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Farming the Sahara and the End of Malthusianism

This past June, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization warned us that “Land and water resources are now much more stressed than in the past and are becoming scarcer.” A new report suggests that is incorrect.

While the world has indeed hit “Peak Farmland”, says the report, the reason for the coming reduction in land devoted to agriculture isn’t due to exhaustion but to declining population pressures. By 2060, the report predicts, 10 percent of the earth’s arable farmland in use today will be restored to its natural state. That’s land 2.5 times the size of France, or ten Iowas:

“We believe that humanity has reached Peak Farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to nature is ready to begin,” said Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York.

“Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers,” he wrote in a speech about the study he led in the journal Population and Development Review.

The report, to be sure, assumes rising crop yields and a slowing of population growth—trends that aren’t guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Nor does the report’s assessment factor in possibilities like rising levels of floods, droughts, and heat waves. But it still represents yet another blow to dire predictions of Malthusian doom.

Another study strikes its own blow, too: Deep beneath Africa, under some of the hottest and driest places on earth, lie vast reservoirs of fresh water. According to geologists, these “aquifers are some 410,000 cubic miles thick and contain 100 times the freshwater that exists on the continent’s surface.” Tapping that water could transform dry and barren land in places like the Sahel into wet and fertile oases.

Slowing population growth. The restoration of massive swaths of farmland to nature. Increasing world food supplies. Lower food prices for billions of people. Massive water supplies beneath the driest deserts. Abundant oil and gas. The 21st century is looking like it will be a very different kind of place than the greens and Malthusians have warned us about.

Malthusianism is a psychological disposition more than an intellectual conclusion, and we have no doubt that the alarmists among us will find new looming catastrophic shortages to warn us about. But it’s striking nevertheless that centuries of failed predictions haven’t dented the confidence so many people have in what is so clearly a wrong-headed approach to world affairs.

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