There is a wide spectrum of views on possible futures for world agriculture, with a clear division between neoclassical and ecological economics approaches to the issue. An incremental approach, characteristic of neoclassical economics, focuses on steady yield increases as a result of technological progress and increased input use. In this view, there are no inherent limits to growth and therefore an optimistic view tends to be taken of future production potential. By contrast, an analysis based on the concept of carrying capacity emphasizes environmental limits to system growth. This paper reviews estimates of carrying capacity as well as trends in land use, yields, and environmental impacts of agriculture. Demand projections are made for the year 2025 based on population momentum and a slow rate of increase in per-capita consumption. The global system is seen to be approaching carrying capacity limits over the next 30 years, with more severe stresses at a regional level, and widening food deficits in developing nations. Strong yield growth in China, South Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe will be necessary to avert global shortfalls, but resource and environmental factors pose serious constraints in all these areas. The pressure to increase yields is therefore in conflict with the requirements of long-term sustainability. This indicates the need for regional models of sustainable agro-ecosystems which balance yield requirements with ecological constraints. In addition, demand-side issues of population policy, efficiency in consumption, and distributional equity become increasingly important in a world of constrained agricultural growth.
Ecological Economics – Elsevier
Published: May 1, 1996
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