Good news for the food supply
Thursday, March 14, 2013
We are accustomed to frightening news about our food supply. We read regularly about the perils of “industrial agriculture,” the poisoning of land, sea, air and humanity itself by modern farming techniques. Corporate greed seeks agricultural profits without regard to consequences, or so we are told. We ingest mangled DNA in our corn syrup and soy. We unwittingly swallow toxic residue on our fruit, supposedly, a contention that always makes headlines even when it’s not true. We wash nutrient waste into our rivers. We confuse mating salmon with pesticides. We use too much water, deplete the soil, waste energy and dump excess carbon into the atmosphere. We as a species are a danger to the natural world and because of this surely we will be justly rewarded for our environmental gluttony, any day now.
What if that’s wrong? What if the imperfections in food production are a small story relative to humanity’s enormous success in making food for itself? What if the story of modern agriculture is more about the advancement of science, of refined technology, and the constant inflow of human ingenuity seeking to make more with less? The effort is not without consequence or problems, and corporations surely have profited, but the general result is making ever greater supplies of food on less land, to the benefit of the natural environment.
This is the good news. Rising agricultural production, combined with slowing growth in human population and trends in eating habits, lead to the conclusion that it would be possible for humanity to begin returning large tracts of former farmland to nature, and still produce enough food to sustain us comfortably. Environmental scientists Jesse H. Ausubel and Iddo K. Wernick of Rockefeller University, and Paul E. Waggoner, laid out their “peak farmland” thesis in the journal Population and Development Review in 2012. I read of the report through Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal and Reason.com, and William Tucker on the Real Clear Energy website.
Ausubel summarized in a lecture in December, 2012. Statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization show that from 1961 to 2009 the amount of land farmed worldwide increased by 12 percent. The volume and value of food produced on that land increased by 300 percent in the same period. If farmers still used the same techniques they did in 1960, with the same yields, producing that amount of food would require an added 7 billion acres, “about the sum of the USA, Canada and China or almost twice South America.” In China, corn farmers have spared an area twice the size of France. In the United States corn production has risen 17-fold, mostly since 1940, and yet there were more acres planted to corn in 1925 than 2010, they said. And 40 percent of the crop goes to fuel for automobiles.
“India and China alone have spared an area more than three times the size of France or a dozen times Iowa. Absent the slowing population growth, evolving tastes and improving agricultural practices, unimaginable destruction of nature would have occurred.”
As for the future, yields are still rising and indications are that will continue. Use of nitrogen and water have peaked. Human appetites have moderated — population growth slows and the desire for meat has not kept pace with increasing affluence in China or India. Barring diversion of land to grow non-food products, like biofuels, it will be possible to send land back for wildlife habitat and carbon-absorbing forests. “Over the next 50 years, the prospect is that humanity is likely to release at least (350 million acres), one and a half times the size of Egypt, two and a half times that of France or 10 Iowas, and possibly multiples of this amount. ... We see no evidence of exhaustion of the factors that allow the peaking of cropland and the subsequent restoration of nature.”
Consider that when you hear arguments for a return to 19th-century agricultural techniques, or putting scare labels on processed food, limiting research or shunning technology. That’s not the way to a greener world.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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