The Economist recently decided to praise the high-output intensive agriculture of Brazil, claiming that it offers a sustainable model for global agriculture in the decades ahead:
So if you were asked to describe the sort of food producer that will matter most in the next 40 years, you would probably say something like this: one that has boosted output a lot and looks capable of continuing to do so; one with land and water in reserve; one able to sustain a large cattle herd (it does not necessarily have to be efficient, but capable of improvement); one that is productive without massive state subsidies; and maybe one with lots of savannah, since the biggest single agricultural failure in the world during past decades has been tropical Africa, and anything that might help Africans grow more food would be especially valuable. In other words, you would describe Brazil.
The briefing also derides “inefficient hobby farms” as a purported alternative to Brazil’s “productive giant operations.”
While there are definitely economies of scale in agriculture, this analysis leaves out the crucial issue of fossil fuels. Within the next few decades, it must be hoped that humanity begins a serious process of moving beyond fossil fuels, in order to reduce the harmfulness of climate change. Even if we are not so enlightened, it is possible that peak oil will massive increase prices and reduce supply.
When planning out how the world will feed itself during the decades ahead, a key consideration must be how we will do so without the cheap liquid fuels that power our industrialized global food system.