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Has ‘Peak Farmland’ arrived?

December 18, 2012 - Gains in productivity have brought the world's farmers to what three researchers describe as ‘Peak Farmland’ – the point at which no new land is needed to grow crops.

In fact, a report by the researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, suggests that not only has the demand for additional farmland been exhausted, hundreds of millions of acres could actually revert back to nature over the next 50 years.

we believe that humanity has reached Peak Farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to Nature is ready to begin,” Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller, and one of the study authors, said in a lecture. “Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many have feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers.”

Although a number of so-called wildcards admittedly cloud the outlook - including the presumption of rising yields, slowing biofuel demand and relatively modest increases in meat demand – the report notes that farmers have already made remarkable gains in feeding the world. Indeed, if Indian wheat farmers still farmed as they did in 1961, they would have needed an additional 160 million acres to produce the same amount today, the report showed. In China, farmers would have needed nearly 300 million more acres to produce the same amount of corn.

In the U.S., the report noted the population of the U.S. increased nine times between the 1860s and 2010. Over the same period, American corn production increased 17 times, yet more corn was planted in 1925 than was planted in the 2010 crop year.

According to the report, rising production has allowed the global daily food supply to rise by more than one quarter, from 2,200 to 2,800 kilocalories per capita. Without lifting crop production, farmers would have needed about 7.4 billion more acres - about the sum of the U.S., Canada and China or almost twice South America. The expanded cropland would have come at the expense of other covers, especially forest and grassland, the report said.

On top of the gains that have already occurred, the report said ever improving fertilizer, irrigation, pest control, and weather forecasts will continue to help lift crop yields.

View the full report.