September 3, 2012
The Future of Farming
– Dennis Avery, Director of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute
Tomorrow’s farming will look like today’s, only more so. Crop and livestock yields per acre must triple again to protect wildlife habitat. Biotechnology will be increasingly vital. Confinement feeding will be even more important, to leave room for wildlife. Organic will prove to be a fad, as will locovores and vegetarians. Activists will be less credible than over the past 50 years.
The world’s farmers are facing the biggest challenge in their history. Expect more than 8 billion humans by 2050, with 7 billion of them affluent—compared with only 1.5 billion affluent today; trade and technology are powerful forces for increased wealth. Expect also a continuing surge in the number of companion cats and dogs, none of them vegetarian.
World food production must double by 2050, and production of meat and milk will more than double. Children need the key micronutrients of livestock products to prevent such diseases as pellagra and blindness due to severe Vitamin A deficiency. Their cognitive development also seems to benefit from high-quality protein.
Farming intensity must triple on the best land, in order to protect the poorer land which houses three-fourths of the wild species. Good farmland will become even more important, as one of the scarcest resources.
Most of the increased farm output will and must come from the best-quality land, which maximizes yields and minimizes land requirements per pound of food. It also minimizes soil erosion, humanity’s most ancient and implacable enemy.
There will be little room for organic farming, and those who insist on organic food will increasingly be seen as greedy threats to the wildlife. It will not help that the organic movement has been closely tied to the now-collapsing global warming scare. A University of Michigan paper in 2007 claimed that “organic could feed the world,” but it radically overstated organic’s nitrogen production.
The campaign against “factory farms” must end, because there will be too little good land to waste on hog and poultry “playgrounds.” Confinement feeding is not only kinder to the animals, but it boosts feed efficiency (less cropland needed per pound of meat).
Confinement feeding most importantly allows us to make better use of the manure—organic fertilizer—created in livestock systems. This highly valuable by-product is poorly used in non-confinement systems, much of it leaching into nearby streams.
Nitrogen fertilizer will become even more important to farming. The off-farm activists’s attacks against both nitrogen and organic fertilizer is costly and counter-productive to society.
There will be no room for biofuels, and no rational need for them. It was never possible for the few high-quality acres which could be spared from food production could make much of an impact on our massive need for energy. Now we find that if the world’s total cropland must be expanded to produce biofuels, they create more greenhouse gases than burning gasoline.
The world will stop worrying about greenhouse gases, and turn instead to using its fossil fuels more efficiently, against the day when they become too valuable to burn.
Shale gas and tar sands oil will be recognized as the West’s buffers against Middle East, Russian and/or Venezuelan adventurism.
The problem of “overpopulation” has already come and gone. Births per woman in the poor countries have dropped from 6.1 in 1960 to 2.7 or less today, with stability at 2.1 births.
The activists who have been so prominent in the past half-decade are likely to decline in importance after the collapse of the global warming scare.
The global warming scare has been done in by bad science and impossible politics.
The “Green dream” could never have succeeded. When the costs of eliminating fossil fuels became apparent, every country would have reversed its greenhouse laws. Unfortunately, massive amounts of costs would have been incurred in the greening process.
Imagine trying to tax nitrogen fertilizer—made with natural gas—out of the farming economy.
How warm will Canada’s farmland get? We have good news and less-good news, but the overall outlook is bright.
Dennis T. Avery
is the director of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute. He grew up on a Michigan dairy farm and received degrees from Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin. He won "outstanding performance" awards from three different U.S. government agencies, and received the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement in 1983 while working for the U.S. State Department. He has been a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute since 1989. A popular speaker, he also writes a weekly column on current environmental and global warming issues. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, Des Moines Register, and dozens of other newspapers and websites. He has also been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The National Journal and in The Atlantic Monthly.