In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he said population growth was bound to outpace humankind’s ability to feed itself. He concluded that war, disease and famine were unavoidable in order to keep population growth in check. The world population at the time was around 1 billion people. Today, 6.4 billion people later, we know that in his pessimism Malthus neglected to include man’s ingenuity and ability to increase productivity in agriculture. This productivity development has largely continued to this day. Today the world needs 68 per cent less land than was needed 50 years ago to produce the same amount of food. Still, Malthus’s ghost continues to haunt us as we are faced with a world where a large number of people are undernourished, population growth is expected to bring the world population to 10 billion by 2050, and the productivity gains of agriculture are plateauing. It seems that technological development of agriculture is needed today more than ever.
In a 2009 report, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that by 2050 agricultural production would have to rise by 70 per cent to meet projected demand. Since most land suitable for farming is already farmed, this growth must come from higher yields or increased productivity.
Luckily, there is quite a lot happening in the field.
One area is the advent of precision farming using GPS technology to precisely locate tractors and other mobile units to within a few centimetres anywhere on Earth. The increased precision helps to reduce fuel bills by preventing tractors from covering more ground than necessary, and also to increase the evenness and effectiveness of the distribution of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. It also allows for much better adaptation of growing patterns to the characteristics of the local ground. Not only can seeds be planted much more precisely, but the productivity of the ground can be measured by monitoring the amounts of crops harvested in specific areas of the field. Based on this information, planting patterns or the use of fertilizers can be adapted to precise local needs. Building further on this concept, airborne monitoring by airplanes or drones can increase the understanding of the characteristics of a specific land area. Even satellites are increasingly being used to cover large land areas. But knowing where you are is not enough.
Although the Western world has come far in industrialising agriculture, the majority of the world’s crops are grown on more traditional farms. Increased consolidation of farms, allowing for economies of scale, is a development that can be seen from South America to Africa and Asia. This trend is likely to gather pace as farm equipment increasingly becomes autonomous, working around the clock and with much higher precision than human labor can achieve. Consolidation and automation will have a significant impact on the ability to increase productivity and scale of farms with an ever-smaller workforce.
In 1900 around 41 per cent of America’s labor force worked on farms; now it’s less than 2 per cent. The share of city dwellers in the world’s total population reached 50 per cent in 2007 and is rising steadily, yet the shrinking proportion of people living in the countryside is still able to feed the urban majority. With an abundance of technological development still under way, it seems we shall be able to keep Malthus at bay for some time to come.