Earth has hit 'peak farmland,' new study says

Researchers at Rockefeller University say crops will need less room to grow by 2060. But they leave out climate change and the debate over genetically modified food.

By Jason Notte Dec 19, 2012 9:12AM

Image: Combines in field (Mark Karrass/Corbis/Corbis)We've hit "peak farmland"? Quick, stock the Y2K cellar, raid the 12/21 supplies, start jarring your. . . . Wait, that doesn't mean we're going to starve to death? Never mind.

Don't get us wrong. A study by researchers at Rockefeller University in New York that found we're using more agriculture now than we ever will still says there's going to be fewer of us at some point. It's just not a lack of available farmland or food that's going to kill us.

Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, told Reuters that declining population growth and increased crop production will decrease the amount of necessary farmland by 10% and return an area of land 2 1/2 times the size of France to its natural state by 2060.

"We believe that humanity has reached peak farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to nature is ready to begin," Ausubel wrote in the journal Population and Development Review. "Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers."

Ausubel's study said the global arable land and permanent crop areas rose from 3.38 billion acres in 1961 to 3.78 billion acres in 2009. His belief is that it will fall to 3.41 billion acres in 2060. Meanwhile, it also projects that crop growth would outpace food supply by 0.4% a year until 2060, up from 0.24% a year from 1961-2010.

This flies in the face of Thomas Robert Malthus' prediction from his 1798 "Essay on the Principle of Population" that predicted exponential population growth would outstrip the gradual growth of the food supply and would result in war, disease and starvation. That "Malthusian catastrophe" spurred arguments about birth control and treatment of the poor that inspired Charles Dickens to write one of Ebenezer Scrooge's coldest quotes from the Christmas Carol during a discussion of poor Londoners who would rather die than live in the city's prisons and workhouses: "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Before the world starts flipping off Malthus and celebrating Tiny Tim-style, though, there are just a few minor weaknesses in Ausubel's findings. For one, they rely heavily on assumptions that China's taste for meat will continue to lag its economic growth and that both China and India's eating habits will remain consistent and continue to spare farmland. It also makes little to no provisions for biofuels and their potential demand on agriculture.

It also doesn't address the potential effects of climate change in the least, as a United Nations farming study did in June. That research found that the world will need an extra 173 million acres of farmland by 2050 to compensate for degraded and polluted soil and land inundated by rising ocean salt water.

It also makes the fairly broad assumption that the world is perfectly OK with just how crop production has increased and how it's affected the world's food supply. Already, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India, Chile and countries within the European Union have laws requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. A ballot measure that would have required similar labeling in California failed after food companies including Monsanto (MON) and Hershey (HSY) spent $44 million to oppose it.

So, no, Rockefeller University's "peak farmland" study isn't nearly as dour as similar research on "peak oil" -- the idea that we've hit maximum extraction, production and use for petroleum around the globe. Then again, it doesn't seem nearly as concerned about variables and empirical data as the oil research is. While it's great to hear we're not going to starve ourselves into extinction, feeding the world just a bit more information with such assurances doesn't hurt.

More from Money Now

Dec 19, 2012 3:45PM
And by reading this article, we, as readers, have reached "Peak Boredom"
Dec 19, 2012 12:56PM
Can we get rid of these college predictions yet? We have too much commercialized farmland. We have derelict urban cores-- grow stuff. Use roofs and cubic structures. Put fresh food close to the consumer instead of nuking it and trucking it across long distances. When we can get business out of things that should have commonsense, we will survive. As long as a bookkeeper can run a business without actually engaging in that business, we are doomed. 
Dec 19, 2012 3:42PM
man is the most stupid animal on earth
Dec 19, 2012 6:04PM
As long as they still have enough land for Doritos' trees I will be happy...
Dec 19, 2012 5:03PM

Good thing with all the sub-divisions going up on furtile ground.

Dec 19, 2012 7:27PM
Shrinking population?  Since when?
Dec 19, 2012 6:25PM
The article patently fails to explain the reference to how there is going to be less of us.  The population increases daily.  WTF over?
Dec 19, 2012 4:38PM
People write stupid articles. As long as the population keeps increasing we will need more food. Rising sea levels is going to take out some farmland. Increased costs relating to oil is going to put some land out of production. (Think irrigation.) Radiocative wastes and catastrophies are going to make some land unusable. Poisoning of the land and water will cause more problems. Yep .... I think the writer covered all scenarios and kept his head firmly planted in the ground.
Dec 19, 2012 4:37PM
"Earth has hit 'peak farmland,'"

Was that what that noise was?
Dec 19, 2012 7:18PM
We will find out that man will over populate the earth and disease will devastate the people that are left. Our bodies will have to adapte to the posins we are putting into the air and our over use of teh oceans. What  happens to any animal that over populates they get desases and die out. we are headed that way. Hurray for mans greatest accomplishments which is ways to kill himself.
Dec 19, 2012 3:21PM
We can stop destroying crops to maintain price, tons and tons of crops are destroyed by farmers every year to control the supply.
We can also stop throwing away everything that isn't pristine.  If an apple has a bruise on it they'll just throw it aside and won't sent it to market.
Dec 19, 2012 6:41PM
So it's a hot air balloon of speculation, untethered to reality.
Dec 19, 2012 6:16PM
oops..... I thought  they  said  Farmville !!!
Dec 19, 2012 8:43PM
post this in 3 lanuages Chinese, Hindu, African, maybe they will start using condoms,if they can figure out the operating instructions......we can't handle another billion 3rd world bass-tards  earth has reached it's currant capacity....get them all game boys or something.
Dec 19, 2012 8:29PM

Does that mean the Rockefeller plan to depopulate the world will be in place by 2060?

Dec 19, 2012 9:12PM
How much did the taxpayers pay for this crap.....
Dec 19, 2012 9:11PM

Where in the world do they get the "declining population growth" from?????????????  Our population is growing exponationally world-wide, if not by individual countries (some are actually declining in the 1st world nations).  And they don't take into account half the problems like:  pollution, drought, war, logistics of moving it, etc.

It would be nice to believe we can start letting land go back to nature.  But it AIN'T going to happen! 

How are we going to die?  Not from lack of food but from lack of water and good clean air.  If a bomb or biological weapon don't get us first! 

Dec 19, 2012 3:30PM
Dec 19, 2012 8:31PM
more UN Agenda 21 alarmist propaganda
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