Category Archives: Agriculture

Eastern and Western cultural differences may come down to rice and wheat


For all we know about ourselves as a species—our bodies, our thoughts, and our behaviors—there are many things we don’t know—the specifics of our origin, how civilization arose, and how the many cultures of the world developed. Among the most perplexing question is how Eastern and Western cultures became so different. Eastern people are typically characterized as interdependent and holistically thinking, while Western people are generally thought to prize independence and analytical thought.

Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have offered a number of theories to explain the dichotomy. The latest theory suggests the question hinges on rice and wheat. People who historically grew rice will probably be more interdependent, they say, and people who grew wheat should tend toward the opposite. The psychologists who came up with the hypothesis found a great place to test it—China.

Though rice is often considered China’s staple grain—and at over 200 million tons per year, they do produce a lot of it—the country also grows a fair amount of wheat, some 120 million tons. Most of that production occurs in the north, while rice is dominant in the south. In the middle, there’s a transition zone.

Thomas Talhelm, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia, noticed this gradient and used it to test his hypothesis. Along with co-authors from the U.S. and China, he compared cultural tendencies for six different regions in China with economic, public health, and agricultural data to see if interdependence was intertwined with rice.

Being a successful rice farmer, they argue, is highly dependent on your community. Flooding rice paddies requires extensive irrigation networks, which don’t tend to be individual enterprises. Planting and harvesting, too, require cooperation to make the most of it. Those demands could have led to a holistically thinking, interdependent culture, they argue. Wheat, on the other hand, doesn’t need much more water than rain can provide, and planting and harvesting isn’t as involved, so it’s easier to make a go of it on your own.

To characterize the six regions’ cultures, Talhelm and his colleagues asked people a series of questions and had them perform a number of activities. The psychologists also drew on other information, including divorce rates, GDP, and number of patents awarded. They then attempted to explain any variations in those numbers by comparing them with rice and wheat cultivation. They also tested another hypothesis while they were at it—pathogens.

But wait, where’s this pathogen question coming from? It turns out pathogen prevalence is another theory that can convincingly explain the differences between interdependent and independent cultures. People who live in places with high disease burdens—think warm, wet places—tend to be less trusting of strangers, for obvious reasons: A stranger could carry a disease you’re not immune to. But people you know? They have probably gone through the same illnesses as you, so you’re less likely to be exposed to something new. You can trust them more. Yet in regions where there are fewer diseases, it may pay to interact with strangers. It might lead to more lucrative business deals or useful new ideas.

Talhelm and his colleagues found strong evidence in favor of the rice vs. wheat hypothesis. But while rice and wheat could explain a good amount of the differences, it doesn’t explain them all. Perhaps the pathogen theory can explain most of the rest.

In the future, the question may be moot, though. Since most of us aren’t farmers anymore, and fewer of us have to worry about diseases, we may grow more similar over time. Still, these ghosts may linger. Interdependence has held on in other wealthy, non-agrarian societies like Japan for decades. Cultural differences, it seems, may be stubbornly persistent.


Talhelm, T. X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, S. Kitayama. 2014. “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” Science 344(9): 603-607. DOI: 10.1126/science.1246850

Photo by Ronald Tagra

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Farms west of Montreal

The flight from Boston to Chicago isn’t the most scenic, but if you’re lucky enough to snag a window seat—no mean feat these days—study the patchwork landscape with a discerning eye about 40 minutes into the flight. You’ll notice something a bit peculiar, at least for North America. Instead of the usual tableau of square or rectangular farmsteads, you’ll see ribbons of agronomy. They’re a Canadian ghost of geography, a relic from when the region was known as Nouvelle-France.

Back in the early 17th century, France was trying to stabilize its colonial foothold in the New World. Cardinal Richelieu, an advisor to the king and powerhouse in French politics, hatched a plan to encourage more intensive settlement. As a part of that, he parceled the land similarly to the way it was divided in France—long, thin strips oriented perpendicular to a transportation route, which in New France was primarily the St. Lawrence River. The layout traces its roots back to medieval times, but what’s more intriguing, at least to me, is how ribbon farms—or rather the lack thereof in the much of North America—shaped attitudes toward transportation.

Part of the beauty of ribbon farms is how easy it is to transport goods from them. Moving around the farm itself is a bit more difficult—the farthest part is much farther away from the house and barn than the most distant part of a square farm. But between farms and from farms to market, ribbon farms are superior. Roads running past ribbon farms can serve more addresses over the same distance. Neighbors are a short walk away, cities and crossroads closer than you’d expect. Since the system started with the transportation network and built out from there, ribbon farms have certain efficiencies square farms never could.¹

Farms north of Detroit

Much of arable North America, though, was not allocated in ribbon farms. The Public Land Survey System carved up large portions of the United States into one square mile sections, each of which were subdivided to create farms and aggregated to form townships. Canada adopted a similar system for its prairie provinces, called the Dominion Land Survey. Under such schemes, farms are more square than linear, a quirk of geography that I believe influenced the development of the entire nation.

Here’s how: Roads snaked out to farms where they were needed, which is to say nearly everywhere. Farmsteads, and later suburban houses, were more or less evenly distributed across the landscape rather than concentrated next to existing roadsides. The fact that the farm, not the transportation, came first is important. In New France, transportation was clearly the foundation. But in much of the rest of North America, parcels were delineated first. Transportation routes followed, a geographic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Here’s why that matters: With ribbon farms, the expectation is that transportation is king. Living under such a plan, I imagine networks have a certain planning primacy which dictate certain characteristics of the parcel. But when the U.S. started with square farms, the process and the results were the exact opposite. We plotted the farms and then pondered the logistics. In that context, it’s no surprise that we feel transportation should come to us instead of the other way around. As Americans, we pick a place to live and then figure out how to get where we need to go. If no way exists, we build it. Roads, arterials, highways, Interstates, and so on. Flexible and distributed transportation networks are really the only solution compatible with that way of thinking. Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance. We were destined for the automobile all the way back in 1787, when we first decided to carve up the countryside into tidy squares.

Town, section, range. Pick your plot, worry about the details later. It’s the American way, and it’s driven the psychology of an entire nation.

