Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: David Lobell

David Lobell, director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, considers the success of food production technology.

David Lobell is the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, a professor of Earth System Science, the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. His research focuses on agriculture and food security, specifically on generating and using unique datasets to study rural areas throughout the world.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment Director David Lobell reflects on the success of new technology and improvements in food production to feed a growing population.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to food security over the past 50 years?

I think the biggest story is a simple one. We have seen the world population double in the past 50 years – increasing by nearly 4 billion – and yet we have not significantly expanded the amount of area we use to grow crops. During that time, we have more than doubled food production. People are eating more and better food on average, and we have fewer hungry people. This is a dramatic reversal from the rest of human history when population growth was supported by expanding agriculture into new areas or trying to conquer other lands.


Why do you consider it of great significance/importance?

Had we not seen productivity in agriculture grow, we would have seen massive rates of deforestation, loss of native habitats and associated massive amounts of carbon released to the atmosphere. Of course, we have still seen some of these things in some regions, but it’s nothing like what we would have seen absent crop improvements. Beyond land use, we’ve also seen much more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides than 50 years ago.


What led to the change?

The history of agricultural improvement is largely one of better knowledge through public research. These efforts were supported by government investments in research and development. The private sector also played a key role, but it was really the public nature of research that was critical for most crops and regions. Beyond research, there were also important policies to support improved rural infrastructure, like roads and irrigation.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

I think the most important lesson is that agricultural success is a key part of environmental success. People concerned with the environment can tend to focus on the negative environmental aspects of new agricultural technologies or policies, which certainly exist. But it’s important to keep in mind that if we had dismissed technologies we now take for granted, we would be in a much worse environmental state than we are.