Prediction of more land for nature less for crops

By Patrick Francis

While it is fashionable for most scientists, columnists and politicians to support the contention that the world’s population will struggle to feed itself as it nears 9 billion people by 2050, a growing band of analysts is providing evidence to the contrary.

One of the most impressive pieces of new evidence comes from scientists at the Rockefeller University, New York USA. Lead author Dr Jesse Ausubel has taken a holistic approach to estimating future world food demand by examining a wide range of elements contributing to the use of land for crop production, including population increase,  growing affluence (that is, increasing percentage of  of middle income consumers), changing diet preferences, and improved management performance of farmers.

As consumers income increases  the proportion spent on food declines while more is spent on lifestyle requirements.
As consumers income increases the proportion spent on food declines while more is spent on lifestyle requirements.

Ausubel is one of a number of scientists and economists who are examining the complexity behind factors influencing food production and consumption on a nation by nation basis rather than being spooked by world averages.  They include:

  • Dr Keith Fuglie, Economic Research Service USDA analysed farmers total factor productivity in developed and developing countries over several decades . He found “there does not appear to be a slowdown in sector-wide global agricultural productivity growth. If anything, the growth rate in global agricultural TFP accelerated, in no small part because of rapid productivity gains achieved by developing countries, led by Brazil and China, and more recently because of a recovery of agricultural growth in the countries of the former Soviet Union.”
  • Dr David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing, Imperial College London has highlighted that policies for producing more commodity foods for export to world markets (the federal government’s  National  Food Plan, the Asian Century initiative and  the federal opposition’s proposal for “increasing production”)  may be misguided as there is low or no market growth in developed countries. In developing countries meat consumption is increasing but most of the growth is for pork and chicken produced domestically.  He contends increasingly affluent consumers, irrespective of country have changed and are demanding food is good value and is accompanied by values – the latter being characteristics like ethics, sustainability, provenance and heritage. He says “branded supply chain partnerships will be closer and long-lasting than commodity supply chains”.
  • Dr John Williams, grain marketing academic and author, Melbourne Australia, told the Global Agribusiness Conference in Perth last year that farmers are increasingly trapped in a cost-price squeeze that is accentuated by serious grain price skewness, which disadvantages farmers regardless of their country’s economic development status. This means most cropping farmers never have an opportunity to take advantage of price increases because they don’t happen often enough to encourage them to adopt risk management strategies. “Rather than fearing price volatility, there is a need by governments to recognize that if price volatility is not permitted to occur, the commodity trap for global farmers may eventually jeopardize global food security. It is not under-supply and high prices that is ruining grain producers and causing high occurrences of emotional anxiety, regret and avoidance, but rather excess global supply and continual low prices relative to farm input costs, which is worsened in many countries by high currency exchange rates, farm debt, subsidies, price controls, government ‘buffer’ stocks and export bans.

The message being missed by most Australian commentators and politicians is that their preferred future direction for farming, namely increasing food and fibre commodity productivity “to feed the world” is unrelated to improving the profitability of farmers whose businesses are threatened by increasing debt and rising costs. Recently released data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrates this when key farm inputs are compared over a five year period between 2006 and 2011. Interest on loans increased 55% to just over $5 billion; farm repairs and maintenance increased by 45%; insurance increased by 24%; fertiliser by 22%; and fuel by 2%.

Secondly calls made to Australian farmers to “feed the world” need to be considered in the context of specific imported food items consumers in individual countries are demanding. The most quoted developing country that will import more Australian food is China because it has such a large and growing middle income population. But the evidence suggests that Australian farmers are not producing many of the foods that are growing in demand in China.

Thirdly what is seldom considered in “feed the world” presentations is failure to recognise who controls the majority of food’s value chain. The vast majority of the consumer’s dollar spend on food is allocated to businesses beyond the farm gate. USDA analysis demonstrates that across all foods an average of 13 cents in the dollar is returned to the farmer and that amount is declining with time. Having a stake in the logistics, processing and possibly even retailing will be increasingly important for business profitability amongst farmers growing  commodity foods.