  1. Did I mention you don’t have to turn your oxen or tractor as frequently, either?

Satellite images courtesy Google Maps.

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Turkish countryside near Hierapolis

I speak English (no surprise). I can also speak German, though more poorly than when I was in college. And I can understand a handful of Spanish, Italian, and Chinese words. But I am completely hopeless when it comes to Russian, Hindi, Tagalog, and hundreds of other languages. It’s a shame, but I know I’m not alone.

Language differences are both a hurdle to common understanding and a window into cultural differences. Which is why linguists, sociologists, and archaeologists are so intent on shedding light on the origin question. Research published today in the journal Science tries to trace the origin of the Indo-European language family, the largest in terms of native speakers and geographic distribution.

There are nearly 450 languages and dialects in the family, including English, German, the Romance languages, Hindi, Russian, and many others. If you haven’t studied them, most of these languages may seem like Greek to you.¹ But many of their words are surprisingly similar, even to the layperson. Take “three”, for example. In German, it’s drei, in Spanish it’s tres, in Greek it’s tria, and in Urdu (spoken in Pakistan and parts of India) it’s pronounced theen.

There are two prevailing theories about the origin of the Indo-European language family. The first proposes that the Kurgan people, a culture common to nomadic herders living on the steppe between and north of the Black and Caspian seas, first started spreading its language some 5,000 years ago. Recent archaeological and linguistic data provide evidence for this hypothesis. The other theory says farmers in Anatolia, or present-day Turkey, spread their tongue along with their farming techniques about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.

It’s the nomad hypothesis versus the farmer hypothesis. Under the nomadic theory, it’s easy to imagine a more violent expansion of the culture and language, though the Kurgan diffusion may have been peaceful, too. The Anatolian expansion, though, was almost certainly more peaceful, with the language following the adoption of technologically advanced farming techniques.

Both sides have their staunch supporters in academia, but today’s Science paper gives new ammunition to Anatolian advocates. Quentin Atkinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and his co-authors started by borrowing from the toolkits of epidemiologists and conservation biologists, using computer models that were first developed to trace the origin of diseases and the geographic ancestry of different species. They fed the models geographic and linguistic data from 103 ancient and modern-day Indo-European languages. Their results supported the Anatolian hypothesis regardless of which model variables they tuned.

Indo-European language origin map

Cladogram and map of the diversification of various Indo-European languages. From Bouckaert et al. 2012 (cited and linked below).

The spread of farming was probably a big driving force behind the geographic expansion of the Indo-European family, Atkinson and his colleagues said, but it wasn’t the only one. They point out that languages continued to spread and diversify well after agriculture was established in many areas, suggesting other factors. While their findings probably won’t settle the debate between the Kurgan and Anatolian camps any time soon, they do provide an intriguing look into the common ancestry shared by so many of our native tongues.

  1. Yes, Greek is an Indo-European language. Sorry for the bad pun.


Remco Bouckaert, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard, and Quentin D. Atkinson. 2012. “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family”. Science 337:957-960. DOI: 10.1126/science.1219669

Photo by Ian W. Scott.

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To compete, organic farming must find its place

Farmers working a rice paddy

Fans of organic farming: There’s something I have to tell you. Conventional farming isn’t going anywhere. Fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, the works. They’re here to stay. But I also have something else to tell you. In certain places, organic farming could supersede conventional practices. The trick is, we have to find out where those places are.

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the nitty-gritty of organic farming—what type of natural fertilizers work best, which species of insects farmers should court to ward off pests, and so on. But little has been done on a larger scale, like which regions might be better suited to organic practices. Little, but fortunately not none.

I’ve found two papers that I think, when considered together, show where organic farming can make its biggest impact. The first comes from Germany, where Teja Tscharntke and colleagues reviewed scads of scientific papers on organic farming. They noticed that fields surrounded by healthy portions of wilderness can be farmed either organically or conventionally without significantly harming the ecosystem.

Put differently, that means organic farming won’t do much to boost species diversity and abundance in complex, species rich landscapes—the benefits are less substantial where the landscape is less degraded. That’s a pretty obvious statement, but it’s corollary is more interesting: Organic farming might be more beneficial in simple landscapes dominated by intensive farming.

Like in Asia. Farming in Asia is more extensive than in Europe. Where European farms are often interrupted by woodlots, Asian farms tend to form an uninterrupted carpet. Raw statistics bear this out. According to the World Bank, farmland in the European Union occupies about 45 percent of the land (or less than 30 percent if you include the eastern part of the continent), while in East Asia that number is closer to 50 percent. And where forests do exist in East Asia, they’re being lost more rapidly than anywhere else in the world.

Organic farming could benefit East Asian countries more, according to a paper by Tatsuya Amano and colleagues in Japan.¹ They focused on rice paddies across Japan’s 3,000 kilometer north-south span, sampling the abundance of a particular group of spiders, Tetragnatha species, a widely distributed genus found in forests, grasslands, and rice paddies. When the researchers studied the distribution of spiders in the country’s organic farms, they found that organic methods boosted spider numbers most in wetter and warmer regions.

They cite two reasons for this. First, there’s strong evidence that spiders thrive in wetter areas. Second, warmer, wetter regions tend to have what ecologists call “high energy” ecosystems. Rainforests are a good example; there’s so much sunlight, warmth, and water that life can barely contain itself.

When you consider these two papers together, you can see where organic farming would be most beneficial—warmer, wetter regions with extensive farmland. In other words, tropical Asia, Africa, and South America. Unfortunately, those places are, with the exception of Japan, among the least likely to have organic farms. Part of this is economics—conventional farming still produces food more cheaply, and people in developing countries don’t have the money to pay a premium for organic. Another is education. In the drive to raise food production, organic farming isn’t always considered. In part that’s because conventional agriculture is a known quantity. Developed nations ramped up farm productivity with those techniques. Why wouldn’t developing nations go with a sure thing?

But if this new research is anything to go by, the script should be tweaked for developing nations. Organic farming certainly pays dividends environmentally, but it could boost farm output in tropical and sub-tropical regions, or at least farm profitability. Even when forgoing costly inputs like pesticides, farmers can still control pests by accommodating beneficial bugs, which in turn gain the most from organic methods in wet, warm regions.

