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Yields for Corn and Other Crops Show Steady Improvement

Blog Post | Crop Yields

Yields for Corn and Other Crops Show Steady Improvement

Agricultural technology is increasing crop yields and providing new potential ways to return land to nature.

In 1993, the average corn yield in the U.S. amounted to 100.7 bushels per acre. That number grew to 175 bushels per acre by 2020. The steady increase in corn yields began in the late 1930s, when yields averaged well below 30 bushels per acre, and accelerated in the 1950s. Since then, yields have been increasing by an average of almost 2 bushels per acre each year.

The National Corn Growers Association’s National Corn Yield Contest, held every December, measures corn yields from America’s most innovative farmers. The contest showcases the potential of cutting-edge farming techniques developed through extensive research and experimentation to improve food production.

The 2020 winner, Don Stall from Michigan, produced a yield of 476.9 bushels per acre. That was over two and a half times the national average—an especially impressive achievement given suboptimal weather conditions, wildfires and the global pandemic that challenged U.S. farmers in 2020. The world record yield for a corn farmer is 619.2 bushels per acre, set just one year earlier by David Hula from Virginia. Hula has set the world record four times, consistently finding ways to raise his yields.

Corn is not the only crop showing significant and consistent improvements in yields. Global production of wheat, for example, hit a new record of 761.6 million tons (Mt) in 2019-20 and was projected to reach an even higher total of 764.9 Mt in the 2020-21 season.

Americans are not the only leaders in food productivity. A massive bumper harvest put Australia on pace for a 60 percent year-on-year increase in overall crop production in 2020, despite the wildfires and drought that plagued the nation for the first few months of last year.

While overall weather conditions do matter, innovation has undoubtedly been key to agricultural gains. David Hula, for example, has developed a detailed process for planting and harvesting crops, which uses variable-rate technology in conjunction with a strip-till system that helps him to use fertilizer precisely and efficiently. New technology also allows Hula to insulate and protect his crops to ensure consistent output.

More broadly, the agricultural world has seen a series of promising breakthroughs, including genome editing, autonomous farming robots, vertical farming and more. Most of these breakthroughs have the effect of making farming easier, more predictable, more efficient and less dependent on the whims of nature.

Agricultural advances fall well in line with Andrew McAfee’s description of dematerialization – a process of using fewer resources in order to produce more goods and services – which he outlined in his 2019 book More from Less. If the current trends continue, the potential for land-sparing is significant.

Increased efficiency could also stimulate further specialization, thus meeting global demand with fewer farmers and freeing up tens of millions of people worldwide to pursue other careers. Just as the Industrial Revolution largely removed the burden of agricultural labor from most Westerners, efficiency gains are likely to result in reduction of farm labor in the developing world.

Some worry that if corn yields continue to increase while the demand for corn and corn-derivative products, like ethanol, remains stagnant, eventually there will be a diminished incentive for corn farmers to continue innovating. That will most likely provide an impetus for corn farmers to come up with new corn product derivatives, apply innovative agricultural techniques to other crops, or simply leave the market.

As corn and other crops become easier and easier to produce, the agricultural labor market will likely experience structural changes, and those will be worth observing. More importantly, given the way that prospects for land-sparing are continuing to develop, we should remain conscious of the ways in which land is used as it continues to be returned to nature.

Blog Post | Rights & Freedoms

Markets and Dematerialization

We do more with less not because of government regulation or administrative direction, but because of capitalism and technology.

Summary: Dematerialization means using fewer resources to produce more output, and it is happening in many developed countries, including the United States. This article argues that dematerialization is driven by market capitalism and technological innovation, which create incentives and opportunities for efficiency gains and resource substitution.

Dematerialization may be the most important, yet unsung, example of environmental progress in the 21st century. It is commonplace to observe that the relentless drive to do more with less has led to more efficient resource use, so that a soda can today is made with a fraction of the metal required 50 years ago. But dematerialization is not merely a story about increased efficiency or per‐​capita reductions.

What is now being observed represents a fundamental decoupling of resource consumption from economic growth, such that as mature economies grow, they not only use fewer resources per unit of output, but they also consume fewer resources overall. In short, economic growth in the most developed nations increasingly coincides with a net reduction in resource consumption. The United States in particular is “post‐​peak in its exploitation of the earth,” according to Andrew McAfee in More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — and What Happens Next.

McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT, explains, “We’re now generally using less of most resources year after year, even as our economy and population grow.” The United States uses less gold, steel, aluminum, copper, stone, cement, and even paper than it did at the start of this century, despite the continued increase in gross domestic product. Annual consumption of all but six of the 72 resources tracked by the U.S. Geological Service are “post peak.” We also use less fertilizer and water while growing more crops. Plastic consumption is up, as is energy use, but these two appear to have been decoupled from population and economic growth as well.

How does this dematerialization occur? Some examples may be useful. The dematerialization of soda cans is relatively easy to grasp, particularly for those of us who can remember the heavier cans of the 20th century. Aluminum cans weighed 85 grams when introduced in the 1950s. By 2011, the average can was under 13 grams. Cans today are not only thinner and lighter, they are produced more efficiently, with fewer separate sheets of metal.

