We're Growing Twice As Much Food (with Far Fewer Farms) Than We Used To

We're Growing Twice as Much Food (with Far Fewer Farms) Than We Used To

How do you grow more food? One answer that makes sense is with bigger farms and more farmers. But if you look at the last half century-or-so worth of data, that's not at all what's been happening.

The USDA in the US put together this curious little chart of what the United States has been putting into its farms since 1948, versus what they've been getting out of them. Most immediately striking is the huge rise in how much food being produced at farms today. But look a little closer and you may notice something odd. The strange thing about this data is not the fact that farm production almost doubled, it's just how steady that light blue line ("agricultural inputs") stays.

We're Growing Twice as Much Food (with Far Fewer Farms) Than We Used To

Top image: Scott Bauer / ARS; Chart: USDA/ERS

Why is it so weird? Because we actually have much less farmland today than we did in 1948, and we certainly have far fewer farmers. So shouldn't the chart be even more dramatic, with a strong dip in what we're putting into farms, even while what we're getting out of them rises? The answer to why we don't see that actually also explains why the rise was so quick.

The last six decades or so have been huge in terms of figuring out how to use basic farm technologies — ranging from the big machinery that overtook farms (making most farm laborers obsolete), to the more modern incarnation of plants hybridised in the lab to suit specific needs. Figuring out how to do that was a big enough investment that it almost completely balanced out the dip we would have seen from the loss of all those farm workers and farmland

In a lot of ways, the message is comforting: If we could figure out ways to grow less with more before using technology, then can't we simply keep doing it? In some ways we can, although changing climates are tightening resources (water, topsoil) in ways that were never a problem before. A lot of the jump that we see in the chart was from farm technology like automatic sprinklers, for instance.

Certainly, there are still ways out there to keep upping the amount of food we grow, but it's just as likely that we can expect that the increases of the future will be much more modest — and come at a higher price.


Comments

    That's great... and for the planet to house a trillion people in a few centuries time, this rule will need to continue to the point where we produce a 100 times more food than today on a postage stamp...

    This is great news for many developing nations too. It shows how smarter farming can increase production. Access to the internet is putting them in touch with the latest farming methods. This should help offset some of the negative effects of climate change.

      Last time I checked, farmers where not educated by the Internet. TAFE and agriculture colleges are where they are educated.

      The internet is an unnecessary tool for agriculture. Its a luxury source for information and that's it. Banking, weather, procurement and accounting is all done without the internet.

        Hey @mark_d I can tell you, as a former farmer, that you are correct, education comes from agricultural colleges but it's mostly general stuff you are taught. Different crops, different regions, different soil etc all behave differently and being able to share information with other farmers, local and across the world is really useful. If you want to be a successful farmer then you never stop learning. As I mentioned it's developing nations, where most farmers do not go to college, who will benefit the most, being able to access all this information. For many farmers the internet is a now a necessity and that's not just for finding a wife :-)

    Yup, thank you CO2 for increasing our productivity!

    We knew this would happen back in 1920.. when the benefits of CO2 was demonstrated.
    http://sealevel.info/ScientificAmerican_1920-11-27_CO2_fertilization.html

    Before this people didn't realize that plants only acquire their carbon purely from the air - that trace gas CO2 at 0.04% is what plants use to grow.. Now of course we know this, and we also realize that CO2 is so thin in the air, it takes 20 cubic kilometers of air to grow 1 acre of timber.

    Of course not everyone likes more plant growth.. NASA thinks it'll hurt something
    http://dailycaller.com/2015/05/07/nasa-warns-about-high-co2-levels-that-are-greening-the-planet/

    it's certainly impacting poor farmers, and researchers who depend on fear to get funding..
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/science/earth/30forest.html?_r=1

    As to overpopulation, that's a myth - the very few countries which can manage to show replacement rates are only getting those numbers through immigration - human population is close to collapsing in a number of countries, heck - China will see 80% of it's population hit retirement age in under 10 years then they're stuffed. http://www.returnofkings.com/36915/what-humans-can-learn-from-the-mice-utopia-experiment.

    It's very fortunate that CO2 levels are going up as this may suppress the spread of C4 photosynthesizing plants - for these things plunder the air of CO2 worse than anything - they can drive CO2 down to zero! Of course it doesn't need to get that bad, we only need to have had ordinary C3 plants plundering the air down to below 200ppm and it would have been all over for 99% of life on this planet. http://photoweasel.diaryland.com/C3andC4p.html

    Best thing humans could do for the planet is dig up all the trillions of tons of buried coal and burn it, releasing the CO2 back into the air to allow life to flourish again.

    This is an interesting trend.It also shows up some very interesting opportunities and problems.

    On the plus side,it's great that production is rising even though we're using less land. That means we still have some in reserve for increased population.
    Yes,some will rightly say that this isnt the case in certain countries.However the fact remains that there is a LOT of land around the world that can be brought into agricultural production.All that's needed are higher food prices and it will happen.

    On the negative side it's worrying that most agriculture is now quite highly 'tuned'. Any problems result in bigger percentage yield losses than in the past.That's a worrying thing if something goes wrong on a worldwide scale.

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