Despite its successes, organic farming still languishes in a niche—selling to farmers’ markets and boutique grocers—within another niche—the developed world. To break out, it’ll have to identify where it can be most effective. Organic farming has trouble competing with conventional agriculture in complex, low energy landscapes like those found throughout Europe or parts of the United States. But if organic farming really does excel in simple, high energy landscapes like those in tropical Asia, then there’s potential for change on a global scale.

  1. Japan isn’t included in the World Bank data on East Asia, but their land use patterns aren’t substantially different.


Amano, T., Kusumoto, Y., Okamura, H., Baba, Y.G., Hamasaki, K., Tanaka, K. & Yamamoto, S. (2011). A macro-scale perspective on within-farm management: how climate and topography alter the effect of farming practices, Ecology Letters, 14 (12) 1272. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01699.x

Tscharntke, T., Klein, A.M., Kruess, A., Steffan-Dewenter, I. & Thies, C. (2005). Landscape perspectives on agricultural intensification and biodiversity – ecosystem service management, Ecology Letters, 8 (8) 874. DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2005.00782.x

Photo by Tormod Sandtorv.

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Farming, circa 2050

Farming, circa 2050

Zenderpark, Flevoland, The Netherlands

Farms today look nothing like the farms of 40 years ago. Thanks to market and policy changes along with advances in technology, they’re larger, more mechanized, and more intensive. And while those factors will likely continue to affect farmers, there’s another looming on the horizon—climate change.

Agriculture has already seen the effects of a warming world. For example, in 2011 Texas suffered from the worst one year drought in its history. The parched earth cracked and burned, water holes dried up, and Texas’s iconic ranches lost 600,000 head of cattle. Economic losses topped $7 billion. Images of the drought are horrific. What Texas went through in just one year doesn’t portend well for the future of agriculture.

Farmers aren’t going to take climate change sitting down—they’re going to adapt. But what those adaptations will look like is less clear. A team of agronomists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands tried to predict what farms in one part of their country will look like in 2050. Though the study is region-specific, their results offer a peek at how farms in temperate regions might adapt over the next 40 years and what farmers in developing countries might do to avoid the pitfalls of modern agriculture in a warming world.

The researchers focused on farms in the Netherlands’ Flevoland province. Flevoland is, like much of the country, reclaimed from the sea. It grew out of the Zuiderzee Works project, which separated the inland Zuiderzee from the North Sea with a massive dam. The polders that make up Flevoland were specifically constructed to provide additional farmland. They were completed in three phases between 1942 and 1968.

The Wageningen researchers began by compiling data on various aspects of farms in the Flevoland, including their economic output, farming intensity, degree of specialization, and market niche (production-focused, conservation oriented, or entrepreneurial). They looked as far back as 1986 to see how Flevoland farms have evolved in recent decades and used that information, along with expert input, to tune a model that predicted how farms might change in response to global warming of 1–2 ˚C by 2050.

The model also took into account how the world will react to climate change. That part of the model was based on two scenarios developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically the A1 and B2 scenarios. The A1 scenario assumes climate change will be dealt with on a global scale. It predicts that globalization will continue, economic output will rise rapidly, technology will advance apace, and economic and cultural disparity between nations will decline. B2, on the other hand, assumes slightly lower population growth, intermediate economic growth, more regionalization, and more disparity between regions in technological advancements.

Under the A1 globalization scenario, the model predicted continued increases in farm size. Entrepreneurial farms—those that accepted tourists, for example—grew in share substantially, to about 24 percent. Farms with a conservation bent disappeared, and Flevoland’s focus shifted from root crops like potatoes to arable crops like wheat or soybeans. The regionalization scenario painted a different picture, in some respects. Farm focus was almost equally divided among production, conservation, and entrepreneurship. Farm size held steady with today’s levels, as did intensity and types of crops grown.

Though this study focused on one province in the Netherlands, it details some potential futures. What type of world we become—a globalized, tech-heavy A1, a regionalized B2, or some other vision of the future—will affect how farms adapt to climate change. Some aspects of the future are not entirely under our control—population growth remains an untamed beast, for example. But others are, like crop subsidies and technological progress. Policy has played an important role in the last 40 years, and there’s no reason to think that will change. That may seem depressing to some people—subsidies have discriminated against small farms, for example—but it can be heartening, too. Policy is something that remains under our control. That means we can still play a role in determining how we’ll get our food in the future.

This study also can also help non-temperate farmers prepare for climate change. By identifying where modern agriculture will likely fall short under certain scenarios, farmers in developing nations can better evaluate whether or not to adopt current methods. Many of them may have missed out on the Green Revolution—especially in Africa—but that may end up being beneficial. Just as some developing nations skipped land lines and went straight to cell phones, farmers unaccustomed to modern production techniques could adopt new methods, approaches that could better prepare them for a changing climate.


Mandryk, M., Reidsma, P., & Ittersum, M. (2012). Scenarios of long-term farm structural change for application in climate change impact assessment Landscape Ecology, 27 (4), 509-527 DOI: 10.1007/s10980-012-9714-7

Photo by Radio Nederland Wereldomroep.

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What do we mean by “rural”?

Taiwanese countryside

The day after Thanksgiving I was on the tail end of a journey that spanned three flights and four airports. I was zipping through the Taiwanese countryside, though I didn’t realize where I was at the time. You could be forgiven if you thought my confusion was caused by the 28 hours of travel I had endured the day before, or maybe the intense jetlag, but you’d be wrong. I was fully alert.

This being my first time in Taiwan—my first time in Asia, in fact—I felt like a kindergartener on his first day of school. Everything felt foreign, new, and exciting. Mopeds raced ahead of automobiles at every stoplight and surged through crowds of people wandering the famous markets. Their rattling exhaust mingled with the vaguely eggy smell of effluent seeping from sewer grates. Politicians beamed down from billboards, thumbs erect in positive estimations of the country’s prospects. Lights pulsed along every roadside, manmade rainbows framing incomprehensible Chinese characters and occasionally humorous English phrases.

