Monday, October 1, 2012

Agricultural Area in Developed Countries

The above shows the fraction of land area devoted to agriculture for a selection of developed countries according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.  The data run 1961-2009 (all available data).  The country sample is hand-picked - most of the current European crisis countries plus some of the more important economies in the OECD.

I assume the sharp drop in Ireland in 1990 is some change in the definitions in the statistics rather than a massive step-function in the country's agriculture.  Also, in the 2000s Greek values started fluctuating wildly and I have removed the values that don't seem plausibly related to the prior trend.

My overall impressions are as follows:
  • Land devoted to agriculture tends to decline over time in developed countries.
  • This trend doesn't seem to be very sensitive to agricultural prices - for example the huge run-up in commodity prices in the 1970s didn't result in an increase in agricultural land usage, and the similar run-up in recent years hasn't either.
  • There's also no sign of a response to macroeconomic events - Sweden and Japan had financial crises in the early 1990s, and Spain and Greece have been in very severe crisis in recent years.  So far, these events have left little discernible trace in the data.
  • The 2002-2007 four percent increase in farm count in the US is associated with a small decline in the total area in agriculture, so presumably it must represent a splitting of existing farms, rather than colonization of unused land.


HalFiore said...

No, they're not making any more of it.

Stuart, I've been following your comments about the 4% rise in farms, and revisited the discussion from a couple of years back with Sharon Astyk and have been giving it a little thought. I certainly don't think there's enough there to undermine the basic thrust of your original argument. The number of farms has a lot to do with how farms are defined. I probably by now should have gotten around to having my little 5-acre patch cut out from the larger farm here, but it hasn't been worth the bother. That is the sort of thing that would have "created" another farm (and farmer.)

At our Farmers Market, the overwhelming majority of the farmers are older than me (I'm 59.) One, an older black woman, has been farming in the hills with her husband for many years, but most of the growers here are retirees, hobby farming for a little second income on 2-5 acre parcels that they have been living on for just a few years. I have no idea how many of these rural properties were classified as farms before, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't all of them.

Like many trends, I think the aging of the baby boom has more to do with it than anything else.

Luke The Debtor said...

I'd like to see a more expanded graph to include population density and land available for agriculture. Just to give an example, the bottom two countries - Japan and Sweden - represent the most densely populated and the highest latitude countries in the list.

In Japan's case, there is higher competition for residential and commercial use of land, and in Sweden's case because of the high latitude the growing season may be much shorter than all other countries due to the amount of available direct sunlight (especially in the Arctic Circle).

Anonymous said...


Thankfully, there is more to land than just agriculture, residential or commercial use. Japan has the highest % of forested land of any country in the OECD. For details, refer to Collapse by Jarod Diamond.