Ausubel’s approach is important for Australia’s food trade with Asia as it puts into perspective the impacts of growing affluence on consumer behaviour. In contrast most scientists, politicians and conservationists provide the simplistic impression that as consumers incomes rise they spend more money on food and in particular foods produced in western countries like Australia, Europe and North America.

“Expecting that more and richer people will demand more from the land, cultivating wider fields, logging more forests, and pressing Nature, comes naturally,” he says.

But  Ausubel says back in 1857 Ernst Engel (1821–1896) published a study on the conditions of production and consumption, in which he formulated an empirical law that the proportion of income spent on food declines as income rises.

Ausubel and his co-researchers investigated the impacts of population increase in India, China and USA since 1960. They analysed factors such as GDP, food calorie consumption per person, area of cropping land and reafforestation.

“The years between 1960 and 2010 saw more babies, more affluence, and better nutrition. India’s  population rose over two and a half times, while national income rose 15 times. By 2010, the average Indian ate a sixth more calories than in 1960.

“India, which had net imports of wheat throughout the 1960s, had net  exports in four years between 1970 and 1989 and 11 years between 1990 and 2009 (FAO 2012). Because of agricultural technologies introduced in the 1960s and 1970s and persistent efforts to raise yields since, cropland occupied only 5 percent more land, 170 MHa, in 2009.”

He says 65 million hectares of farmland were spared from cropping because of the changes made to farming.

China’s spared farm land

In China the developments and land spared from agriculture as population increased is even more dramatic.

“China’s population and income grew, and many moved to the cities since 1961. During the last half-century, China’s population doubled, while GDP multiplied over 45 times (World Bank 2012). As they multiplied and prospered, the average Chinese consumed twice as many calories, including calories from 8 times more eggs and 14 times more milk and meat. The multiplication of meat consumption was far slower than the multiplication of affluence: 45 times more affluence gave rise to only 14 times more meat consumption.

“While the area of harvested Chinese corn doubled during the half century, each harvested hectare became more than four and a half times more productive”.

This resulted in 120 million hectares of land being spared from agriculture.

“Despite more and wealthier mouths to feed, Indian and Chinese farmers fed their populations while restraining the expansion of cultivated area. Rising incomes brought better nutrition, but average human food consumption grew much more slowly than rising incomes and began to plateau. Even the appetite for meat in China grew more slowly than affluence.”

In the US Ausubel had a longer period of recorded data to work with than China and India.

“Between the 1860s and 2010, the population of the United States grew nine times. Income, as measured by GDP, grew 130 times. Corn production in the United States rose 17-fold from 1866 to 2010 (US Bureau of the Census 1975 and 2012). Yet, more land was planted with corn in 1925 than in 2010.

“Over the course of three centuries after European settlement, agriculture in the United States spread rapidly in extent to feed expanding populations, domestically and globally. Subsequently, as farmers learned, agricultural activity shifted to the more productive geographic regions, yields increased, and the expansion of cropland slowed and reversed.”

The researchers next looked at world data to see if it aligned with what they found was happening to cropland in India, China and the US as populations and affluence increase. They developed an identity which equates the amount of cropland used with the product of population, affluence, food calories consumed per GDP, crop production per calorie, and land required per unit of production; these are referred to as the ImPACT factors.

“Around 1970, the annual increase of global population began to slow. Population continued to grow after that time, but more slowly as seen in the positive, but falling, p in Figure 1. Averaged over the surrounding decade, annual population growth dropped from about 2 percent centered on 1970 to about 1.3 percent centered on 2004. Although parents have chosen slower growth, farmers will need to accommodate annual population growth near 0.7 percent for the next half-century according to standard UN forecasts.