Amidst all the clamor, my density-obsessed mind couldn’t help but notice something else. This place was crowded. It was so packed with three-story houses, mopeds, Mazda 3s and Mitsubishi Delicas that it felt like one continuous city. In fact, I didn’t know we had left the city until my wife told me so. That was the source of my confusion.

When she mentioned that, I was taken aback. This was the Taiwanese countryside? To me it looked more like a confused mishmash of industry, farmland, and suburbia. But then realization settled in. I was in Taiwan, the second most densely populated country in the world.¹ With 23 million people living mostly on the slim plains sandwiched between the west coast and the rugged mountains that dominate two-thirds of the island, it makes similarly-sized Holland seem depopulated.

Satellite view of Taiwan

That Taiwan is a mountainous island no doubt partially accounts for its teeming population. But so too does the humid, tropical climate of the lower elevations. Tropical ecosystems are the most productive in the world, in part due to their year-round growing season and generous precipitation. It’s why the majority of Taiwan’s population lives on the flat, western sliver, and why farmers there don’t need large land holdings. It’s also why the Taiwanese countryside is as populous as some American suburbs.

As we whizzed by parked cars, rice paddies, and murky fish farms, I had an epiphany. I was in the country. Sweeping aside my preconceptions, I realized that “countryside” is inherently interpretable term, one that depends more on how the land is used than it does on population density.

¹ If you don’t count city-states or tiny oceanic flecks like the Maldives.

Photo by Tim De Chant, satellite image from NASA.

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Ghosts of ecology

Roman mosaic

If you want a glimpse of our ecological future, take a look at present-day Europe. Continuous and intensive human habitation for millennia have crafted ecosystems that not only thrive on human disturbance, they’re dependent on it. But even in places where pastoral uses have fallen by the wayside, the ghosts of past practices linger. If you have any doubt that the changes we’re making to the earth right now will be felt thousands of years from now, these two studies should wipe those away.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThe first takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape masquerading as a charming woods, the Tronçais forest. Smack in the middle of France, Tronçais is the site of a recent discovery of 106 Roman settlements. Photographs of the settlements call to mind Mayan ruins in Yucatan jungles, with trees overtaking helpless stone walls. Tronçais was not unique in this way—following the fall of the Roman Empire, many settlements reverted to forest after the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Ecologists studying plant diversity in the area noticed two distinct trends. First, the soil became markedly different as they sampled further from the center of the settlements. Nearly every measure of soil nutrients declined—nitrogen, phosphorous, and charcoal were all lower at further distances. Soil acidity declined, too. Second, plant diversity dropped off as sample sites moved further into the Roman hinterland, and likely a result of changes in the soil.

The researchers suspect the direct impacts of the settlement and Roman farming practices are behind the trends. High phosphorous and nitrogen levels were probably due to manuring. The abundance of charcoal is clearly from cooking fires, while soil pH was affected by two uses of lime common in the Roman empire—mortar used in building and marling, the spreading of lime and clay as a fertilizer. The combined effects of these practices fostered plant diversity after the settlements fell into ruin, the effects of which can be seen to this day.

The second study was undertaken by another group of ecologists who canvased grasslands in northern and western Estonia. While threatened today by the usual suspects—intensive agriculture and urbanization—the calcareous grasslands of Estonia have a long history of human stewardship which helped a wide variety of grasses and herbs to flourish. They were greatly expanded by the Vikings, who settled the area between 800 and 1100 CE. Knowing this history, the researchers suspected population density may have boosted floral diversity. They sampled exhaustively, recording plant species and communities in 15 quadrats at 45 sites for a total of 675 sample plots. They also drew 20 soil samples at each site. To estimate population density during the Viking Period, they used an established model that estimated settlement size and extent based on known ruins.

Soil qualities naturally had an affect on present-day plant diversity, but human population density during and shortly after the Viking Period also emerged as a significant predictor. As with the Roman study, changes to soil nutrients because of human activities are likely behind the results. But that’s not all. The researchers point out that seed dispersal 1,000 years ago also influenced present-day diversity. When the Vikings expanded the grasslands, they connected different patches that had previously been isolated, allowing previously isolated species to germinate in new areas.

These are not the first studies to reveal a shadow of human habitation in present day ecosystems—the Amazonian rainforest is littered with evidence of agriculture before European contact, for example. But these studies show the ghosts of ecology persisting for millennia, not centuries. Not only does it bolster the notion that no landscape is pristine—an idea that has been gaining traction with the ecological community—it should underscore the persistence of any human activity.


Dambrine, E., Dupouey, J., Laüt, L., Humbert, L., Thinon, M., Beaufils, T., & Richard, H. (2007). Present forest biodiversity patterns in France related to former Roman agriculture Ecology, 88 (6), 1430-1439 DOI: 10.1890/05-1314

PÄRTEL, M., HELM, A., REITALU, T., LIIRA, J., & ZOBEL, M. (2007). Grassland diversity related to the Late Iron Age human population density Journal of Ecology, 95 (3), 574-582 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2007.01230.x

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Farms giving way to subdivisions in Southeastern Wisconsin

If you were a squirrel living in Southeastern Wisconsin, you’d be pleasantly surprised by the state of things. In many places, there are as many—if not more—trees than there were 200 years ago. But that rosy image doesn’t tell the entire story. Comparing the forests that cover the cities and suburbs around Milwaukee—and likely in many places around the world—is like comparing Rome before and after the fall. It’s still Rome, but it’s not quite the same as it used to be.

Southern Wisconsin is a case study of the changes that were affecting much of the country in the 20th century. Most of the forests had been cleared in the 1800s by farmers, resulting in a landscape that little resembled what came before. The woodlots that remained were small and scattered. In one famous study, only 4.8 percent of the original forests remained by 1935. Milwaukee and its surrounding cities grew steadily in the run-up to World War II, but positively boomed thereafter. They needed room to grow, and since cleared land is easy to build on, farm after farm was subdivided.

The path from forest to front yard seems clear cut. A woods is cleared to make way for farmland, which is later subdivided into lots and sold off to make way for homes. But the reality is much more complex than that. Though a neighborhood may maintain its wooded appearance, it’s original character is gone.

