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close this bookCERES No. 109 (FAO Ceres, 1986, 50 p.)
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View the documentFood security and the integration of agriculture: Options and dilemmas
View the documentAgricultural productivity and the ageing process
View the document''...a sense of their own effectiveness''

Agricultural productivity and the ageing process

by Philippe Fargues

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, the ageing of the active populations of the world has become a global phenomenon that during the next 15 years will be considerably stronger in the developing countries than in the industrialized ones. This ageing process has already begun in the developing world, with the exception of Africa and the Islamic regions, reflecting the fact that when birthrates decline, a population gets older. It has fewer young people and more old ones.

Moreover' when the factor of migration is considered, it seems clear that rural populations will grow old more quickly than urban ones. The ageing of producers in the low capital-intensive agricultural sectors of many developing countries could imply a lowering of the productivity of labour. Probably, this is one of the heaviest pressures that the rural exodus exercises on the food stability of these countries.

Even migrations between rural areas can exert similar pressures. The Ivory Coast, a country with a prosperous agriculture, was obliged to increase its cereal imports by 250 per cent between 1974 and 1982, rising to second place among cereal importers in Black Africa. A contributing factor was the movement of young grfrom the north of the country, devoted largely to subsistence agriculture, toward the south, to become planters of export crops such as coffee or cocoa. Such migrations accelerate the ageing process among the remaining population of the abandoned region, without any balancing contribution to domestic food production.

Grow old or die. If we assume that developing countries cannot indefinitely maintain an annual population growth rate of two per cent, which would mean a doubled population every 35 years, then it must be recognized that ageing is inevitable. Since population growth reflects the difference between birth rates and death rates, a declining growth rate will result only from higher mortality or by lowered birth rates and the ageing of the population. And since ageing is usually equated with decay, the demographic evidence of the process that first confronted Europe must have inspired pro-natalistic reactions among governments there. The real choice is to grow old or die and, barring high mortality as a way to achieve population balance, the Third World must get ready for the ageing process.

Rapid increases in the numbers of elderly within populations can be regarded in two ways. First, the proportion of the population of 65 years or more indicates the state of ageing at a given moment. As can be seen from the first column in Table 1, the proportion of elderly population in the developing countries in 1985 was four per cent; it was 11.1 per cent in that category in the industrialized countries. This is due not so much to a lesser decline in the death rate in the developing countries as it is to the maintenance of a higher birth rate. One of the paradoxes of the ageing process is that it does not result from the prolonging of individual lives but rather from the decline of its young people. For instance, if the fertility rate in Nigeria is maintained at the present level of 6.4 infants per woman, the proportion of elderly in the population will remain at a constant 2.4 per cent even though there is a gain of 20 years in life expectancy at birth between 1950 and 2010. Europe, on the other hand, while gaining only 10 years in life expectancy over the same period, will see the proportion of its aged population rise from 8.7 to 15.4 per cent of the total because fertility will continue to decline from 2.6 to 1.9 children per woman.

These proportions indicate roughly the burden that old people place on an active population. It is not too great yet in the developing world where, excepting five countries (Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Uruguay, and Hong Kong) with fertility rates in the range of 2.0 to 3.2 children per woman, those over 65 make up less than five per cent of the population.

To calculate the future proportions of elderly, however, requires projections of total population, which are dependent in turn upon hypothetical birth rates - a very large step into the unknown. A better indicator offering a more dynamic picture of the longterm perspective is the growth rate of aged populations. In 1985, the elderly of the year 2050 have already been born. Their numbers and their growth can be projected simply by forecasting mortality.

From this point of view, developing and industrialized countries have had comparable growth in the course of the last 35 years, both more than doubling their percentage of old people (see Table 1, column 3). This index is of great interest for planning since it indicates the investments needed to provide for the requirements of old people. The evolution expected in the course of the next 40 years (see column 4) shows that the increase in the aged population will be twice as large in developing countries as in industrialized countries.

In 1985, more than half the world's old people (147 million out of 277 million) live in developing countries. In 2025, they will number 773 million, of which 531 will be in developing countries. They will have accounted for more than three-quarters of the aged population growth in the world.

