J.B. Penn and Jason Clay – The Impact of Technology on Smallholder Farmers

How does urbanization challenge global food security?

J.B Penn: We all know urbanization is occurring at a pretty fast clip and by 2050 we expect fully 70 percent of the world’s population to live in urban areas. So a big challenge is how we move food from the surplus producing areas to the areas where it’s needed. And trade is one of the big aspects of global food security. It’s ironic that at present, multilateral trade negotiations are stalled and the prospects are not bright.

Jason Clay: The people who are moving to cities aren’t just random people. It tends to be younger people. It tends to be healthier people. It tends to be people who can work. What that means is a real outflow both of horsepower, literally from rural areas, but also mental capacity as well. And so, who’s left behind? Who’s going to produce all this food that we need? That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. For the first time ever, we have the ability to see systems that could be more rational around land use, how we use resources, and how we produce at scale. My fear is we’re not going to respond to that quickly enough, or that we have a lot of romantic notions about how we can actually produce food that isn’t what actually produces food today.

How will the fast growing population impact food policy?

Jason Clay: We already have systems where the price of food doesn’t reflect the actual cost of production from an environmental point of view. Pollution, soil erosion, habitat loss, biodiversity loss – we’re not paying for those things now, and I don’t see us paying for those things in the near future either, especially because food prices in cities is going to trump everything. That is what going to drive government policy.

J.B. Penn: We had a real scare in 2006, 2007, food prices spiked, and then they were very volatile for the next several years until the last 3 years when food prices have moderated. During that time governments that had long neglected their agriculture sectors, began to start doing some improved policymaking for those sectors. Now they’re beginning to make some investments in the infrastructure like rural roads, storage facilities, rail facilities, and things of that nature, plus, soft infrastructure like extension services for farmers and information systems for farmers. So policies are not only going to be focused on the urban areas and on the population masses, but the policies also have to be focused on the rural areas. We need to see some real improvements all across the world in policies that relate to agriculture and food production if we’re to improve global food security.

What challenge does urbanization have for rural farm labor?

J.B. Penn: There is a special challenge from urbanization for rural labor availability. Now I’m privileged to be able to visit with farmers – customers of John Deere – all over the world. The biggest challenge they say they face is finding skilled labor.

Jason Clay: I would see shifts at least in developed countries but in some of the more advanced developing countries too, like Brazil, you’re going to see contractors and services provided by an expert group rather than the owners themselves. That’s not only going to be just the application of pesticides and fungicides, but also actual planting, harvesting and more. What’s good about that is we’re going to have the latest technology and the people who know how to operate it. It’s going to be the most efficient and have the least impact. But it’s a fundamental shift in farming.