Perhaps Global Agricultural Trends aren’t as Dire as We Thought

By Keith Kloor | June 30, 2014 10:49 pm

Many people working in the global sustainability arena tend to be focused on one of two knotty issues: 1) climate change or 2) food security.  The former is devilish because we have to figure out how to power the developing world while reducing our overall carbon footprint. The latter is also complex because we have to figure out how to feed billions more people in the coming decades while reducing our overall agricultural footprint.

Some brainy wonks are fairly pessimistic about climate change being meaningfully dealt with anytime soon–if at all. If this proves true, let’s hope that the worst case scenarios don’t play out.

As for agriculture, there’s a widely held belief that growing demand for food will require ever more cropland, resulting in devastating ecological consequences.  But perhaps this future is not as certain as some think. Jon Fisher, a researcher at the Nature Conservancy, recently dug into a trove of agricultural data and was pleasantly surprised by what he found (his emphasis):

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70% more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70% increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

That’s why I was surprised to find what appears to be good news lurking in global data (from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO 2014) while I was doing research for a chapter in an upcoming book (Agricultural Resilience: perspectives from ecology and economics – coming from Cambridge University Press later this year).

I found that, while the global food supply per person has increased over the last 15 years, we have simultaneously decreased the total amount of land we’re using to produce it.

This is not a simple story, as Fisher makes clear in his post. But it is an intriguing new storyline in the larger, food security narrative.

  • JH

    Hard to know where to start. Here’s one angle:

    “we have to figure out…”

    We did not start the 20th century saying “jeez, we have to figure out how to get some kind of widely available airborne transportation by 2000 or we’ll be toast!” We didn’t try to figure anything in particular out between the beginning and and the end of the 20th century. We let millions of individuals figure out solutions for individual problems as they arose.

    And, amazingly, by the end of the 20th century the amount of land we were using to produce food was decreasing. Was it because sustainability wonks were worrying over how to feed the world? :)

    • http://qpr.ca/blog alqpr

      Actually, yes! Norman Borlaug and his team of “sustainability wonks” were indeed “worrying over how to feed the world” (and it is only due to their success in that deliberate effort that several billions of us are now getting fed).

      • Steve Crook

        Not sure that’s completely true. Things were already trending in that direction anyway. There’s been a century or more of steady progression in agriculture, getting more from less.

        Borlaug was doing what researchers and growers have been doing for centuries. Looking for varietals that yield more, are easier to harvest and more resistant to disease.

        Like most things, the green revolution didn’t appear from thin air. It was a thing of its time. It couldn’t have happened earlier because preconditions weren’t met.

        • http://qpr.ca/blog alqpr

          Yes, but my point was that Borlaug et al were motivated explicitly by a desire to feed the starving billions rather than just to improve the yield of their own fields – and without that directed effort the “green revolution” would have been much delayed.

      • JH

        Um, no. Borlaug didn’t invent increasingly sophisticated farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or irrigation techniques. These were independent inventions, all of which have been steadily improving over the last 100 years or longer. Without these inventions, Bourlag’s new hybrids wouldn’t have been nearly as effective in increasing yields.

        Bourlag wasn’t aiming for particular efficiency or production targets – he simply worked hard to spread the latest technology to poor farmers around the world as much as he could.

        • http://qpr.ca/blog alqpr

          ok yes of course there were other factors as well. So delete the word “only” from my response if you like. The fact remains that those worrying wonks were responsible for a major fraction of the increase in global food supply since the 1950s – and not just by working to “spread the latest technology” but also by developing new technology in the form of new wheat varieties appropriate to third world agriculture.

          • JH

            Yes they developed new technology. So did lots of other people. It’s one factor of many.

            But back to the point about worrying wonks: today’s worrying wonks aren’t developing anything.

          • http://qpr.ca/blog alqpr

            And how on earth would you know that? Many of the “wonks” now working on alternative energy and food sources have chosen those areas of research as a result of worrying about the future of our species at least as much as about increasing their own income.

  • mem_somerville

    Huh. I wonder what happened mid-1990s to impact this.

    • Brian

      Mem – Well, in the part of the world that I live in, genetically modified canola, better pulse genetics and direct seeding allowed more production on the same land base.
      The anti science, organic movement, continues to rail against this progress wanting all agriculture to return to the worst of agriculture practises, the 1920′s to 1940′s.

      • mem_somerville

        Actually, that reminds me of a graph I saw recently. Despite all the whinging about “King Corn” and the acres of it, there was actually more acreage used in the past–with far less yield.

        https://twitter.com/WyoWeeds/status/368388545880145921/photo/1

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  • J M

    There is also the matter of cutting agricultural production by deliberate policy.

    In EU, common agricultural policy (CAP) shifted since 1980. Instead of rewarding farmers for higher production, CAP set production quotas, compolsory fallows and direct payments to farmers regardless of production, lowered tariffs, stricter limits to use of pesticides and fertilizers etc. etc.. Thus, production levelled off.

    A recent study I saw tried to attribute the stagnant cereal production figures in EU to climate change… every farmer here knows it’s CAP.

    CAP budget is currently 57 billion euros (77 billion dollars). About 1/3 goes to environmentally related payments (low-intensity farming, preservation of hedgerows, grasslands, woods etc.)

    • RobertWager

      And what will happen to EU Ag policy when the financial meltdown continues, (they have only kicked the can further down the road not fixed the problems)? Clearly EU farmers will want to use technologies that the competition uses, and without payouts to not use the technologies, they will use them regardless of what their politicians say.

      • J M

        Nothing. CAP budget is a few billion larger than e.g. annual public expenditure of Finland (pop. 5.5 million).
        My point is that EU CAP is system that discourages production increases. Farmers are paid per acreage tilled, not per ton produced. They get more money by setting land aside, becoming organic and using fallows. They are financially punished if they use more fertilizer or exceed quotas.
        EU could produce more food but has chosen not to.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    The Reverend Malthus says, “It is never an unending straight line.” The greater the smartless ascent, the bloodier the inevitable crash. 21st century population densities cannot be supported by Neolithic faith-based engineering. The world can burn corn, ending Klimate Kaos with magick, “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”

    http://www.gibs.co.za/SiteResources/images/figure-1.gif
    http://donsnotes.com/reference/images/pop_growth.gif

  • Benjamin Edge

    How much of that land saved has been irrevocably lost to urban sprawl?

    • JH

      None. We cut down forests for that.

  • JH

    Uh oh, Keith!

    From today’s (7/8/14) Seattle Times:

    “Even after fewer acres were planted, the wettest June on record left fields in the best condition since 2003 and sent prices into a bear market two months before the harvest starts.”http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2024015697_cornrecordcropxml.html

    More food with less land and all while the warming globe is ruining the world and about to kill us all? And to add insult to injury, it’s the wet June that’s causing all the problems, when global warming is supposed to a) stop it from raining ever again; and b) make it rain so hard that we’re continually beset by floods and erosion and…and…WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE!!!! OMG!!!!!!

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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