“The factor a, affluence, fluctuated but always grew 1–2 percent per year during the half-century alongside a steady decline in population growth. The economic downturn beginning in 2008 disrupted the general rise of affluence, but that rise persisted. The change in available food calories per GDP, c1, fell about 1 percent a year on average during the period. In other words, consumers did not increase caloric consumption in step with increases in GDP.

Wealthy spend shifts from food to goods

“A comparison of the composite world of Figure 1 with three large countries argues for the general validity of the fact that the poor will use more new income for food calories, while the wealthy will spend it elsewhere. Manifesting Engel’s Law, in country after country after calories exceed minimum levels, caloric intake rises, slows, and may eventually level off as affluence grows.

FIGURE 1: Annual change of ImPACT factors in global cropland shown by ten-year moving averages 1961–2010 The thick “impact” (im) line sums the other five. Population (p) and affluence (a) raise impact, while technology (t) lowers it, and forms of consumer behaviour (c) may lower or raise it. When the value of the impact line falls below zero, cropland is released for other uses. SOURCES: FAO (2012); World Bank (2012).
FIGURE 1: Annual change of ImPACT factors in global cropland shown by ten-year moving averages 1961–2010
The thick “impact” (im) line sums the other five. Population (p) and affluence (a) raise impact, while technology (t) lowers it, and forms of consumer behaviour (c) may lower or raise it. When the value of the impact line falls below zero,
cropland is released for other uses. SOURCES: FAO (2012); World Bank (2012).

Consumption of meat is a good example. Ausubel says as the Chinese grew more affluent after about 1970, their meat consumption grew rapidly with little dematerialization. By the 1990s, however, the FAO reported Chinese meat consumption rising less than half as fast as affluence and dematerializing 6 percent per year from 1995 to 2007. As Indian consumers grew more affluent, they behaved differently. They scarcely increased their meat consumption during the half-century to 2010. (Another way of thinking about the term ‘dematerialization it is that as people become richer, they consume more information and experiences (such as concerts and travel) but not more food such as meat, bread etc.)

The Chinese meat consumption per person pattern has been graphed by the Earth Policy Institute, Figure 2. It demonstrates exactly what Ausubel suggests is happening in China. The figure also show’s US meat consumption since 1960 and highlights another point Ausubel makes is that with affluence food consumption patterns change, in this case US citizens are beginning to reduce annual meat consumption, in particular beef.

Figure 2: Per person meat consumption in China and the US since 1960. Source: Earth Policy Institute.
Figure 2: Per person meat consumption in China and the US since 1960. Source: Earth Policy Institute.

“Over the last half-century, farmers around the globe have consistently squeezed more crop from the same area, annually lowering the hectares of cropland per unit of production, t, by around 2 percent. A combination of agricultural technologies raised yields, keeping downward pressure on the extent of cropland, sparing land for Nature (the negative t in figure 1 shows the percentage drop in required farmland each year). While the ratio of arable land per unit of crop production shows improved efficiency of land use, the number of hectares of cropland has scarcely changed since 1990.”

Ausubel contends that if the 3.4 percent of arable land devoted to energy crops had not happened the world would have seen an absolute decline in area cropped during the last decade.

Population, changing gradually and steadily, is the most foreseeable of the factors affecting cropland. The 2010 Revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2012) projects a slowing from the 1995–2010 rate of 1.2 percent per year to a 0.7 percent annual increase during the next 40 years, so our projection of 0.9 percent for the next half-century seems conservative. The UN projection of 0.7 percent for the next 40 years provides a realistic alternative.

Affluence, fluctuating from booms to busts, challenges projection from anything but a long view. From 1961 to 2010 and from 1995 to 2010, affluence rose a bit more than 1.5 percent a year on average. The general upward trend evident in Figure 1 for the past half-century suggests that projecting 1.8 percent in the future seems reasonable and provides a margin of safety for the impact of additional wealth in demanding land for crops. The factual 1.5 percent during the 1995–2010 boom and recession provides a realistic alternative.

