Sustainable Food Systems

ID-100143900Food demand is expected to rise by 70% to 2050. Urbanisation and increasing incomes per capita are shifting diets to those more demanding of meat and other animal products, which has serious implications for the use of natural resources to produce food. Today around 1 in 8 people are malnourished and 870 million people chronically hungry, indicating our current food systems cannot meet present demand let alone future. Modifying the world’s food production systems to produce more food and perhaps distribute it more evenly, is made harder by a growing recognition of the negative impacts agriculture can have on the environment. Conversion of land to agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity. Agriculture places large demands on scarce natural resources, the overuse of which not only threatens the wider global environment and human wellbeing, but the very processes agriculture relies on e.g. pest control, pollination and rainfall.

A new report by the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy, entitled Sustainable Food: A Recipe for Food Security and Environmental Protection, lays out the changes we need to make to our entire food system and the urgency with which we need to make them.

The report begins with a summary of the pressures on food production and the drivers of food demand namely: population growth; natural resource scarcity including land, biodiversity, water, climate change, and biofuels; changing dietary patterns and; rising food prices.

The report then turns to some of the solutions and pathways to making food systems more sustainable, advocating action around the following areas:

  • Minimising food waste
  • Rethinking land management and agricultural practices:
    • Using agroecological principles such as building soil organic matter, which the EU claim can reduce negative impacts and at the same time increase yields, although evidence of this potential win-win is scarce
    • Conservation agriculture and land sparing versus land sharing
    • Replenishing water supplies through, for example, no-till agriculture
    • Ensuring the long-term sustainability of fish stocks through expanding aquaculture
    • Reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change
    • Increasing the efficiency of agriculture through the application of science and technology
    • Understanding consumption patterns in a bid to contain the demand for the most resource-intensive types of food
    • Investing in smallholder farmers to help them increase their productivity and integration with global markets

Of course knowing that we need to undertake many of these actions is relatively easy. Understanding how to take action is hard and the report acknowledges that considerable policy and knowledge gaps exist, for example, what future per capita consumption levels will be, the benefits or impacts of different agricultural practices and ways of integrating multiple objectives in policy making. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

The global food fight: can agribusiness avert a crisis?, fDi Intelligence

While Global Bee Colonies Struggle, European Politicians Seem Determined To Kill Them Off, Forbes

Chief EU scientist backs damning report urging GMO ‘rethink’, EurActive

Is getting out of farming the best bet for smallholder farmers?, IRRI

Economic rewards of better land management: Estimated 2.3 billion tons of crops worth $1.4 trillion, EurekAlert

The Urgent Need for African Leadership in Science, Engineering and Technology to Transform African Agriculture into Agri-Food Value Chains, African Journal of food, agriculture, nutrition and development

Satisfy Your Curiosity with Our New E-Book, Can We Feed the World? The Future of Food, Scientific American

New technology and agriculture: A sluggish uptake, The Africa Report [Read more…]

The Soil Atlas of Africa

ID-100147244 (2)The Africa Soil Information Service is continuing with their plans to develop an “interactive, web-accessible digital soil map”, outlined in a previous blog article. This map will cover all the non-desert areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and is to be completed by the end of 2013. More recently, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has commissioned and launched, at the meeting of the African Union (AU) and EU commissions in April 2013, the first ever comprehensive map of African soils.

The Soil Atlas of Africa aims to increase African countries’ understanding of the diversity of soils found on the continent, the importance in managing this key resource and to aid governments in strategically planning land use and investments in agriculture and urban development.

The project started four years ago and is a collaboration between experts at the European commission, the AU and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Already the map has helped identify areas, in central Africa, some parts of West Africa, and southern Africa where soil is particularly fertile. Experts working on the project also hope it will strengthen government support for national soil bureaus and for training users of the Atlas at the regional level.

Declining soil fertility and soil loss is a significant problem in Africa. Nearly 3.3% of agricultural GDP is lost in sub-Saharan Africa each year due to soil and nutrient loss while more than 75% of total land in the area has degraded or highly degraded soil. The Atlas will help to identify trouble zones so that plans for the sustainable use of soil can be put in place.

New Research Shows the Damaging Impacts of Pesticides on Bees

While modern synthetic pesticides are developed to reduce impacts on non-target organisms, two recent papers published in Science have brought to light new evidence of the damaging effects of pesticides on bee colonies.

Both papers investigated the impact of the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees. When sprayed on crops such as oilseed rape, maize and sunflower, these pesticides spread throughout plant tissues including into nectar and pollen, and as such are directly available to bees, although in trace amounts.

The first paper published in March 2012, found that bumblebee colonies exposed to field-realistic levels of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid suffered reduced growth rates and an 85% reduction in the production of queen bees. [Read more…]