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Feeding the world is getting easier

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

A largely unremarked milestone was passed recently. A tipping point, if you will. Unlike all the resource peaks that environmentalists keep threatening are imminent, like “peak oil”, this one is good news. We’ve reached “peak farmland”.

It was buried, perhaps, by its release in mid-December, as the world went on vacation. It was overshadowed, maybe, by more salacious news, such as “Many see hint of Apocalypse in extreme weather” at IOL, which cleverly, albeit unintentionally, conflated people’s interpretation of bad weather as a religious fear of the apocalypse with their similar primal terror of global warming.

However, “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing”, a paper published in December, offers another excellent indicator that we aren’t in a handbasket headed to hell. Instead, human ingenuity and progress are, for the most part, making the world a better place for all who live in it.

A Reuters wire story about the paper was posted in the science and technology pages of the Independent Online, but I missed it at the time. Matt Ridley wrote about it on his Rational Optimist blog shortly before Christmas, but alas, I was not paying attention. A hat tip, then, to Reason Magazine for picking up on it more recently.

Contradicting the more usual storyline, peddled by UN bureaucrats and environmentalists alike, the paper says that the world has reached what its authors call “peak farmland”. By this, they mean that the expansion of farmland, to keep pace with the increasing demands of a growing world population of ever-greater prosperity, has stopped.

“We believe that humanity has reached peak farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to nature is ready to begin,” the lead author told an audience. “Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many have feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers.”

Despite the similarity, the term is not to be confused with environmental doom-mongery about peak oil. This is the term they came up with to explain away what to environmentalists, perversely, proved to be a problem, namely that we’re not running out of resources. It points to a notional peak at which some analysts speculate that oil production will begin declining. At this point, environmentalists seem to suggest, a starving humanity will sit on its bony botty, wondering what happened to the next taxi to the KFC in town.

Those of us who thought technology would likely continue to improve, and that the price mechanism in any case exists to respond to resource scarcity, by reducing demand for those resources, making alternatives economically attractive, and drawing investment into new production research, were derided as deluded cornucopians.

Forty years ago, eco-catastrophists warned us that we’d reach the limits to growth. Twenty years ago, their predictions having failed, they repeated them. Some long-time supporters of the notion of an imminent resource crisis, like George Monbiot, have been forced to change their tune, but to this day, many others who believed the doom-mongers cling bitterly to the notion that we’re headed for disaster. In Looking Back on the Limits of Growth, an article in the Smithsonian magazine, Australian physicist Graham Turner found the predictions nearly matched the facts. “There is a very clear warning bell being rung here,” he told the magazine. “We are not on a sustainable trajectory.”

Earlier this year, empirical evidence emerged to support the view that population growth is not a crisis, and never was. The peak farmland observations make a similar mockery of these fears about “sustainability”.

“Expecting that more and richer people will demand more from the land, cultivating wider fields, logging more forests, and pressing nature, comes naturally,” the paper’s authors write. “The past half-century of disciplined and dematerialising demand and more intense and efficient land use encourage a rational hope that humanity’s pressure will not overwhelm nature.”

The paper was written by Jesse Ausubel, an environmental scientist and the director of the programme for the human environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City, in collaboration with climatologist Paul Waggoner and Iddo Wernick, an industrial ecologist.

They attribute much of the decline in demand for arable land to the technological progress that farming has made over the decades. The father of that revolution was Norman Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95. The New York Times published a great obituary of this giant of the 20th century, documenting his life and work.

While the more famous environmentalists of the time were warning the world of imminent starvation and even human extinction, Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to make sure that didn’t happen. He pioneered improved crop varieties and higher yields, especially in developing countries.

Borlaug spearheaded the real “Green Revolution”, which stood in stark contrast to the nightmarish, dystopian mockery of Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson and James Lovelock’s more popular myths.

Ausubel is also of the view that technological progress is leading humanity to use ever-cleaner and more efficient fuels, from hay and wood in the distant past, to coal during the Industrial Revolution, then oil, and more recently, gas. Each form of fuel contains more energy, at the cost of fewer carbon atoms that can cause pollution. This progress is known as decarbonisation, and is a feature of all economies as they develop – though notably, much more so in the case of countries that have bet heavily on nuclear power, such as France.

In essence, the argument goes that as the ratio of hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms in our preferred fuels increase, the “carbon intensity” decreases. Since 1850, the carbon content of fuel has declined steadily from near 30% to below 20%, and it will approach 10% by 2050.

According to a 2011 New York Times feature on Ausubel, he was involved in planning the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conference, but has since become rather sceptical of that process. “Climate change” became a popular green campaign issue, he told the paper, “and then the expected happened. Opportunists flowed in. By 1992 I stopped wanting to go to climate meetings.”

That carbon dioxide emissions pose a serious threat to the climate is questionable for many reasons, including that there is a natural limit to the amount of heat radiation that any greenhouse gas can absorb or reflect at a given frequency, and that many systems function as balancing mechanisms in the splendid complexity that is nature.

However, even if one accepts the alarmist view of carbon dioxide as a climate crisis, Ausubel’s argument is that emissions will be constrained in any case, because of decarbonisation.

“The computer models of the climate system aren’t good enough and never will be. I tend not to be frightened because I think the natural evolution of the energy system is away from carbon,” he told the paper.

It would not have come as a surprise to him to find that US carbon emissions were, last year, at their lowest level since 1994, in large part because of ongoing increases in energy efficiency, decarbonisation in the form of a massive shift away from coal towards to natural gas, and to a lesser extent by an increase in the use of other environmentally-friendly energy sources. In short, technological progress is solving the energy problems of the world’s most energy-hungry economy all by itself, entirely without the benefit of the Kyoto Protocol, which the green lobby continues to hold up as the solution, but which failed even in countries that did commit to its regressive policies and exorbitant costs.

The environmentalists also deride Borlaug’s legacy of agricultural technology as unsustainable, but the inconvenient truth is that the foundations of their eco-myths are crumbling, one after the other.

Just as catastrophic overpopulation proved an alarmist myth designed to support a wide-ranging array of coercive measures to restriction human progress and redistribute prosperity, so the notion that we’d eventually plough up all the world’s fertile land and leave behind only a desert turned out to be just a movie nightmare.

These myths are as credible as the plotline of Soylent Green, a 1973 classic of the genre of dystopian futures, in which the denizens of an over-heated, over-populated, polluted and denuded world are fed processed food by their state-corporate overlords which turns out to be made from… well, watch the film. If only because of the sharp relief in which it casts the real world, in which the “cornucopian optimists” all around us work hard to solve the most pressing economic and environmental challenges. They, not the environmental fear-mongers, are the ones who deserve our thanks and admiration. DM


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