Warming, farming — and ‘real’ densities

Why is India’s future brighter than China’s, especially in a warming world? Because India has more good agricultural land per person.

Pakistani farmers harvest wheat in suburbs of Hyderabad

Pakistani farmers harvest wheat in suburbs of Hyderabad

Why is India’s future brighter than China’s, especially in a warming world? Because India has more good agricultural land per person.

I first encountered the concept of ‘real population density’ (note the ‘real’) when I was interviewing people in the Netherlands last year about how the country would fare as the global temperature rose. My initial focus was on sea level rise, because 20 per cent of the country is already below sea level.

But the Dutch are confident they have the sea level problem under control, at least for this century.

They are committed to spending large amounts of money to prevent flooding, not by raising the dikes even further, but by “beach replenishment.” When dikes fail, it is generally because they are battered by huge waves — but if you extend the beaches far out to sea (by dredging up sand from even farther out), then the waves do not reach the dikes.

The Dutch sea-level experts were also confident that the Netherlands would not face any problems with food when the temperature rises.

The country is, after all, the second or third biggest agricultural exporter in the world. But it still feels like a very crowded country, so I looked up a few agricultural experts, and they explained the concept of real population density to me.

“It would take a country three or four times the size of the Netherlands to support our present diet, “ said Huib Silvis of the Agricultural Economics Research Institute at Wageningen University. “We import huge amounts of soybean and other animal feed, which we could not produce ourselves. If we had to be self-sufficient, we would not be eating meat.”

The real population density of the Netherlands — how many people there are per square kilometre of farmland — is 2,205. That’s higher than Bangladesh (1,946 people per square kilometre), and it means that the Netherlands, to be self-sufficient in food, would have to feed 22 people from each hectare of land.

So how can the country be the second- or third-biggest agricultural exporter in the world?

Because that’s the cash value of its exports, which are mostly high value-added products. You get a lot more for a tonne of cut flowers than you do for a tonne of potatoes — but you can’t eat cut flowers, and the Dutch could barely feed themselves from their own resources even now.

Global warming makes matters much worse, because it hits food production very hard. The rule of thumb is that the world loses about 10 per cent of its food production for every rise of one degree Celsius in average global temperature.

So the amount of food that is for sale on the international market drops drastically, because some of the big food-exporting countries aren’t producing enough food to export it any more. As the food gets scarce, the price goes up.

Countries that can’t feed themselves either pay huge amounts to buy the limited food still available on the international market (if they have the money), or they go hungry. Which brings us back to India and China.

Almost half the total land area of India is good arable land, whereas only 15 per cent of China is. So although China looks bigger on the map, India has a significantly lower real population density: 753 people per square kilometre of farmland compared to 943 for China.

Add in the fact that China is currently losing about one per cent of its arable land per year to buildings, roads and parking lots, and the numbers for China start to look seriously bad.

They look even worse for the East Asian countries that are already fully industrialized: around 2,900 people per square kilometre for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. That’s off the scale: nowhere else is that bad apart from some tiny island states like Kiribati, the Maldives and Singapore.

At the other end of the spectrum, look at the big industrialized states in Europe. Italy and Germany are in the 700s, but Spain, France, Sweden and Poland are all in the 300s. So are Brazil, South Africa and Turkey, the most promising of the rapidly developing countries. The lucky ones still have room to grow; the others don’t.

And the uncontested winners in this new lottery? The United States has only 179 people per square kilometre of good agricultural land. Argentina has 144, and Russia has 117.

Canada has 78, and Australia 43. Australia, in other words, has more than half a hectare of good land per person.

This is deeply unfair, given which countries are actually responsible for the global warming. To them that hath, more shall be given. But then, you already knew that the universe isn’t fair.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Rebels forward Ethan Rowland battles with Medicine Hat Tigers forward Brett Kemp during WHL action at the Centrium Saturday night. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers claw back, hand Rebels 11th straight loss

Tigers 5 Rebels 2 The same old issues continue to plague the… Continue reading

There were six additional deaths across Alberta reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 1,926 since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
AstraZeneca vaccine is ready to be used at a homeless shelter in Romford, east London, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Frank Augstein
AstraZeneca-linked blood clot confirmed in Alberta

A case of an AstraZeneca-linked blood clot has been confirmed in Alberta,… Continue reading

The Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools Board of Trustees selected the name St. Lorenzo Ruiz Middle School to be built in the north end of Red Deer. (Photo Courtesy of  Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools)
Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools raises about $8,720 for Terry Fox Foundation

Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools raised about $8,720 for the Terry Fox… Continue reading

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Health Canada has reversed course on home test kits for COVID-19, saying it will now review applications for such devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Alberta declines Ontario’s request to send health-care workers

Alberta is “not in a position” to send health-care workers out of… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools will not pilot the new draft curriculum at its elementary schools. (File photo contributed by Red Deer Public Schools)
UPDATED: Red Deer Public Schools says no to piloting new curriculum

Alberta Teachers’ Association support school boards

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Ontario Premier Doug Ford points on a COVID-19 caseload projection model graph during a press conference at Queen's Park, in Toronto, Friday, April 16, 2021. Ontario was set to backtrack on controversial new police powers to enforce stay-at-home orders implemented in the battle against COVID-19.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ford backtracks on new police COVID-19 powers amid intense backlash

TORONTO — Furious criticism of new anti-pandemic powers that allow police in… Continue reading

The official program for the National Commemorative Ceremony in honour of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, sits on an empty pew prior to the ceremony at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa on Saturday, April 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prince Philip remembered as ‘a man of great service’ during Canada’s memorial service

Canada’s commemorative ceremony in honour of the late Prince Philip offered a… Continue reading

CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy speaks to his players during the team's practice Tuesday, March 16, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
CF Montreal puts on a show, defeating Toronto FC 4-2 in MLS season opener

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — CF Montreal, carving open Toronto FC’s defence, cruised… Continue reading

Demonstrators using umbrellas as shields approach a point in a perimeter security fence during a protest over the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during traffic stop, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Journalists allege police harassment at Minnesota protests

Some journalists covering protests over the police fatal shooting of Daunte Wright,… Continue reading

A container ship is docked in the Port of Montreal, Wednesday, February 17, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Montreal dockworkers begin weekend strikes as talks drag on

MONTREAL — Dockworkers at the Port of Montreal kicked off a series… Continue reading

Brad Dahr, 53, is facing numerous charges. (Photo contributed by Alberta RCMP)
Alberta man charged for alleged sexual offences against children

An Edmonton man has been charged for alleged sexual offences against children… Continue reading

A person walks past a COVID-19 mural designed by artist Emily May Rose on a rainy day during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, April 12, 2021. Employment lawyers say flouting COVID-19 public health orders when off the job or coming into work while knowingly sick could warrant discipline in the workplace. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Risky pandemic behaviour off the clock could mean workplace discipline: lawyers

CALGARY — Employment lawyers say flouting COVID-19 public health orders when off… Continue reading

Most Read