Existential threats to farming risk failure in feeding everyone well

Food production is in danger from a scary list of existential threats to farming. Farmers need us to demand food policies that help.

Farmers use soil and water to grow crops and raise animals and tend not to think about existential threats to farming. This is good news for urban and suburban populations worldwide who don’t have enough land or the skills to grow their food. 

People like living together. 

The UN reports that the world’s population in urban areas is 58%, projected to reach 68% by 2050. That would be 6.6 billion people who obtain food security from supermarkets, fast food outlets and corner stores.

As half the people live in urban and built-up area to take advantage of the economic opportunity of aggregation—just 1% of the global land area —it leaves the farmers to look after the bulk of the land. For example, Australian farmers manage up to 60% of the country’s landmass and use 70% of its diverted freshwater extractions to grow crops and raise animals to make a living. 

But most farmers are not managing the land to grow food for sale.

Globally, most of the 500 million farmers grow crops and raise animals for themselves and their families. FAO surveys show that five of every six farms in the world consist of less than two hectares, putting most farmers into this subsistence category.

The remaining 20% of farms have to feed everyone else.

And they have for a long time. 

Local pre-industrial collapse aside, farmers have fed the human population as it has grown slowly and then rapidly, thanks to the intensive input-driven farming systems we are familiar with today.

Humanity asks that they keep doing it. We call have to eat and are unlikely ever to have a realistic alternative to soil-based food production to grow the food to feed 8 billion people and their pets.

This task, already pegged at 22 trillion kilocalories daily, is about to get more complex and production riskier.

Rural journalist Gabrielle Chan suggests that “farming both contributes to and is endangered by the biggest existential threats of our time”: 

  • climate change
  • water shortages
  • soil loss
  • energy production
  • natural disasters
  • zoonotic diseases
  • population displacement 
  • geopolitical trade wars.

Sustainably FED would add to this scary list 

  • population growth
  • urbanisation
  • soil degradation 
  • peak phosphorus
  • just in time supply chain fragility
  • declining insect populations
  • inflation

…and Uncle Tom Cobley.

The list of existential threats to farming is long and covers a vast economic, social and ecological territory. 

One of the reasons we started sustainably FED was to capture the complexity of modern food systems and to raise awareness of their fragility. Feeding everyone well needs awareness and understanding of dozens of subjects, skills and psychologies—just to cover the basics of sustainable food.

It’s complex.

vegetables being sold in a French market

Farmers sometimes avoid parts of the supply chain by selling directly to consumers. Photo by Anna Kaminova on Unsplash

Existential threats to farming barely reach the farmer. They are too busy running a business. They have to be financially astute, managers of labour and equipment, practical MacGyvers able to fix a combine with a bit of wire, and expert meteorologists. Each day on the farm will bring a hundred challenges needing a decision.

It is cruel to expect farmers to be across all the practicalities and be aware of the threats happening beyond the farm gate. 

Farmers should get some help for the existential threats to farming, especially from public policy. Politicians need to get their heads around the policy options and be  supported by a public service resourced and skilled for the purpose.

Here is Gabrielle Chan again.

…there is a barrage of contradictory policies around food growing, and no Australian political party is doing serious thinking about how to knit together food, farming and environmental policies to continue feeding the population while mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss

Gabrielle Chan, Guardian Australia’s rural and regional editor

Tim Long says the same thing about the UK in his excellent book Feeding Britain, where he suggests that food policy in the UK is wayward or nonexistent, which is not helping. And for the UK, it is a huge risk given that the country still imports half its food supply from overseas.

Food, farming and environmental policies

It should be easy enough for the politicians. All voters and their kids must eat and spend between 10 and 50% of their income on access to food. For billions across the world, how to keep the family fed is a daily challenge. Even for the wealthy, there are questions about what to eat and how to cook it, even if they might have a sustainable diet. Everyone is thinking about food.

Policy is not so clear-cut. 

Food policy is about what food does in the economy and society. It covers the price of food and the guidelines for which food is healthy and how to maintain food safety. In some countries food policy might extend to issues of food security.

Food policy is about people.

Agricultural policy is different. It trends to focus on farming and the people who farm. Invariably it is about ensuring that the local food production systems are viable, ongoing businesses.  Policies are implemented to maintain commodity prices, support trade  and maintain a rural labour force. More often than not, these policies pull the subsidy lever.

Agricultural policy tends to be about land and the use of land.

Environmental policies are different again. They are loosly grouped into environmental protection that covers what not to do and the penalties for polluting the environment,  and conservation that is about what to protect. These policies are often in conflict with agriculture because the truth is that there is a trade-off in what can be done with land and with nature before there are consequences.

Environmental polices are genrally about values.

There is no modern democracy where a single minister or a single bureaucracy handles all three of these policy areas. Typically they are in different ministrial portfolios and civil departments. 

Coordination to handle existential threats to farming is a challenge. It explains what Gabrielle Chan calls ‘contradictory policies around food growing’ and is consistent with our extensive experience of policy in Australia and NSW.

women tilling fields in Sierra Leone, where smallholder farmers are also exposed to existential threats to farming.

Smallholder farmers are also exposed to existential threats to farming. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

What sFED suggests about existential threats to farming

It is unrealistic for farmers to be across all the existential threats to farming. There are too many of them and they cover vast intellectual territory. Farmers are going to need help to mitigate the risk.

And we all them to do it.

Failure of the food system is the biggest threat of all. It is a real risk with ugly consequences. If farmers fail, then so does everyone else.

Sustainably FED has gathered information on sustainable food, food ecology and sustainable diet as the pillars to support ideas for feeding everyone well that must include policy options. 

As the list of existential threats farming show, food security is about people, lots of them. Because all the threats are against humanity.

As the only organism cognitive of the risks and with the smarts to do something about them, it’s time to get on it.

If that doesn’t get you, just ask yourself why food is not on the agenda at election time.

Her image modified from a photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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