Coaxing more food from less land

wheat ears

It’s easy to forget amidst the concern over sprawl that agriculture is still the dominant human impact on the land. Perhaps that’s because it’s easy to rationalize the consequences of agriculture’s land use—it feeds us, after all. But that shouldn’t dissuade us from finding ways to improve farm efficiency. Global population growth shows no signs of stopping before 2050, and rising standards of living mean everyone will be consuming more calories than ever. And why shouldn’t many of them? Malnutrition still plagues much of the developing world.

That’s not to say we haven’t made progress. The Green Revolution boosted crop production by between 250 and 300 percent while only using about 12 percent more acreage. This put a serious dent in starvation rates, but it hasn’t been enough to eradicate the problem nor will it be enough to keep it at bay in the future. Troublingly, crop yields have begun to level off, raising concerns that the the only way to meet the inexorably rising demand will be to put more land under cultivation.

As a humanitarian and conservationist, both prospects alarm me. I’m not alone. Jason Clay, a vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, published an essay in the latest issue of Nature raising many of the same concerns. He offers eight strategies to alleviate the problem, all of which are forward thinking but only some of which will be easy to implement. Clay also focuses intensely on how these strategies can help Africa, a continent in dire need of more productive agriculture, as you can see in a worldwide map of crop yields (cereal yields are mapped below). He also rightly points out that those strategies need to be implemented in the developed world. But Clay fails to say how doing so will benefit nations developed and developing. That’s where I’d like to step in.

World cereal yields (2009)

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Clay’s eight strategies run the gamut. The careful study of genomes can lead to greatly improved yields. But his approach is different in a subtle yet important way from many genetically modified crops. Rather than inserting genes from other organisms, he proposes geneticists speed the old process of selective breeding, where the best traits are kept and the rest discarded. He also supports training farmers in best practices, rehabilitating degraded land, reducing waste from field to table, raising the efficiency of inputs like fertilizer and irrigation, improving soil organic matter, and the reducing consumption in developed nations (which would have obvious benefits for their citizens). Clay also says giving farmers title to their land—something often absent in developing nations—would raise yields by encouraging stewardship.

Poor practices and low yields can lead to a cycle of cultivation and abandonment, which I think is part of the concern in Africa. Unless broken, some of the world’s most important ecosystems will be destroyed. Developed nations have been pushing conservation in developing nations, hoping they won’t repeat the mistakes many of us made decades or centuries ago. However, many people in developing nations have more urgent concerns, like food. Here’s where improvements in the developed world could help. Further raising crop yields in developed nations would not only allow us to save more of our land for conservation—increasing total protected area worldwide—we could direct the surpluses toward a food-for-conservation effort, similar to those proposed for carbon offsets. Such programs would require careful implementation to encourage self-sufficiency and prevent developed nations from lording over the poor.

Developed nations should also look inwards to expand their crop production before going abroad. That’s not to say developing nations should abandon the export market. Crop exports do provide poor nations with cash. But there is a growing trend of foreign interests purchasing cropland and exporting the harvests, removing local farmers and reducing the value of exports to the local economy. For example, China, India, and other countries have purchased or are leasing large tracts of land in Africa for that purpose. While there are good arguments for the globalization of the food supply—increased efficiency can offset the need for new tillage—it shouldn’t be done at the expense of local farmers or virgin land.

In essence, Europe, China, North America, and other developed regions need to further raise their agricultural efficiency and lend a hand to those who are struggling to do so. That can include food aid, but should also include training, research into more sustainable agricultural techniques, and further technology transfers. Many of these already take place, but need to be more creative and larger in scale.

Implementing the same strategies in developed nations that Clay suggests for the developing world would be sensible international policy. Rather than exhorting developing nations to “make better choices” and not repeat the mistakes we made in the past, we should be putting these strategies into action ourselves. It would help fight the appearance of imperialism and perhaps lead to more trusting international relationships, sending the signal that we’re all in this together.


Clay, J. (2011). Freeze the footprint of food Nature, 475 (7356), 287-289 DOI: 10.1038/475287a

Foley, J. et al. (2005). Global Consequences of Land Use Science, 309 (5734), 570-574 DOI: 10.1126/science.1111772

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 2011. FAOSTAT 2009 Crop Data. (available online)

Photo by five blondes.

Related posts:

Can we feed the world and save its forests?

Small farms in modern times

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  1. It seems to me that the advanced farming practices should be taught to individuals and families within the developed world as well. Going unsaid here is that many families could probably feed themselves on the lawn they have in front of their suburban homes, but instead they purchase food from the far-away farms because it’s cheaper.

