Loblaws isn’t showing much business smarts using its resources to push low-cost organic baby food. Oddly, it’s grandparents who will be propelling the healthy eating trend.
That’s the kind of demographic zinger U of T’s David Foot, author of the bestselling Boom, Bust And Echo: Profiting From The Demographic Shift In The 21st Century, offered his audience in late January at the annual Guelph Organic Conference.
Using data from the 2001 Canadian census, Foot tracks the sudden and sharp increase in vegetables, fruit and milk consumed by people as soon as they hit 50, regardless of income, gender or education.
Watching Foot and his overhead graphs of population cohorts over the next 25 years, my mind starts to wander and I get a sudden aha: there’s another way of looking at how population trends affect organics – not from the standpoint of aging Canadian consumers, but from that of youthful world producers.
According to stats Foot has gathered, the relative numbers of young, middle-aged and elderly people are very different in the rich countries of the North and the poor South. In wealthy nations, there’s something like a pear shape in the population, with a narrow band of elderly at the top, a bulge of middle-aged in the middle and a narrower band of youth at the bottom. (See box)
In poor countries (China is a rare exception), there’s a pyramid shape, with a very small number of elderly, a larger band of middle-aged and a huge base of youth at the bottom.
The Philippines, for example, have fewer than 2 million people over 75 and over 55 million under 25. Similar population distributions hold for Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan and India.
A massive influx of youth into a labour market with no jobs is one of the most dangerous mega-trends a society can face, Foot warns. What happens is inevitable, he says repeatedly: if young people don’t find work, “they either emigrate or they tear their society apart.”
What the world needs now, in Foot’s words, is “labour-using technologies” that will employ the billions of young entrants to the workforce.
So here’s my thought: what more socially useful kind of labour-intensive employment can there be than organic and other alternative growing methods?
Most of the world’s commercially available food today comes from industrial-style agriculture, while the essence of organic or sustainable methods is their greater reliance on human labour and skills than on tech and energy.
You can see how this could work even in a country like Canada, where older consumers are revving an organic demand that could be filled by a labour market that can’t seem to break out of 6 per cent chronic unemployment levels.
Imagine family farms of one, two and three acres as the norm, especially in fruit- and veggie-producing areas near cities, where space is also at a premium. In the organics sector, farmers can earn enough margin from customized produce to offset the lower volumes they produce on small acreages with low-cost hand tools.
The bad news is that almost all government policy is designed to promote capital-intensive “labour-saving” production that hires fewer people. In most countries, farmers and food companies tax-deduct the cost of machines and fuel, for example, but pay significant payroll taxes each time they hire a new person. Such taxes function as a reward for companies that mechanize and lay people off.
For the past 60 years, we’ve measured productivity per hour of labour. We now need to think in terms of productivity per unit of resources, such as land, water or energy. Labour is no longer scarce on a world scale; resources are, so it’s time to measure and manage what’s scarce. A carbon tax is part of that, since air to absorb carbon is in short supply.
In a system that actually encouraged employment, companies would get a tax break for hiring people instead of buying machines.
The measuring stick and incentives of today are dangerously out of step with the times. Environmental and energy pressures have long been moving economies in new, older but wiser directions. Now we know demographic trends can do the same.
Labour-intensive organic farming could be the solution to global youth unemployment.
Under 25 534 million
Over 65 30 milliion
Under 25 68 milllion
Over 65 9 million
Under 25 53 million
Over 65 5 million
Under 25 108 million
Over 65 10 million
Under 25 10 million
Over 65 4 million
Under 25 100 million
Over 65 35 million
Source: U.S. Census Bureau