Farming's Miraculous Past and Challenging Future
I don't know if you've heard, but the world is about to have a birthday of sorts. Sometime this November, the world's population will click 8 billion, and I wonder how many of us will even notice.
To understand how we got here, it helps to keep in mind four milestones. The first year the earth held 1 billion people was 1804. I don't know much about my family then, but the line of Hultmans I came from were eking out a living in Sweden. According to Ourworldindata.org, life expectancy in Europe was 33 years at the time. (https://ourworldindata.org/…).
Canadian scientist and author of "How the World Really Works," Vaclav Smil, provides an example of wheat production in western New York three years before the first billion appeared. According to Smil, all the work of planting and harvesting wheat required 150 hours of human labor and 70 ox-hours per hectare -- or as we would say in the U.S., 61 human hours and 28 workhorse hours per acre.
In 1801, wheat yielded 15 bushels per acre (bpa) and the only inputs were sunshine, rain and the exertion of muscles -- both man and beast. Wheat production in 1801 was not much different than it had been the previous 2,000 years.
The second key date is 1927, when world population reached 2 billion. In our family, my father turned 10, born in northeastern Nebraska to a farming father and a mother who taught school. What was life like for your family at that time? Life expectancy in North America was near 50 years and it was still common to farm with a team of horses.
According to Livinghistoryfarm.org, the use of horses and mules peaked in the U.S. shortly before 1920, near the end of World War I (https://livinghistoryfarm.org/…). Tractor sales started to pick up in the 1920s and took off after World War II. U.S. cities were on the rise as urban population in the U.S. went from less than 8% in 1804 to over 50% by 1927, attracted by a boom of industrial jobs (https://ourworldindata.org/…).
The third year to keep in mind is 1974, when world population hit 4 billion. I was a 15-year-old kid working the summer on my grandparent's farm and had no idea how rapidly the world was changing around us. U.S. life expectancy was up to 67 years and farming with horses was a sentimental memory for most. Corn that yielded 26 bpa in 1927 was now yielding in the 80s and 90s, helped by irrigation, fertilizers and a variety of ag chemicals -- inputs that are not appreciated by some today.
In 1974, modern farming practices had not yet come to China, a poor, heavily populated country, which experienced the world's largest famine just 13 years earlier. According to Smil, China lost 30 million people to starvation and possibly another 30 million to failed births in the period from 1959 to 1961 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/…). Drought triggered the famine, but Smil calls out Mao Zedong for setting up the tragic consequences after his policies forced peasants out of fields to work in mines and industry.
Starting in the late 1970s, a new leader in China, Deng Xiaoping, set the country on a new course. Deng Xiaoping carried out market-based reforms, many of which were patterned after successful changes he saw Lee Kuan Yew make in Singapore. Based on data from World Bank, the share of Chinese living in extreme poverty, defined as making less than $2.15 a day, went from over 80% in the early 1980s to less than 1% today (https://ourworldindata.org/…). Ironically, the largest economic miracle in history looked a lot like a capitalistic transformation, carried out by a Communist who once served under Chairman Mao.
As the world now supports 8 billion, roughly 56% live in cities. The United Nations estimates the portion of undernourished is down to 10% -- probably the most available food distribution in history. In the U.S., over 80% of the population now lives in urban areas and life expectancy is in the upper 70s.
One acre of wheat on a Kansas farm now yields 3.5 times more than Smil's New York acre did 221 years ago. This next statistic sounds low to me, but Smil estimates the labor required to produce one acre of wheat has fallen from 89 hours of man and beast work to less than one hour per acre -- a dramatic explosion of farm productivity.
Yields in corn and soybeans have increased much more than wheat in recent years, thanks to increased use of fertilizers and ag chemicals. For corn, USDA shows yields near 26 bpaa in 1927 increased to 172 bpa in 2022, a nearly seven-fold increase, while world population quadrupled. Corn yields are up 38% since the mid-1990s when genetically engineered traits first became available. For soybeans, a 12 bpa yield in 1927 jumped over four-fold to roughly 50 bpa today. Smil contends without synthetic ammonia, 4 billion people could not be here today.
Professor Smil's examples remind us of the tremendous role that fossil fuels and the basic materials of modern life have played, allowing this world to nourish 8 billion people more generously than any previous population has ever experienced.
There simply is no way today's food production could sustain 8 billion people, mostly living in cities, without the modern contributions of trucks, tractors, combines and all kinds of equipment, along with irrigation pumps, drying bins, fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides -- all of which depend on fossil fuel and other basic materials for their construction and operation.
There is much to learn as new sources of fuel and new ways of farming are needed, but we shouldn't vilify carbon fuels too hastily. They are crucial pieces in this Jenga puzzle of infrastructure that make modern life possible. Alternatives like hydrogen and solar power, while promising, are not yet ready to bear the heavy loads today's food production demands.
As we near the first Thanksgiving feast in which 8 billion people will be seated at the table and roughly 7.2 billion will be adequately nourished, it is entirely appropriate to pause and give thanks for the multitude of miracles that have gotten us here today.
With 80 million more coming to dinner every year, the clock is ticking. The cost of getting the energy challenge wrong is more hungry people, an important part of the conversation that I'm not convinced many understand. For the sakes of all our families, we need to tread wisely and, as has been the case for over 200 years, more miracles will be needed.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the November issue of Progressive Farmer.
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