With staple prices tripling in the last decade, supposedly there has been far more investment into opening up new farmlands and improving techniques on existing farmlands.
So where are these farmlands? I have heard eastern Europe and Africa have a good deal of the unused and underused areas, which is resulting in European and Chinese scientists and farmers going to these areas to cultivate them to grow more crops. How many acres are there and what other parts of the world have unused lands?
Certainly there is lots of underused farmland in Africa, given that large areas are still being cultivated with hand tools on un irrigated land. But there are often reasons for this under use- for example, transportation networks may not be developed enough to transport crops to market.
Soon after decolonization, there was a lot of starry eyed beliefs that a “green revolution” in Africa could increase crop yields, but in most places that hasn’t panned out. These days there are lots of NGOs teaching low-cost natural ways to increase crop yields, such as inter-cropping, the construction of mini-dams, live fencing and the planting of nitrogen fixing trees.
I’d be suspicious of the idea of any western or especially Chinese foreign “scientists” farming (or doing anything) in any authoritarian African state. In practice, that most likely means “export-based multinationals making shady direct deals with corrupt governments to appropriate land that have been supporting villagers for generations and turning them into landless peasants scraping by doing day labor on their own land growing crops that they and their country will never see.” It happens kind of a lot.
I think large parts of European Russia are thought to be underused (or not at all used) farmland. Soil fertility and climate are pretty bad there (a recurrent issue in Russian economic history, btw) and agricultural economy reputedly just collapsed after the removal of Soviet subsidies. Lots of people left, died, became too alcoholic to work, just plainly couldn’t get anybody give them financing to buy equipment etc. Today Russia does very well with grain production, but they grow it in warmer and more fertile areas.
I also recall reading about great reduction of use of farmland in America after the war thanks to the higher yields, accompanied with expansion of forest acreage. So, presumably, those newly grown forests can be cut down and land returned to farm use.
Based upon my walks in the woods, I would say that most of New England’s farmlands have long ago reverted to forestland. The woods (5 minutes from my house) are full of old stone walls-200 years ago the land was cleared and under cultivation. New England farmers used to grow wheat, barley, potatoes, corn, etc., for human consumption. However, the bigger farms (and easier climate) of the middle west put an end to this.
What remains are mostly dairy farms and vegetable/truck farms.
With all due respect some of these characterizations re the naivety of the implementation of the green revolution are abject nonsense. My father had a doctorate in agriculture from Cornell and was a project director for USAID in the 60’s and 70’s. I grew up in Africa. The project directors and other workers in the 60’s and 70’s had decades of experience with drought environments, and were *very *well aware of the limitations of the African ecosphere (esp those area with cyclic droughts) to support high levels of cultivation. A lot of the work they did was not just promoting high yield grains, but advising on sustainable cultivation techniques and soil preservation in light of these limitations.
While looking up info for this thread I learned an acre of farmland can produce about 21 million calories of corn (140k calories per bushel and about 150 bushels per acre). Neat. You can feed a person 3000 calories of corn a day for a year with about 8 bushels, which would cost about $25. Of course there is transportation, refining, etc. But still. I remember back in the 1990s when Kim Jong Il was doing something stupid (building a mausoleum to Kim Il Sung I think) during the North Korean famine when millions were starving, some people printed up leaflets explaining how for the cost of the mausoleum the North Korean regime could’ve bought enough corn for millions of people to live on and dumped them all over the steps of the mausoleum. If it only costs $25/yr (assuming $3/bushel) to buy enough corn for 1 person eating 3000 calories a day, then yeah.
I have noticed back in 2004 I could buy 3 pounds of rice for $1 and a pound of spaghetti for $0.50. Now a pound of rice costs almost $0.70 and a pound of spaghetti costs $1. I don’t eat enough corn to know what the price difference is from the last 5 years.
The cheap wheat and corn in modern times relies on heavily mechanized agriculture. I suspect those old New England farms barely had room for a combine to turn around between the stone walls; even more problematic if hills are involved. The same goes for most crops nowadays. That leaves crops that ahve an advantage when grown nearby like vegetable/truck crops. However, when lettuce from California dominates the shelves at the supermarket, I doubt the profits are that great for local farmers. No wonder it’s abandoned. A crop of oak or cherry or maple is much less effort and much more profitable -for the grandkids.
It used to be that food was our biggest expense after housing. Nowadays, most middle class first-worlders like me probably spend more on things like communication. When I add up my cellphone bills, land line, internet, and satellite TV - I spend less on groceries. I probably leave more in tip than the cost of food component of my restaurant bills. No wonder we’re a continent of lard-asses! Is part of our overdue rude awakening a big rise in the cost of food?
It may have escaped the notice of some people, but when real estatle had not yet bubbled out and gas was going through the roof, so was food. Urban Canada has a large asian immigrant population, and many stores here were rationing the big bags of rice, one per customer. The price was several times what it was normally. This was a combination of demand and a serious drought in regions of asia.
But on this one point, another critical issue was that in response to reduced harvests, many SEA governments banned exports of their locally grown rice, “saving” it for the home market. The completely predictable result was hoarding, price explosions, and a net reduction in rice available in the no-export areas due to retaliation by other rice-growing countries which both export & import rice.
It was a softer reprise of the ancient truism that “all famines are political”.
And the side effect we saw here was that ethnic groceries were deprived of their normal supplies & the Asian expats had to do without. Of course they could buy US rice by the megaton, but their traditional brands and varieties were unavailable or tightly rationed by the grocery stores trying to treat their customers as best the could.
Now, either these guys are lying about the price or quality of their product, or the company that puts rice into bags are inefficient beyond belief, or else somebody is making a tidy little profit. After all, note that the prices spiked in 2008, and they may well have since come down - except in the American groceries stores they apparently haven’t.
So, anybody wants to join me in going into business of importing and distributing cheap rice in the West Coast? Just kidding, if you want to go into business with me I have much more interesting technology-related ideas