Understanding Global Agriculture in 15 Minutes

By Tom Schenk, Director of Business Development

Over the past ten years, scores of articles have been written about the merits of investing in farmland as well as the challenges of producing enough food to feed a population that is growing at the rate of about 80 million per year at the same time arable farmland is diminishing.  To put that in perspective, that is like producing the population of Germany – annually!  Worldmapper.org has done an excellent job of producing world maps that show the relative size of each country in relation to various data sets they are analyzing.  The following five maps will be helpful in illustrating the challenges of feeding the world.

Before we begin, here’s the color-coded world map to use as a point of reference:


Now, here’s how the world should look if a country’s land mass was proportional to its population:


Now that we have a sense of how populations are distributed, let’s consider food.  The most basic measure of food is to considerer cereal grains because they are a major food staple and feed livestock and poultry.  Here’s what the world would look like if each nation’s boundaries were proportional to the cereal grain they produced:


Nevertheless, the above map doesn’t give us an idea if the cereal grains they produce are adequate enough to feed their populations.  So let’s look at net cereal grain imports:


So then, which countries are exporting all the grain these countries are importing?


Africa, the Middle East, SE Asia and China cannot feed themselves. Depending on which side of the fence you are on, it is now becoming easier to see the challenge – or the opportunity – for US agriculture. To understand the limiting factors in keeping the world fed, there’s no better place to begin than the soils.  Since about 6000 BC when tribes began to congregate along the Nile, man has been able to transition from being a hunter/gatherer to creating stationary communities that could produce more food than they needed and thus was the beginning of trade.  And it was also often one of the core causes of war throughout the history of civilization.

Not all soils are created equal, and good soils are certainly not always found where they are most needed.


The two best soils are Mollisols and Alfisols followed by Ultisols and Oxisols.  These last two soil types, even with considerable additional inputs of fertilizers and lime however, still cannot match the productivity of the first two soil types.

Examine where these four soil types are distributed around the globe.  You will see that these soil types are generally distributed along temperate growing zones and moderate elevations and rainfall. It is also interesting to note that most of the major world powers throughout history are located within these zones, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What these maps show is that the US has the single largest contiguous mass of the best soils in the world.  Though it accounts for only 6.7% of the world land mass, it contains 21% of the worlds Mollisols and 10% of the Alfisols.  The icing on the cake is that within these productive soil areas is a network of navigable waterways and ocean ports.

The Ukraine has great soils, but poor transportation infrastructure.  Canada has good soils, but also a shorter growing season and long transportation distances.  Brazil is blessed with an abundance of productive soils, but a coastal mountain range creates logistical nightmares of transporting grain from the interior via bumper-to-bumper trucks that clog the roads at harvest time.  They have no rivers near any productive agricultural land on which they can barge the grain or railroads they can ship it on.  You see, for every quarter percent of slope on a mountain grade, the weight a locomotive can pull is reduced by 50%!  Several miles of grain laden Brazilian trucks could easily fit on a single Mississippi River barge.  It is one thing to have transportation capabilities but another to have efficient (read cheap) transportation capabilities.

Two challenges worth mentioning in the US are water and farmers.  Almost every significant aquifer in the US is being depleted.  Advances in ag technology and irrigation efficiencies need to be more rapidly utilized. The proliferation of irrigation wells from Florida to Washington State has exceeded the recharge capacity of the aquifers. In the first 5 months in 2015, 1800 California wells have gone dry in the midst of a relentless drought.

Considering all the challenges of feeding the people on this earth, it is difficult to imagine a more noble profession.  However, there is an alarming shortage of young people going into farming.  The average age of an American farmer is 57 years old.  The Young Farmers Success Act bill was recently introduced to the US House of Representatives.  This bill would recognize farmers, ranchers, and farm employees to be eligible for Federal Service Loan Forgiveness program that is currently available to doctors, nurses, teachers, and government employees.  This program forgives loan balances after 10 years (120 payments).

On this last point, there is an important intangible many people in agriculture have pointed out to me.  In contrast to, say, Latin America where modern production farming is a phenomenon of the last 30 years, most multi-generation family farms in the US  have a legacy of understanding, conservation, and environmental care for the land that produces long-term efficiencies that few others in the world can match.

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