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Holding the field

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Most of the world’s food comes from the ground. Whether raw or infinitely processed, agricultural products are, by far, the largest source of nutrition. 

But as countries become richer and industries diversify, food production becomes a less prominent sector of national economies. Agriculture contributes to around 1.3 per cent of the EU’s GDP and employs just over four per cent of the members’ combined workforce. In the US, less than half of that are engaged in farming, which accounts for just one per cent of the total economy. At the start of the industrial revolution, only two centuries ago, agriculture directly engaged around eight in ten people. 

The same tendency is observed in developing economies. The World Bank estimates that over half the labour force in low-to-middle-income countries worked in agriculture in the early 1990s, contributing 18 per cent to national economies. Three decades later, the workforce in agriculture dropped to a third of the employed population while the share of farming in the economy shrank to eight per cent. 

In the meantime, food-growing has become significantly more efficient and abundant. Cereal production is at three times the levels than it was 60 years ago, and models predict that, in the next 60 years, it will increase by 41 to 44 per cent more, depending on the effects of climate change. 

A warming planet means that agriculture will continue to adapt, and with it, food trade. India, China, and Australia are among the biggest producers of wheat, but as temperatures rise, wheat farming is expected to shift towards higher altitudes and exported to lower altitudes.

Since the first experiments in rice production in China ten millennia ago, cereal grains have been a major source of nutrition for civilizations. For most populations, cereals remain the single most important source of calories with consumption accounting for around two-thirds of the average intake in developing countries. That rate is higher in poorer regions that rely heavily on crops such as corn, sorghum, millet. 

Cereals constitute less than a third of the calorie intake in high-income countries, but this excludes indirect consumption of derivates such as refined flour and food starch from corn, or cereal-based beverages. Even as diets in affluent economies include higher shares of meat consumption, cereals remain the major feed for farmed livestock. 

The fast rate of change in food production methods and trade is prompting many countries to adopt strategic measures to secure supply in the long term. But, as the European Commission’s ambitious Farm to Fork initiative makes clear, nutrition will largely remain rooted in agriculture.

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