EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 4. Raising the Earth’s Productivity: Introduction

During the last half of the twentieth century the world’s farmers more than doubled the productivity of their land, raising grain yield per hectare from 1.1 tons in 1950 to 2.7 tons in 2000. Never before had there been an advance remotely approaching this one. And there may not be another. 1

The unprecedented gains in land productivity were the result of the systematic application of science to agriculture. The early gains were based primarily on research by governments in Japan, the United States, and Europe. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) orchestrated the national effort while Agricultural Experiment Stations located at land-grant universities in each state focused on the specific research needs of local farmers. Then as agriculture advanced, agribusiness firms producing seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment invested heavily in the development of technologies that would help expand food production. Today the lion’s share of agricultural research is funded by corporations. 2

The strategy of systematically applying science to agriculture while simultaneously providing economic incentives to farmers to expand output was phenomenally successful. Between 1950 and 1976, the annual world grain harvest doubled, going from 630 million to 1,340 million tons. In a single generation, the world’s farmers expanded grain production by as much as they had during the preceding 11,000 years since agriculture began. 3


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1. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 August 2004; Worldwatch Institute, Signposts 2002, CD-Rom (Washington, DC: 2002).

2. Japan, Europe, and U.S. agricultural funding and biotechnology from Margriet F. Caswell et al., Agricultural Biotechnology: An Economic Perspective (Washington, DC: USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS), 1998), pp. 15–21; Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, “10.203 Payments to Agricultural Experiment Stations Under the Hatch Act,” online assistance programs database, at; Aileen Adams et al., An Assessment of the U.S. Food and Agricultural Research System (Washington, DC: U.S. Food and Agricultural Research Advisory Panel, 1981), pp. 171–76.

3. USDA, op. cit. note 1.


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