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Rockefeller Study in Perspective

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jesse Ausubel and Iddo Wernick of Rockefeller University along with Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station recently published a study predicting a decline in the amount of land required globally in order to feed everyone. Their study, “Peak Farmland and the Prospects for Sparing Nature,” received wider than normal press coverage because of its seeming contrast with the projected need to double food production by 2050 in order to feed an estimated world population of 9 billion people.

The Rockefeller study is only notable because it departs from the media’s tendency to emphasize apocalyptic forecasts regarding natural resource limitations. The historical record evidences how innovation and other adaptations have undermined most doomsday predictions. As the authors note, improved productivity in agriculture must be considered when forecasting impacts of food demand.

U.S. farmland dedicated to the production of cereals peaked in 1981 at 80 million hectares and has since declined by 25%. At the same time, total cereals production has increased by almost 30%. The U.S. average yield for cereals is roughly double that of the world as a whole, in large part because in too many other countries agriculture is inefficiently structured in small scale units. Countries like Zimbabwe have actually gone backwards, producing 60% less maize per hectare than in the mid-1980s, but at the same time sown area has expanded by 15%.

The study’s authors emphasize structural declines in per capita demand, what they term the “dematerialization of food.” However, the elephant in the room remains the structural problem of too many farmers. The FAO categorizes 2.6 billion people or 38% of the world as the “agricultural population.” In the least developed countries, the amount of arable land per member of the agricultural population fell to 0.31 hectares in 2009 from 0.4 hectares in 1980. Meeting food demand will continue to be a problem until governments rationalize their agriculture sectors and allow for the economies of scale necessary for real productivity gains.

However, this rationalization will not occur as long as developing countries are dominated by corruption and poor governance. There will continue to be pressure for more farm land as long as nongovernmental organizations persist in glamorizing subsistence agriculture while demonizing agribusiness. Thousands of laborers manually working the same amount of land as a single U.S. farmer with machinery may feed the nostalgia needs of affluent westerners, but it is a tragic loss of human potential. The Rockefeller study is sound analysis, but fully realizing its projections will require media and policy attention on the hurdles in its way.

Gary Blumenthal Gary Blumenthal (
President and CEO Global Perspectives, Inc.

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The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.