Substitution can be an even more powerful source of dematerialization. Consider telecommunications. A single fiber optic cable made from less than 150 pounds of silica can carry the same volume of information as multiple 1‑ton copper cables. And were that not enough, satellite and wireless technologies enable us to bypass the use of physical cables altogether. We can communicate more and yet use vastly less material to do so. This not only saves copper, but other resources too. Think of all the paper saved by e‑mail, e‑banking, and e‑readers.

Markets or Malthus?

It was not expected to work out this way. Throughout the modern era, doomsayers have predicted the imminent depletion of one resource or another. Human impact on the natural environment was to increase inexorably with the rise of wealth, technology, and population, inevitably colliding with the earth’s natural carrying capacity. It seemed “logical and inevitable” that “the planet’s finite stock of these resources would someday be exhausted.”

Yet, this is not what happened. Instead, “capitalism and tech progress are now allowing us to tread more lightly on the earth instead of stripping it bare.” The Malthusian “limits to growth” have not merely been delayed or forestalled; they have been transcended.

This was neither planned, nor anticipated, nor is it the product of the ecological agenda advanced by the modern environmental movement. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental advocates have called for constraints on consumption, limits on technology, and greater recycling. None of those impulses, in McAfee’s view, did much to encourage dematerialization. Indeed, he suggests, pushing for recycling may have cut the other way, insofar as recycling dulled the price signals that incentivized producers to do more with less. The environmental policies born of the 1970s may have “worked amazingly well” to reduce pollution and related environmental harms, but they played just a bit part in the story of dematerialization.

We do more with less not because of government regulation or administrative direction, but because of capitalism and technology. These are the dominant forces driving dematerialization in the most developed countries and they could unleash similar gains in the rest of the world. We “want more all the time, but not more resources,” McAfee notes. We want more of what resources can provide, and one way to get more is to do more with less. Market capitalism both facilitates and enhances the underlying incentives that drive efficiency gains and technological advance. This not only leads to dematerialization but also promotes “critical aspects of well‐​being,” including health and prosperity.

What’s left to be done

While celebrating dematerialization and dramatic improvements in many measures of human well‐​being, McAfee acknowledges there is more to be done. He devotes the latter part of the book to considering the challenges that remain. Dematerialization has occurred in the wealthiest nations, but it has yet to reach much of the world. Some types of pollution are declining, but others — including plastic waste and greenhouse gases — are not. He also worries about the potential effects of economic concentration and “disconnection among people and declines in social capital.” Not everything wrought by capitalism and technological advance has been positive, even if the net result is a good one.

McAfee is an optimist, but he sees serious storm clouds on the horizon. He is particularly concerned about the atmospheric increase in greenhouse gases and writes that reducing “the carbon intensity of our economic activities” is “the most important task for responsive governments.”

He is right to be concerned about climate change, but his discussion of the policy options is somewhat thin and disconnected from the central thrust of his book. Market‐​driven capitalism and accompanying technological advances drove dematerialization and could drive decarbonization as well, particularly if carbon emissions are priced. The proper suite of policies could facilitate a decarbonization in energy to rival the dematerialization we observed in telecommunications. Yet, the nature of any government interventions matters. Ill‐​conceived policies could blunt the market incentives that drive more efficient resource use.

McAfee gives such questions relatively little attention, however. He also is too quick to credit regulatory interventions for prior environmental gains, such as the reductions in air and water pollution over the past half‐​century. Those trends often began before the regulatory measures he celebrates, and some regulatory measures may well have caused more harm than good.

McAfee did not set out to write a wonky treatise on environmental policy, and More from Less is not one. The book tells the story of capitalism’s triumph over material scarcity with clarity and insight. He ably explains how modern society has achieved material ecological sustainability, and market capitalism was the cause. At a time when capitalism is viewed with suspicion, More from Less rises to its defense. Global challenges remain, but More from Less suggests solving such challenges will require more capitalism, not less.

This was originally published by the Cato Institute.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Economic Growth Is More Important than You Think

Growth is a saving grace for the world's poorest people, and also has a major impact on the daily lives of Americans and the rest of the developed world.

This article first appeared in CapX. To read the original, click here.

What is economic growth, and why should it matter to ordinary people? Those questions are hard to answer in a hysterical world where once-dry academic matters are now politicized without fail. Recently, commentators from all sides have taken to dismissing growth as a golden idol of narrow-minded capitalists. Likewise, many people see the pursuit of growth as an alternative, not a complement, to the pursuit of social needs like public health and sustainability.

These narratives are understandable, considering the misinformed and tone-deaf ways in which many public figures have attempted to advocate the importance of growth and economic activity, particularly during the current pandemic. But the narratives themselves could not be more misleading. Economic growth affects the lives of ordinary people in many crucial ways, not just in the West, but importantly in countless developing nations too. In fact, growth is generally the greatest source of improvement in global living standards.

If we visualize the economy as a pie, then growth can be visualized as the pie getting bigger. Most economists measure growth using a metric called Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which defines the pie’s “ingredients” as consumption, investment, government spending and net exports. In developing countries, growth is largely driven by investment, while wealthier countries tend to rely on innovation to continue growing.

