Between 2000 and 2017, the total number of international migrants increased from 173 million to 258 million, and as many as 25 million are refugees who left their countries to escape conflicts and other crises.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s 2018 State of Food and Agriculture report, however, most migration isn’t a crisis—it’s a product of, and a solution for, persistent inequalities. As some societies get richer while others get poorer, people move to access better opportunities for themselves and their families.
“The FAO’s mandate is closely linked to development, and when it comes to development, migration cannot be ignored,” says Andrea Cattaneo, a senior economist with the FAO, in an interview with Food Tank.
But the benefits of migration are not universal. Just as migration can reduce inequalities, it can create more problems for those who say goodbye. According to the FAO, better policies are needed to maximize migration’s opportunities while reducing its harmful effects.
Rural migration and the search for a better life
It’s important to note that migration is primarily a rural phenomenon. The FAO says that migration within countries is significantly larger than between countries—as much as four times the amount—and 80 percent of internal movements involve a rural area.
Natural disasters, violent conflicts, and resource depletion are all causes of rural migration, but poverty is the main reason why people leave their homes. According to the World Bank, over 75 percent of the world’s poor are located in rural areas, and, for many, relocating offers the chance for greater prosperity.
“People move because of better opportunities, and today more information is available to potential migrants about opportunities compared to 25 years ago,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank.
Many migrants move to urban areas seeking higher paying jobs in the service and manufacturing sectors, along with better education, healthcare, and social protection. Others move from one rural location to another, especially in high-income regions where foreign workers are an important source of agricultural labor.
“Rural migration, in all its forms, constitutes a critical portion of both internal and international migration,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank. “Therefore, it is central to the migration debate.”
Shifting people, shifting communities
Despite its potential benefits, the opportunities provided by rural migration are highly circumstantial.
“Migration has significant, but mixed impacts on rural areas and agriculture,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank. “The net effect may be either positive or negative.”
For example, significant migration out of overpopulated rural areas can have a positive impact by shrinking the local labor pool and causing local wages to rise. Meanwhile, migration into regions with a low rural population can fill critical labor shortages in agriculture.
When they’re abroad, migrants working higher paying jobs tend to send surplus income to their families. When they return home, many migrants bring new skills, knowledge, and ideas, which can contribute to economic and social development in their communities.
Not all communities benefit from migration, however. When too many members of a community leave, households can become overworked, causing them to abandon their farmland. Moreover, younger generations are more likely to migrate, leaving a vulnerable and aging workforce at home.
Another problem is that many migrants face mistreatment and inequality when they move. Many migrants work informally, earn less than legal salaries, and perform dangerous work with inadequate safety measures. Meanwhile, racism, language barriers, and inadequate social protections predispose foreign workers to isolation and exploitation.
“Migration does not always have positive impacts,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank. “There are costs and challenges to the migrants themselves, their communities of origin, and their destination.”
A food system for migration
The FAO says that better policies linked to agriculture and rural development can maximize the benefits of migration while minimizing its potential harm to individuals and communities.
According to Cattaneo, one recommended route is to make migration easier. Governments can assist migrants find seasonal employment and relocate. In destination regions, authorities can improve and better enforce workers’ rights to protect migrants from exploitation. Helping and encouraging migrants to return home can facilitate the transfer of money, knowledge, and skills to their home communities.
Arguably, however, the best policies are the ones that remove the need for migration altogether.
“In my view, an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable food system is one in which migration from rural areas is an option but not a necessity,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank.
In other words, migration, rather than prevailing as a necessity for many rural communities, must become a voluntary choice between beneficial opportunities.
“Investing in the infrastructure and institutions necessary for a sustainable food system will improve livelihoods in rural areas,” says Cattaneo to Food Tank. “This will allow those who want to stay to stay, and those who want to leave to migrate. This is a key prerequisite for maximizing the benefits of migration.”