1: The world has reached “peak farmland,” the environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel has estimated. We may never again need as much as we use today.
This reality is very good news for the planet, Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: “Despite their bucolic charm, farms are biological deserts which sprawl over the landscape at the expense of forests and grasslands. Now that farms have receded in some parts of the world, temperate forests have been bouncing back.”
This phenomenon is happening during a time of significant population growth. In 1975, there were roughly 4 billion human beings on the planet. Today, we are nearing 8 billion.
2: What explains this welcome revelation? Agricultural efficiency. Yesterday, we looked at the impact of the chemical breakthrough of pulling nitrogen out of the air and turning it into fertilizer on an industrial scale.
Another “giga-lifesaver” is Norman Borlaug, who in the 1950s and ’60s “outsmarted evolution to foment the Green Revolution in the developing world,” notes Steven. “Plants in nature invest a lot of energy and nutrients in woody stalks that raise their leaves and blossoms above the shade of neighboring weeds and of each other. Like fans at a rock concert, everyone stands up, but no one gets a better view.”
From a farmer’s viewpoint, “not only do tall wheat plants waste energy in inedible stalks, but when they are enriched with fertilizer, they collapse under the weight of the heavy seedhead,” Steven writes.
Norman invested years of “mind-warpingly tedious work” to cross thousands of strains of wheat and then selected the successors with dwarfed stalks, high yields, resistance to rust, and an insensitivity to day length.
The result? He evolved strains of wheat with many times the yield of their ancestors. Then, he did the same with corn and rice.
“By combining these strains with modern techniques of irrigation, fertilization, and crop management,” Steven writes, Norman “turned Mexico and then India, Pakistan, and other famine-prone countries into grain exporters almost overnight. The Green Revolution continues–it has been called ‘Africa’s best-kept secret’.”
The bottom line? Today we need less than a third of the land to generate the same amount of food.
“Between 1961 and 2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12 percent, but the amount of food that was grown increased by 300 percent,” Steven writes. “If agricultural efficiency had remained the same over the past fifty years while the world grew the same amount of food, an area the size of the United States, Canada, and China combined would have had to be cleared and plowed.”
3: Another impact of all of these agricultural innovations is a steep drop in the cost of food.
“In the United States in 1901, an hour’s wages could buy around three quarts of milk; a century later, the same wages would buy sixteen quarts,” notes Steven. “The amount of every other foodstuff that can be bought with an hour of labor has multiplied as well: from a pound of butter to five pounds, a dozen eggs to twelve dozen, two pounds of pork chops to five pounds, and nine pounds of flour to forty-nine pounds.”
Reflection: What surprises me about the data above?
Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who believes we live in “the worst of times.”