Efficiency the key to feeding more people without environmental damage

ID-10028951A new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, published in Science, shows that an extra 3 billion people in the world need not lead to higher levels of hunger if existing cropland is used more efficiently, additionally reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. The report focused on 17 crops that account for 86% of the world’s crop calories as well as the majority of irrigation and fertilizer use. The hope is that the report can help guide and prioritise donors’ and policy makers’ activities for the greatest benefit.

The report identifies three areas of priority that, with the suggested actions, hold the most potential for meeting global food needs and reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, a key pillar of sustainable intensification. Geographically the majority of these opportunities occur in China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Europe. To summarise we need:

1. To produce more food on existing land, in particular closing yield gaps. An estimated 850 million people could be fed by closing the most dramatic yield gaps, in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, by 50%.

Closing yield gaps may seem a simple task through technology and access to productive resources but the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) believe that we need to rethink how we approach yield gaps, taking a whole systems approach.

2. To grow crops more efficiently, in particular using water and nutrients more precisely and reducing climate impacts. The largest potential gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as pinpointed by the study, could come from deforestation in Brazil and India, rice production in China and India and crop fertilization in the U.S.

The U.S., China and India, and particularly their maize, rice and wheat production, were also found to be the largest sources of the overuse of nutrients in the world. Across the globe 60% of nitrogen and around 50% of phosphorus applications are in excess of amounts needed by crops. A 2012 article on China Dialogue highlights the dangers of overusing fertilizer. Improving the efficiency of fertilizer use would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Together with Pakistan these countries are also responsible for the majority of irrigation water use, water that could be reduced by 8 to 15% without yield penalties by improving crop water use efficiency.

3. To use crops more efficiently, in particular reducing food waste and reducing the proportion of crop calories going into livestock feed as opposed to directly for human consumption. Current crop animal feed, predominantly maize, could feed approximately 4 billion people. Such a shift would require widespread behavioural change, reducing the overreliance on meat in developed countries, although the report’s authors highlight the potential to shift crops from livestock to humans in times of crisis. [Read more…]

The Sustainable Intensification of Aquaculture

ID-10062687Two new reports out this week urge greater integration of fish in achieving food and nutrition security and sustainable food systems.

The World Resources Institute in their fifth instalment of the soon to be released World Resources Report, partnered with WorldFish, the World Bank, INRA, and Kasetsart University to explore how aquaculture can grow sustainably, reducing its environmental impact and contributing to food and nutrition security.

Aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry and production between 2000 and 2012 more than doubled. Aquaculture output is growing at 6.6%  per cent per annum worldwide. As wild catch fish stocks decline, peaking in the 1990s, aquaculture becomes ever more important for meeting demands for fish, which contribute one sixth of animal protein consumed across the globe. To meet future demand it’s estimated that aquaculture production will have to increase by over 100% by 2050.

Aquaculture has been linked with some serious environmental concerns particularly for high-input high-output intensive systems – the eutrophication of lakes and transformation of species assemblages on the seabed as a result of nutrient enrichment; the physical degradation and clearing of coastal habitats such as mangroves for shrimp aquaculture; the introduction of non-native species to natural ecosystems; and the salinisation of drinking water resources, for example. Already large-scale improvements to the aquaculture sector are taking place: increasing resource-use efficiency, mangrove conversion is largely being prevented and the share of fishmeal and fish oil in feeds is declining, putting less pressure on wild fish resources.

Without appropriate management of these systems, however, the intensification of aquaculture, as wild fish stocks decline and demand for fish increases, could also intensify these environmental impacts. Sustainable intensification is called for, in the case of aquaculture defined as: advancing socio-economic development; providing safe, nutritious food; increasing the production of fish relative to the amount of land, water, feed, and energy used; and minimising water pollution, fish diseases, and escapes. The WRI paper explores various scenarios of aquaculture growth to 2050 to investigate whether the sector’s development can be sustainable. They find that under most scenarios environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, are increased. The report recommends five approaches to transforming the aquaculture sector, increasing production while reducing its impacts: [Read more…]

New books for 2014

ID-10031308Here we bring you some of the latest books addressing topics such as food policy, global food security, African political change, gender mainstreaming and permaculture.

