Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

Population trends have varied widely for the world’s leading agricultural producers: China, India, and the United States. Between 1980 and 2011, the economically active agricultural populations of China and India grew by 33 and 50 percent, respectively, due to overall population growth. The economically active agricultural population of the United States, on the other hand, declined by 37 percent as a result of large-scale mechanization, improved crop varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and federal subsidies—all of which contributed to economies of scale and consolidation in American agriculture.

Although the world’s agricultural population grew only marginally in recent decades, global agricultural output increased dramatically. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global net agricultural production increased by 112 percent between 1980 and 2011. The world’s net per capita production of agricultural goods increased by 35 percent during this period, averting food security crises in many places.

Although productivity gains have enabled farmers to meet the growing demand for food, the methods used to achieve such gains have come with unintended consequences, including soil degradation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and depleted freshwater supplies. Short-term production gains achieved by overusing chemical pesticides and fertilizers have, as a result, reduced the sector’s long-term resilience to climate change.

The FAO estimates that the global agricultural population will decline by 0.7 percent and that the nonagricultural population will grow by 16 percent between 2011 and 2020. The organization also estimates that feeding a population projected to reach 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005/07 and 2050.

To address this challenge while promoting resilience to climate change and avoiding environmental degradation, farmers, governments, and the private sector could consider investing in agroecological approaches to farming, such as integrated pest management, no-till farming, cover cropping, and agroforestry. Policies encouraging the conversion of land from biofuels and livestock feed production to food production could also play a role in sustainably increasing the human food supply.

Read the full report with references at Vital Signs Online.

Sophie Wenzlau is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute

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