NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Increased Farm Productivity Returns Farmland to Nature

April 3, 2013

A recent study finds that in the 21st century, huge swaths of farmland equal to hundreds of millions of hectares will be released back to nature. The reason is because worldwide farming productivity has peaked, says Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason Magazine.

  • In the 1960s, the Green Revolution started a trend of reducing agriculture's impact on nature while boosting agricultural productivity.
  • That leap in agricultural productivity was sparked by plant breeder Norman Borlaug and his colleagues, who created new high-yield varieties of wheat and rice.

Consider the impact on India:

  • In 1960 India's population was 450 million, and the average Indian subsisted on a near-starvation diet of just more than 2,000 calories per day.
  • Indian farmers wrested those meager calories from 161 million hectares (400 million acres) of farmland, an area a bit more than twice the size of Texas.
  • By 2010, Indian population rose by more than two and half times, national income rose 15-fold, and the average Indian ate a sixth more calories.
  • The amount of land devoted to crops rose about 5 percent to 170 million hectares.
  • Had wheat productivity remained the same that it was in 1960, it is estimated that Indian farmers would have had to plow up an additional 65 million hectares of land.
  • Instead, as people left the land for cities, Indian forests expanded by 15 million hectares -- bigger than the area of Iowa.

In the United States, corn production grew 17-fold between 1860 and 2010, yet more land was planted in corn in 1925 than in 2010. Today U.S. forests cover about 72 percent of the area that was forested in 1630. Forest area stabilized in the early 20th century, and the extent of U.S. forests began increasing in the second half of the 20th century.

For the future, researchers use an ImPACT equation to calculate how much land will be used for crops by multiplying population trends, affluence, consumption and technology.

  • The United Nations expects that population growth will continue to slow, global affluence will increase about 1.5 percent per year, people will spend less on food as incomes rise, and the amount of crop per each hectare will rise by 2 percent annually.
  • The United States should witness a modest 1.7 percent per year increase in corn yields between 2010 and 2060.
  • By 2060, hundreds of millions of hectares could be returned to nature, which would increase forestation and save water supplies.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Peak Farmland?" Reason Magazine, March 22, 2013. Jesse H. Ausubel, Iddo K. Wernick and Paul E. Waggoner, "Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing," Population and Development Review, 2012.


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