From Green Right Now Reports

We may have reached “peak farmland” on earth, meaning we have enough cultivated land to support our bulging human population, according to a report released this week.

Even as the planet reaches a population of 10 billion people by around 2060, it will still have adequate farmland — and be able to return a sizable chunk of arable land back to nature — thanks to more efficient agriculture, stabilizing populations and changing food tastes, say the three authors of “Peak Farmland and the Prospect Land Sparing,” being published in Population and Development Review (PDR) in 2013.

Co-author of the report, Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the  Program for the Environment at Rockerfeller University, summed up the group’s findings in a speech at the university this week.

“…we believe that humanity has reached Peak Farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to Nature is ready to begin,” he said. “Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many have feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers.”

“For millennia food production tended to grow in tandem with land used for crops, a fundamental relationship in population and development. Now land for food is flat. If yields had remained at prior levels, immense, continental areas of forest and range and desert would have been shaved or ploughed for human food during the past 50 years,” Ausubel explained.

“Surprisingly, instead, we find humanity gradually moving toward what we call, with deliberate hyperbole, landless agriculture. [Co-author’s] Paul [E. Waggoner], Iddo [Werner], and I believe humanity now stands at Peak Farmland, and the 21st century will see release of vast areas of land, hundreds of millions of hectares, more than twice the area of France for nature.”

Putting that amount of land into a conservation or wild state would mean reducing the land used for agriculture by 10 percent.

Their vision comes with a few caveats:

  • World population growth will continue to slow, though Africa’s will continue to grow, easing population pressures on agriculture. Africa’s population growth, meanwhile, will cause the outlook to “dim” but not enough to extinguish the positives, Ausubel said.
  •  Meat consumption will only rise to a point and will decline (as it already is) in places. “Even in “rapidly enriching China, after a burst, meat consumption is rising only moderately,” Ausubel said. “In India meat consumption per capita has changed little with rising affluence. Globally we think consumers will devote fewer and fewer marginal dollars to calories….”
  •  “Biofuels and other non-food uses of crops, such as hemp or cotton, could rise, but even so would not consume so much arable land that it would change the “peak farmland”predictions.”

The report conflicts with several others that warn of cropland shortages ahead, including a major one by the UN Environment Programme, “The Environmental Food Crisis,” which offered this prediction: “The combined effects of climate change, land degradation, cropland losses, water scarcity and species infestations may cause projected yields to be 5–25% short of demand by 2050.”

The Peak Farmland report, however, argues that better, more compact agriculture will have multiple positive effects that will make it sustainable.

“Importantly, sparing land usually means sparing water. And substituting bits or information in Precision Agriculture can also spare inputs of energy and nitrogen and other materials. Precision agriculture includes better weather forecasts, better seeds, closer spacing of plants, better and more judiciously applied fertilizers, smart farmers, and other factors,” Ausubel said in his speech.

“Basically the strategy for high yields is more bits going into agriculture, not more kilowatts. Land spared can become habitat for wildlife or carbon orchards.”