Adam Tooze, in a remarkable post, starting with the Brazilian agricultural revolution:
“The essential point about the Brazilian case from The Economist's point of view is that it is not simply a story of natural endowments. "So although it is true Brazil has a lot of spare farmland, it did not just have it hanging around, waiting to be ploughed. Embrapa had to create the land, in a sense, or make it fit for farming."
"This echoes key works on modern economic history by Paul David and Gavin Wright (1997). As they famously put it about the ascent of the United States as a mineral exporter after the civil war: 'natural resource abundance' is an "endogenous, 'socially constructed' condition that was not geologically preordained." The exploitation of natural resource potential is a function of "complex legal, institutional, technological and organizational adaptations that shaped the US supply-responses to the expanding domestic and international" demand for a particular resource. "Natural resources" are not separable from capital, scientific research, legal structures etc.”
Tooze quotes this story from The Economist:
"Between now and 2050 the world's population will rise from 7 billion to 9 billion. Its income is likely to rise by more than that and the total urban population will roughly double, changing diets as well as overall demand because city dwellers tend to eat more meat. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reckons grain output will have to rise by around half but meat output will have to double by 2050. This will be hard to achieve because, in the past decade, the growth in agricultural yields has stalled and water has become a greater constraint. By one estimate, only 40% of the increase in world grain output now comes from rises in yields and 60% comes from taking more land under cultivation. In the 1960s just a quarter came from more land and three-quarters came from higher yields. So if you were asked to describe the sort of food producer that will matter most in the next 40 years, you would probably say something like this: one that has boosted output a lot and looks capable of continuing to do so; one with land and water in reserve; one able to sustain a large cattle herd ...; one that is productive without massive state subsidies. ... In other words, you would describe Brazil.”
His post goes on to collapsing oxygen levels in the oceans.
From a Science paper: "The open ocean lost an estimated 2% (77 billion metric tons), of its oxygen over the past 50 years. Open-ocean oxygen-minimum zones (OMZs) have expanded by an area about the size of the European Union (4.5 million km2, based on water with <70 μmol kg−1 oxygen at 200 m of depth), and the volume of water completely devoid of oxygen (anoxic) has more than quadrupled over the same period. Upwelling of oxygen-depleted water has intensified in severity and duration along some coasts, with serious biological consequences.”
And: "The summer of 2017 witnessed the most massive dead zone [in the Gulf of Mexico] since records began."
Tooze continues: "The collapse of oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico turns out to be a story about the Mississippi. It is nitrogen and phosphates flowing down America's greatest river system that tip the chemical balance of the Gulf. … More nitrogen pollution flows into the Gulf every year than tonnage of oil was released by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. And what is responsible for these gigantic nitrogen and phosphorous run offs? Not the oil and gas industry in the Gulf, but Midwestern agriculture. … The scales of pollution are massive. They are driven by the high intensity agro-industrial complex centered on Tyson the giant meat producer and its feed suppliers. …
"More rapidly than at any time since the dustbowl era, American grassland have been brought into agricultural production.” From a paper in PNAS: “Our results show that rates of grassland conversion to corn/soy (1.0–5.4% annually) across a significant portion of the US Western Corn Belt (WCB) are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, countries in which tropical forests were the principal sources of new agricultural land, globally, during the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, comparable grassland conversion rates have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s, the era of rapid mechanization of US agriculture. Across the WCB, more than 99% of presettlement tallgrass prairie has been converted to other land covers, mostly agricultural, with losses in Iowa approaching 99.9% of an original 12-million ha of tallgrass prairie."
He concludes: “we are now entering a phase when the number of people entering middle class affluence globally will hover around 160 million, per annum. The impact of their demand on the world food supply chain will be more spectacular than anything we have seen to date. We ain't seen nothing yet."