New research has suggested that, for the first time on record, global farmland is in decline. Moreover, it has been estimated that, with respect to global farmland, “Every two years, an area roughly the size of the UK is abandoned”. How could this be? And what is the driving force behind this trend? The facts are most curious, as Joseph Poore summarizes (an environmental researcher at the University of Oxford) in a recent article.

Humanity’s land grab is extremely well documented. During the 19th and certainly also 20th centuries, these were a time of significant agricultural expansion. “By the 1990s, farms occupied 38 per cent of the world’s land. […] 27 per cent of tropical forests and 45 per cent of temperate forests were cleared in the process”. Today, as is widely known, deforestation is a big problem. It continues to occur at a rapid rate.  Palm oil production is one of the main culprits cited in many reports. But new research drawing on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that an entirely different global trend is also emerging: statistics reveal that “over the past 15 years, total global pasture area has declined by 62 million hectares (-2%)”. And this decline has occurred in spite of the overall growth in agricultural production. On the basis of all the evidence, it appears that this trend will continue. But how do we explain it?

Poore’s summary article touches on a number of key points. But we can also begin by looking to research published in Nature. Here the demands moving forward were made clear: “To meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically”. And it would seem that, on the basis of the data taken from FAO, this is precisely what is beginning to take shape. 

One interesting point the data serves to emphasize is how the driving factors behind this trend seem to go against the intuition and also the claims of certain sections of environmental activism. One of the things that has always struck me is that, among the activists, there appears at times and in many places a creeping conservatism based on the ideal of some distant reconciled past. In terms of basic rationale, it doesn’t always seem so different to right-wing social conservative appeal. Of the extreme movements – such as deep ecology and other anti-modern philosophies – idealization of hunter-gatherer and substance life is considered the only recourse. The utopian image of a reconciled nature is fantasized. In less extreme movements, there are different examples of idealization: a return to agrarian lifestyle and culture, with the Shepard and his sheep; the sole reliance on individual gardens and community farms where agrarian concerns and demands dominate over all others; or even the defense of unproductive farming landscapes on behalf of some concept of maintaining the vision of ‘rural life’. Sometimes, even, one will read that one or many of such suggestions are simply “common sense”.

But the great thing with facts is that they remain true even if they don’t agree with common sense. What if what we’re seeing is that, thanks to new intensive technologies among other things, cropland and pasture is in decline, and with this decline an increase in output has been maintained whilst also an increase in re-wilding and biodiversity? One example is the overall drop in global demand in wool, with consumers preferring cotton and synthetics.  This “has far-reaching consequences. One hectare of land can produce 300 kilograms of wool, or 2000 kilograms of cotton, while synthetic fabrics require essentially no land”. Though, cotton farming faces many of its own sustainability issues, the point being raised on the basis of recent evidence is that it is possible, with the continued push for better and more efficient technologies as well as more precise farming methods.

As Poore writes:

Meanwhile, intensive systems elsewhere are occupying significantly less land to deliver the same amount of protein. Of course, intensive farming comes with its own environmental burden, such as fertiliser run-off into rivers and lakes and increased use of pesticides. But Miandasht shows another side to the ecological story. One estimate suggests that globally, farmland intensification saved 27 million hectares from being cleared between 1965 and 2004.

With careful planning, some environmental costs of intensification can be managed. Precision farming, for example, uses information on soil, the climate and crops’ potential to absorb nutrients to calculate the exact amount of fertiliser needed. Pesticides can be curbed by using integrated pest control, which mixes mechanical tools like traps with biological controls like natural predators.

There are clear and urgent ethical issues when it comes to animal welfare concerns on intensive livestock farms. These are well documented. One cannot deny without clear and obvious bias that the industrialised meat and poultry industry – and what some call “food fordism” – is riddled with ethical concerns. Indeed, when served with the honest and very real image of an industrial slaughterhouse and processing plant, with chickens, for example, arriving in packed crates still technically alive but essentially reduced to a state of inertian, awaiting the fate of being gassed, one cannot objectively and in good reason reject the urgency of ethical debates.

Other issues facing contemporary intensive agricultural models include the over-use of antibiotics; incredibly unethical animal rearing practices; soil erosion; high pesticide use; among many other things. Considering that the most comprehensive scientific research to date was recently released concluding ‘strong’ evidence of link between neonicotinoids and the decline of the bee population, deep deliberation on how human civilisation should move forward with regards to its agricultural model is highly contentious and complex and necessary. Because even as we consider the potential benefits of high-intensive systems, it is also important to note that ‘the same forces driving abandonment of farmland for conservation purposes are fueling, simultaneously, increased deforestation elsewhere in the world’ (such as, for instance, in the shift toward cheap palm oil).

