electrician fixing a junction box in a large building

The Rural Labor Shortage and its Implications for Food Production and Security

Will people continue to prefer cities or will enough escape to the country and fix the rural labour shortage?

Why is there a rural labor shortage?

Well, cities remain very popular.

It could be the culture, the streetside cafes, the latest production of Othello or the chance the Uber eats will arrive before the food gets cold that attracts them, but people want to live in cities.

Realistically it’s the jobs. 

Or at least the perception of both availability and higher quality of paid work compared to options in rural areas.

This move to the cities is global and kicked off with the industrial revolution in the 1800s that mechanised agriculture and made intensive farming productive but also made it easier for people to make a living in the factories and service sectors in towns and cities. 

Proportionately and in absolute numbers, this is a dramatic switch from predominantly rural to a significant majority of urban dwellers. It has taken 150 years, and the projections have this trend continue to 2050 and beyond. By then, seven out of ten people will be urban dwellers, many of them in infrastructure yet to be built.

Here is the trajectory of this shift in the US.

graphic to show the shift in the proportion of people living in rural areas from 1700 to 2050

The historical reversal in the proportion of urban and rural dwellers in the United States is almost two sides of a coin. 

Agriculture made this shift possible. The hardy rural folk whose offspring make their way into town grow food so efficiently that there is enough food production from intensive agriculture to support billions of people who do not produce their own. More strictly, it is the hardy rural folk supported by a vast energy subsidy in the form of machines powered by oil and fertilisers made in factories.  

The chicken or the egg

Add the land area of Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland together and you get 126,794 km2. Now nip down to Australia, where the average farm stretches beyond the horizon. Here we find the ten largest farms are cattle properties, each roughly 1.2 million ha in size, and together cover 126,000 km2

Not all Australian farms are vast, but this one statistic of the farm size says a lot about farming in the great southern land. It is very hard to make a living off a small land area. Here are another couple of numbers from those ten largest farms. They are home to roughly 340,000 head of cattle and fewer than 200 permanent staff.

These vast properties are productive with very little human activity thanks to helicopters, light planes, trucks and quad bikes, and free-ranging cattle, who mostly get on with life under their own devices.

The energy needed to do the heavy lifting in modern farms larger than a few hectares comes from fossil fuels. Machines harvest, process, lift, transport and lift again. Machines plough, till and spray.

The cities pull the young rural folk with bright lights and opportunities, but machines take up the slack in the rural areas. Industrial-scale farming—the 6 million farms greater than 50 ha in size that make up 1% of all farms yet operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland—needs less and less labour as intensification progresses. Tireless machines, rarely cranky, have taken over the work done by men and horses and can do the work of a thousand humans.

It is unclear what came first; the pull of the bright lights or the push of the job losses from the tasks not done by an automated bailer.

What is clear is that the number of people living and working in rural areas is declining in many parts of the world, with no sign of intensification slowing as more sophisticated automation and robotics emerge.

Couple a precision drone with AI algorithms to recognise weeds, and it could spot a weed from a thousand yards, deliver a precise shot of herbicide and learn when to go back and check if another dose is needed.

Humans can’t do this on their own.

Rural labor shortage 

The irony is that not all production systems are mechanised and there may not be enough farmers to keep the production going especially art crucial times of the year such as harvest or when livestock are managed.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggested a shortfall of 1 million farmworkers across Europe during the pandemic year of 2020.

China’s farmers are short of rural labor, especially at harvest time, even though there are 425 million agricultural workers from 200 million farming households. But a decade ago, there were 700 million farmers. 

About 35% of China’s labour force is in agriculture, compared to 2.5% in the US and 2.6% in Australia. 

It is easy to blame the poor wages and conditions for a rural labor shortage. Workers see opportunities in the city as the chance to earn good money from work that doesn’t break their back. They have done this since the start of the industrial revolution when factories emerged and cities acquired sanitation, housing and mass transport.

Here is how rural reporter and author Gabrielle Chan sums it up.

Depending on who you believe, either the farmers are paying awful wages and conditions or Australians are lazy and won’t work outside.

Gabrielle Chan, Guardian Australia’s rural and regional editor

There has to be a rural workforce to generate the cheap, all-year-round food that the urban dwellers demand. Not every task in food production is a job for an automated tractor or by drones or robots. Many, especially at harvest, are still most effectively done by hand or a hand guiding a machine. The challenge is that this workforce is in decline worldwide.

A lifestyle solution to the rural labor shortage 

A simple solution is to encourage people to live on the land. COVID-19 lockdowns taught many that working from home is possible. Maybe working from home on a farm could encourage some people away from the cities. 

Only these lifestylers and home workers don’t harvest crops. Nor are they likely to restore and rehabilitate the land and the vegetation on it. These tasks are a consequence of the 150 years plus of agricultural practice and are necessary for another 150+ years of food production. 

