The Agricultural Sustainability Imperative for Producers

Farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishers around the world face similar challenges as they seek to produce nutritious food for their families, communities and for more distant markets.

Business cycles go from boom to bust; heat stress and extreme weather contribute to unbearable working conditions; little chance for advancement and stagnant wage growth dampen youth interest in farming; and remote rural locations lead to isolation from modern services and amenities.

Producers need equitable work opportunities and the chance to build thriving businesses.  With the adoption of more sustainable agricultural policies and a focus on improvements for decent work and access to education, training and innovation, producers can help fulfill the sustainability imperative and transform agri-food systems for healthy people and a healthy planet.

The Agricultural Business Cycle: Managing Through the Booms and Busts

The ups and downs of the global economy, along with local and regional boom and bust cycles affect the agriculture sector and continue to impact farmers and other agri-food system participants, regardless of scale.

Since 1900, real agricultural commodity prices have fallen, while world population growth has more than quadrupled to 7 billion in 2015 (Figure 1). The average price reduction trend has been one percent per year over that time.  Yet, shorter-term boom and bust cycles are evident within the long-term trend.

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Social Protection Programs for Productive Resilient Farmers

For subsistence and small-scale producers, income instability is one of the greatest obstacles to increasing the productivity and profitability of their agricultural enterprises.

In Zambia, farmers cultivating less than 5 hectares of land rely on wage labor, such as working on larger farms or in processing facilities, for their main source of income. Agricultural wage labor is seasonal, which means that men and women are investing less time and energy in their own farms during critical planting and harvest periods.

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Sustainability in an Uncertain Season

Farmers everywhere are impacted differently by the agricultural business cycle.  How they respond to downturns—particularly when it comes to building resilience against future shocks—depends on their level of education, training, access to finance, information and technology and supportive public policies that enable them to compete and take advantage of market opportunity.

Governments must help by providing essential public goods such as infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services and access to credit and risk management services.  Fair and efficient trade helps farmers supply new markets and more consumers.

During volatile business cycles of agriculture, farmers must explore every opportunity to cut costs, improve production and business practices and wisely manage their natural resource bases for long-term sustainability.

Key strategies include effective business planning, data management for decision support and productivity to lower costs and be competitive.  Farmers also seek to improve the quality of their products to gain a price premium from the consumer market.

A Honduran maize farmer digs irrigation channels. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT.

No Workers, No Food: Labor Challenges in Agriculture

Agricultural labor can be dangerous and difficult, and wages are often stagnant.  By 2030, some four billion people will live in regions with increasingly hot climates; agricultural workers will account for 66 percent of hours lost due to heat stress.

Around the world, 44 percent of agricultural workers are younger than 14 years old and 66 percent of agricultural workers live in extreme poverty.1  Many do not have secure access to land and to the assets they need to improve their farm operations.

These challenges are resulting in a youth exodus from the agriculture sector that requires urgent attention.

A future farmer in rural Honduras whose family participates in ASOFAIL, [Association of Lenca Farming and Artisan Families from Intibuca]. ASOFAIL farmers supply produce to Walmart and use modern farming methods promoted by CIAT [The International Center for Tropical Agriculture]. Credit: Adriana Varón y Stéfanie Neno, CIA
Rural areas are home now to 600 million youth, who are the face and the future of food security in their countries.

Understanding their needs and providing them with opportunities from an early age to participate in successful rural agricultural businesses is part of a wider strategy to reverse the youth exodus from agriculture.

A range of new approaches are being established to inspire and support youth to remain engaged in agriculture and to help feed their communities and the world.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has developed a methodology for youth training, the Junior Farmer Field and Life School (JFFLS).

In use since 2004, the approach enhances skills and knowledge in agriculture, markets and business and is aimed at young people throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Topics are addressed through small group discussions, observation, role-playing and experimentation.

The approach can be adapted to a wide range of settings and participants,including those youth displaced due to political instability and conflict.

Graduates from the FAO Junior Farmer Field and Life School program in Mozambique display certificates and results of their field work upon successful completion of the course. Photo credit: ©FAO/Filipe Branquinh

A new form of JFFLS training includes “training of youth trainers”, a peer-to-peer vocational training in which trained youth are involved in mobilizing and sensitizing their peers in opportunities in agriculture and food industries. On average, each youth trainer graduate has re-trained 20 other rural youth in his/her district, bringing a positive spillover effect.2 Key training themes include conserving water, promoting good health, improving aquaculture, adapting to climate change, and addressing land and property rights.

A global movement of young professionals has emerged who are advocating for more youth participation and leadership to shape sustainable food systems.  These young professionals launched YPARD (Young Professionals for Agricultural Development) in 2006 to be a global network of resources and mentoring, led by young professionals in agriculture for youth.  Today, YPARD has more than 15,000 members in over 60 national working groups that are advancing new ideas and opportunities for one another and for the next generation of agriculture leaders.


As an international financial institution working to alleviate rural poverty, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has provided $18.5 billion in grants and low-interest loans to projects since 1978 that have reached about 464 million people.  To address challenges  of youth development throughout many of its country programs, IFAD is promoting a new approach to agriculture and rural development:  youth-sensitive development, incorporating aspirations and concerns of youth and targeting specific programs and policy toward agribusiness improvements so youth can succeed.

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No Justice, No Farmers

Agriculture around the world relies on a labor force that faces risky and difficult working conditions. Thanks to a growing number of socially responsible producers and led by consumer campaigns to raise awareness, agricultural working conditions are improving in some notable cases.  Advocacy organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Oxfam shine a spotlight on how supply chains can become more just and more sustainable.  Oxfam’s new Behind the Barcodes campaign takes a focus on supermarkets and retailers and how they can address growing inequality in their value chains by improving transparency in food sourcing, guaranteeing safe working conditions and equal opportunities for women and fairly sharing food industry revenues with farm laborers.

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