You’re on an agricultural careers page, so why are you seeing a section for economics? Despite what you might think, economics and business management can be of an immense help to you in the agricultural field. And it’s not as boring as you might have thought.

O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel, senior agricultural economist at the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, speaks so fondly of his job that he could convince anybody to find it exciting and enjoyable. And it’s easy to understand why:

“You get exposed to so many various areas in this line of work,” he says. “It’s so multidimensional.” He explains that he is exposed to accounting, business planning, the macro context of South Africa’s economy as well as the micro side of financial statements and analysis.

“You also work with so many different stakeholders, the government, private sector, labourers, policy makers. It never gets boring,” Pêrel says.

If you have an interest in economics, but don’t just want to sit in an accounting office all day, or if you have the drive to make change in the world around you, agricultural economics might be a good route for you to consider.

Multiple functions of an agricultural economist
O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel, senior agricultural economist at Western Cape department of agriculture. Photo: Dona van Eeden

O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel, senior agricultural economist at Western Cape department of agriculture. Photo: Dona van Eeden

They can work at the micro- or the macro-level. At the micro-level, i.e. on the farm, the agricultural economist is involved in all matters that are related to resource use, management, production, processing, distribution and the use of agricultural products. They analyse aspects of financing – the allocation of inputs and resources, all in an attempt to maximise profits. Certain agricultural economists are involved in the marketing of food and fibre and the trading that is involved through different channels until it reaches the end user.

At a macro-level, agricultural economists are employed by multinational food companies and export organisations to analyse the factors that influence the trade of agricultural products. Agricultural economists’ knowledge of the macroeconomic variables, such as inflation, exchange rates, interest rates, puts them in a position to identify the effects of various macroeconomic policies on the food and fibre industry, and eventually on the whole population.

The multidisciplinary nature of agricultural economists’ training ensures that they can converse with specialists in these fields, a skill that makes agricultural economists indispensable in certain organisations and governmental departments.

Broader impact of your work

Farmers, agribusinesses and financiers cannot achieve success without keeping up with international agricultural trends. It is also essential to stay informed of the developing markets, to identify their potential and make use of them. The international markets are always changing, and only those that can forecast problems, identify opportunities and act accordingly, will come out on top. Agricultural economists are being used increasingly in this role.

With the technological changes that we have to keep up with, the agricultural field is always changing. Everything can have an impact on this sector, which is why it is always fluctuating and it is helpful to be a good researcher if you want to go into agricultural economics.

Adding great value to agriculture 

With the changing climate and various social and environmental factors affecting agriculture, a lot of lives can be impacted. “We have to ask how we can assist agriculture at large,” Pêrel explains. “There’s a lot of potential in this sector if you are willing to take a risk.”

Agricultural economics can be used to build resilience in the context of Covid-19 and climate change. You can influence policy on national and provincial level in order to impact food security and food systems in this field. “We help find the necessary interventions to help agricultural process systems,” Pêrel says.

His job is very rewarding for him, and he is able to make a difference in a very important sector. Agriculture impacts our lives in almost every single thing we do, and many people depend on it for their livelihoods.

“Food security and job security can be improved within an improved agricultural system, which we can achieve through work in agricultural economics,” Pêrel explains.

Does being an agricultural economist still sound boring to you?