[shareaholic app="share_buttons" id="15180628"]For as long as there has been innovation, it has displaced labour. Innovations often improve the efficiency of technology, reducing the cost of production and the labour required to produce the products. Agriculture is no different in this than any other industry sector. Following World War II was a transition from livestock-based farming to mechanized farming, allowing farmers to work more land. This is particularly evident in Saskatchewan, the figure below illustrates the number of farms peaked in the mid-1930s and as more agricultural innovations have been adopted, the number of farms has continued to decline. Of course, over the past 80 years, farm size has also correspondingly increased as smaller farmers have sold their land to their larger neighbours.

Number of Saskatchewan Census Farms, 1906-2011 Source: Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

Number of Saskatchewan Census Farms, 1906-2011
Source: Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture

The challenge with present agricultural innovations, particularly in developing countries is that as more innovations are adopted, the fewer people there are left farming. With each new innovation, there are always gains and losses as a result of adopting change. In a recent presentation Andrew McConville, Head of Corporate Affairs Asia Pacific, for Syngenta, presented that there are an estimated 450 million small landholder farmers in developing countries that are currently farming less than two hectares of land.

McConville identified a challenge faced by many of these farmers, labour migration. Young people in developing countries see cities as a source of better employment and are less likely to choose the more labour intensive option of remaining on their family’s farm, preferring instead to move to urban areas in search of better employment. This has created a labour shortage in some areas, particularly where there is a need for hand seeding in rice plots and hand weeding in fields.

The trend in parts of Asia is increasingly towards urbanization, with the Pacific nations having an urbanized rate of 70%. North Central Asia (NCA) is not far behind with over 60% urban populations, while East and North-east Asia (ENEA), South-east Asia (SEA), Asia-Pacific all have urban populations accounting for over 40% of total population. South and South-west Asia (SSWA) is the only region to have a rate lower that 40%. As is evident, the four lower regions on the figure below have all increased over the past 20 years.

Urban population, Asia-Pacific subregions, 1990 and 2010 Source: United Nations, 2015

Urban population, Asia-Pacific subregions, 1990 and 2010
Source: United Nations, 2015

United Nations geoscheme (Asia).svg|thumb|United Nations geoscheme (Asia)

United Nations geoscheme subregions of Asia
Source: Concerto, 2009

Feeding a growing global population is not an easy fix. With the trend towards urbanization in many developing nations, particularly in Asian nations, the importance of new agriculture innovations that reduce labour requirements are going to be even more crucial than they would have been in past decades.

Critics of agricultural innovations argue that small landholder farmers should not adopt innovative crop technologies because of the labour displacement, but this is an unrealistic expectation as one can’t limit peoples’ intentions or desire. Labour disruptions are synonymous with innovation, so the rural depopulation that has been witnessed in North America will be expected to occur in developing countries. To adjust for this, innovative crops that require less hand labour are crucial to increasing food security. It is not possible to regulate against labour migration, therefore the solution lies in innovation for agriculture that reduces the on-farm labour demands.

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