    Ultimately (and I mean ultimately) that won’t be an option because our energy will become scarce and it won’t make sense to transport long distances something you can just grow under your feet. Why not start designing that system now? In looking at “the mistakes we made in the past” we shouldn’t limit our vision to the last 50 years.

  2. Globalisation has caused no end of misery. It cannot be part of the answer as it is the problem. Whilst the dollar reigns supreme overriding all other inputs in this debate, our planet continues to suffer.Playing god with the plants and animals will only lead to a harder struggle for the Planet to rejuvenate itself after we are gone.
    Feeding the Population is not the answer. We have seen the earth’s Carbon Sinks fast diminish over the past 100 years, and now we are struggling against excess carbon in the atmosphere. Is it linked? YES. Has it gone past tippinf point? Who knows, research is not getting done.
    It is also not possible to be a conservationist and a humanist. Whilst the debate is restricted to the poltically correct and impotence of offending no one, the action required will not be implemented. The only answer is to abandon the global economy pyramid scheme and return to a purer form of society.
    The planet will survive but mankind won’t. That is the reality.It is selfish to speed up our demise.

  3. While well-intended, the food for conservation idea would be unsustainable long-term because it is essentially a welfare mechanism. It would be much better to help developing country farmers implement production processes that reduce their environmental impacts while increasing production. One of the major factors driving land degradation and deforestation is the decline of soil fertility in zones where farmers have little access to fertilizers and traditional methods of cultivation (e.g. fallow periods) are no longer able to cope with population density and increased demand for food. Investing in soil fertility (a concept broader than just fertilizers) allows farmers to coax more produce from the land while protecting it from erosion and other sources of degradation. This approach is sustainable long-term because the farmers in question can make a decent living from farming. But there is no short-cut to achieve this solution: one of the reasons that sustainable agriculture is so elusive is because it requires a complex mosaic of practices. Conditions vary from one region to another, but also on individual farms and even within single fields. There are strong precedents for evoking significant positive change: the devastation of the Dust Bowl was corrected through better farming practices encouraged by appropriate public policy and the Brazilian Cerrado region was converted from a wasteland to a bread basket, again supported by the right policies. The Cerrado example is particularly useful for Africa because many of the pre-existing conditions are the same, and by coincidence, even more so in the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa.

    1. Good points, Kristen. Increasing soil fertility and crop yields should be a top priority. My fear is that there are some regions of the world where population growth will place such enormous pressures on existing acreage that even if we boost fertility and yields significantly, there will not be enough land to support the people without clearing large tracts of land. (Central Africa comes to mind.) In these cases, I think a food for conservation program could make sense. That’s not to say it would be easy to do well, but I think it should still be an option.

  4. Central Africa has huge agricultural potential.

    Rwanda is doing some amazing things by focusing on agricultural development. As food security increases, tensions are diminishing and the environment is improving. (details the projects implemented by IFDC for Rwanda, including CATALIST, which aims to increase peace and security around the Great Lakes)

    If you look at this map, Europe is very densely populated, and yet it manages to have highly productive agriculture and environmental conservation.

    The problem at the moment is that most African farmers are light-years away from using methods that would allow them to increase yields per hectare, and that means the only option is to clear more land. Most farmers in Africa are not even coming close to replenishing the nutrients their crops take from the land, so their only option is to clear more land, a method that was sustainable at lower population densities but no longer is. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other agricultural practices that could cope with this level of population density and contribute to local economies.

    Farming does not have to be antithetical to conservation. And good farming practices are their own best rewards: farmers and local communities benefit and therefore have an incentive to keep investing in them. The problem with any sort of conservation “scheme” is that it has to be policed and is too dependent on external incentives.

  5. food-for-conservation isn’t welfare. it helps the starving. it helps so-called developing nations learn from the mistakes of the over-developed world, where greed rules. of course, it needs to go hand-in-hand with better agricultural practices.

    but in places where hunger is paramount, such as the horn of africa, made-in-the-west solutions (where our wealth clouds our judgment, or makes us more judgmental about developing nations, i.e. our lecturing others about population growth) aren’t the only way.

    the solution is local and global, developing and developed, a shared commitment to helping each other (yes, we can learn a lot from the developing world), so that no one goes hungry and we all share the world’s wealth.

    there are issues of social justice here that cannot be ignored when we’re discussing resource conservation and feeding the world. escalating starvation in the horn of africa today is testament to that.

    thanks for such a provocative and well-written post!

  6. @Mike
    “It seems to me that the advanced farming practices should be taught to individuals and families within the developed world as well.”

    I agree, but what about people living in cities and big towns, where green spaces are non-existent?