In Wisconsin, subdivisions are invariably preceded by farms. Farming is a tough life. There’s not much money to be made with a small family farm, and an farmer’s property often doubles as his retirement fund. To maximize the investment, he’ll usually subdivide it for housing. It usually works out well for him, because land that’s good for growing crops is also good for building houses—it’s not too steep and most of it doesn’t need to be cleared.

That’s not to say farms are entirely devoid of trees. Most contain small woodlots and extensive fencerows that separated fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans. They’re relics of bygone forests, and in many places that’s all that’s left. Though the relationship is a bit one-sided, relic trees and farms have existed side-by-side for decades.

Maintaining that landscape during subdivision isn’t difficult. Building houses around trees is easy if you don’t take a cookie cutter approach, and houses with big trees in their yards tend to sell for more. But conservation rarely happens. That’s the conclusion of one study of Southeastern Wisconsin. It looked at the fate of extant vegetation as farms gave way to subdivisions between 1937 and 1975. Though the sum total of forested land didn’t drop as much as anticipated, very little of the original vegetation that made it through the transition. By 1975, the trees that dotted subdivisions and roadsides were almost entirely new.

That study reminds us that sum totals seldom tell an entire story. The relationship between forests, farms, and yards is complex and multidirectional. Forests are often cleared for farms, but abandoned farms can return to their forested state over time—much of New England underwent this process. However, urbanization can intervene along the way, removing the little remaining vegetation and replacing it with landscaped yards. But that’s not all the forest loss development is responsible for. Though many subdivisions are carved from land cleared previously for farms, they can be indirectly responsible for the loss of even more forests. Street and yard trees can’t offset this entirely. Similar patterns are well documented in developing nations. In Brazil, for example, expanding soy production has pushed cattle ranchers to clear land further into the frontier. It’s easy to forget these same processes are at work here in the United States.

Even when subdivisions spring fully formed from forested land—skipping the intermediate farm stage—their lots are often cleared of existing vegetation. Some of my research in graduate school documented the stark changes forest edges undergo when houses move in. In old black-and-white aerial photographs, the bare earth of cleared building sites stood out in stark contrast to the dark gray of the surrounding woodlands. Straight, sharp lines separated the two. In time, the edge bled back into the yards, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Suburban development isn’t going away anytime soon, but some of the structure and function of the old woodlands they replaced can be recovered. Homeowners can plant native trees. People can lobby their cities to plant native trees as well, rather than the whatever low-maintenance tree is in fashion among city foresters this year. The result won’t be the same as an intact woodland, but at least it will be similar.


Sharpe, D., Stearns, F., Leitner, L., & Dorney, J. (1986). Fate of natural vegetation during urban development of rural landscapes in Southeastern Wisconsin Urban Ecology, 9 (3-4), 267-287 DOI: 10.1016/0304-4009(86)90004-5

Photo by sierraromeo.

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Salvaging disturbed forests may not save biodiversity

Never buy a car with a salvage title. Anyone who has ever driven a car after a major accident can tell you why—it’s just not the same as before the crash. Though all the parts might be in the right place and the paint just as shiny as before, there’s invariably some new rattle, shake, or whistle that you can’t fix. The magic that is gone, and nothing will bring it back. Cars are a lot like primary tropical forests in that way.

Biodiversity thrives in undisturbed tropical forests. But once they have been selectively logged, burned, or leveled, what grows back in their place just isn’t as rich, vibrant, or diverse as the original, according to a new paper released online today in Nature. The meta-analysis—written by a number of authors including Bill Laurence and Tom Lovejoy, two deans of tropical conservation—synthesized 2,220 pairwise comparisons of primary and disturbed tropical forests from 138 different studies on four different continents to arrive at that one conclusion.

The dominant image of deforestation—at least from an American perspective—is the Amazon. Photographs and satellite images of logging and agricultural conversion show in graphic detail splintered tree stumps, smoking ashes, and herringbone tentacles of human influence. But while the authors found South American forests are greatly threatened by human disturbance, Asian forests are even more imperiled.

To compare results from numerous studies, the study’s authors the measured effect size of human disturbance on biodiversity. It’s a statistical technique which describes the magnitude of differences between populations. The effect size of land-use changes in Asia was more than twice that of second place South America and even larger still than those of Africa and Central America.

To give you an idea of the severity of Asia’s biodiversity threats, let’s review the guidelines on interpreting effect sizes. Generally, a small effect size is 0.2, medium is 0.5, and large is 0.8 and above. In the study, Central America checks in at 0.11, Africa at 0.34, and South America at 0.44. (A quick caveat before we continue: The African result may not be representative. The continent’s tropical forests are understudied because of continued conflict, and future disturbance rates could accelerate in the face of population growth.) Asia is far ahead of the rest of the pack, blowing them all away with an effect size of 0.95.

Asian tropical forests are more threatened by every type of human impact than tropical forests on other continents. Agricultural conversion is responsible for a large portion of biodiversity loss in the region, with plantations and selective logging operations following not far behind. Plantations are of particular concern because the crops they yield—primarily palm oil and exotic woods—are lucrative. Their profit potential draws interest not only from multinational corporations, but governments as well. These organizations have large amounts of capital and can convert vast tracts of primary forest into ecologically sterile plantations that practically print money.

Plantations also have the advantage—for governments and corporations, at least—of looking deceptively like natural forests to many people. Asia Pulp & Paper, a company with large plantation holdings throughout Southeast Asia, has been exploiting this confusion through a series of recent TV ads. The Indonesian government has been in on the ruse, too, suggesting that it may push for their plantations—many of which were carved from primary forests—to count as forest land under REDD schemes, or reduction of emissions through deforestation and forest degradation. That means the government would not only profit from the plantations’ crops, but also from international payments to purportedly offset or reduce carbon emissions.

If we have to use forest land at all, the best bet to preserve biodiversity seems to be selective logging. Though the practice still harms overall biodiversity, it does so less than other land uses. Still, the paper’s authors caution that selective logging’s ill effects may be masked by proximity to less disturbed primary forests, which may export species to depauperate tracts. If this is the case, then selectively logged areas may be running the ecological equivalent of a trade deficit with primary forests. Without some reciprocation, the two will eventually go bankrupt.

