In November 2011, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) concluded the first worldwide assessment of our land resources. The findings were dire: officials speculated that more than a quarter of the planet’s farmland was “degraded”, and major improvements would be required to avoid a catastrophic food shortage. An FAO report issued the following June stated that more than 70 million hectares of additional crop land would need to be cultivated in order to feed the world’s population in 2050, which is projected to exceed 9 billion.
Now, a study by the Program for the Human Environment (an agricultural think-tank at New York’s Rockefeller University) is arguing that the global population has achieved “peak farmland”. According to the study, worldwide cropland increased by 16 million hectares between 1961 and 2009. Not only has the amount of land required to grow crops reached its max, but the report also predicts that roughly 150 million hectares of land could be restored to natural conditions by 2060. The program’s director, Jesse Ausubel, told Reuters that the surplus has been brought on by stagnant population growth and increasing yields, while growing demands for biofuel and livestock production have not exhausted the amount of available land (as many experts initially feared).
However, several factors that contributed to the study’s findings were largely based on estimates and assumptions, while drastic changes to the climate – which would likely impact temperature, rainfall and soil fertility — were ignored altogether. Evolving dietary patterns, brought on by obesity in some parts of the world and malnutrition in others, also represent a gray area. Variable changes could skew the initial findings over the next five decades, Ausubel said.
Jason Notte of MSN Money also notes that the report makes no mention of the unnatural strategies farmers have employed in order to boost worldwide food production. “Already, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India, Chile and countries within the European Union have laws requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such,” he wrote last week. “A ballot measure that would have required similar labeling in California failed after food companies including Monsanto (MON) and Hershey (HSY) spent $44 million to oppose it.”
But now for the good news: the report indicated that two of the world’s largest emerging economies, China and India, have managed to collectively spare roughly 185 million hectares of arable land over the last few decades as a result of larger-than-expected yields. The study further projects that worldwide corn production will annually increase by 1.7 percent between now and 2060; if this prediction is accurate, then global corn yields will eventually match current U.S. production levels. In recent years, many experts have voiced concerns over both production of non-food crops (such as biofuels, tobacco and cotton) and rising levels of meat consumption; both of these factors would necessitate larger amounts of land exclusively devoted to grain cultivation. However, the report foresees a “continued, but not spectacular, rise for biofuels”, while meat consumption in countries like China has only reached moderate levels.
The FAO is expected to issue a response to this report in the coming weeks. While humanity ought to rejoice at the news that our children and grandchildren won’t starve to death due to lack of available food, it should be noted that our long-term survival depends on several factors with more than one possible outcome.
By Brad Nehring