Frontiers in Food Policy: Perspectives on Sub-Saharan Africa edited by Walter Falcon and Rosamond Naylor.

This volume is a compilation of papers from the Center on Food Security and the Environment’s Global Food Policy and Food Security Symposium series discussing such topics as food price volatility, agricultural R&D and climate change.

Crop yields and global food security: will yield increase continue to feed the world? By Tony Fischer, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades.

This is an reference book discusses the opportunities for crop yield increase to feed the world to 2050. Aimed at agricultural scientists and economists, decision-makers in the food production industry, concerned citizens and tertiary students, it includes information on crop area and yield change for wheat, rice, maize, soybean and 20 other important crops; a detailed tour of the key breadbasket regions of the world; a discussion on ways for achieving the target yields without a substantial increase in cultivated lands; and implications of further yield increase for resource use, agricultural sustainability and the environment.

Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat by Philip Lymbery, Compassion in World Farming

Over three years, the author has travelled the world bearing witness to the hidden cost of cheap meat and the devastating impact of factory farming – on people, animals and our planet. The result – Farmageddon – is a wake-up call, exposing factory farming as one of the most pressing issues of our time; responsible for unparalleled food waste, damage to our health and the countryside, and the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet.

Global Food Futures: Feeding the World in 2050 by Brian Gardner

By 2050 the world will be faced with the enormous challenge of feeding 9 billion people despite being affected by climate change, rising energy costs and pressure on food growing land and other major resources. How will the world produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people? What will be the impact of food shortages and high prices on areas in crisis such as sub-Sahara Africa? Where will future production growth come from? And how do we balance the need for environmental protection with sustainable agricultural production methods. This text presents a scholarly, balanced approach to the contentious area of food production and supply up to 2050 – tackling the global food situation in all its totality, from agricultural production, technological advance, dietary concerns, population changes, income trends, environmental issues, government food and agriculture policy, trade, financial markets, macroeconomics and food security. [Read more…]

Declining crop yields and increasing agricultural emissions

ID-100148476Alongside the recent release of the UN IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, a new study, published in Nature, provides evidence that global increases in temperature of only 2°C will reduce crop yields in temperate and tropical regions from the 2030s onward.

The meta-analysis, collated and analysed by researchers at the University of Leeds, combined 1,700 published data sets for wheat, rice and maize, the largest dataset on crop responses to climate change yet. The research, taking into account currently practiced adaptation activities such as changing planting dates and using improved varieties, as well as uncertainty and the timing of impacts, found that the variability between crop yields in different places and at different times is also likely to increase with climate change, which could have a profound impact on the security of food supply.

Beyond 2050 declines in crop yields will be greater in magnitude, reductions of 25% are expected to be widespread with median crop yields to drop by 2% each decade for the rest of the century. Although crop productivity has previously been predicted to improve in Northern Europe, crop yields even under moderate future warming may decline in many places. Coupled with increasing demand for food (expected to increase 14% per decade until 2050), future food security without significant intervention looks bleak.

The clear message from the paper and the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report is the urgent need for farmers to adapt to a changing climate and for all countries to seriously engage in mitigating climate change. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recently released figures showing that greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural, forestry and fisheries sector have doubled over the last 50 years and could grow by over 30% by 2050. The majority of this increase is being seen in developing countries, with the expansion of agricultural production.

Between 2001 and 2010 emissions from crop and livestock agriculture increased 14% while emissions from land use change and deforestation declined 10%, yet more evidence that agriculture needs to be part of climate discussions. Within agriculture, enteric fermentation (methane from livestock) accounts for the largest proportion of emissions (39%) and increased 11% between 2001 and 2010. The FAO, in 2012, launched the FAOSTAT emissions database, which details the GHG emissions of agriculture, forestry and other land use activities.

With crop yields expected to decline (and already declining in many countries) and agricultural emissions appearing to be on an upwards trajectory, the former perhaps incentivising the latter, we need smarter agriculture, that is resilient to future climate change while also reducing GHG emissions, the very goal of sustainable intensification.

