Skip to content

It’s time to stop wasting land and resources in the name of environmentalism.

More than three decades ago, the British economist E. F. Schumacher stated the essence of environmental protection in three words: “Small is beautiful.” As Schumacher argued in a famous book by that title, man-made disturbances of the natural world—farms, for example, and power plants—should have the smallest possible footprints.

But how can that ideal be realized in a world that must produce more and more food and energy for its growing population? The answer, in just one word this time, is density. Over the course of the last century, human beings have found ways to concentrate crops and energy production within smaller and smaller areas, conserving land while meeting the ever-growing global demand for calories and watts. This approach runs counter to the beliefs of many environmental activists and politicians, whose “organic” and “renewable” policies, as nature-friendly as they sound, squander land. The real organizing principle for a green future is density, which not only provides the goods that we need to survive and prosper but also achieves the land-preservation goals of genuine environmentalists.

Food cultivation is an excellent example of the virtues of density. During the second half of the twentieth century, hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers, along with better methods of planting and harvesting, produced stunning increases in agricultural productivity. Between 1968 and 2005, global production of all cereal crops doubled, even though the amount of cultivated acreage remained about the same. Indur Goklany, a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of the Interior, estimates that if agriculture had remained at its early-sixties level of productivity, feeding the world’s population in 1998 would have required nearly 8 billion acres of farmland, instead of the 3.7 billion acres that were actually under cultivation. Where in the world—literally—would we have found an extra 4.3 billion acres of land, an area just slightly smaller than South America?

There is an important exception to the historical trend of ever-denser agriculture, however: the production of organic food, which doesn’t use many fertilizers and pesticides. Various recent studies have found that land devoted to organic farming produces 50 percent less wheat, 55 percent less asparagus and lettuce, and 23 percent less corn than conventionally farmed land of the same acreage does.

A large-scale transition to organic production therefore makes little sense. In a 2011 essay in Slate, James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University and a fearless debunker of the hype over organic food, pointed out that the global population was likely to increase by some 2.3 billion people over the next four decades. So many people, combined with an emerging middle class in developing countries like China and India, would require the world’s farmers to grow “at least 70 percent more food than we now produce.” The latest figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which showed that the world had little unused arable land, led to an obvious conclusion, McWilliams wrote: “Skyrocketing demand for food will have to be met by increasing production on pre-existing acreage. . . . Ninety percent of the additional calories required by midcentury will have to come through higher yields per acre.” That is, agriculture must become even denser, producing still more food from the available land. Organic farming would do the reverse.

Inefficient organic production would also undoubtedly increase the cost of food. That’s a particular concern at a time when global food prices are near record highs: last February, the FAO reported that its Food Price Index, a basket of commodities that tracks changes in global food costs, hit its highest level since the organization began documenting prices in 1990. Though food prices have fallen somewhat since then, the Food Price Index throughout 2011 was roughly 60 percent higher than it was back in 2007. Adopting low-density agricultural techniques could also increase deforestation, as farmers desperately seek more farmland—a result that should disturb true environmentalists.

Yet we are continually bombarded with arguments for organic agriculture. In 2010, Maria Rodale—the chairman and CEO of the Rodale Institute, a pro-organic organization—wrote an essay arguing that organic farming was “the most effective way to feed the world and mitigate global warming.” Organic-friendly grocers, like Whole Foods Market, have seen huge increases in their market share, and industry groups like the Organic Trade Association point out that global sales of organic food and beverages more than doubled, to some $51 billion, between 2003 and 2008.

A related crusade against density is the push for biofuels, which are supposed to help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions but will divert huge blocks of arable land away from food production and into the manufacture of tiny amounts of motor fuel. The leading biofuel at the moment is corn ethanol, whose “power density”—the amount of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area of land—is abysmally low. Some energy analysts put it as low as 0.05 watts per square meter of farmland. By comparison, a relatively small natural-gas well that produces just 60,000 cubic feet of gas per day has a power density of 28 watts per square meter; the power density of nuclear plants is even higher.

The power density of ethanol is so low that in 2011, to produce a quantity of motor fuel whose energy equivalent was just 0.6 percent of global oil consumption, the American corn-ethanol sector had to convert a mind-boggling 4.9 billion bushels of grain into ethanol. That’s more corn than the combined outputs of the European Union, Mexico, Argentina, and India. It represents 40 percent of all the corn grown in the United States—about 15 percent of global corn production and 5 percent of all the grain grown in the world. The EU, too, is pushing to produce motor fuel from farmland.

These efforts have, unsurprisingly, driven global food prices upward. In a June 2011 article in Scientific American, Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School at Prince- ton University, observed that “since 2004 biofuels from crops have almost doubled the rate of growth in global demand for grain and sugar and pushed up the yearly growth in demand for vegetable oil by around 40 percent.” We need to consider the moral impact of our actions, Searchinger continued: “Our primary obligation is to feed the hungry. Biofuels are undermining our ability to do so.” Yet each year, Congress lavishes some $7 billion worth of subsidies on the ethanol industry, and in his January 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama declared that “we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels.”

Full essay