A Future in Peril? How Urbanization is Repeating History for Rural Farmers and Businesses

Farmers work in rice fields, prepare seedlings for planting in the rainy season, Thailand.

Urbanization in countries in the global South is influencing how agri-food systems develop. With more young people leaving farming behind in search of new opportunities in cities, rural land ownership and stewardship is called into question. As population densities in cities increase, this has made supermarket style business models in food retailing more viable. This form of capital investment in food retailing is also spurring development along entire food supply chains in which they are located, including in food production. Ensuring that equitable and inclusive livelihoods can develop will mean realizing how rural and urban food systems are connected and adapting to market shifts in both rural and urban areas.


Rural agriculture is essential to key to urbanization and should be of great concern for those who care about it. Despite farming being critical for both inclusive growth and food security, youth are increasingly uninterested in it. While rural smallholder agriculture is still the single biggest source of employment in many regions of the global South, the tradition of inter-generational farming is being overshadowed by the prospects of a more lucrative urban future. Just as in the global North decades ago, youth in the South are trying to escape poverty by leaving agriculture, or at least agriculture as their parents and grandparents practiced it.

Succession planning in farming is an important conversation to have about our global food systems. Whether here in North America or in the global South, preparing our next generation of women and men farmers must involve planning for the transfer of labour, skills, knowledge, decision-making and stewardship of the land and farming businesses. For farmers, this can be a difficult transition to navigate; not only is succession complicated, but it also deals with delicate matters such as family dynamics, legacy, property ownership and estate planning. For farmers in the global South, rapid urbanization and resulting shifts in rural land use present added layers of risk and complexity.


History shows us that rapidly urbanizing countries saw the gap between rural and urban people’s income increase at first and decline only after most of the population had moved to urban centers. As urban economies shifted towards industrialized methods of production, so too did the rural agricultural industry. Land parcel sizes increased, and land ownership and the means of production became more consolidated. Many farmers and agricultural workers without the capital to invest in the agro-industrial revolution migrated to cities for better paying work.


As youth leave for job opportunities in urban centres, this has created opportunities for large corporate businesses to acquire land and grow businesses, at times, at the expense of local farmers. Large-scale, often government supported corporate acquisition of land and the accompanying dispossession of local farmers is occurring on an unprecedented scale throughout sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. We have seen this pattern before in the colonial and post-colonial history of the global South. Today, the acquisition of great expanses of land by large corporations is happening again, leading to the spread of an export-oriented corporate farming model.


This has significant implications for the prospect of equitable and inclusive livelihoods. While a minority of elites may become wealthy by facilitating land dispossession and acquiring the agricultural means of production, and some farmers may be seduced by immediate cash payments for relinquishing their land, the development community needs to consider what this means for the future of rural agriculture. While often accompanied by government and corporate promises to create new jobs and higher incomes for rural people, research shows that these deals have not provided employment on a significant scale. Instead, the jobs that are created require large sums of money and tend to focus on ecologically damaging monocrop farming with minimal linkages to local economies.


History is beginning to repeat itself in the global South as the divide between the wealthier urban centres and rural areas experiencing poverty becomes starker. To lessen the impact of this divide, we need to pay attention to the outcomes of urbanization: families living apart, aging farmers left behind in rural areas, and the dramatic shifts in food system dynamics that follow.


With the 2021 United Nations Food System Summit around the corner, the future of our food systems is up for debate—and it’s all happening during a global pandemic, the looming existential threat of climate change, reversing gains in gender equality, and rising food insecurity. 265 million people are threatened by famine, which is a 50% increase from last year alone. In addition to this, 700 million are suffering from chronic hunger and 2 billion more from malnutrition (including rising rates of obesity and related non-communicable diseases in all world regions).


We’re not going to reverse the process of urbanization in the global South, nor should we want to. Instead, we can look at this trend as both an early warning and an opportunity, to ensure that global food systems are developed to benefit local rural communities, including the most marginalized people within them. By creating mutually beneficial partnerships among food producers, governments, and businesses, using MEDA’s Theory of Change as a starting point (Providing technical expertise and finance for small scale farmers and entrepreneurs to fuel economic growth) this will contribute to creating a more inclusive and prosperous food system for all. Therefore, it is critical that the major policy solutions that arise from the UNFSS summit are guided by women, youth, and other stakeholders who are most impacted by the shifts in farming succession, land ownership, and rural to urban migration. This will help to ensure a more sustainable and equitable future for our global food systems.

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