The global agricultural population -- defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood -- accounted for more than 37 percent of the world's population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world's agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period, writes Worldwatch Senior Fellow Sophie Wenzlau in the Institute's latest Vital Signs Online trend (www.worldwatch.org).
Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people -- a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases, growth was driven by the massive increase in the world's total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.
It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.
Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.
In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world's agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies, as well as the greater use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.
Population trends have varied widely for the world's leading agricultural producers: China, India, and the United States. Between 1980 and 2011, the economically active agricultural populations of China and India grew by 33 and 50 percent, respectively, due to overall population growth. The economically active agricultural population of the United States, on the other hand, declined by 37 percent as a result of large-scale mechanization, improved crop varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and federal subsidies -- all of which contributed to economies of scale and consolidation in U.S. agriculture.