This new meta-analysis confirms what many ecologists have long suspected—that minimally disturbed primary forests are some of the best bastions of biodiversity. It puts another hole in the idea that agroforestry projects, plantations, and even selective logging can extract resources without adversely affecting ecosystems. Like a car that’s been in an accident, primary can never be the same as before. But unlike cars, we can’t go out and buy new ones.


Gibson, L., Lee, T., Koh, L., Brook, B., Gardner, T., Barlow, J., Peres, C., Bradshaw, C., Laurance, W., Lovejoy, T., & Sodhi, N. (2011). Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature10425

Photo by WWF Deutschland.

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Spare or share? Farm practices and the future of biodiversity

Coaxing more food from less land

Can we feed the world and save its forests?

Spare or share? Farm practices and the future of biodiversity

Forest-farm edge in the Bolivian Amazon

Farming giveth and farming taketh away. Let’s parse that statement: Farming provides food—that much is obvious. But farming also gobbles up land that would otherwise accommodate endless biodiversity and beneficial ecosystem services. To counter the ecological harm done by farms, we have two options. One is to make farming more ecosystem friendly. Known as land sharing, this choice differs from garden variety organic farming by enmeshing cultivation with conservation rather than just minimizing detrimental impacts. The other option, land sparing, intensifies current cultivation while leaving other land as wild as possible. If you’re looking to feed people and maximize biodiversity conservation, you have to pick one.

The correct answer, at least according to a study published today in Science, is land sparing. The study’s authors examined farms and forests in southwest Ghana and northern India. They found more overall diversity of bird and tree species per square kilometer in land sparing setups—where farming is intense and reserves off limits—than in land sharing schemes—where farming and conservation occur on the same plot of land.

The ecologists involved in the study mapped out 25 one square kilometer plots in Ghana and 20 in India. The Ghanaian plots were divided almost equally among forest (8), large-scale oil palm plantations (8), and forest-farm mosaic (9). In India, they were split among five forest and 15 farm plots, five of which were low yield and ten of which were high yield. In each plot, the researchers measured average population densities of bird and tree species and binned each species into two broad categories—those that would thrive under a particular farming regime and those that would suffer. They then compared biodiversity statistics for land sparing regions (which contained both farmed and forested plots) with land sharing ones.

Unsurprisingly, all species fared worse when land was farmed. But the disheartening part—at least for those of us who dream of harmonious, ecotopian farms—was that more species were worse off on a region-wide basis under land sharing than land sparing. So although land shared between farm and forest is better for biodiversity on a single plot scale, the overall region is better off when some plots are intensively farmed and others are left alone.

In other words, sparing appears to be the least worst option. While some generalists thrive under land sharing, less mobile species with higher habitat constraints need special protection. Habitat reserves provide that, and land sparing schemes can support larger reserves. The only way land sharing excels at protecting biodiversity is when farm yields are impossibly low.

Land sharing, then, is the futon of biodiversity conservation. Just as a futon is both a middling bed and mediocre couch, land sharing is merely passable at producing food and so-so at protecting biodiversity. Neither futons nor land sharing systems excel at their dual tasks. As The Dude in The Big Lebowski would say, “This is a bummer, man.”

One drawback of land sparing is that it requires an immense amount of self-control on the part of individuals and society as a whole. Time and again we’ve challenged the inviolability of protected areas when we are—or think we are—short on resources. Conservation is hard, and plowing more land will always be the easier option. To prevent ourselves from doing that, we need to raise yields, which takes resources, training, and discipline. None of this will be easy.

Furthermore, raising yields sustainably, which the authors endorse, is going to be difficult. There are certainly some easy places to start—yields in much of Africa are dishearteningly low. But the world has embraced fossil fuel-driven, industrial agriculture for a reason—it’s the easiest way to squeeze more food from the land. If non-fossil fuel farming were the easiest option, we would have done that by now. Land sharing, on the other hand, trades low yields for closeness to nature. Locally this may be more sustainable, but is there enough land to feed 10 billion people that way? Probably not.

The choice between land sparing and land sharing is just one of many we will face as the planet’s resources stretch thin. While I’m quietly rooting for integrated, ecologically friendly approaches, there seems to be growing evidence that intensively exploiting a limited footprint may be the better option. If that’s true, the Romantic in me hopes we don’t lose our connection with nature in the process.

Ben Phalan, Malvika Onial, Andrew Balmford, & Rhys E. Green (2011). Reconciling Food Production and Biodiversity Conservation: Land Sharing and Land Sparing Compared Science, 333 (6047), 1289-1291 : 10.1126/science.1208742

Photo by Sam Beebe / Ecotrust.

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Coaxing more food from less land

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Can we feed the world and save its forests?

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.

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The counterintuitive case of suicide and population density

Blueberry farm in winter

Suicide often raises one question more than any other: why? The answers are often varied, but that hasn’t stopped epidemiologists, psychiatrists, and other experts from trying to find some common threads. They may include anything from mental health to financial condition to gun ownership. Population density plays a role, too, though not the one you might suspect.

Sociologists in the 1930s speculated that the mayhem of the modern city drove people to take their own lives. On the surface, it sounds logical. Cities can be large, impersonal places. It’s easy to imagine a single person becoming lost in a swarm of millions with no safety net of friends or family to prevent him or her from falling into deep despair. Yet research seems to have proven that theory wrong. Many studies have discovered that people in rural areas—not cities—seem to have higher rates of suicide.

In Japan, a nation with a culture steeped in ritual suicide, suicide rates for men living in cities dropped between 1970 and 1990. Over roughly the same period, rates increased in rural areas. Suicide rates among Japan’s rural elderly are much higher than its urban elderly, too. Similar trends show up on the other side of the globe. In England and Wales, more people between the ages of 15 and 44 living in rural areas took their lives compared to those in cities. Many studies in the United States have discovered the same.