Given the complexity of concerns from population growth and future food security to climate change and sustainability, it seems that what is needed is deeply nuanced and complex thinking. There does not seem to be a single, simple reduction and solution. One argument that is difficult to reject establishes the logic that, ultimately, the only solution is for human beings to take on a vegetarian / vegan diet.

I’m not going to get into the debates here, as that would require more space to draw out a logical argument. What I want to think about, though, is an intriguing point: namely, it is intriguing in our present history how, along with new agricultural technologies and alternative evidenced-based policy options, potential solutions appear to be emerging. Some of these solutions, including the potentials of agri-tech, coinciding with the positives hopes for automation and policies like Universal Basic Income, also potentially support the additional requirement of continuing to free human labour, if one subscribes to both enlightenment principles of social philosophy and general humanistic and multidimensional concerns for human progress. Additionally, it is this freeing of human labour that one could argue resides at the very heart of the concept of human civilisation, however much that dimension of the concept has been denied or distorted over the course of recent human history.

What I am drawing on here is a very basic, simple anthropological account of the development of human civilisation, which seems to relate in a very deep way with the human duel with nature and the development of agriculture. There are of course many competing theories for the domestication of agriculture, and it is not my intention here to purpose or emphasize one over another. Rather, I am simply suggesting the basic idea that insight is offered in understanding the value of what agriculture initially provided human beings – insight offered by the basic evidence and arguments in many of our scientific textbooks: that domestication of crops provided something positive of notable benefit, otherwise it would likely not have crystalized as an established historical trend. In that a more stable food supply was established, with larger numbers of people being able to live together – the philosophical description of an increased freedom from immediate existential precarity is given an incredible sense of meaning. The seeds of human civilization were sown. Freedom, in the particular sense of an increased freedom from precarious existential conditions, coincided with the transition from hunter-gathers to an entirely new conception of human life.

The foundation of civilization was laid with the advent of agriculture. From there human social organization could take on much more complex forms. Free time allowed for writing, thought, culture – as well as special and geographical planning and city development. Humans could spend time thinking of new technologies, studying maths and philosophy, among many other things as time unfolded in these earliest centuries.

To my mind, it only stands as reasonable that we ought to remember these foundations and what the agricultural turn originally afforded. This is no longer philosophy but empirically true: today humanity is capable of much more than when civilization first began to crystalize. Philosophically, the continued expansion of free time – freedom from precarious conditions and necessary labour – seem to be integral to the debates on human agriculture in the 21st century, in which agrarian idealizations do not suffice.

One problem, though, is antiquated government policy, as Poore suggests. “For most governments […] concerns over food security mean abandonment is seen as negative, so they design policies to avoid returning farmland to nature”. It turns out this is counter-productive. “With higher yield farming”, these policies no longer move with the evidence and have grown outdated. Thus there are “in need of revision”.

Higher yield farming generally seems to be enemy number one for many environmentalists and alternative agricultural movements. But what if it is a huge part of a new progressive solution? What if high yield farming is the heart of a new agricultural model? I am not arguing here that it is or that it isn’t – what I am suggesting is that the dichotomy of the status quo versus the agrarian cultural ideal of self-sustained gardens and sustenance living seems incredibly false. Such debates often seem to get caught up in worldviews or ideological biases. The research cited in this essay is an example that the realities are complex and so, too, might be the solutions.

Indeed, while the regional ecological impact of intensive farming is a serious issue, as it is known to degrade local ecosystems – the argument on the basis of this particularly collection of data suggests that it spares a lot more land elsewhere. Using the same logic regarding the principle of the decline of biodiversity in relation to agriculture, studies have found that with time this land can recover original levels of biodiversity. Additionally, the emerging evidence seems to suggest that higher yield farming might be able to help balance a number of complex concerns, from feeding an ever-growing population to increasing efficiency and reducing overall environmental impacts, as well as more philosophical complexities in relation to the project of human civilisation and what progress means in the 21st century.

In closing, Poore offers numerous examples of how abandonment of farmland has been managed from a number of perspectives, which makes for an interesting read. He concludes as follows:

These examples of shrinking farmland present a narrative where the return of low productivity land to natural ecosystems can be a positive, not a negative change. They paint a picture of a new agricultural system, where we embrace high yield technologies, where we don’t keep unproductive farmers producing, and where we as consumers avoid products that use large amounts of land. The beginning of this century could mark the point when we began sharing more, not less of our planet with the other species that inhabit it.