Every one in a while a very important article comes along, and I want folks to read it so much that I blast it to the world. This is one of those articles. Written by Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, it is entitled The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment. Read the whole thing!
A series of “decouplings” is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking. This is not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers have changed consumption, and because producers changed production. These changes in behavior and technology are today liberating the environment.
Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in about 1940, acreage and yield decoupled in the United States. Since then American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land. Corn matters because its production towers over other crops, totaling more tons than wheat, soy, rice, and potatoes together.
The average yield of American farmers is nowhere near a ceiling. In 2013, David Hula, a farmer in Virginia, grew a US and probably world record: 454 bushels of corn per acre –– three times the average yield in Iowa. His tractor cab is instrumented like the office of a high-speed Wall Street trader. In 2014, Hula’s harvest rose 5 percent higher to 476 bushels, while Randy Dowdy, who farms near Valdosta, Georgia, busted the 500-bushel wall with a yield of 503 bushels per acre and won the National Corn Growers Contest.
Now, one can ask if Americans need all that corn. We eat only a small fraction of corn creamed or on the cob, or as tortillas or polenta. Most corn becomes beef or pork, and increasingly we feed it to cars. An area the size of Iowa or Alabama grows corn to fuel vehicles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manneken_Pis
Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water. A recent meta-analysis by Wilhelm Klümper and Matin Qaim of 147 original studies of recent trends in high-yield farming for soy, maize, and cotton, funded by the German government and the European Union, found a 37 percent decline in chemical pesticide use while crop yields rose 22 percent. This is the story of precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons.
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