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President Jimmy Carter
"...an essential reference."
World Agriculture and the Environment presents a unique assessment of agricultural commodity production and the environmental problems it causes, along with prescriptions for increasing efficiency and reducing damage to natural systems. Drawing on his extensive travel and research in agricultural regions around the world, and employing statistics from a range of authoritative sources including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization,the author examines twenty of the world’s major crops, including beef, coffee, corn, rice, rubber, shrimp, sorghum, tea, and tobacco. For each crop, he offers comparative information including:
If, however, you are curious about how agricultural practices and, by extension, your own choices as a consumer affect biodiversity and ecosystem functions, than this is the book for you. — May 2004
AGRICULTURAL TRENDS AND REALITIES
I was born on a small farm in Northwest Missouri half a century ago. By 1956 most farms in the area had electricity and were connected by gravel roads to the main highways. Most farms had hedges that provided posts for fences and cover for wildlife. Farm families produced much if not most of their own food, fresh in the summer and canned or stored in root cellars during the winter. Most farms had a milk cow and hens for eggs. In the summer most raised chickens and had vegetable gardens for fresh food. Fruit trees and even beehives were common as well. Virtually every farm had ponds to reduce runoff and erosion, provide water for livestock, and provide fish (and waterfowl in season) for food. Many had woodlots that supplied firewood to heat the homes.
Farming in the 1950s consisted of growing a mix of crops in rotation with corn as the staple. These included wheat, soybeans, and oats. Clover was often planted to provide hay after the wheat or oat harvest and to build the soil. Midwestern farms also had pasture and produced hay for beef cows that were relegated to more rugged land in the summer and allowed to graze on the crop fields after harvest. Corn-fed pigs provided an easy way to get more cash from the corn crop. Farming was mechanized. Tractors had replaced horses to pull plows, discs, harrows, planters, cultivators, and harvesters through the fields. Cultivators were used to till the soil and kill weeds as the crops grew. In some instances, row crops like corn and soybeans were cultivated two to three years in a row. Weed killers were used on corn, but usually only on a spot basis and only if weed infestation was particularly heavy; otherwise, farm children normally walked the rows to cut weeds. The average row crop was produced with six to seven passes of a tractor pulling different equipment over the course of three to five months.
By the 1960s different U.S. government programs encouraged farmers to increase their farm and field size as well as the intensity of crop production. Fewer, more valuable crops were produced. Not only did farm size increase, so did land value, fixed investments in machinery, and the overall use and cost of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. Fencerows, waterways, and the last vestiges of blue stem prairie were eliminated in the quest for greater efficiency. Many pasture areas that were considered too poor quality to farm in the past went under the plow. Erosion increased. Wildlife, once common on farms, was virtually eliminated. Ponds and streams became loaded with sediment, nutrients, and pesticides. For the first time, farm families became dependent on purchased food. Well water was no longer safe to drink on most farms. The average crop was produced with about the same number of passes of a tractor, but the activities were different. While more efficient soil preparation meant fewer passes, additional tractor passes were needed for fertilizer and pesticide applications.
As farming changed, communities changed. Farmers have always depended on inputs and services from others. Prior to World War II, small crossroad commercial centers existed about every 5 to 8 kilometers (3 to 5 miles) around the countryside. They usually consisted of a blacksmith shop, feed store, general store, and a church. By the 1950s communities flourished at intervals of about 17 kilometers (10 miles). These communities consisted of blacksmith shops, feed stores, schools and churches, grocery stores, and clothing and hardware stores. By the 1970s most commerce was shifting to larger towns spaced about every 50 to 80 kilometers (30 to 50 miles). And farmers became as aware of weather patterns in Europe, Argentina, and Brazil as they were of those in neighboring states.
Similar trends have occurred in other parts of the world. More efficient production has led to lower prices. As prices dropped, market-oriented producers have attempted to increase their income by increasing their holding size as well as the intensity of production. Many smaller producers who found themselves unable to compete with the volume of large-scale producers have identified new crops, found ways to add value to traditional crops, or simply become marginal subsistence farmers. In 2000, for the first time, the number of small farmers in the world declined, implying that many small producers could no longer support their families by producing their own food, or perhaps that life elsewhere was preferable to the marginal, isolated existence of farming.
While the specifics and the speed of the changes have varied around the world, agriculture and its relationship to societies has changed everywhere. Governments have become much more involved not only in agricultural production but also in seed and agrochemical development, product development and promotion, and currency and trade issues. Globally, increased urbanization, the expansion of markets, and increased trade in raw materials as well as manufactured products have stimulated technological changes and increased overall scales of production. At the same time, increasing awareness of global food production systems has made consumers more concerned about the quality of food they eat as well as how it is produced. These same factors have made the food industry ripe for both vertical integration (where a company controls ownership of a product for all or most stages, from production to the consumer) and consolidation.
Mechanization, new inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and technology, improved crop varieties, and government support and protection have tended to cushion producers around the world from many market realities. Globalization is changing that. In the past producers competed with their neighbors for local markets. As transportation improved, producers competed at regional and even national levels while government protected them from foreign imports. Today most agricultural production is still consumed in the country of origin, but globalization promises to change that, too.
As technology has come to dominate producers' decisions about how to solve problems, responses have tended to focus on a single technology (e.g., seed, fertilizer, pesticides, tillage, or water) or rather simple combination packages of the individual technologies. Subsidies accentuate this response. One consequence is that in the past century, more producers are planting single crops, with fewer rotations. This has resulted in the loss of an estimated 75 percent of global agricultural biodiversity. It is simply too complicated to find ways to improve the production of each of the wide range of plants and animals that have developed in local niches around the globe over millennia.
The overarching goal of agricultural research has been to identify and focus only on those species or varieties promising the most potential for economic gains. India, for example, is rapidly replacing 30,000 varieties of rice with a single variety. By the year 2000, 75 percent of the world's food came from seven crops—wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, barley, cassava, and sorghum. Some 60 percent of the world's food calories came from the first three alone. If soybeans, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and beets, and bananas are added, these crops account for 80 percent of total crop tonnage (Kimbrell 2002). This simplification is shortsighted at best, and fails to take into account the current reality of agricultural production and its future consequences.
THE CURRENT REALITY
For more than 99 percent of human history, people obtained their food by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Over the past 7,000 years that has changed remarkably. Today only 2 percent of all human food energy and only 7 percent of all protein is captured from the wild, and most of this is from water. The rest is produced by agriculture and aquaculture on land.
As a result, agriculture is the largest industry on the planet. It employs an estimated 1.3 billion people and each year produces some $1.3 trillion worth of goods at the farm gate. In the developed world, food prices (in real terms) have fallen by 40 percent over the same period. For example, because of overall increases in per capita income and relatively cheap food, Americans spend only 14 percent of their income on food. Europeans, on the other hand, spend some 44 percent more on food than the rest of the developed world. In developing countries, however, the poor can spend as much as 75 percent of their total income on food.
Not only has the percentage of income spent on food tended to decline in the United States, but the percentage of those dollars kept by farmers has declined as well. In 1900 an American farmer received some 70 percent of every dollar spent on food. By 1990 U.S. farmers received an estimated 3 to 4 percent of the money spent on food. Globally, agribusiness produced $420 billion in 1950, and farmers received a third of it. Researchers estimate that by 2028, the total global market for agricultural production will be $10 trillion and farmers will receive 10 percent of it.
Part of the reason that less and less money goes to the farmer is that more "value" is added to agricultural products than ever before. In the past farmers sold products in open markets and received a large portion of the consumer price. Today, the consumer's cost of food includes manufacturing, quality control, preservation and packaging, labeling, distribution and handling, storage, advertising, compliance with laws and regulations, professional management, and even the cost of air-conditioned supermarkets. While food prices have steadily declined, the cost to manufacture, hold, distribute, and sell food has increased, further squeezing farmers. American farms represent only 0.9 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), but the food market chain—those who sell to and buy from farmers—is about fourteen times as large. The price of a cup of coffee has more to do with the convenience and ambience of where you buy it than the cost of the beans. Similarly, the Coca-Cola company spends more on each can than on what is in it.
As a consequence of increases in productivity and economies of scale, the number of farmers around the world is declining in absolute terms. In the United States farmers represent less than 1 percent of the population, and they not only feed the rest of the population but also produce enough for this country to be the largest exporter in the world. Only 18 percent of U.S. farms produce 87 percent of the food. Farming populations in France and Germany have fallen by half since 1978. In countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the number of farms is declining by 1.5 percent per year, and farmers and their families now represent only 8 percent of the population. In short, throughout the world there are fewer, more highly productive farms every year.
Past success in increasing food production and lowering costs does not imply that there will be sufficient food in the future. There are several worrying trends. First of all, as discussed later in this chapter, hunger issues are as much about distribution and income as production. Second, production will not keep increasing forever. Global food demand is likely to double over the next fifty years. While total cereal production has doubled in the past forty years, the increase in yield growth rates have declined from 1987 to 2001, indicating that productivity is nearing its genetic and resource limits. The world's population is expected to increase another 50 percent by 2050. Increased affluence (projected as a 2.4-fold increase in per capita real income around the globe by 2050) is leading to increased consumption of meat and animal products, which requires additional agricultural production (Tilman et al. 2002). In the United States it takes 0.42 ha (45,000 square feet) of agricultural land to feed a single person eating a high-animal-protein diet. This model will not work in developing countries where there is only about 0.08 ha (9,000 square feet) of agricultural land per person available for cultivation. Furthermore, per capita land availability is decreasing worldwide.
PROBLEMS WITH LARGE-SCALE PRODUCTION
Most agricultural systems around the world are evolving into larger, more specialized units of production owned by fewer and fewer people. In Brazil, for example, 80 percent of the land is owned by 10 percent of the population. In the United States 163,000 large farms now account for 61 percent of sales, while only 50,000 farms produce 75 percent of all food.
Efficiency is today's key agricultural issue -production per hectare, production per unit of fixed and/or working capital investment, cost per unit of production, cost per unit of key production input, etc. In general, smaller farms (those less than 11 hectares) are more efficient producers than bigger ones in terms of production per area of land. Studies from around the world show that smaller farms almost always produce more product per unit area than larger ones. The cost of production per unit produced increases with farm size. This is true at least in part because smaller farms are usually run by families, and the cost of family labor is not included in their calculations of costs. Midsized and larger small farms, on the other hand, are more economically efficient when labor and technology are included in the calculation.
A 1992 U.S. agricultural census found that smaller farms are two to ten times more productive than larger ones and ten times more productive per acre than farms of 6,000 acres or more. The smallest farms (1.6 hectares or less) were 100 times more productive per acre than farms of 2,400 hectares or more. The problem with such small farms is that most of the farmers, unless they have very valuable cash crops, cannot make a living from farming alone and must subsidize their income with off-farm employment.
In addition, market factors often outweigh local economic or environmental efficiencies in the marketplace. Simply put, it is easier to purchase larger amounts from a smaller number of suppliers. Nowhere is this clearer than with livestock. During the past forty years, global per capita meat consumption has increased by 60 percent. To meet this increased demand, livestock production is increasingly industrialized, with several thousand cattle or pigs or 100,000 chickens often raised in a single facility. Over the past fourteen years, the average size of animal operations in the United States has increased 1.6-fold for cattle, 2.3-fold for pigs, 2.8-fold for eggs, and 2.5-fold for chickens. In Canada pig operations have increased 2.6 times in size in ten years (Tilman et al. 2002).
Such operations come with costs, often in the form of diseases. In 1997 a chicken virus in Hong Kong killed six people and resulted in the slaughter of 1.2 million birds. Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom resulted in 440,000 animals being put to death in 1967 and 1.2 million in 2001. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease) resulted in the slaughter of 11 million animals in 1996 (Tilman et al. 2002).
In North Dakota most "farms" now are greater than 8,000 hectares, but they are not single properties. Most have been pieced together through years of acquisition and often consist of many small farms 50 to 100 miles apart. While spreading out the holdings may reduce localized climatic risks, such farms are less efficient to operate. More importantly, owners cannot afford more environmentally sensitive management practices and cropping patterns. When the land being farmed is spread over such a wide area and the time window for management and cropping is so narrow, it is impossible to monitor the conditions on each plot and move machinery back and forth to deal with small-scale problems. It is simply easier to farm single crops with uniform management interventions. It is clear that the most efficient interventions are made as a result of monitoring and tailoring the response to the observed problem. On such large farms it is difficult to monitor crop conditions and pests for areas that are less than 1 square kilometer. This scale is simply too large for the most effective and efficient management.
These patchwork farms were created not in response to normal market incentives but rather because of government policies. U.S. commodity programs encourage wheat (and corn) producers to acquire more base acres (from which subsidies are calculated) in order to receive higher government payments. As a consequence such farmers may be producing wheat, but what they are really growing is government subsidies.
There are other troublesome issues regarding farm size. As farm size increases, poverty in local communities and absentee ownership increase as well. In addition, as farm size increases in rural areas, crime tends to increase while the number of local businesses decreases (Kimbrell 2002).
Scale issues are not limited to conventional high-input farming. In the United States, at least, organic production is even more concentrated than conventional agriculture. In California, five farms control half of the state's $400 million organic produce market. Horizon Organic in Colorado controls more than 70 percent of the nation's organic milk market. Until recently it produced more than 30 percent of its milk on only two dairy farms (Baker 2002; Pollan 2001). Similarly, in Brazil a tiny fraction of the total number of farms accounts for almost all of the millions of hectares of no-till agriculture.
Excerpted from World Agriculture and the Environment by Jason Clay. Copyright © 2004 World Wildlife Fund. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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