Growing Population May Need Less, Not More, Land to Feed Itself in Fifty Years



New Study By Leading Agricultural Group Proposes That a More Crowded Planet May Be Simultaneously Better Fed and Greener

AMES, IA — Confounding conventional expectations, a surprising new task force report issued by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a leading food and agricultural consortium, proposes that advances in farming technology combined with changing values and diets could ensure that the world’s population will use existing cropland more economically and thus save more land for natural or wilderness use in the next fifty years.

“Our primary purpose in producing this report is not to advocate a certain strategy regarding the complex problems that will result from an increasing population, but rather to initiate serious and intense public discourse on the options that are still available to us,” said Deon D. Stuthman, a University of Minnesota agronomist and president of CAST.

Stuthman added, “There clearly is potential to produce significantly more food; however, a significant portion of the world’s population currently remains hungry due to inadequate food distribution. The challenge is to improve the distribution while increasing, or at least maintaining, the current food supply level. Technology can help increase the supply but needs to be used in a manner that does not degrade the natural resource base needed for food production and still preserves the wilderness base.”

The 64-page report, entitled “How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?,” was written by Paul E. Waggoner, a renowned agronomist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. Three additional scientists served as credited reviewers.

“This study suggests we can have a better fed population and a greener planet. If we maintain our current rate of technical progress in farming, we could spare 30% of the land now used globally for agriculture, an area larger than Alaska, and still produce enough food for the world’s growing population,” said Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, which commissioned the report as part of a workshop it held last October.

Rather than paying for increasing subsidies to keep farmland from reverting to woodland, we should think of even further “decoupling land from food,” said Ausubel. “The spatial contraction of agriculture — which remains the greatest transformer of our environment — is a probable and powerful antidote to loss of biodiversity and other environmental diseases,” he said.

“Today farmers feed five to six billion people by cultivating about a tenth of the planet’s land,” writes Waggoner in his introduction. “The seemingly irresistible doubling of population and the imperative of producing food will take another tenth of the land, much from Nature, if people keep on eating and farmers keep on farming as they do now. So farmers work at the junction where population, the human condition, and sparing land for Nature meet.”

With this premise, and using the latest data from around the world, Waggoner proceeds to show how “smart farmers” can harvest more per plot and thus spare some of today’s cropland for Nature — if we help them with changed diets, never-ending research, and encouraging incentives. Among the points the report makes are

* Calories and protein equally distributed from present cropland could give a vegetarian diet to ten billion people;
* The global totals of sun on land, carbon dioxide in the air, fertilizer, and even water could produce far more food than ten billion people need;
* By eating different species of crop and more or less vegetarian diets, we can change the number who can be fed from a plot;
* Recent data shows that millions of people do change their diets in response to health, price, and other pressures, and that they are capable of changing their diet even further;
* Given adequate incentives, farmers can use new technologies to increase food productivity and thus keep prices level despite a rising population. Even better use of existing technology can raise current yields;
* Despite recurring problems with water supply and distribution, there are opportunities to raise more crop with the same volume of water;
* In Europe and the United States, rising income, improving technology, and leveling populations forecast diminishing use of cropland.

The full 64-page report is available for $15.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling from CAST, 4420 West Lincoln Way, Ames, IA 50014-3447, (515) 292-2125. CAST is a nonprofit consortium comprised of 30 member scientific societies in food and agricultural science and many individual, student, company, nonprofit, and associate society members. CAST was established in 1972 as a result of a meeting sponsored in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

The report contributes to a broader study to be published in 1994 by the National Academy Press, “Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment,” which examines energy and materials as well as land. The study was organized by the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University. The program focuses on industrial ecology, the pattern of relationships between different industrial activities, their products and the environment.

Paul E. Waggoner, Author, (203) 789-7826
Richard E. Stuckey, Executive Vice President, (515) 292-2125,

Council for Agricultural Science and Technology
4420 West Lincoln Way, Ames, IA 50014-3447, USA
phone: (515) 292-2125, fax: (515) 292-4512