How far this trend can continue before precipitating some kind of regional or even global collapse in the functioning of the biosphere was considered by the planetary boundaries expert group, which concluded that no more than 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface should be converted to cropland in order to protect the Earth system as a whole. We are perilously close to this proposed planetary boundary already, with 12 per cent of land already devoted exclusively to agriculture. This leaves only 400 million hectares of additional land to be brought into production, a major challenge for humanity given population growth and increases in wealth and consumption across the planet. It is a challenge we can still meet, however – but only if we make the right decisions about how to use the planet’s land most wisely.
Meat and energy
There are two major current trends that mean the world must continue to produce more and more food from a limited area of land, probably necessitating a doubling of production within forty years. The first is the growing world population, which will reach 9 billion or more people by mid-century. The second is the tendency of more prosperous populations to consume more food in general, and to increase the proportion of meat and dairy in their diets. It is important to recognise that there is almost nothing we can or should do to influence either of these trends inasmuch as they affect the environment.
People’s desire to eat more meat as they get more wealthy is so deeply embedded in most cultures (and getting lots of protein may even be a biological impulse inherent in all of us) that it is not something that is amenable to outside influence. As with climate change, the only pragmatic option is to concentrate efforts to fulfil people’s desires and demands in a way that protects natural ecosystems as far as possible – not to try to challenge patterns of consumption per se by insisting that they are unsustainable, even if this appears to be the case in the short term. Such an approach has failed in the past and will continue to fail in the future.
Hand in hand with the protection of high-biodiversity and wilderness areas must come a better use of the land that is devoted to human-centred agriculture. Because organic agriculture produces on average only half the yield of crops per unit of land as conventional farming, any mass conversion to organic would end up using much more land. Instead, intensification – producing more yield per unit of existing farmland – using advanced farming technologies and high-yielding varieties of crops offers a more promising route to feeding a larger and more prosperous human population. Even so, some additional land will need to be brought into production to satisfy future increases in demand. The planetary boundaries expert group suggests a focus on abandoned cropland in Europe and North America, together with land in the former Soviet Union and ‘some areas of Africa’s savannas and South America’s Cerrado’ for this unavoidable increase in cultivated area.
One trend that can and should be challenged however is the global rush to biofuels. There is nothing inevitable about the increasing use of corn to produce ethanol or soybeans to manufacture biodiesel – these technologies offer no benefits to consumers, and have instead been driven by mistaken subsidies supposedly aimed at tackling climate change, but which instead most likely make it, and a whole host of other environmental problems, worse. Burning food crops for power is the worst use of scarce land imaginable, and has already led to a situation where there is a direct conflict between food and energy: a significant proportion of the food-price spike in 2008 (and a further spike in early 2011), which led to widespread hunger and bread riots in many poorer countries, was driven by crops being withdrawn from international markets to produce biofuels for transport.