The Borlaug Hypothesis

Modern Farm Practices, Increased Production, Less Land, Fewer Inputs

By Marty Matlock

Our cousins in Europe are tangled up in a debate over the merits of modern ag practices. Some have adopted the notion that “ecological agriculture” is the way to achieve their bucolic vision of small-scale agrarian surfs producing local food in adequate amounts to feed the world. Their position is that this so-called new notion of production, where small plots produce multiple crop species, usually hand-tilled, cultivated and harvested, is the only way to sustain soil health.

This form of integrated production is, of course, not a new concept. My Cherokee ancestors practiced this form of agriculture 400 years ago in the southern woodlands of this continent. It required significant labor and land to reliably produce enough food to support their villages through the winter. Modern producers have learned good lessons from those before us; the wisdom of soil health management is critical to today’s U.S. farmer. Good agricultural practices utilize ecological principles to focus on building and maintaining healthy soils, using integrated pest management strategies to break insect and weed cycles without pesticides, promote water infiltration through conservation tillage, and maximize yields from the land.

The real agenda of the ecological agriculture movement is to promote small-scale ag as good, and large-scale, intensive ag as bad. My mentor, Norman Borlaug, never saw this as an either-or option. He believed sustainable prosperity from the land can come from many production models and strategies. He proposed the way humans can expand global food production to meet the nutritional demands of 10 billion people is to intensify yield in the most productive regions and to set aside less productive areas for habitat, especially endangered species.

Thus, the Borlaug Hypothesis states modern tech practices that increase yield on an area of land will result in improved conservation of wildlife through preservation of critical habitats.

Farmers know producing more crops with fewer inputs is the goal of modern agriculture. Tech advances have allowed remarkable increases in productivity the past 20 years. Some of those have been through increased input use, like fertilizers and pesticides, that economists call partial factor productivity (PFP). However, improved genetics have allowed for many productivity gains to occur with the same or even fewer inputs overall, called total factor productivity (TFP).

U.S. soybean yields in 2018 averaged 52.1 bushels per acre. This is nearly double the average yields less than 40 years ago. Producers achieved this using both PFP and TFP strategies. Improved soil fertility management meant managing phosphorus and soil pH more carefully, a PFP strategy. Improved genetics allowed for broad-scale adoption of conservation tillage, which reduced fuel inputs and significantly reduced pesticides applied, a TFP strategy.

Realizing the promise of the Borlaug Hypothesis requires an integration of technology and ecosystem solutions. For modern producers, inputs have already been optimized for production strategies, so TFP is the most desirable and promising approach to continue to increase yields. Technological innovations in crop genetics, fertilizer application and release methods, and post-harvest loss reductions will be critical. However, we will also need to focus on ecological mechanisms of pest control, improved nutrient cycle management through use of green manures and comprehensive adoption of conservation tillage, cover crops and other soil health management strategies. U.S. farmers are setting the standard for increasing production on less land with less input. This is the model for demonstrating the truth of the Borlaug Hypothesis.

Marty D. Matlock, PhD, PE, BCEE, was recipient of the 2018 CAST Borlaug Ag Communication Award. He is a professor in the University of Arkansas Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department and is executive director for the university’s Resiliency Center.