Ehrlich and Malthus were wrong too
They’re wrong, and their virulent strain of technopessimism—which is finding lots of resonance in the media these days—has been wrong for a long time. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul R. Ehrlich wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
In the advanced economies, people now spend 15 percent or less of their disposable income on food. It has never been lower. On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, about when Malthus first published his essay, it took nearly the entire daily wage of an unskilled worker to buy two loaves of bread, enough to feed a family of four. Today, it takes a Parisien about 15 minutes working at minimum wage to do to the same.
Governments have provided programs to train farmers in new agricultural methods, financial credit to help them invest in new techniques, and infrastructure like roads and electrification to improve access to markets and the quality of rural life. Reward for effort is also critical. China got a boost in productivity when it abandoned its experiment with communal farms and went back to family-managed farms, which tied earnings more directly to the farmer’s own work. Secure tenure to land gives farmers a strong incentive to invest in long-term improvements like irrigation and soil conservation.
Until recently we lacked detailed total factor productivity (TFP) information for the many developing countries and ex-Soviet countries, but now, for the first time, we can put everything into a single model of agricultural TFP growth for the entire world. The results are encouraging. Globally, the rate of productivity growth in agriculture has accelerated, and most of this acceleration stems from improved productivity in developing countries. Today, the developing countries are about as productive in TFP terms as the industrialized nations were back in the 1960s. And they are catching up to productivity levels already achieved in industrialized nations, although sub-Saharan Africa still lags the most.
The good news is that there has been a nearly threefold improvement in global agricultural output between 1961 and 2009. But there’s even better news: Only about 60 percent of that improvement can be attributed to the use of more land, labor, capital, or materials. The rest came from improvement in TFP—more efficient use of land, labor, and capital through better management and, of course, technology. As an analogy, think of the difference between making transistors by hand, as opposed to fabricating them by the millions on a silicon chip.
Further analysis of the data revealed the best news of all: Over that 48-year period, TFP’s contribution grew. By the decade ending in 2009, it accounted for about three-quarters of the annual increase in the global food supply.
Over time, farmers have raised their TFP by becoming more precise in applying inputs.
A new tech-driven trend—some even say revolution—in agriculture is beginning to take hold in Iowa and in many parts of the world. Known as precision agriculture, the practice promises to reconcile mass food production with responsible land stewardship. It is perhaps best summed up by the oft-cited mantra “Doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time, in the right way.”
The first challenge was fine-tuning the process of planting and fertilizing seeds. Most of his neighbors would simply broadcast fertilizer over an entire field, till it into the ground, and then drop seeds in neat rows. But the Mitchells wanted to avoid both broadcasting, which wastes fertilizer on unseeded rows, and tilling, which intensifies erosion. So they bought a tractor attachment that cut grooves in the soil and injected fertilizer into the grooves. They figured they could then set seeds directly on top of each nutrient band.
They were wrong. They found it impossible to guide the planter along the same path as the fertilizer applicator. “You just couldn’t visually see where you drove before,” Mitchell says. He pondered solutions involving lasers and cameras. Then one day, he read that civil engineers were starting to use specialized navigation equipment to control earthwork machinery. “And I thought, ‘That’s perfect!’ ”
Using a signal-processing scheme known as real-time kinematics, or RTK, they can boost the accuracy of a GPS reading from about 3 meters to within just a few centimeters.
Today, RTK and similar systems are most commonly used in agriculture for autosteering, which keeps a vehicle moving autonomously along a straight course. (Drivers must still make turns manually.) Autosteering has become so popular among farmers that tractor manufacturers now build it into all new models.
They can use the program to record where they has injected fertilizer and direct the planter to drop seeds in the same spots. The setup is so precise that it allows them to space each seed exactly between last season’s stalks, so that the new shoots won’t struggle to push through the debris.
Sprayers of water and fertilizer have been precisely modified to control flow rate, timing and turn on and off to avoid respraying or overspraying.
The limits are not technology but the willingness of farmers to adopt the new methods.
Various precision farming programs in Asia are achieving success (30-50% yield boosts with reduced fertilizer) and more converts.