Someone on the book of feces posted a link to the original image above because they were (and I am) amused by the invisible comma in the “Eat Local People” sticker. Others pointed out more or less what I edited the picture to say – namely that without industrial farming we’d looking at a global population considerably lower than it currently is now (as in perhaps 30-40% of the current 7.5 billion +) and that therefore we would be forced to eat local people in order to survive. They are of course absolutely right. Currently industrial farming produces yields per field that are something like an order of magnitude (10x) what is achievable with traditional methods. The world record yield for a decent sized field (i.e. not some special spot) is over 16 tonnes of wheat per hectare (over 6.5 tons/acre for the non-metric) and the linked article notes that there were spots in the field where the yield was almost 50% more (23t/ha).

It is hard to compare like with like but this graph shows how dramatically yields have increased in the last few decades.

Not only have yields increased but more to the point the 16t/ha person made significant money:

With variable inputs of seed, sprays and fertilisers of just under £754/ha, or £46/t, the crop would have given a gross margin of over £1,000/ha, assuming a feed wheat price of £110/t.

Now clearly there’s a bunch of capex costs to be paid back and so on but this is not the kind of low-margin one stop up from subsistence farming that “non-industrial” agriculture is. One of the things that Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg point out repeatedly is that modern “industrial” agriculture is so productive that marginal land is allowed to stay fallow or revert to wilderness.

You can see that graphically in Japan where the area under rice cultivation since the 1960s has roughly halved but the total production has only dropped by between a quarter and a third because yields have increased by 30% from ~5t/ha to ~6.5 t/ha. As a result those of us who visit (or live in) rural Japan see lots of former rice paddy that has been left to grow wild and indeed, such is the lushness of the climate, that it only takes a few years for a former rice paddy to totally disappear unless you look carefully for the irrigation channels and terraces. There’s actually a good argument for Japan to grow even less rice and import more but they don’t because they want to be self sufficient in rice. On the other hand in some parts of Japan the soil and climate are sufficiently strong that is it possible to get two harvests a year. Right now this is not usually done with rice – farmers plant a field with winter wheat or barley, harvest that in May, and plant with buckwheat (soba) which is harvested now (late october early november) – but it certainly could be because the overlap between harvesting the earliest planted rice and planting the latest is less than a month. Japan’s farmers don’t try for maximum industrial yield in food for any number of reasons but they boil down to won’t get paid to do so. If things change slightly almost all those no longer cultivated hectares could go back to growing crops (though not the ones built on like the one I’m writing this from), those in the south could be pushed to have two crops a year and Japan could be producing at least double what it produces today in terms of basic carb.

The same applies in much of the rest of the developed world. New England has more forest now than it did a century ago and that new forest is all former farmland. If you go hiking in Provence, or Scotland, or any number of other parts of Europe you will see the ruins of peasant hovels and the remains of their fields and orchards. The people left because the land was marginal and there was better living in the cities (even in the Dickensian poverty and pollution of the 19th century). These days there may be some sheep grazing on some of the formerly cultivated land but the grazing is low intensity and there are plenty of spots where the brambles and roses and nettles and trees have taken over. If the need were there these could be returned to more intensive agriculture. In fact the number of people who grow vegetables in their gardens instead of just grass and flowers (or concrete) has declined significantly as well and not just from HOAs banning them.

All in all, thanks to agriscience and farmers using the results of said science; despite the fact that the world has about three times as many people as it did in 1950, the risk of (widespread) famine has been practically eliminated.

Famines have always occurred as the result of a complex mix of ‘technical’ and ‘political’ factors,3 but the developments of the modern industrial era have generally reduced the salience of natural constraints in causing famine. This includes many developments discussed in other pages of Our World in Data, such as the increasing availability of food per person, made possible through increasing agricultural yields; improvements in healthcare and sanitation; increased trade; reduced food prices and food price volatility; as well as reductions in the number of people living in extreme poverty. Over time, famines have become increasingly “man-made”-phenomena, becoming more clearly attributable to political causes, including non-democratic government and conflict. Paradoxically, over the course of the 20th century famine was virtually eradicated from most of the world, whilst over the same period there occurred some of the worst famines in recorded history. This is because many of the major famines of the 20th century were the outcome of wars or totalitarian regimes. As such, the waning of the very high levels of warfare over the last decades (as seen in the reduced number of battle deaths in recent times) and the spread of democratic institutions has also played a large part in the substantial reduction in famine mortality witnessed in recent decades.

[Update: it isn’t just the farmers, the entire supply chain from farm to consumer has massively improved too so that food waste is now massively lower even if the ‘fresh veg’ comes from half way around the world.]

All that’s wonderful so why is this article entitled “Don’t Forget the Farmers”?

Simple.

Many of us in the developed world have forgotten where food comes from and how it gets to our table. Thus the complaint above about “industrial food” and the stories that people these days think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Said story does of course ignore all the people who have no idea where milk comes from and think it somehow is created in a factory like coca-cola or bottled water. As the “HOA banning vegetables” stories show we have got so rich that we no longer need to worry about making any contribution to our own food supply. In support of that I note that this summer while I was in the UK I saw many many hedgerows with blackberries unpicked whereas when I grew up in the 1970s/80s someone would have picked most of them. In fact I only saw one person actually picking any blackberries at all.

The problem with all this is that we are taking the farmers and farms for granted and probably also thinking of farmers as slow-witted hicks and hayseeds. However, as the initial article I linked to about record harvests showed, today’s successful industrial farmer is anything but a hick. He’s got to balance cash and manage opex and capex just like any other small/medium business and in addition he has to navigate byzantine government bureaucracies and deal with the weather. This is probably more challenging than most whitecollar jobs and totally ignores the physical aspects of managing machinery that always, always needs maintenance and breaks down in the mud and the pouring rain. All this is a problem because the average age of farmers around the world is rising because fewer and fewer young people want to work on a farm. In the US the average age of a farmer has risen to 58. It’s pretty similar elsewhere. Now it is true there are wrinkles to the data – the definition of farmer vs farm worker for example – and increasing automation means ever fewer workers are required, but overall it isn’t a good thing that young people aren’t keen on jobs in agriculture. If things continue in this vein then in a couple of decades the world will face a real problem because there won’t be enough experienced farmers able to continue farming. It is well-known that experience is how most people get good judgement (and that surviving bad judgement is how you get experience) so in order for farmers in a couple of decades to not make critical errors and, in the process cause an actual global famine, we need new people now to learn from the (literal) graybeards.

Oh and one more thing. If the disrespect of farming extends to implementing regulations that make it excessively hard to farm then these older generation farmers may decide to quit en masse and their replacements are likely to be worse at production both because of the regulations and because of inexperience. This may not greatly affect the relatively rich politicians and campaigners who got the rules passed because they can afford the more expensive food that results but it certainly will impact the poor, both in the west and (as a knock on) in the rest of the world. Of course if the disrespect continues it might lead to riots as certain elitists say “let them eat cake” and if it gets even worse the politicians might decide that they best way to solve the problem is to arrest the (former) farmers, seize their land and give it devoted followers of theirs from the cities. This has been tried a few times in the last century and it has never worked.