ID-100144969A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions, discusses how climate mitigation policies can reduce emissions from the livestock sector. Authors identify much potential to mitigate climate change in livestock production systems, namely the transition from extensive to more productive systems, reducing the livestock sector’s impact on land use change. The paper also recommends emissions reductions should be targeted to the supply (rather than demand) side. Aside from this rather controversial recommendation, this paper, as with many others, identifies significant opportunities to mitigate climate change and increase food supply within the agricultural sector. Serious action on implementing the variety of adaptation and mitigation strategies at the global and local level appears to be the limiting factor in progress.

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.

 
Food Security and Nutrition and the Post-2015 Development Goals, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

 
Food Giants Want ‘Sustainable’ Beef. But What Does That Mean?, The Salt

 
FAO: ‘Revolution’ in Agriculture Vital to Meet Food Targets, Voice of America

 
Meeting the Food Challenges of Tomorrow Through the Legacy of Borlaug, Roll Call

 
Climate Change Could Delay The Fight Against World Hunger For Decades: Report, Huffington Post

 
Ending hunger – the rich world holds the keys, The Ecologist [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.

Steady increase in incidents of low levels of GM crops in traded food and feed, FAO

Victoria Seeds: Changing lives through wealth creation, Josephine Okot

The End of the ‘Developing World’, The New York Times

Book review: ‘The Meat Racket’ by Christopher Leonard, The Washington Post

GM Crops Lead to Increase in Trade Disruptions – UN Report, Sustainable Pulse

How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favourite fruit, Quartz

Agroforestry can ensure food security and mitigate the effects of climate change in Africa, EurekAlert

What can would-be African lions learn from the Asian tigers? It’s all about how urban elites see farmers, according to ODI, Duncan Green, Oxfam

Fertilizer in small doses yields higher returns for less money, Phys.org

Storm brewing over WHO sugar proposal, Nature

Food system that fails poor countries needs urgent reform, says UN expert, The Guardian

UN expert calls for bridging gap between urban consumers and local food producers, UN

Food Tank By The Numbers: Family Farming, Food Tank

The Power of Household Consumption and Expenditure Surveys (HCES) to Inform Evidence-Based Nutrition Interventions and Policies, USAID

Making livestock farming more sustainable

ID-1005418The livestock sector is important as a source of protein and income, and some one billion people rely on livestock for their livelihood but it is generally accepted that the world’s livestock systems place a huge burden on the environment, for example, contributing 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Some 45% of these emissions originate from the production of feed. The one billion tons of cereals produced for feed each year could feed an estimated 3.5 billion humans. The health impacts of a diet high in meat have also been widely reported.  It is clear that the world’s livestock systems are not sustainable but how can we change this? Two new reports address this challenge.

A Nature commentary piece authored by Eisler et al, discusses the need for the sustainable intensification of livestock. They highlight eight strategies to cut the environmental and economic costs of livestock farming while increasing the quantity and quality of the food they produce.

1)      Feed animals less human food. Of the third or more of cereal grains going to livestock feed, 40% goes to ruminants. But ruminants, such as cattle, can survive on food inedible to humans, such as hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues. They can also graze in marginal areas leaving prime agricultural land for growing human food.

2)      Raise regionally appropriate animals. Highly productive livestock breeds such as Holstein cattle have been introduced around the world in the pursuit of increased productivity. Given that they are a temperate breed, however, they are often expensive and labour-intensive to manage in other climates, and yields can be less than a third of normal yields under these conditions. Working with breeds adapted to local conditions such as those resistant to local pests and diseases may be a less risky option, particularly for poor households.

3)      Keep animals healthy. Improving hygiene, quarantine and disease surveillance practices can help avoid animal diseases being transmitted to humans. 13 livestock-related zoonoses cause 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths each year. Improving husbandry practices and animal welfare, for example keeping livestock at lower densities, can improve the health of livestock and the quantity and quality of livestock products.

4)      Adopt smart supplements. Specific plant extracts can help microbial populations in the rumen to grow faster, using nitrogen and energy more efficiently and boosting yields without significantly increasing GHG emissions. And smart supplements don’t have to be expensive: a water fern in India is a source of extra protein for cattle and goats. [Read more…]