Peak oil and now peak farmland?

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A new prediction that 10% of land currently under crop farming will be spared, able to return its natural state by 2060, is the outcome of a study by Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York, and colleagues.

With global population pressure rising one would expect arable land to increase as it has in the past. Extensification of agriculture onto new land has been one way for global food supplies to keep pace with population growth and indeed the UN predicts arable land to increase. But contrastingly, according to a paper authored by Ausubel and colleagues, farmer innovation,  stabilisation of population growth and changes to consumption patterns will cause farmland to decline to 1.38 billion hectares by 2060 (from 1.53 in 2009). Ausubel, in a speech, noted that the decline will not be due to an exhaustion of arable land. 

This is supported by estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which claim there some 70 million extra hectares will be needed to feed the population in 2050. Whether this land exists in a form suitable for agriculture or without cutting down the rainforest is another matter. The report asserts, however, that we will enter a new paradigm, one seeing a shift from extensification to intensification.

The report, however, makes some rather large assumptions. Increasing crop yields, declining population growth along with moderate increases in biofuel and meat consumption are all assumptions that may not come to fruition, at least not without technical advances, behaviour change and political leadership. That isn’t to say they are not built on some evidence base: China’s meat consumption is rising below economic growth and the Green Revolution-induced wheat yield increases allowed 120 million hectares of land to be spared across the country. One very important factor missing from the study, however, is climate change for which some of the impacts, such as salinisation, desertification and declining crop yields, will limit the amount of land that can be spared. Socio-economic factors too must be considered: just because land can be spared does not mean that it will. From small-scale farmers to large agri-investors, incentives must exist for land to be taken out of production.

While the findings of the report can allow us to be somewhat hopeful about the fate of agriculture and its impact on the environment, the ability to increase yields around the world to that of the US or Europe will require greater access to appropriate technologies. Even allowing for the assumptions made in the study achieving such substantial reductions in agricultural land will not come without a fight.

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Comments

  1. This report is very well thought out, there are just far too many unknown variable (like you stated). My concern is how heavily will some of these crops be modified to reach these goals, and what impact that could have on our overall health in the long-term.

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