EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Eroding Soils and Shrinking Cropland: Spreading Land Hunger

Nowhere is the ubiquitous effect of population growth so visible as in its effect on the size of farms. With the world's grainland area changing relatively little over the last half-century and with population more than doubling, grainland per person shrank by more than half from 1950 to 2000. By 2050, it is projected to shrink further—to less than in India today. And because the nearly 3 billion people to be added by then will be born in developing countries, they will experience a disproportionate shrinkage in grainland.48

The shrinkage in India, which is projected to add nearly 500 million people by mid-century, is of particular concern. In 1960 India had 48 million farms, but as land was transferred from one generation to the next and then to the next, and divided each time among the heirs, the number of farms multiplied to 105 million by 1990. Farms that averaged 2.7 hectares in 1960 are less than half that size today. Millions of inherited plots are so small that their owners are effectively landless.49

The projected shrinkage in Nigeria, Africa's largest country, is even greater, since its population is expected to increase from 121 million today to 258 million in 2050. With a population in 2050 approaching that in the United States today, squeezed into a country only slightly larger than Texas, the handwriting on the wall is clear.50

In the western hemisphere, Mexico's grainland area per person has shrunk by half over the last 50 years. With its small plots being divided and then divided again as each successive generation inherits the family farm, land hunger plagues rural areas. The population is projected to grow from 102 million to 140 million by 2050. Some 400 to 600 people per day are fleeing rural areas, making Mexico City one of the world's largest cities and the United States the principal destination of migrants.51

Looking ahead, we are encouraged by the slowing of world population growth over the last two decades. But even so, some countries, including Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, are projected to add more people during the next 50 years than they did during the last 50.52

In some countries, the land that a family of five has to produce their wheat, rice, or corn in 2050 will be less than 1 acre—less than the living space of an affluent American family with a house in the suburbs. Among the countries in this situation are Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Even worse, in Egypt, Malaysia, and Rwanda, the grainland per person in 2050 will be scarcely half the size of a tennis court.53

Except for those in sub-Saharan Africa, virtually all developing countries have benefited from the enormous gains in land productivity over the last half-century. Unfortunately, for many countries where land productivity has already doubled or tripled, such as Mexico, Egypt, India, and Pakistan, future gains to offset the shrinkage in grainland per person will be difficult to come by.54

Eradicating hunger in a world of eroding soils and shrinking cropland per person will not be easy, but it can be done, as described in Plan B, Part II of this book. We know how to conserve soil and raise the land's fertility. We also know how to plan families and stabilize population.

Although the scale of these issues is new, the issues themselves are not. In his classic USDA report, which is still in print, Walter Lowdermilk proposed an eleventh commandment: "Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth." Lowdermilk was describing in biblical language the basic principles of what today we call sustainable development.55

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48. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16; grain area harvested from USDA, op. cit. note 29.

49. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 16; R. K. Pachauri and P. V. Sridharan, eds., Looking Back to Think Ahead, GREEN India 2047 Project (New Delhi: Tata Energy Research Institute, 1998), p. 89.

50. United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

51. Grainland per person from USDA, op. cit. note 29; population projection from United Nations, op. cit. note 16; rural exodus from Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, "Trade Brings Riches, But Not to Mexico's Poor," Washington Post, 22 March 2003.

52. United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

53. USDA, op. cit. note 29; United Nations, op. cit. note 16.

54. USDA, op. cit. note 29.

55. Lowdermilk, op. cit. note 1, p. 24.


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