My Times column on farm yields and land sparing:
If something drops out of the news, it usually means it is going well. Mad cow disease killed nobody last year; Mozambique and Angola are growing their economies at a furious lick; the Somerset levels are not flooded this winter. There were only two localised famines last year — in South Sudan and the Central African Republic — both caused by conflict, rather than drought or population pressure. That’s because the feeding of the world is going so well it’s not news.
New figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the world’s cereal harvest, which provides more than half of the calories that humans eat, broke a new record last year at 2.54 billion tonnes — an astonishing 20 per cent higher than ten years ago. Thanks to better techniques and seeds, the world’s farmers (of which I declare I am one, in a mostly hands-off way) have provided a growing population with more food per head, year after year, largely without cultivating extra land or using extra water or chemicals.
Maize, rice and wheat — the big three cereals — each broke records in 2014. So why do we hear frequent cries that the world soon will be or is already struggling to feed itself?
“The world is closer to a food crisis than most people realise” headlined one newspaper in 2012. “The food-apocalypse is already upon us”, the same paper shrieked last year. “Rising temperatures reduce global wheat production” was the title of a widely cited academic paper in 2014.
The title was stretching it somewhat since global wheat production has been increasing. The paper was about predictions from a mathematical model that if average global temperatures rise by one degree (which at the rates of warming experienced over the past 35 years would take seven decades), and if farmers do absolutely nothing to adapt, such as switching to more heat-tolerant maize in some places, then wheat production might drop by — wait for it — 6 per cent. That’s less than 0.1 per cent a year, when it is going up by 2 per cent a year.
And once Africa, the gigantic continent whose average yields have barely budged in 50 years, gets access to plentiful fertiliser, global harvests will increase even faster. It’s not just plants that are getting better at giving us what we need thanks to science; so are animals. The rate at which cows, pigs and especially chickens convert grain into meat is also going up steadily.
Thus even as a richer world turns increasingly to meat and other luxuries, we can cut the human footprint on the planet. Jesse Ausubel, of Rockefeller University in New York, calculates that if we continue raising average yields at the current rate, stop putting 40 per cent of America’s maize into cars in the form of ethanol, and reduce food wastage, then, despite the rising population, an area the size of India could be released from agriculture over the next 50 years and handed back to Mother Nature.
There is one exception to this happy picture. Europe has seen its wheat yields stagnate. If wheat and barley yields had gone on increasing in Europe at the rate they did in the 1980s, they would now be 30 per cent higher. A study published last week ruled out the fashionable excuse for this — climate change. “Climate trends can account for only 10 per cent of the stagnation in European wheat and barley yields,” it said.
Actually, there is good evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are measurably increasing the growth rates and yields of crops. After all, greenhouse owners pump CO2 into their glasshouses to make tomatoes grow faster. Studies confirm that crops and forests are growing faster and yielding more today than 50 years ago because of the extra carbon dioxide in the air, especially in arid areas. This phenomenon has cut the appropriation of land for farming by about 13 per cent compared with what it would otherwise be, resulting in more land being left wild.
The authors of the paper on European yields conclude that the explanation for the stagnation lies mostly in “changes in agriculture and environmental policies”. That is to say, just as the European Union cannot grow its economy, so it cannot grow its harvests, and for similar reasons. The fault lies in European officialdom’s perpetual war on innovation in agriculture — its precautionary and bureaucratic de facto opposition, at the behest of what the former environment secretary Owen Paterson calls the Green Blob, to safer pesticides and genetic modification, both of which demonstrably boost yields, save inputs and spare land elsewhere in the world.
As Britain’s new life science minister, George Freeman, put it on a recent visit to Brussels, EU anti-science regulation risks condemning the continent to the slow lane of the 21st century bio-economy, as evidenced by the announcement of the chemical firm BASF that it was leaving Europe. He added with refreshing directness: “If the EU won’t put in place a more supportive policy framework, we will use our reform, renegotiate and referendum strategy to pursue the progress we need.”
There are two ways to try to achieve both abundant food and resurgent wildlife in the 21st century. One is to make farming as wildlife-friendly as possible, essentially sharing the bounty with insects and birds, but needing lots of land. The other is to coax as much from each acre as possible for ourselves, but spare lots of acres for wild vegetation and its wild consumers.
This second strategy, of land sparing, is proving more successful. If we tolerated weeds and pests in fields to the degree we did 50 years ago, we would need more than twice as many acres to feed today’s population.
The ultimate land sparing policy is to grow more food indoors. A Japanese entrepreneur named Shigeharu Shimamura is now using low-energy, pink LED lights and hydroponic irrigation to produce 10,000 heads of lettuce a day inside a semiconductor factory that was damaged in the 2011 tsunami — occupying 2 per cent of the land that would be required if the lettuces were out of doors. He uses 99 per cent less water and no pesticides, because pests are denied entry to the factory.
The late, great science writer Nigel Calder once wrote that a Martian would conclude that the masters of planet Earth are three species of grass — rice, wheat and maize — which have somehow persuaded huge numbers of apes to toil day and night to clear forests, irrigate deserts and kill weeds on their behalf.