Feeding the World: The $10 Billion Trade-Off

An important trade-off to ponder as most Americans are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that is largely centered around food:

Despite what you might hear at your local farmers’ market or Whole Foods, not all big farms are bad. Nor are all small organic farms sustainable. They may produce high-quality food, but if they don’t produce a lot of calories per acre, they are doing little to help increase the global food supply. How we increase this supply over the next few decades will determine agriculture’s sustainability. It’s worth exploring why this is so, because sustainable food production is a fundamental human need. Getting it right will require us to carefully assess the consequences of where and how we farm.

Already, the world’s farms take up an area the size of South America. By 2050, a global population of nearly 10 billion people will require roughly 70 percent more food. We have two options: Either we need to get more food out of the land we already farm, or we need to farm more land.

Here’s a little bit more:

[I]t’s time to move beyond the oversimplification that large-scale agriculture is incompatible with environmental goals … We need to admit that food production is going to be the dominant use of land in the 21st century, and to decide whether we are going to farm more land or farm more intensively. Then we can move on to the grand challenge of making our farms sustainable.

Surprisingly, this was not written by an economist, but by Stephen Porder, a biologist and professor of ecology at Brown University in a New York Times op-ed published this past weekend.

I say “surprisingly,” because the unpleasant job of pointing out trade-offs — see the sentences in bold above — is usually left to economists.

It is a great weakness of the other side of the feeding-the-world debate that many cannot — or perhaps don’t want to, because it makes them popular with the bien-pensant whose preferences are the stuff book sales and page views are made of — recognize those trade-offs.

As Paul Krugman put it in Pop Internationalism, policy discourses are often monopolized by charlatans because economists can’t write,* so it is refreshing to see a noneconomist point out what is really the most important trade-off in this debate: Either we farm the land that we are currently farming more intensively, or we simply farm more land — what Ester Boserup referred to as extensification versus intensification in her classic book  The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure.


* Krugman was writing about public debates over international trade in the early 1990s, specifically.

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