Study Proclaims the Arrival of Peak Farmland
Peak Farmland is a term used to indicate that the amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at a peak, meaning, no new farmland will have to be created. A group of experts has even said that an existing area of farmland more than twice the size of France will be able to return to its natural state by the year 2060. The area is also equivalent to all the arable land now in use in China. This is due to rising yields and slower population growth. Their report conflicts with a United Nations study which states that more cropland will be needed to stem hunger and avert price spikes as the global population pushes past 7 billion.
The study was conducted by researchers from Rockefeller University's Program for the Human Environment (PHE). They calculated 1.53 billion hectares (3.78 billion acreas) of arable land and farming areas existed in 2009. By 2060, that area could drop to 1.38 billion hectares (3.41 billion acres) by 2060.
The researchers credit not just slower population growth, but also farming methods for this. According to lead auther, Jesse Ausubel, "Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many have feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers."
The study also calculated that using more crops for biofuels and increased meat consumption would not offset a fall from the peak, driven by improved yields. However, it does not take into account shocks which may be caused by climate change, or significant increase in crops being used for biofuels.
Furthermore, the report's conclusions would depend on the technology for maximizing crop yields being implemented worldwide, not just in developed nations. "If we could just get yields in the rest of the world at levels that they are in the U.S. or Europe, we would have substantially more food," said Gary Blumenthal, head of Washington-based agricultural consultancy, World Perspectives. "Just using existing farmland more efficiently, would substantially increase supplies. Yields are rising."
The report conclusions contradict the report by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which said an extra net 70 million hectares would need to be cultivated worldwide by 2050. This is due to land and water resources being more stressed than in the past from factors like soil degradation and salinization.
The term "peak farmland" is borrowed from the term "peak oil", used to signify the world use of petroleum at a maximum. After peak oil, it is believed that petroleum will become increasingly scarce, prices will jump, and the global economy will struggle. Post-peak farmland, on the other hand, may have added benefits. The environment will be better off with more natural ecosystems being reclaimed, and food should not become any scarcer.
This study was published in the journal Population and Development Review
Combine Harvester image via Shutterstock