Innovation Down on the Farm

Reading the recent NPR article “Innovation Seen As Key To Curbing Climate Change”, I was intrigued by Dan Sarewitz’s analogy to agricultural innovation.

One example is how America transformed agriculture over the past century. The United States government created a highly successful, century-long effort to make food more abundant and affordable.

“And it didn’t do so by setting any particular target or timetable. It did so by investing in research and development — and very importantly, in institutions,” Sarewitz says.

I’m just finishing up Paul Conkin’s book “A Revolution Down on the Farm”, which tells the story of agriculture through this century. It cites the following statistics for reduction in human labor (hours) required to produce various crops amounts:

Human labor efficiency for livestock improved even faster, with the human effort for 1000 pounds of broilers (chicken) dropping from 85 hours in 1929 to less than 1 in 1990.

So at an abstract level, all of these improved for long periods at a rate comparable or better than the rate of improvement required to drop our CO2 levels by 80% by 2050.

A few observations:

  • Reading Conkin’s book, the obvious things that fueled this innovation were R&D (primarily government funded until recently), sharing of best practices (erosion control, crop rotation, etc), mechanization (tractors, balers, combines, etc) and chemicals (mainly fertilizers and herbicides).
  • The less-than-obvious things were financial incentives to allow farmers to make the large capital investments required in equipment as well as the annual expenses of seed, fertilizer, etc. These came in many forms over the decades, including price controls, loans, emergency loans, etc. It would seem there is a corollary here to our decarbonization efforts.
  • Facing the desire to transform our energy system during difficult financial times, it is worth noting that the above results were achieved in a 90-year period that included 2 world wars, the Great Depression, and federal administrations with a wide range of philosophies and effectiveness.
  • I think there’s an interesting analogy here to the opportunity we face with energy efficiency. Agricultural improvements through crop rotation just plain “made sense” and were explicitly targeted by government-backed R&D and education programs.
  • Even though there were countless efforts to bail out failing farms, many went under. In addition, the generational turnover in families allowed farms to effectively “change strategy” regularly. Again, I think there’s some parallels to be drawn to our willingness or unwillingness to have change in the landscape of companies who manage the bulk of our energy supply today.
  • I would argue that in some ways the agricultural innovation challenge was harder than what we face with greening our energy supply. The physical limits of land and human labor feel quite constraining when compared to the exponential rates of improvement in semiconductor technology and vast reservoirs of natural power we have (solar, wind, etc).

While we obviously need to be careful in carrying these analogies too far, its interesting to look at a historical example of nationwide innovation and how we were able to achieve it.