And here lies a second paradox: the high proportion of "old" in the industrialized countries and the declining part that these countries take in the growth of the aged population of the world are two sides of the same coin. A low percentage of old people results from a strong population growth. This affects all age groups, including the oldest. The younger a country is, the more it will eventually need to invest to respond to the growth of its aged population.

Between 1975 and 1985, the aged population of the Third World grew at the annual mean rate of 3.02 per cent, about four times as quickly as that of European countries, which grew at 0.76 per cent. In Africa, 21 countries are growing faster than 3 per cent a year. Among these are the three largest countries of sub-Saharan African Nigeria, Zaire, and Ethiopia. In Latin America, 12 countries, including Brazil and Mexico, have a rate higher than 3 per cent, and Asia has 18 such countries, including the giants China and India.

Diversity of structures by age. If we combine the present burden of old people (the proportion of over-65s in 1980) and the progression of this burden (annual rate of over-65 growth between 1975 and 1985) we can distinguish four groups of countries.

I. Ageing already under way (more than 4.5 per cent over 65) and aged population growth moderate (less than 2.5 per cent per year). This group includes temperate South America (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) and the Caribbean

Although they are far from the same state of ageing, these countries are nearest to the “old" countries of Europe and North America. Argentina occupies a relatively unfavourable position since it must support already heavy burdens (8.2 per cent of old people) and foresee a rapid elevation of its investments (2.5 per cent growth per year).

II. Ageing already under way, aged population growth rapid (more than 2.5 per cent per year). China is virtually alone in this category.

The profound and rapid ageing that China must expect results directly from the extraordinary drop in fertility begun in 1970 thanks to a rigorous anti-birth policy. To the plunge in its fertility, from 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to 2.2 in 1980, corresponds the hollowing of the base of its age pyramid. In 1985, the last of the "numerous" generations are more than ten years old. In 2040, the survivors of the 1985 over-10s will have passed their 65th birthday. That is when China will have attained its maximum ageing. It will subsequently begin to rejuvenate progressively as the generations born of the present single-child policy grow old.

After 2025 China and Europe will have similar situations, which is remarkable considering how different they were 75 years earlier. That gives an idea of the extent of the effort that China will have to make to support its accelerated ageing. Hong Kong and Singapore face a similar situation. In Singapore it results from fertility as low as China's but which dropped less abruptly. In Hong Kong, where fertility has been low for much longer, it is the ageing of the immigrants of the years 1940-50 that temporarily increases the age of the total 1980 population.

III. Very young countries, aged population growth rapid This includes most developing countries.

Five have an over-65 growth rate greater than 4.5 per cent: Venezuela, Libya, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. These oil-producing countries all attract immigration. Maintaining a very high over-65 population growth rate presupposes the fixing in place of the old immigrants, but nothing is more uncertain.

IV. Very young countries, of aged population growth moderate. North Africa and western Asia (the Arab countries and Turkey) are enjoying a reprieve from ageing.

Although they may still be uniformly young, the developing countries are engaged in well-differentiated short-and long-term evolution. Figure 2 compares the over-65 growth rate with that of the total population.

The countries where the over-65 rate is higher than the total population rate have an age structure that is getting older. In sector I of figure 2, the growth rate of the aged is 1.5 times greater than that of the total population. China, Hong Kong and the Republic of Korea are in that group. In sector II, which contains the majority of developing countries, the ratio of the two rates is 1 to 1.5.

Some countries continue to get younger, meaning that the over-65s in crease less rapidly than the total population. Sector III, contains North Africa, western Asia, and southern Africa. Their fertility has not yet weakened (except in Turkey), while infant mortality has fallen.

New problems. Ageing has involved much transformation of the economies of industrial countries and will present underdeveloped economies with new problems. Rural populations are beginning to feel two of them: the old people are becoming a burden, and the producers are ageing.

The growth of the proportion of aged persons is accompanied by a decrease in that of young people, with the result that the divisions of the total population between active and dependent does not change much under the sole effect of population ageing. The tendency would be even, rather, for the dependency relationships (Table 1, columns 7 and 8) to decrease.