Weed control, pest control, enrichment planting, monitoring, education and a host of social services need people to live where this work gets done… on the land. These are specialised tasks that require training and local experience. 

Where are the skilled, enthused people needed to grow future food? Right now, they live in cities with their kids. They will need some persuading to relocate to the country to herd cattle or plant corn—not least to overcome their fear of failure.

young couple on horseback herding cattle on a ranch that is likely to have rural labor shortage
Photo by Bailey Alexander on Unsplash

Not everyone is cut out to ride a horse all-day

What happens without the fossil fuel workforce?

The fossil fuel bonanza is a pulse of nearly free energy that humans have converted into more humans—we eat and drink fossil fuels and make more people. 

We have become so numerous in the blink of an industrialist’s eye, adding 5.6 billion people to the global population since 1950 when just 2.5 billion people inhabited the earth because of intensive agriculture powered by oil and gas. Fossil energy helps us grow, store, transport and prepare a lot of food.

Well-fed people live long lives, go to the pub, watch soccer on TV, gather Instagram followers and make babies. More so if they aspire to these things.

There is plenty of nuance, a role for social changes, capitalism and a huge input from technologies that can hide the elephant in the room. Still, the truth is this—fossil energy is converted into people through the food supply chain.

Now we have 8 billion souls, half relying on food supply chains for their survival. At least 40% of the nitrogen in your body was fixed from natural gas in a factory via the Haber-Bosch process. We are dependent on fossil fuel slaves.

But fossil energy is not renewable. We mine it, and we are past the peak, especially for oil. Sooner rather than later, the supply will decline because production will slow, and demand will mean tough choices on what to do with the remaining fossil energy.

If we have a rural labour shortage today, imagine the crisis if the tractors run short of diesel or there is a disruption to the gas supply to the factories that make the fertiliser. 

We know a little of what this is like from COVID-19 disruptions but unlike COVID, stockpiles buffer shortages from fewer fossil fuel slaves, a time lag in production on farms, and even some residual nutrients in soils.  What will happen is that food prices will rise as supply fails to meet demand.

Initially, this will be shrugged off by most in the global north, with some moaning about the ridiculous cost of living. 

But what of the typical resident of Kampala who spends more than 50% of their income on food? Or the single parent in the poor areas of any major city? There will be suffering, and it will be ugly. 

Sanity should prevail and humanity will address the crisis once it is acute enough. No need here to talk of starvation, famine and violence, but if the food is not produced, that is where it will end.

What happens without the fossil fuel workforce? We are all in trouble.

What sustainably FED suggests

Anyone with half an eye on food security knows there is plenty to worry about. Overreliance on energy inputs, soil degradation, climate impacts, and flaky, just-in-time supply chains make the list of worries that will keep even the most zen of us awake at night.

Population growth was always going to be absorbed in cities. It is the most accessible place to put all the extra people where they can be watered, fed and given work. Labour is an urban phenomenon.

But the proportion of urbanites has grown to a level where there are not enough people in the rural areas to feed them reliably. The rural labour shortage is not so much about today, where there is still enough food grown, and the food security challenge is to distribute the production equitably without waste. Nor is it in the intensive production systems that are increasingly automated with ever more sophisticated technology and robotics.

The problem happens when the energy subsidy runs out, and suddenly, the trend to greater automation slows or reverses. Then a proportion of global food must be produced from human and animal labour. 

Where are these people who become overnight farmers?

Even if there is a miracle and a genius comes up with a substitutable power alternative to fossil fuels, fusion, let’s say. Energy is not the problem anymore but expertise might be.

For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the median age of farmers is 53 years compared to 40 years for the rest of the workforce. An ageing workforce is also a trend, with the median age of farmers increasing by 9 years over the last thirty years. These crusty old fellas need to be able to pass their knowledge on to people they trust. 

The locals will not trust an influx of bankers, baristas or barristers. And there are legitimate doubts that the youngsters have the nerve or the staying power. Not so much for the manual labour and long hours that farming demands, but any newbie has to contend with those crusty curmudgeons working the land forever.

Whatever the difficulties and even if the proportion of city dwellers stays high, the absolute number of people working the land will need to rise to feed everyone well. 

The Our World in Data graph of the share of people in the US living in rural and urban areas projected the proportions out to 2050 as an ongoing decline in rural dwellers suggesting an ever more acute rural labour shortage. Whilst logical based on what has happened since 1950, we suggest it might not happen.

Much more likely is that, slowly at first, but with increasing momentum, the trend will reverse.

We say that by 2050 the proportion of rural dwellers will increase.

crowded cafe with people enjoying a conversation over coffee
Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

The delights of the countryside have to compete against the social pull of cafes, bars and clubs

Hero image modified from photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu 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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