On Earth Day, Thank Agriculture

Commentary, Agriculture, Frontier Centre

The celebration of Earth Day, observed this year on April 22, has evolved into an affirmation of the obvious, the value of environmental health. Some will mark the day by cleaning up a local park, planting trees or renewing their interest in recycling. Others may listen to impassioned speeches, shop for energy-smart appliances or simply head outside to commune with nature. These activities all make sense. But the single most important contributor to our planet’s ecological health will be ignored. It is modern, high-yield farming.

The process is a classic demonstration of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” In an often chaotic market worked by thousands of players – from the obscure scientists toiling in public and private laboratories, to the busy farmers who use their findings, to the vast, competitive network of food distributors – a simple formula has emerged. More growth per acre and falling unit costs leave more room for Mother Nature. Most of these people seek only personal profit. But their freedom to do that is conferring an environmental bonanza on the whole human race.

Every acre used for foodstuffs is one less available for parks, forests and wildlife. Scientists, businesses and farmers have worked steadily for decades to increase productivity in the industry and minimize the need to plough under more wilderness. Their success has been nothing short of amazing.

Statistics can tell the tale. To take only one measure of agricultural efficiency, compare the amount of food produced globally in the year 2000 with 1960, and the acreage used to produce it. If productivity had remained the same, we would have needed between 12 and 15 million square miles of extra land to match output to growing populations. That is a land mass equivalent to all of South America, the United States, and Europe combined. In other words, the space of almost three continents has been spared for other uses, in just forty years.

If we had to identify a single hero who emerges from the legions of people who have accomplished this feat, he would be the “father of the Green Revolution,” Dr. Norman Borlaug, who celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year. In the 1960s, working in Mexico, Borlaug developed varieties of wheat with yields two to three times that of traditional ones. He then took his discoveries to India and Pakistan and quadrupled wheat production there in under a decade. Those advances have continued to the point that yields today are ten times what they were then.

When combined with other high-yield technologies, this meant that India has not had to plough under any more forest land for food production. Its farm acreage today stands at the same level as in 1947, the year it achieved independence from Britain. Not only can it feed itself, in most years India is now a net exporter of grain to the rest of the world. Borlaug also introduced high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread throughout Asia. At the time he received a Nobel Prize in 1970, his work was already credited with saving a billion lives.

According to Conservation International, nearly half or 46% of our planet’s total land area remains as untamed wilderness. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 37% of the earth’s surface is used for agricultural purposes, with 11 % dedicated to crops and 26% for pasture and rangeland. If you subtract what is permanently under ice, the total climbs to almost 50%. Astonishingly, cities and towns occupy only 3%.

Successfully and efficiently feeding the earth’s 6.3 billion people and their animals is no small task. But that is just what we have, aside from political problems, been able to do. Demographers at the UN and the World Bank estimate that global population will peak at 9-10 billion people sometime around 2050 and then start to decline as standards of living increase and, as a corollary, birth rates decrease. Clearly the need to feed ourselves is the single most important competitive pressure on the space available for wilderness.

If we wish to live on a relatively safe planet, these people will need to be fed. As Borlaug once said, “You cannot build a peaceful world on starvation, empty stomachs and misery.” The debate today is less about the need to increase agricultural productivity and efficiency than about whether we need to double or triple output. If, in the near future, we are to avoid a Hobson’s choice between people or preserving wilderness, it is critical to maximize the use of land already dedicated to agriculture through the use of newer, better technologies.

That brings us to the current state of the environmental movement. Too many of its most extreme elements have adopted a fierce opposition to genetically modified food and too many governments, especially in Europe, have embraced their creed. They need to appreciate not only the human imperatives that dictate the march of agri-science, but the ecological disaster that faces us if we abandon this progress.

On Earth Day, let’s take a moment to honour the contribution of the modern farmer to the planet’s health. Three cheers for the scientists, growers and middlemen who are simultaneously liberating us from hunger and preserving our open spaces.