These working definitions, while highly simplified, are better than nothing. They are important because they can make it easier to understand how GDP correlates with countless key metrics of living standards.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Real Average GDP per Capita grew by 42% between 1990 and 2018. That growth corresponded to major decreases in extreme povertyinfant mortality and undernourishment.

Growth also increases access to resources that make people safer and healthier. A 2019 paper shows that, while disaster-related fatality rates fell for all global income groups between 1980 and 2016, developing countries in the early stages of growth experienced the greatest improvements. That is because those countries made the greatest relative advances in infrastructure and safety measures—advances facilitated by growth.

Growth is a saving grace for the world’s poorest people, but it also has a major impact on the daily lives of Americans and the rest of the developed world, and that impact is especially important in the age of coronavirus. For example, continuous growth has led to lifesaving breakthroughs in medical technology and research, which has allowed humanity to fight COVID-19 more quickly and effectively than we ever could have in the past. Vaccines for certain ailments took decades to develop as late as the mid-20th century, but it is quite possible that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be widely available just one year after the virus’s initial outbreak.

To many supposedly environmentally conscious critics, it seems intuitive that growth is not sustainable. However, sustainability-based criticisms of growth tend to ignore the reality that growth leads to green innovations that help the planet. Labor-augmenting technologies allow us to produce more while conserving resources and protecting the environment. Moreover, wealthier countries are better equipped to develop and adopt green technologies.

MIT scientist Andrew McAfee has documented many of the concrete environmental benefits of growth in his recent book, More From Less. McAfee notes that increases in America’s population and productive activity in recent decades have coincided with significant decreases in air and water pollution, along with gross reductions in the uses of water, fertilizer, minerals and other resources—all because economic growth and market coordination led to improvements in manufacturing and technology. For facilitating this process, which McAfee calls “dematerialization,” growth should be seen as a key to sustainability, not a barrier.

In a broader sense, growth has made our lives more convenient, dynamic and entertaining via developments in consumer technologies and other innovations. Imagine quarantining for five months (and counting) without the internet, PCs or smartphones. Many people would have no way of doing their jobs. Even for those that could, life would be much more difficult, not to mention dull.

Indeed, if one thing could be said to summarize the impact of growth around the world, it would be that growth makes everyone’s life easier. For instance, the amount of labor needed for average workers to purchase countless basic goods and services is at an all-time low and decreasing, largely because supply chains have grown and become more efficient. The result is that ordinary people, especially those in lower income groups with relatively greater reliance on basic goods, are better off.

The story of economic growth is in many ways the story of how cooperation and exchange can defeat poverty and scarcity. The better we understand that, the more likely we will be to support policies which allow resources to flow into areas that need them the most. Broadly speaking, no political idea has been more effective in this regard than free trade.

Knowing the importance of innovation to human well-being should also encourage us to embrace new technology instead of fearing it. We must therefore be wary of overbearing regulations and fiscal policies that prevent ideas from flourishing.

Most importantly, we should not listen to those who claim that economic growth is a pointless, abstract goal that only benefits the rich and leaves ordinary people behind. Growth is a vital driver of progress in modern society and should be taken seriously for the sake of humanity and the planet.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Computers Allow Us to Accomplish More with Less

Researchers have just developed a way to fit yet more transistors into less space, creating an even more efficient computer chip.

Researchers have just developed a way to fit yet more transistors into less space, creating an even more efficient computer chip. The breakthrough is good news for “Moore’s Law,” or the idea that the number of transistors per square inch of an integrated circuit board will double every two years.

Computers have come a long way since the days of ENIAC. The first computer was a $6-million-dollar giant that stretched eight feet tall and 80 feet long, weighed 30 tons, and needed frequent downtime to replace failing vacuum tubes. A modern smartphone, in contrast, possesses about 13 hundred times the power of ENIAC and can fit in your pocket. It also costs about 17 thousand times less. (With a deal like that, no wonder that there are now more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people on the planet).

The drop-off in the price of computing power is so steep that it’s difficult to comprehend. A megabyte of computer memory cost 400 million dollars in 1957. That’s a hefty price tag, even before taking inflation into account. In 2013 dollars, that would be 2.6 billion. In 2015, a megabyte of memory cost about one cent.

The cost of both RAM (roughly analogous to short-term memory) and hard drive storage (long-term memory) has plummeted. Consider the progress just since 1980. In that time, the cost of a gigabyte of RAM fell from over 6 million dollars to less than five dollars; a gigabyte of hard drive storage fell from over 400 thousand dollars to three cents.

Whether you’re reading this article on a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer, please take a moment to appreciate how incredible that device truly is. Ever more powerful, compact and affordable computers make our lives more convenient and connected than our ancestors could have ever imagined.

They also enable a process called dematerialization—they allow us to produce and accomplish more with less. The benefits to the economy, the environment, and human wellbeing are incalculable. If Moore’s Law holds true, regulators stay out of the way, and outdated privacy laws catch up to the current technological realities, then things are only going to get better.

This article first appeared in Reason.