Human innovation to feed the world

ID-10088298Professor Sir Gordon Conway and Katy Wilson highlight the need for innovative solutions to food insecurity

Article originally appeared on The Economist Insights

With global population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 the world faces unprecedented demands on its resources – not least water, biodiversity and land. Add to this the likely impact of climate change, and the challenge of feeding a world where some 870 million people are already chronically hungry appears a difficult one.

Governments, NGOs, academia and the private sector are searching for long-term sustainable solutions to global food insecurity and future resource scarcity.  One solution, first proposed by Jules Pretty in the 1990s, and backed by the Montpellier Panel, a high-level group of European and African experts in the fields of agriculture, trade, policy, and global development, is sustainable intensification. At its heart sustainable intensification is about producing more food, more efficiently.

Achieving global food security will not be possible if food is produced at the expense of other natural resources such as water and soil. Instead we need to find ways of maximising both agricultural output and the health of the environments and ecosystems upon which farming relies.

Sustainable intensification is, at its core, about balancing the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term sustainability. This is a shift in thinking that is not going to be easy but one that members of the Montpellier Panel think is achievable. A large part of their optimism results from historical evidence of human ingenuity in the face of challenges, as well as from the ground-breaking technologies and innovations being developed today.

While much can be achieved by using existing knowledge and technologies, the scale of the challenges we face will need innovation. In a new Montpellier Panel briefing paper, Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa, we emphasise the importance of innovation to drive sustainable intensification and to overcome Africa’s hunger and development issues in general. As an example, a study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture found that agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa yields an estimated aggregate rate of return of as much as 55%. This same research also reduces the number of poor people by 2.3 million each year in the region, with about half of this impact originating from international agricultural research conducted by the CGIAR.

Since sustainable intensification is about reducing trade-offs and maximising benefits across economic, environmental and societal objectives we need to redesign our innovation systems to aid multidisciplinary and collaborative research. [Read more…]

Consuming planet Earth

ID-10010628 (2)Since we first saw images of planet Earth from space in 1968, GDP per capita has almost doubled and mean life expectancy has risen from 56 to 69.6 years. These increases in income and health have been coupled with the depletion of natural capital, increased greenhouse gas emissions and increasing hunger and poverty.

As the book, The Limits to Growth, warned in 1972, the earth’s natural capital is limited and at some point we will reach these limits. Rising prices of goods and services as well as break downs in ecosystem services will indicate this threshold has been breached.  And we have passed this checkpoint. Global metrics that measure human impact on earth’s natural resources such as the Human Development Index, Genuine Progress Indicator, Ecological Footprints, and the Happy Planet Index, all indicate that the earth has exceeded its ability to provide resources to meet human demands and that further human consumption is impacting the earth’s ability to provide such services.

A recent paper authored by Jules Pretty of the University of Essex states that “overshoot has already begun to occur, in which more resources are being used than can be regenerated each year. Yet conventional economic growth is still a primary political goal in most countries.” A Royal Society report of 2012 made clear that unrestrained growth will at some point end as the finite limits of our natural resources are reached.

The paper, entitled The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-Being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy, analyses the relationship between such consumption indicators as GDP, CO2 emissions and meat consumption with well-being across 189 countries and, for three affluent countries, across a time span of 60 years. [Read more…]