My last article covered the phenomenal story of corn and how it has revolutionized agriculture. As I pointed out last time, corn is not the dominant crop in Canada, especially here in the West, as it is in the US but there are many similarities in the history of agriculture in Canada. Also as a large proportion of our food comes from the US, what happens there affects us also.
In the early 19th century one out of every four people lived on a farm and the typical farm was self sufficient producing various types of livestock, grains, vegetables and fruits. These farms had a varied landscape consisting of a mix of forest, brush, grasslands and farmed fields with rotating crops. This landscape mix meant the land not only supported the farm family with its domestic livestock; it also supported a wide range of wild birds, animals and plants and all lived in harmony with one another. Natural nutritional replenishing of the soil took place during the rotation of the crops by utilizing manure from the animals and growing a rotating variety of crops which would put nutrients back into the soil another plant would use. This harmonious cycle took care of the needs of the animals wild and tame, the plants wild and tame and the family who lived on the land, plus at that time approximately 12 other people.
Compare the above with agriculture today, using Ontario as an example and I think the same would hold true for North America as a whole, yield has increased approximately 3 times from 1910 to today. This is comparing 100 acres of corn, wheat or soybeans in 1910 to the same 100 acres today. But in 1910 the 100 acres the farmer owned would likely have had a portion of it that was in forest or brush and not actually in crop production. So based on that it is logical to assume production today is probably 4-5 times what it was 100 years ago and consequently the 12 people it fed in the past probably feeds closer to 50 people.
Coincidently world population has also increased about five times. Sounds like a success story doesn’t it? But there is a trade off.
The arrival of synthetic fertilizers in the 1950s revolutionized agriculture because the commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans etc. no longer needed to be rotated with other crops to nutritionally replenish the soil, instead they could be fertilized using synthetic fertilizers and planted every year on the same piece of land.
This began the process of the suitable flat good soil land being cleared, drained and tilled into mega fields and planted to commodity crops. The ability of this land to produce food has been maximized and even today yields continue to increase with new varieties and new farming techniques. Not only has the landscape in these areas changed dramatically with forests and scrub land gone, the grass lands gone, wet areas drained and consequently the livestock and the wild birds and animals no longer there; this change has meant an enormous dependency on fossil fuels.
When you add up all the fossil fuels it requires to make the fertilizer, the pesticides, drive the tractors and harvest, dry and transport the commodity crop it now takes around 50 gallons of oil per acre to grow corn to the factory stage. Or put another way it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.
This does not take into account the processing of the crop to make it into an edible source. Prior to synthetic fertilizers more than two calories of food energy was produced for every calorie of energy invested. Feeding the world has not come without a high price to the landscape.