Suicide is also a significant problem in the Australian outback, where rates are two, even three times higher among men than their metropolitan analogs. At fault may be the consolidation of farms that took place in the latter half of the 20th century, leaving young men in the country with fewer employment opportunities. Combine that with easy access to firearms and pesticides (a very common method of suicide in agricultural areas around the world), and you have a recipe for disaster. Indeed, between 1964 and 1988, suicide rates for 15 to 19 year old boys living in the outback increased nearly fivefold, and the use of firearms in the act also increased fivefold.

Access to firearms is a recurring theme in the literature on suicide. Experts think easy access to firearms is partly behind the high rates observed in the countryside. Part of the problem is the lethal reliability of guns—an attempt with a gun is often more successful than other methods. Guns and suicidal tendencies are such a lethal combination that more people in the United States people kill themselves with guns than any other method.

Blaming guns would be a convenient way to wrap up this story, but the reality is that they are merely a means—albeit a very effective means—of committing suicide. Rather, there are deeper issues behind high rural suicides rates, most of which revolve around how mental health issues are handled. Mental health disorders are one of the main factors that lead people to suicide—as much as 70 percent of cases involve someone with a mental illness. Rural ideologies of self-reliance and hard work can lead to stigma against people with mental illness and discourage them from seeking help. Furthermore, the vastness of rural areas often means mental health services are few and far between. Even simple isolation is also a factor. Long distances mean fewer social bonds that could help pull someone back from the brink, especially for elderly people that have a hard time getting around.

That’s not to say the picture is hopeless. Education focused on reducing the stigma of mental illness can go a long way, especially considering that the majority of suicides occur among people with mental illness. Traveling counselors, crisis lines, and even educating clergy about risk factors can help. Though some of these proposed solutions are speculative—rural suicide is still greatly understudied—many are based on proven models from urban areas. The barrier, as always, is money. Providing services to rural areas is notoriously expensive, and in this age of budget cutting, social programs like these are often first in line for the axe.


Dudley M, Waters B, Kelk N, & Howard J (1992). Youth suicide in New South Wales: urban-rural trends. The Medical journal of Australia, 156 (2), 83-8 PMID: 1736082

Hirsch, J. (2006). A Review of the Literature on Rural Suicide Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 27 (4), 189-199 DOI: 10.1027/0227-5910.27.4.189

Strong K., Trickett P., Titulaer I., & Bhatia K. (1998). Health in rural and remote Australia: the first report of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on rural health Report Other: 9780642247827

Photo by rkramer62.

Small farms in modern times

Two Indian farmers in a wheat field

Amartya Sen came from some not-so-humble beginnings. Born in to a well connected family and reportedly named by a Nobel Laureate in literature, Sen studied at Trinity College and received his first professorship at the tender age of 23. Expectations were high, and lucky for Sen, his career would live up to them, eventually winning him the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 for his work in welfare economics and social choice theory. But Sen’s research has made another lasting impact, one that stemmed from a simple observation he published in 1962 in The Economic Weekly. Sen had noticed that larger farms in India produced less food per hectare.

It seems like a fairly simple and relatively banal observation, but it was one that had life or death implications. In 1962, the Green Revolution had yet to reach the Indian subcontinent, and the Bengali famine of 1943, which had a profound effect on Sen, had killed 3 million people. Food production per acre is key in crowded countries like India, and figuring out how to boost it can tip the balance from starvation to satiation.

The small farm advantage, Sen noted, was largely due to the extra attention each bit of earth received from its farmers. Large farms had to spread their effort over larger areas and often had to hire non-family help. Family members, as anyone who has helped move a relative knows, are cheap labor. Hiring outside the family is expensive, which leads to less labor per unit area compared to a farm that is worked exclusively by family members. Though Sen points out that these facts should surprise no one, it seems to have hit the economics literature like a bombshell.

Part of that was Sen’s near-perfect timing. His article landed just before the Green Revolution took root in India.  In fact, less than 20 years after Sen’s paper in The Economic Weekly, another study reported the advantage had been erased, that large farms with better access to credit for expensive seeds, machinery, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were outproducing small farms hectare for hectare. But his work inspired coming generations to consider the plights of small farmers.

Despite the production booms of the Green Revolution, Indian farmers are still primarily small land holders. In fact, in many countries the proportion of small farms is increasing. These aren’t quaint 10 hectare farms, either. Average farm sizes continue to hover around one hectare, and has even shrunk in some places. Average farm size in the U.S., by contrast, is around 170 hectares (418 acres). With such small plots of land, it’s difficult for farmers in India to make a living, let alone a profit. A bit of consolidation would go a long way towards propping up incomes without turning Indian agriculture into a clone of Western factory farms.

Since 1962, the Green Revolution has saved many people from starvation. But our grasp on high crop yields is as tenuous now as ever. Modern farming is dependent on mechanization and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, both of which wouldn’t be possible without fossil fuels. As fossil fuel prices rise, productivity may again rely more on human labor, and large farms may find themselves at a disadvantage once more. In the end, farm sizes likely need to meet somewhere in the middle.  Exact acreage will depend on the crop and the region, but moderate sizes may prove to be both more profitable and sustainable.


Eastwood, R., Lipton, M., & Newell, A. (2010). Farm Size Handbook of Agricultural Economics, 4, 3323-3397 DOI: 10.1016/S1574-0072(09)04065-1

Newell, A., Pandya, K., & Symons, J. (1997). Farm Size and the Intensity of Land Use In Gujarat Oxford Economic Papers, 49, 307-315

Sen, A. K. (1962). An Aspect of Indian Agriculture The Economic Weekly, 243-246

Photo from the World Bank Photo Collection.

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Can we feed the world and save its forests?

The rural-urban fringe, circa 1942

Sears House No. 115

It’s cliché to say, “Everything that’s old is new again,” but boy if it isn’t true sometimes. I recently unearthed a monograph from 1942 about the conflict between urban and rural land uses, and a number of sections read like they were written yesterday.

George Wehrwein, the author of the monograph and a well respected land economist in his time, speaks with a voice that sounds distinctly modern. He assails unguided development as “suburban slums.” He points out farmland’s unfortunate role in absorbing willy-nilly growth. He mentions the more than 2,000 cities that, even in 1942, were utterly dependent on automobiles—“these cities have no street cars or buses of any type.” Even in that austere time, the beginnings of the automobile’s coming golden age were evident.