Within the dependent population, it is necessary to await a rapid development of the distribution between old and young, in favour of the old (columns 9 and 10), and within that in favour of the very old (75-plus) and women. Now, the transition of a dependent population, nine-tenths of which was under age 15 in 1985, to another, where the over-65s will account for more than one-fourth in 2025, is not the same as a simple transfer from the expenses of the young to the old. The consumption of a young person and that of an old person are of neither the same kind nor the same amount. But there is something even more worrisome. While the state tends to assume a growing part of the cost of young people (notably extension of public education and infant care centres), rare are the developing countries where the care of the aged by the society has a large base. Retirement systems are limited to a minority of the population. A given growth of the aged population presupposes an investment as elevated as the starting structures are weak.

A large offspring is a form of old-age insurance. The lowering of fertility and consequent ageing of the family limit the ability of a family to take care of its elderly. Traditional family solidarities would decrease with the number of descendants, but' ironically, they would be needed more than ever.

The insecurity of old people could take a particular turn in rural Africa. Fertility there has held but the exodus to the cities has had the same effect as the drop in fertility elsewhere. The traditional extended family assures a collective management of dependents, children, and old people. Under the effect of galloping urbanization, this family is beginning to disintegrate. Generally, when they are not actually born in the city, young children follow their parents in the rural exodus. The costs of bringing them up are then supported by the restricted family, nuclear or not. It is not the same for the old people, in any case if they live in the villages. This is the rule in Black Africa. Old people represent a proportion of the total population nearly two and a half times higher in the country than in the city (in other developing countries and in the most urbanized countries of Latin America the country-city ratio is about even). Though now less urban than the rest of the Third World, Africa is engaged in even more sustained urbanization (6 per cent per annum, as against 4 per cent). For the most part founded since independence, the African cities still have only a small percentage of old people (1.4 per cent), whose maintenance the traditional gerontocracies would guarantee. The latter could well not survive the geographical dispersion of the generations. The cost of children becomes onerous in the cities, where the market takes the place of village subsistence. The competition between the generations may well precipitate the disintegration of traditional "old-age insurance".

Relief by the aged. If the lowering of fertility causes ageing worldwide, emigration causes it at the local level. Removing the young, active population, it leaves the old people behind in the regions the young abandoned. When the movement is on a large scale, the ageing that ensues can be more brutal than that which follows from changes in the birth rate.

For example, as a result of heavy migration toward the south of the country, the northern Ivory Coast lost 11 per cent of its farmers' strength between 1975 and 1980. In the males aged 20-24 group, the loss reached 36 per cent (see figure 3). The proportion of the over-45 population among farmers rose from 27 to 33 per cent. In the same period, the total rural population of the region continued to grow despite emigration (up 0.7 per cent). The same observation could be made of many other centres of rural exodus.

Sometimes international migrations are responsible for rural ageing. In the Yemen Arab Republic, a quarter of the active male population has emigrated to Saudi Arabia. Between 1970 and 1975, its male population between 15 and 40 years of age fell by 13 per
cent, but that between ages 40 and 65 increased by 11 per cent.

In agricultures with a strict division of labour according to sex and age, ageing and feminization caused by emigration have swift repercussions on production. With a few exception, the rural exodus in developing countries does not result from a double movement, demand for manpower in industry and replacement of man by machine in agriculture, as was the case in the industrialized countries. An old farmer armed with a horse-drawn plough could doubtless replace many young people equipped solely with swing-ploughs. However, these are the poor rural areas from which people emigrate. In the absence of capital, the young grare not often replaced by technical progress.

The ageing of agricultural populations contributes to increasing food dependence only because it occurs in the double context of an agriculture where the abundance of labour is a condition of survival, and of a predatory urbanization without positive effects on agriculture. If the time to begin getting ready is now, because the problem is imminent, we cannot say with certainty in advance that ageing will aggravate underdevelopment, since it will occur along with a decline in population growth and will relax the pressure of costly growth.