Crop biological limit

Looking ahead, one must ask whether a biological limit on photosynthesis will soon constrain the rise in yields and accordingly slow the decline of technology and farmers sparing land. The curves of grain  production over time in many countries  suggest saturation has been reached.  But Ausubel suggest, just like John Williams that  these show production, not yield, and probably express lack of profitable markets or other incentives to produce bigger crops. Surpluses have long vexed farmers.

He says a clue about biological limits lies in the rise of winning Iowa yields in the National Corn Growers Association contest, which continue to rise and maintain their margin far above both the US and world average yields of this important crop, figure 3. For the next half-century, this clue suggests no approaching biological limit.

FIGURE 3: Corn yields, 1983–2011 The highest maize yields in Iowa entered in the National Corn Growers Association contest compared with US and world averages. The percentages show average annual increases. SOURCES: Rachel Jungermann, manager, National Corn Yield Contest, Chesterfield, MO, personal communication 2012; FAO (2012).
FIGURE 3: Corn yields, 1983–2011
The highest maize yields in Iowa entered in the National Corn Growers Association contest compared with US and world averages. The percentages show average annual increases. SOURCES: Rachel Jungermann, manager, National Corn Yield Contest, Chesterfield, MO, personal communication 2012; FAO (2012).

Wild cards can happen

“Of course, wild cards may confound projections, but we contend that our assumptions are conservative, transparent, and based on historical trajectories. According to our projection, by 2060 some 146 MHa could be restored to Nature,” he says.

There may be even more restoration of cropland if other factors involved change for the better.

“Slower population growth, restraint in taste perhaps reflecting concern about obesity and the increasing popularity of a vegetarian diet, abandonment of biofuels (highly likely with second generation feedstocks and algae), and continued improvement of technology sum to reversal in demand for land. Sustained for 50 years, such a performance would take humanity from its current peak use of farmland into an era of land sparing. Global arable land and permanent crops spanned 1371 MHa in 1961 and 1533 MHa in 2009, and we project a return to 1385 MHa in 2060.

“However, wild cards remain part of the game, both for and against land sparing. As discussed, the wild card of biofuels confounded expectations for the past 15 years. Most wild cards probably will continue to come from consumers. Will people choose to eat much more meat? If so, will it be beef, which requires more land than poultry and fish, which require less? Will people become vegetarian or even vegan? But if they become vegan, will they also choose clothing made from linen, hemp, and cotton, which require hectares? Will the average human continue to grow taller and thus require more calories? Will norms of beauty accept obesity and thus high average calories per capita? Will a global population with a median age of 40 eat less than one with a median age of 28? Will radical innovations in food production move humanity closer to landless agriculture? Will hunger or international investment encourage cropland expansion in Africa and South America? (Cropland may, of course, shrink in some countries while expanding in others as the global sum declines.) And will time moderate the disparities cloaked within global averages, in particular disparities of hunger and excess among regions and individuals?

“Another 50 years from now, the Green Revolution may be recalled not only for the global diffusion of high-yield cultivation practices for many crops, but as the herald of peak farmland and the restoration of vast acreages of Nature. Almost 20 years ago we made a wild surmise about land sparing. Now we are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature.

FIGURE 4:  Peaking farmland: Extent of global arable land and permanent crops 1961–2009 and our projection for 2010–2060. SOURCE: For 1961–2009: FAO (2012).
FIGURE 4: Peaking farmland: Extent of global arable land and permanent crops 1961–2009 and our projection for 2010–2060. SOURCE: For 1961–2009: FAO (2012).

Find out more:

Jesse H. Ausubel is Director and Senior Research Associate , Program for the Human Environment, Rockefeller University New York. The program aims to elaborate the vision of a large, prosperous society that emits little or nothing harmful and spares large amounts of land and sea for nature. The work spans forests and farms, marine life, human population, energy and materials, and climate as well as life, earth, and engineering sciences.   ausubel@mail.rockefeller.edu ; http://phe.rockefeller.edu/jesse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *