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Please watch video and read article and respond in your own 200 to the following:Soil/Biome desertification is one of the greatest environmental problems of our time. It is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by human activities including unsustainable farming, mining, overgrazing and clear-cutting of land — and by climate change. Desertification is a global issue, with serious implications worldwide for biodiversity, eco-safety, poverty eradication, socio-economic stability and sustainable development. We see it locally as erosion of the soil by wind and flash floods. 2.6 billion people depend directly on agriculture, but 52% of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. Land degradation affects 1.5 billion people globally. In the United States there doesn’t seem to be near as much concern for the accelerated rate of desertification, but it is even occurring in The Western US.The Video Link and article is attached

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Fred P. Miller
School of Natural Resources, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
Keywords: Agriculture production, Global Food demands, Biotechnology, Genetics
1. Retrospective – The Perils of Projecting into Unknown Futures
2. A World View – Ratcheting Up Demands on the Land
3. Can Global Cropland Yield More Food Sustainably?
4. North America’s Agricultural Production: Character and Nemesis
5. Capacity of North America’s Agricultural Productivity
6. What Production and Demand Scenarios Would Test the Limits of North America’s
Agricultural Production Capacity?
7. Concluding Thoughts and Summary
Related Chapters
1. Retrospective – The Perils of Projecting into Unknown Futures
To assess the capacity of agricultural productivity begs the foretelling of the future. As Arrow et
al. (1995) noted, carrying capacities in nature are not fixed, static, or simple relations, but are
contingent on technology, preferences, and the structure of production and consumption. Cohen
(1997), too, cautions about predicting the future carrying capacity of the global biosphere since
the ‘answer’ to this question must be probabilistic, conditional, and dynamic: probabilistic,
because humans cannot perfectly predict the future; conditional, because the answer depends on
choices yet to be made; and dynamic, because predictions and choices are susceptible to change.
Agricultural production is driven and modified by a variety of forces and factors, including the
character, capability, and care or stewardship of the natural resource base undergirding all
agricultural production systems; climate and weather; product demand (economic); technology;
political events and policies; demographics; and cultural customs (e.g., dietary preferences).
Therefore, to speak of the capacity of manipulated ecosystems, one must be mindful of the
potential impact of unforeseen technologies, events, and demand scenarios that will certainly
alter projections of agricultural capacity based on the datum of the present.
History is replete with bold prognostications of future outcomes that were well off the mark
when such prophesies were later assessed against the reality of their targeted times. Cohen
(1995a; 1995b; 1997) has done a comprehensive review of the literature on the many divergent
projections of the earth’s capacity to support and sustain various population numbers.
Projecting the capacity of agricultural production has seen its share of errant forecasts. The
heralding of cataclysmic food and natural resources shortfalls has been sounded for centuries,
from the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1798) to the more recent projections of Paul Ehrlich (1968;
1969) and Lester Brown (1995). Yet, despite the fact that about 15% of our global population is
malnourished, global food production has more than kept pace with population growth. Between
1950 and 1997, the area planted to grain in the world expanded by 17% while total grain
production rose by 190%, resulting in a 2.5 fold increase in grain productivity over this period.
This rate of increased food production has more than kept pace with the global population
growth rate. For the more than 800 million people suffering hunger and malnutrition, the
problem is mostly one of deprived food access and poverty-induced inability to pay for available
food exacerbated by political conflict, regional climatic aberrations, inadequate food distribution
and storage capabilities, and mismanagement.
Malthus made his projection in 1798 that humanity’s penchant for procreation would eventually
outstrip his capability and capacity to feed himself. His forecast was made from a datum of a
global population less than one-sixth the population in 2000. But just five years later in the
second (and rarely read) edition of his famous 1798 essay on the principle of population, Malthus
was more sanguine about humanity’s prospects for the future, stating that “we may confidently
indulge the hope” for a better future. Malthus’ hope in the progress of humanity was mostly
faith-based since he did not and could not foresee the globalization of markets and technological
advances that allowed agricultural production to more than keep pace with population in most
areas of the world (exceptions include parts of Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa). Even
Ehrlich’s previously pessimistic views of humanity’s future have mellowed, giving way to more
hopeful scenarios (Ehrlich, 2000).
This brief reflection on past attempts to predict the future carrying capacity of the earth should
caution anyone attempting such an undertaking about the pitfalls of forecasting unforeseeable
futures. It is against this backdrop that the capacity of North America’s agricultural production
capacity will be discussed.
2. A World View: Ratcheting Up Demands on the Land
To suggest that feeding a UN FAO-projected 1.2 billion additional mouths in 2030 (Mann, 1997)
will be without considerable effort is to miss the point. Not only will this expansion of humanity
need to be fed, but increasing global affluence means many more people will be eating higher on
the food chain. By 2020, one projection of global demand for rice, wheat, and maize sees an
increase of 40%, or 1.3% per year (Mann, 1999). This double-barrel circumstance of more
mouths compounded by increased affluence will require proportionately more grain production
to feed both humans and the animals whose products they’ll demand. Furthermore, this demand
scenario is occurring simultaneously with the slowing down of the Green Revolution as most
grain and other crop yield increases have decelerated over the last three decades of the twentieth
century. Global cereal grain yields have slipped from annual yield increases of 2.2% in 19671982 to 1.5-1.3% during the 1982-1994 period. If the Green Revolution is to be revived or a
second Green Revolution is to occur again, squeezing out additional yield from crops and the
land will be proportionately more difficult than the first Green Revolution. The low hanging
“research fruit” has already been harvested.
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that supplies of fresh water are becoming scarcer, soil
quality is deteriorating across much cultivated land, and there is limited, problem-free
uncultivated land left to exploit. Will humankind be able to feed itself adequately? The
agricultural science consensus is that it can, but only if there is a global priority to fund the
necessary research, see it applied, and distribute the produce equitably. Since food scarcity
manifests itself locally, global food adequacy is meaningless without tailoring food access to
local circumstances.
3. Can Global Cropland Yield More Food Sustainably?
Daily et al. (1998) posit that there are two broad criteria by which one can judge humanity’s
success in feeding itself: 1) the proportion of people whose access to basic nutritional
requirements is secure, and 2) the extent to which global food production is sustainable. The
land-soil resource base now committed to producing humanity’s food will bear the brunt of
yielding even greater productivity in the future.
It is not clear, according to Tilman (1998), which are greater—the successes of modern highintensity agriculture, which have been immense, or its short-comings. Laszlo (1994) argues that
the wave of optimism engendered by recent gains in food production does not account for the
fact that much of this gain is unsustainable. These unsustainable short-comings of high tech
agriculture manifest themselves through such impacts as degraded and eroded land, release of
greenhouse gases and loss of soil organic matter or carbon (SOC), soil salinization, contaminated
groundwater, eutrophication of freshwater bodies and coastal waters, high energy and synthetic
chemical inputs, heavy demands on scarce water resources, increased incidence of crop and
livestock diseases, and loss of biodiversity. While many of these agricultural impacts are not
clearly understood and are vigorously debated (e.g.: Pimentel et al., 1995; Crossen, 1995; Avery,
1997; Daily et al., 1998; Pimentel and Skidmore, 1999; Trimble, 1999; Trimble and Crosson,
2000a; Trimble and Crosson, 2000b; Nearing et al., 2000), the fact remains that if humanity is to
manipulate nearly 1.5 billion hectares of global cropland to feed itself, it must strive to do so in a
sustainable manner. About 38% of this global cropland base has been degraded to some extent
by poor agricultural practices, thereby reducing to some degree the yield gains provided by
It is the consensus of most agronomists and allied agricultural scientists that global agriculture
must accommodate high yielding production systems, albeit with more sustainable systems.
Otherwise, continued agricultural expansion will consume lands and ecosystems now devoted to
wildlife and a host of other land uses and ecosystem functions that would be forfeited. High
technology agriculture, despite its exhaustion of resources and environmental impacts, has
resulted in saving much land, habitats, and fragile ecosystems that would otherwise have been
converted to cropland and pasture—a benefit that must be factored into any accounting of
technology-based global food production.
Ausubel (1996) points out that, despite societies’ chronic fears about the exhaustion of their
potential to increase food supply, the reality is that the agricultural production frontier is still
spacious, even without invoking the engineering of plants with molecular genetic techniques.
There is still much agricultural production technology on the shelf that is yet to be implemented.
In Iowa, the average corn-soybean grower has managed only half the yield of the Iowa master
grower. Furthermore, the global situation is that the world grows only about 20%, per unit of
land, of that grown by the top Iowa farmer (given Iowa’s ideal agricultural natural resource
base). This production ratio of producers has not changed much since 1960 (Ausubel, 1996).
Economists and non-agriculturalists tend to be much more optimistic about future trends and the
earth’s capacity to feed humanity sustainably. That’s because agronomists, plant breeders-
geneticists, soil scientists and other agricultural scientists know the challenges involved in
coaxing out a second Green Revolution over the next 20 to 30 years. Economists can project
trends, but agronomists and plant breeders-geneticists must deliver the future food.
Yes, global cropland can yield more food. And this food increase can be accomplished more
sustainably, but not without providing the necessary incentives and policies for farmers to
accomplish such an immense undertaking. Smil (2000) has provided a thorough review and
assessment of our global food carrying capacity and how to sustain a global food future that
eases the burden that modern agriculture puts on the biosphere. Also, Lackey (1998) has
provided a blueprint on how global ecosystem management can be accomplished and made more
sustainable. Technology without social science input will not get us there.
4. North America’s Agricultural Production: Character and Nemesis
Table 1 provides a snapshot of North America’s agricultural enterprise and land resources in
relation to its global counterpart. Clearly, North America’s endowment of natural resources
coupled to state-of-the-art science and technology and an efficient food production-processingtransportation infrastructure sets it apart as a continental cornucopia. With Canada and the U.S.
having relatively stable or slow-growing populations and Mexico rapidly ascending the ladder of
developed nationhood, the agricultural land resource base of North America is more than
adequate to meet any foreseeable food production needs of its projected populations.
Table 1. Economic, population, and agricultural production parameters for North America and
the World; 1995-1998. (Data from WRI, 2000 unless noted otherwise)
Compared to the foraging and pastoral cultures that occupied North America centuries ago, that
supported less than one person per square kilometer, modern agriculture now supports well over
1000 people per square kilometer of arable land. Thus, humans have been able to achieve a
thousand-fold expansion of the land’s carrying capacity through applications of science and
technology. However, as noted previously, the trade-offs for this achievement include massive
transformations of natural ecosystems, increasing reliance on fossil fuels, alteration of mineral
and biological cycles, and significant environmental impacts.
The Achilles heal of North American agriculture has been soil erosion (both water and wind) and
the attendant loss of soil organic carbon through tillage. While these soil-land resource impacts
have been significant in the sense of soil loss and soil quality impairment, the overall reduction
of North America’s food production capacity has been relatively minor. Despite the fact that soil
erosion has declined in USA over the last half century, soil scientists fret that production
technology has become the talisman of growers since the impact of the insidious eating away of
soil quality by soil erosion/soil carbon loss is masked by continually increasing crop yields.
While North America’s agricultural productivity has primarily served the needs of its continental
population and economy, global trade and demands have increasingly played a role in shaping its
productivity profile. Increasing demands from both North America and the world’s nations seem
to be a foretelling of the future, thus begging the question, just what is the potential and capacity
of this continent’s agricultural productivity?
5. Capacity of North America’s Agricultural Productivity
5.1. How Much Can Be Gained from Expanding the Agricultural Base?
Estimates of potentially arable land for the world are in the neighborhood of 22 to 24% of the
earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Yet only about half of this 3+ billion hectares is currently used for
cropland. While expanding the earth’s croplands is feasible, there are profound consequences.
First, most of the better land and soils already have been committed to cropland. Expanding
cropland will encounter less productive lands and soils with constraints such as slopes that are
vulnerable to erosion; lands requiring drainage or irrigation; soils that are highly acid, alkaline,
or nutrient deficient; and soils with shallow root zones. Second, expansion of cropland will
require conversion of existing land uses and ecosystems (e.g., pasture, forest lands) with
significant repercussions on the environment and wildlife habitat. And third, there will be social
disruptions to such major conversions of land. Humans have already appropriated approximately
40% of the earth’s biological capacity to satisfy its needs and wants—an amount that suggests
caution in further constraining the planets’ ecosystems capacity to sustain the earth’s life support
Similar impacts of cropland expansion exist for North America. Nearly 22% of US land in its 48
contiguous states was used for cropland in 1997, amounting to 166 million ha (USDA, 2000b). A
1975 study of potential cropland for the US (Dideriksen et al., 1977) showed that an additional
45 million hectares of Capability classes I-III land had high to medium potential to be added to
the 162 million hectares of cropland used in 1975. This potential cropland accounted for 42% of
the total land in Capability Classes I-III that was not used for cropland in 1975. Using a similar
guideline for the 1997 US National Resources Inventory (NRI) database, 40% of the noncropped Capability classes I-III land amounts to nearly 40 million hectares of potential US
cropland that could be added to the nation’s 166 million hectares of cropland (13.2 million ha of
which were set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program) in 1997 under a high demand
scenario. This estimated potential cropland in the US was used for pasture (28.1 million ha),
rangeland (25.5 million ha), and forestland (45.7 million ha) in 1997. Whatever demand scenario
would drive such land conversions would have to be intense enough to overcome the opportunity
costs of such conversion. Nevertheless, the point is that the US has much flexibility in bringing
additional cropland into production if necessary.
Canada has some, although limited, potential to add to its cropland base. Only about 5% of
Canada’s vast terrain is suited for crop production (ca. 46 million ha). In 1991, Canada’s
cropland totaled 33.5 million ha with another 7.9 million ha in summer fallow. An assessment of
potential cropland using 1991 data for Canada’s Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan,
Alberta) indicated that 53 million ha or 28% of the land in these provinces could be used for
producing annual crops compared to 35 million ha of land actually used for crops and summer
fallow (MacDonald et al., 1995). Again, future demand scenarios would have to be strong
enough to convert Canadian lands now devoted to other uses into cropland. In Canada, such
conversions also would be pressing against the limitations of growing season adequacy for most
This brief assessment of North America’s potential to expand its cropland base shows that while
such potential exists, most agricultural production increases driven by future demand scenarios
will most likely be satisfied by production-yield increases on existing cropland, pastureland, and
5.2. How Much More Production Can Be Coaxed from Existing Cropland?
Despite the declining rates of crop yield increases over the last 30 years, the absolute production
increases for most crops have approximated a straight line increase (Tweeten, 1998). Since
increasing, although decelerating, rates are calculated from an ever-expanding denominator, one
must not lose sight of the fact that since WWII, plant and animal breeders along with other
production specialists have been able to continually coax ever more yield and production out of
the genetic potential of most food-derived species.
These food production increases have more than kept pace with global population growth. On
average, food supplies were 24% higher per person in 1997 than in 1961, and real prices were
40% lower. Global population doubled from 3 to 6 billion people during this period. But because
of poverty and food access-deprived people, approximately 790 million people in the developing
world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of whom reside in Asia and the
Although various regions of the world have chronic food deficits and must rely on imports and
food assistance, the global food capacity has never been tested in the sense of unleashing the full
production capacity of those areas endowed with such capacity. This spare agricultural capacity
lies chiefly in the developed world, especially North America and Europe.
6. What Production and Demand Scenarios Would Test the Limits of North America’s
Agricultural Production Capacity?
Since WWII, American farmers have been teased and admonished to produce at full throttle in
response to forecasts of global needs and calls for feeding the world, only to see commodity
prices plummet at the first sign of increased production. American farm policies, as well as its
European counterparts, have been oriented to constraining production and subsidizing
agricultural commodity prices for most of the latter half of the twentieth century. Even with these
production constraints and low commodity prices, North American farmers in 1998 produced
nearly half (48.1%) the world’s soybeans, over 40% of the world’s corn and 12% of the world’s
wheat, and accounted for 57, 70, and 30% of the world’s exports of these three commodities,
respectively. Indeed, North America’s agricu …
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