There’s not a shortage of land, there’s a shortage of profitable farmers

© dvande /Adobe Stock

Almost every AgTech presentation I see these days trots out the same Malthusian tropes about population growth and land scarcity, ergo the need for new technologies to increase farm productivity. Enough already! I propose that there is not so much a shortage of land as there is a dearth of profitable farmers. One of the clear goals of AgTech should be to increase the profitability of farmers, but let’s first of all put the “land shortage” myth to rest.

Farmland is not as scarce as all of those scary opening slides would have you believe. Globally, there are 1.6 billion hectares under agriculture according to the FAO. Yet, there are 3.2 billion hectares of suitable rain-fed land that are not under agriculture. Removing forests, protected land and built-up areas from that total still leaves 1.4 billion hectares available. That’s almost 90% of what we are currently farming! Two-thirds of that is in developing countries, and increasing the productivity and profitability of farmers there is a topic for another day, but what about the almost half a billion hectares in developed economies? Why aren’t we farming on that? Surely if it were profitable to do so, it would be farmed.

Additional global land with rain-fed potential for agriculture (FAO data)

Beyond the available 1.4 billion hectares, what about the “unavailable” 1.8 billion hectares in the grey box above? Much of that is wilderness and protected parkland. Unambiguously, I am NOT suggesting farming should encroach on such land. That is a problem highlighted by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (notably by Jason Clay) and others. I am interested in the portion of the gray box which is “built-up” — 116 million hectares according to the FAO study. In the USA, we’ve been paving over prime farmland for decades. (Read this 1978 article “You Can’t Grow Corn on Asphalt”).

Take a look at the maps below of the Chicago suburbs from 1972 and 1997. The yellow area is farm land and it practically disappeared in Du Page County (purple line) in that period, with similar urbanization in adjoining counties. And this wasn’t just any farmland. The soil in northern Illinois is reputed to be among the most fertile soils in the world! This urban takeover of prime farmland has only continued since then. I worked in DuPage county from 2001 to 2005 and saw it disappearing before my own eyes. The topic was in the news again just this week in my home country of Ireland.

Chicago area land cover between 1972 and 1997 (Maps from NASA)

Some might argue that this is inevitable as urban populations continue to increase, but it is not. Economics and farmer profitability are again at the root of this. (Government planning and land use regulation play a significant role, of course, but they in turn are indirectly driven by economics). My wife is from Gloucester County in the Garden State — New Jersey. If your image of New Jersey has been exclusively formed by The Sopranos, then you might be surprised to learn that the state still lives up to its nickname and provides fruits and vegetables to the adjacent cities of New York and Philadelphia and beyond. Yet increasingly when I visit southern NJ, I see McMansionswhere once there were peach orchards and tomato fields. Why? At the end of the day, it’s cheaper for the Philadelphia metro area to build out rather than “re-build in”. If you are a farmer in southern New Jersey and you look at dwindling future profits from farming on the one hand and a fat check from a developer on the other, you can’t blame the farmer for growing houses instead of peaches. If farming were more profitable for the land owner, she or he would have less incentive to sell it for development.

Land use in Gloucester County, New Jersey — old and new. (Images from Google Maps)

This is the kind of problem that AgTech can tackle. One reason farm profits suffer in that part of New Jersey is lack of labor for harvesting tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. So instead, farmers switch to less labor intensive — but also less profitable — row crop farming… or sell their land. There could be a variety of technology solutions to this problem including robotic harvesters, online labor “match-makers”, plant varieties with modified ripening times, etc.

I will go into ways that AgTech can make farmers more profitable in the next post on this issue. And of course, I recognize there are a myriad of other factors that influence the abandonment of farms in developed countries (such as family succession and the desirability of a career in farming). But I find it hard to listen to the “land shortage” argument when I see farmland being under-utilized or paved over.

So, let’s agree that land is not as limiting as we think it is. Any focus on improving productivity should be through the lens of increasing farmer profits as opposed to the perceived need to eke a few more calories out of limited land. The reasons for hunger in some parts of the world are legion — but low productivity in an Illinois corn field is not one of them.

Kieran Furlong, 1st September 2017.