While the automobile and the “modern highway” were accelerating the pace of suburbanization, they didn’t start the trend—streetcars and interurban lines were initially responsible. “Almost as soon as railways became established, industries began to ‘decentralize’ by seeking locations in the suburban areas,” Wehrwein writes. While both trains and automobiles drove decentralization, they invaded rural spaces in distinctly different ways. Trains left a pattern of hub-and-spoke development, drawing some industries far out of the metropolis while leaving closer yet less accessible land under the plow. Automobiles allowed this decentralization to diffuse across the landscape even further while also invading the interstitial spaces left by train-focused development. “As a result, cities have not merely expanded, they have ‘exploded,’ ” he wrote.

Cars and highways spread development more evenly across the landscape, but much of the growth came at the expense of valuable farmland, something that clearly rankled the economist. Large tracts of land weren’t developed immediately, leaving empty lots set amidst trafficless roads, both of which became financial burdens on the local government. In his paper, Wehrwein condemns speculators that drove such slapdash development and rails against weak rural governments that did little to check them. He wasn’t universally panning the suburbs, but he was dismayed at what he saw as a waste of land and resources.

If Wehrwein’s lamentations sound distinctly modern, then so too do his solutions. He calls for large scale regional planning in his paper and advocates granting counties the power to guide development in unincorporated areas. Thanks to his earlier efforts, that experiment had already begun on in a few places. Twenty-five of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had zoning laws, and the state of California granted local authorities power to do the same. But Wehrwein also realized that granting authority does not ensure a desired outcome. “Mere power does not carry with it the desire, courage, or the wisdom necessary to make for a well planned rural-urban region.”


Wehrwein, G. (1942). The Rural-Urban Fringe Economic Geography, 18 (3) DOI: 10.2307/141123

Image in the public domain.

Can we feed the world and save its forests?

corn pile

Nine billion is the number that will define the 21st century. That’s the number of people expected to live on this planet by 2045. But 9 billion mouths are a lot to feed, and each of them will hopefully have more than enough to eat. Achieving both goals—feeding 9 billion and feeding them properly—will be a herculean task. It’s also one that could eliminate the world’s great remaining forests, taking with them ecosystem services like carbon storage, reliable rainfall, biodiversity, and the magnificence of miles upon miles of wilderness.

So what if someone said it might be possible to ramp up food production while expanding forested land? Sounds like a perpetual motion machine, right? It smacks of the impossible. But that’s just what Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt are proposing in their paper which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They think that boosting agricultural intensity can not only increase agricultural output, but also reverse deforestation. In theory, doing more with less is a great way to solve the world’s problems, but these theories usually come with a catch. And Lambin and Meyfroidt’s catch is a big one—the radical globalization of the world’s food markets. It’s an intriguing proposal with some hard data to back it up, but the authors are also quick to brush aside the potential problems.

Globalization, Lambin and Meyfroidt claim, can focus farming where it is most productive. In their vision, different regions will specialize in different crops, eking the most out of every acre of cultivated land. Those crops will then be whisked across borders to where they are needed. It’s the exact opposite of every locally-harvested, free-range, organically-grown mantra that’s proposed to save the world.

The authors outline four facets of globalization that could help or harm the cause. The first, displacement, could go either way. Displacement essentially moves crop production and timber harvesting from one place to another. As rich nations seek to protect their forests, for example, they must import their timber from elsewhere. The same goes with food stuffs. In Switzerland, for instance, the land required to grow its imported food is one and a half times more than the country’s currently cultivated land. But displacement may not be all bad, they say. For every 20 hectares of forest protected in North America and Europe, for example, only about one hectare of primary forest is logged in Russia or the tropics.

The second proviso they cite is rebound. As a new technology becomes cheaper, demand for it will increase as it becomes cost effective for more industries. Cheap gasoline, for example, has led to a proliferation of gas-powered devices (think leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and so on). More efficient agriculture, Lambin and Meyfroidt state, could also be more lucrative agriculture, driving an expansion of cropland rather than a reduction. They point to soybeans in Brazil and oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia as examples. But they also counter that agricultural intensification since 1961 has reduced the amount of land that otherwise would have been needed to feed the world’s people.

The third caveat of globalization is cascade effects, whereby one crop displaces another, exploiting previously uncultivated land. Biofuels are a case in point. As some farmers use their land to cash in on the craze, other land is put under the plow to produce food stuffs.

Remittances are the last side-effect of globalization, and one that seems to be a net positive. Foreign workers often send money back to family members still in their home country, and the added influx of cash reduces the need for farmland in that country. With supplemented incomes, people can afford to purchase more food as opposed to growing all of it. Since subsistence farming is not very intensive, people’s remittance-assisted diets rely on less land.

Lambin and Meyfroidt offer four examples of countries in which agricultural output has risen concomitant with population and the amount of forested land—China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Brazil. Each case appears to be fairly unique, though, and is not enough to convince me that globalization and intensification are the best solution. China, for example, has turned to Africa to help feed its 1.3 billion people, locking up over 28,000 square miles of farmland and counting. Costa Rica’s success has been dependent on foreign groups purchasing land for conservation (a sort of highfalutin remittance), while El Salvador relies on small-scale remittances. Furthermore, statistics on Vietnam’s and China’s forests have both benefitted from plantations, which some experts have called “ecological deserts” and poor substitutes for the real thing. Furthermore, Lambin and Meyfroidt admit that many other countries in similar circumstances have not seen an uptick in the amount of forested land.

The authors also gloss over a major pitfall of globalization—pollution. Currently, shipping releases 1.12 billion metric tons of CO₂ per year into the atmosphere, or more than Germany, the world’s sixth largest emitter. Transporting food all around the world will only drive that number up. With climate change threatening to upend farming as we know it, pumping more CO₂ into the atmosphere may not be the best idea. That’s not to say the proposal is worthless—nine billion people are an awful lot to feed, after all—but there are some big questions that need to be answered before it should be seriously considered.


Lambin, E., & Meyfroidt, P. (2011). Inaugural Article: Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1100480108

Photo by ConanTheLibrarian.

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