Imagine being chained to a treadmill on which you are expected to walk non-stop for the rest of your life.

Among many people, the mere mention of such a thing would conjure up images of Medieval torture.

Yet, in farming terms, there is nothing medieval about it. For more than a century, modern farming in the United States and the rest of the West has been locked into a treadmill — a technological treadmill.

Even so, a team of Alabama Cooperative Extension System economists maintain this is not such a bad thing. While it may seem merciless and unforgiving to some, including many farmers, it is the basis for the modern farming system that has supplied hundreds of millions of consumers across the planet with a food supply that is as diverse as it is affordable.

One of the earliest inklings of this techno-treadmill occurred as South American supplies of guano began running out. Throughout much of the 19th century, guano had served as one of the principal forms of fertilizer for European agriculture.

Matt Ridley explores this all-but-forgotten chapter in agricultural history in The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

In 1898, as fertilizer supplies grew desperately thin, British chemist William Crookes warned that the only way to avoid mass starvation was to develop some way to extract nitrogen from the air.

As Ridley observes, that is what happened roughly 15 years after Crookes’s warning. Inventors Fritz Haber and Carl Bosh developed a way to make large quantities of inorganic nitrogen fertilizer from steam, methane and air.

Other innovations followed: For example, using tractors in place of animals to pull machinery freed up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human food needs, land that had previously been tied up to feed farm animals.

 

Prevailing characteristic

This has been a prevailing characteristic in modern agriculture ever since. Broadly speaking, technological advances have consistently enabled agricultural output not only to keep pace with population growth but to outstrip it.

“In the most basic terms, technology is about enabling a single person to take care of more,” says Alabama Extension economist Max Runge.

In the United States, the direct result of these technological advances is a farming system in which less than 2 percent of the population feeds the rest of the U.S. population as well as much of the rest of the world, using the same acreage levels that prevailed in the 1920s.

Expressed another way, farmers now derive 2.5 outputs for every input, which includes seeds, chemicals, labor and other operating factors associated with farm production. Only 60 years ago, one input produced only one output.

To be sure, this treadmill has not been kind to marginal farmers. In fact, agricultural economist and former presidential adviser Willard Cochran developed the treadmill concept in the first place to illustrate how producers were driven to adopt advanced production techniques to stay ahead of their neighbors and remain competitive. The immediate effect was an unrelenting pushing down of prices, which tended to drive marginal producers out of farming.

“It’s costly, but you have to have the advances in technology to secure adequate levels of profitability,” says Jim Novak, an Alabama Extension agricultural economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.

“It’s a never-ending cycle: To maintain income you have to produce more and the consequences, generally speaking, tend to be lower prices.”

Novak’s colleague, Robert Goodman, agrees.

Farmers are not only locked onto this treadmill but are dealing with faster speeds and steeper inclines with each passing day, he says.

Even so, the alternative is a system that would turn out only a fraction of what is currently produced and at considerably higher cost, he says.

“It really would be wonderful if we could return to a simpler time, but unless we stay on this treadmill, the world as we know it would come to a calamitous end,” Goodman says.