How Demographic Trends Can Help Build Sustainable Food Systems
Demographic trends in developed economies will bring their fair share of challenges in the 21st century, but might also provide urban areas with unique opportunities to develop their own sustainable food systems.
Ideals and opinions may differ on how to achieve sustainability. Nevertheless, none can succeed without understanding the main socio-economic trends of our times. The types of trends that are fact-based and can’t be changed in the short or medium term. The types of trends that shape societies in the present and influence their future. The types of trends that bring challenges that can’t be avoided. Demography is one of these trends.
Why consider demographic trends when trying to build sustainable local food systems? Because the characteristics of a given population shape its social, economic and cultural environment, as well as its essential needs. A good understanding of demographic trends gives you the ability to better respond to the present needs and leverage your success to shape the future.
Developed countries are characterized by low birth and death rates, a trend towards a growing aging population that is unlikely to slow down. In Canada and other Western countries, the generation we call baby boomers is gradually exiting the labor market.
Quick facts about Canada:
In 1971, there were 7 working-age people for every senior; this went down to 5 for 1 in 2006;
By 2056, there will only be 2 working-age people for every senior;
Seniors will comprise between 25% and 30% of the Canadian population in 2056.
This situation will put a huge fiscal pressure on a shrinking pool of taxpayers. Most Western economies will experience such an aging population. In this scenario, fewer taxpayers means less money in governments’ pockets, which in return will influence national economies, government policies, public funding choices, social supports and overall citizen well-being.
More than half of the world’s population is now living in cities. According to the UN report on World Urbanization Prospects, urbanization will continue to accelerate and urbanites are set to account for 66% of the world population by 2050. In North America, 82% of the population is already living in cities. Rapid urban population growth will place enormous strain on the food supply chain. This means that there is an opening for new food supply models. Having a dense population can have its advantages; it creates proximity. For those seeking to become urban food producers, proximity means opportunities to market and distribute their fresh-grown products at a very low or inexistent cost. It enables small and micro-producers from urban farms, backyards, and rooftops to provide fresh food supply alternatives to their neighborhoods. It is also noted that increasing fresh food production in the city has a high potential to relieve some of the rural production burdens and reduce our carbon footprint.
Rethinking the food supply chain at the hyperlocal level
Being sustainable at the local level will need to involve doing more — and working better — with less. An aging population and growing urbanization provide a context where urban agriculture and proximity trading will offer sustainable possibilities at the ecological, social and financial levels. Population density in growing cities will lead to skyrocketing demand for fresh food supplies, providing unprecedented opportunities for small and micro-scale urban food producers. Densely populated neighborhoods can make it easier for urban food growers to develop their proximity clientele, reducing the carbon footprint from food transportation. Food entrepreneurs are now developing new ways to grow, process and distribute food efficiently in urban spaces.
Democratizing the access to these new ways of doing things could attract more people seeking to get involved in their communities through urban agriculture, all while generating new revenues. Seniors could be provided with adapted fresh food distribution services by the producers in their communities. Some newly retired workers wishing to stay active could become urban food producers as well.
Challenges can be turned into possibilities. A whole new sustainable food economy awaits us at the hyperlocal level. Neighbourhoods and communities have the potential to create thriving food systems and long-lasting prosperity. The only thing missing are the right tools for the job. One thing is sure, information and communication technologies will have a key role to play in enabling urban food growers to optimize what they do by offering the right produce to the right customers, in a timely manner.