to think about.”


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