It’s easy to forget today that agriculture is the foundation of civilization. It’s the process that ended our ceaseless following of food and allowed us to settle into cities. What followed, over the past several millennia is the world we inhabit today. In short, farming and ranching are the essential drivers of the manufacturing- or service-based economy we all enjoy.
In the United States, where about 1 in 50 people grow the crops and livestock that end up on our dinner plates, it’s easy to overlook the importance of agriculture. Through our industriousness and separation of labor, we’ve made it easy for generations of citizens to imagine food only comes from the grocery store or the double-doors to a restaurant kitchen.
All of that’s true, but it’s also slightly misleading. Fewer than 2 percent of the US population is directly involved in growing the raw inputs—food, fuel, fiber—our nation consumes. But the crops and livestock they produce go on to support the jobs of nearly 1 in 3 Americans, illustrating just how long the road is from farm to fork.
It’s worth reading the full report at www.feedingtheeconomy.com, but here are the highlights: 43,464,211 jobs, $2.3 Trillion (capitalized for effect) in wages, $182.9 billion in exports and $7.4 trillion in total output.
While those numbers are impressive, they’re not exactly representative. After all, we’re talking about the wealthiest country in the world some 12,000 years after humans first began bending the will of nature to their own ends by domesticating plants and animals.
But it wasn’t until within the last century that we as species went from accidental agriculturalists to the purposeful planners we are today. Norman Borlaug proved it was possible to dramatically increase crop yields by switching from low-yield crops to high-yield varieties, which had a two-fold effect on the world’s economy.
First, increasing the productivity of land meant farmers had more money to invest in labor-saving machinery further boosting their efficiency. Second, while machines did indeed replace many farm workers, the displaced workers were able to find higher-paying manufacturing or service jobs in towns or cities.
In a University of Chicago paper, authors Gollin, Hansen and Wingender, speculate that without this transformation, the gross domestic product in the developing world would be half its current level. Or, more realistically, if these advances had simply been delayed by a decade, the world would have missed out on about $83 Trillion (again, capitalized for effect) in benefits from the increased nutrition unleashed by Boulaug and his disciples.
To shed even more light on this miraculous achievement that has enriched the lives of everyone today is that agriculture is no longer an extractive industry. Even after the discovery and widespread use of high-yield crops and synthetic fertilizer, agriculture still needed more land to grow the food necessary to nourish a growing population.
As the folks at ourworldindata.org put it, humans cleared one-third of the world’s forests and nearly two-thirds of the grasslands since the end of the last ice age all to sustain our species through agriculture since the only way to expand production was through cultivating wildlands.
With the tools provided by modern science and industry, however, that’s no longer the case. In fact, the world has passed “peak agricultural land,” a recent article declared. What that means is farmers and ranchers are producing more food than ever while at the same time reducing the number of acres devoted to that task.
In essence, it’s not just everyday people like you and me who are more divorced from how our food is raised. Earth itself is becoming increasingly separated from production agriculture because the riches of production agriculture are being realized in both dollars and the land left unspoiled.