Research Press Release

Agriculture: Ageing populations in China threaten the sustainability of smallholder farming


February 23, 2023

The demographic shift towards an older population in rural China is leading to a reduction in size and output of smallholder farms, as well as a reduction in farmers’ income, according to a study published in Nature this week. Encouraging the adoption of modern farming practices could reverse these losses and increase long-term viability of the agricultural industry in these areas.

Global populations are ageing at an accelerated rate. This demographic shift presents challenges to various sectors, such as the agricultural industry, particularly in regions dominated by smallholder farms. Compared with younger farmers, those in older age groups typically have relatively lower education levels, and are less likely to embrace up-to-date farming practices, potentially causing concern for the long-term future of the sector.

Baojing Gu and colleagues examined data from more than 15,000 rural households across China with crops but no livestock, collected between 2015 and 2019. They find that ageing populations were correlated with a 4% decrease in farm size in 2019, compared to the expected farm sizes if the population had remained on the same trajectory as it was (with a lower ageing rate) in 1990. This was further associated with decreases in disposable income (15% loss), labour productivity (4%) and agricultural output (5%). Additionally, there was a 3% increase in fertilizer loss to the environment, creating concern surrounding the effect of inefficient farming on the ecosystem.

Further examination by the authors has found that a transition to cooperative practices among larger groups or families, would reverse these negative consequences, growing agricultural input, farm size and income by 14%, 20% and 26%, respectively. This could include sharing farming machinery and developing more sophisticated sales strategies among larger farms. The cooperative model could attract younger farmers with higher levels of education, who are more likely to adopt innovative and cost-effective methods, while strategies such as manure recycling to cropland would reduce nutrient wastage and limit the impact of environmental pollution from greenhouse gases.

This research provides a quantitative estimate of the impact that an ageing population is having on smallholder farms in China, suggesting that policy changes incentivizing the adoption of innovative farming strategies could revitalize the agricultural industry in rural areas.


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